Powerhouse theatre tucked into Tysons
Tysons Corner’s most celebrated theater is easy to miss. Taking a cue from gritty New York City venues, 1st Stage is located in a corrugated metal warehouse in a Northern Virginia strip mall.
Despite the theater’s less-than-grand exterior, “our audience loves it,” said Eileen Mandell, 1st Stage’s director of community engagement. “People like the funkiness of this place.”
More important, the Washington area theatre community seems to enjoy the quality of its productions. Since the 110-seat theater opened in 2008, it has won more than 15 awards for its 64 productions.
Four of last season’s five productions garnered 22 Helen Hayes nominations (second only to Arena Stage), and the theatre took home five of the prestigious awards.
“There wasn’t one play [in the last season] that wasn’t meaningful and beautiful,” Mandell said.
Now 1st Stage has announced its 12th season, a lineup of eclectic but hard-hitting plays, including The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan, director of the 2016 Academy Award-winning film Manchester by the Sea.
“There’s a theme here, a real mission to be socially valuable,” Mandell said.
Humble origins, then fame
Mandell has been with 1st Stage since its inception. Her sons’ high school drama teacher, Mark Krikstan, founded 1st Stage, assembling a talent pool of his former students.
As founding artistic director, Krikstan urged Mandell to get involved after her husband’s recent death. In the early years, when Mandell was general manager, the young theater struggled financially, she remembered.
“There were times when the show ran and Mark would run to the bank the next Monday because there wasn’t enough money to pay the actors,” she said.
The theater’s luck changed one day in 2012 when Wall Street Journalarts critic Terry Teachout caught its production of Side Man, a 1999 Tony Award-winning play by Warren Leight.
Teachout’s rave review called 1st Stage one of the best regional theaters in the country. In another positive review four years later, Teachout called the venue’s suburban strip mall location “an unlikely-looking site for first-class theater.”
After Teachout’s endorsement, 1st Stage’s audience grew. Alex Levy took over as artistic director in 2014, after Krikstan stepped down. Levy has overseen cutting-edge plays that have garnered many awards and nominations.
“His choice of plays has been outstanding,” Mandell said. One of the theater’s most popular productions — the 2017 play My Name is Asher Lev, based on a Chaim Potok novel — was extended three weeks.
Levy says he considers hundreds of plays before choosing five works for the season.
“We try to have balance. We try to make sure we’re representing different styles and different voices, and to make sure that we are giving a real breadth of conversation throughout the year,” Levy said.
Easy access from Metro
The theater has become even more popular now that the Metro’s Silver Line Spring Hill station has opened a few blocks away.
In 2016, 1st Stage expanded, taking over the former Jazzercize studio next door. Today it uses the 4,000-square-foot space for rehearsals, set design, storage and events.
For each production, a new art exhibition is installed in the lobby gallery, which is transformed into a lively bar before performances.
As for Mandell, who started her career as a home economics teacher, the theater has been an unexpected twist in a varied career that has included marketing and radio show production. “I never expected to be part of theater. This is just such a joy.”
Mandell also has a passion for cooking and does catering work on the side, she said. But the theater has been central to her life since 2008. “The theater world is so warm and welcoming.”
1st Stage is located at 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons, Virginia, near the Silver Line’s Spring Hill station. From Sept. 19 through Oct. 20, 1st Stage will present Trying by Joanna McClellan Glass, a play about the chief judge of the Nuremberg trials. From Dec. 2 through 29, the comedy Airness by Chelsea Marcantel will run.
Subscriptions to the season (including five productions plus a pass to the 4th annual Solo Festival, featuring one-person performances) start at $160. Individual tickets are $42 per show ($39 for 65+; $15 for students and military), and accessible entrances and seats are available.
Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit 1ststagetysons.org/season12 or call (703) 854-1856.