By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia’s Tony Award-winning regional theatre located in the village of Shirlington, was riding high on their most successful season in their 30-year history when Covid-19 hit our area hard. They were hurtling into the fourth week of a completely sold-out six-week production of Dani Stoller’s Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes, when on March 16 Eric Schaeffer (Signature’s Artist Director and Founder) and Maggie Boland (Signature’s Managing Director) made the wrenching decision to close the theatre for the protection of the staff, actors, and audiences against the encroaching Covid-19 pandemic. Boom! Shuttered for the foreseeable future.
Of course, no one could have envisioned the length of time that would elapse before they could even begin to plan reopening. There is still no definitive timeframe for coming back, but come back, they will! As they say, when they do come back, they’ll be Signature Strong and glimmers of activity are dancing in my head, if not currently in the Max and Ark Theatres. Do I need to say how much all of us in the Northern Virginia area miss our regular shots of the amazing productions brought to us by Signature’s uber-talented actors, staff, and creatives?
On May 15, Maggie and Eric agreed to tell me as much as they could about the state of Signature Theatre right now and about their future plans. I brought up a couple of my favorite vintage musicals (they also present new musicals) from early this season (as always, their musicals are the sine qua non)! I do hope you all saw the 2019-2020 season opener, and one of my all-time favorites of the 30 Stephen Sondheim productions produced at Signature, Assassins, and the late fall show, A Chorus Line. If you did, lucky you! If not, well, the rest of the season (when it happens) promises to be possibly even more amazing: Gun and Powder, Nijinsky’s Last Dance, and Hair!
BTW, did you know that the first Sondheim musical Signature produced was Sweeney Todd in 1991? And did you know that Signature moved into their beautiful new two-stage venue in Shirlington in 2007? Just a little trivia. Now, here’s our conversation:
The Zebra: We’re all waiting anxiously to hear when Signature will open again and what it’s going to look like. Can you give me any specifics?
Maggie: We can’t wait to welcome audiences back and we will do that as soon as it is safe to do so! We will keep our audiences posted on our plans and are hoping to put as much great content out online as we can. In the meantime, we are trying to keep everyone connected and enjoying Signature in the community.
Eric: Also, we have to follow the Governor’s orders, so that is a huge thing as well. And we can’t open until Phase 3. We’re not even in Phase 1 in Northern Virginia yet—we’re in Phase 0.
Maggie: Some parts of the state in the southern areas are going to move into Phase 1 after this week, potentially. But Northern Virginia is not!
Zebra: What ‘s in Phase 3 that’s not in 2 and the reason the Governor is making you wait?
Eric: It’s all about public gatherings and how many people are allowed in a space at one time.
Zebra: One of my big questions for you both is exactly how in the world are you going to recover financially from this unprecedented shut-down.
Maggie: It’s going to take our entire community to help us recover. Right now we are working really hard to raise money every single day so that we can support our team and keep the theatre operating while we are not producing. We’re hoping that we will be able to eventually have some online content that may generate a little bit of revenue, but of course, that will never come close to what a full theatrical production would.
So really, our focus right now is on fundraising. And when we reopen we’re going to have to do so with budgets that are realistic about how many tickets we think we can sell and how many people will feel comfortable coming back to the theatre. And we’re kind of working through all of that now. But it’s really going to take everybody who loves Signature to pull together to make sure we’re a success at the end of the day.
Eric and I are going to do everything we possibly can to make sure that is what happens. You know we are very fortunate, we have a ton of broad-based community support in Virginia and DC and our whole region. And so, we think we’re as optimistic as any theatre leaders in the country! I think Eric would agree with that, wouldn’t you?
Maggie: That doesn’t mean this isn’t a truly financially cataclysmic situation. There’s no doubt about that! We’re very fortunate to have a great Board of Directors and an incredibly talented staff and a lot of support in our community. So, for now, we’re hanging tight! And we’re just assuming we’re going to come out of it strong!
Zebra: Have you had to have layoffs or furloughs?
Maggie: We haven’t with our full-time staff. At the very beginning, we did have to let go some of our part-time staff who work as house managers and bartenders, which was a heartbreak. But our full-time staff is working hard to try to keep all systems firing! So that when the time comes, we can be ready to rock and roll again in the building. That’s our focus at the moment, to try to keep the full-time staff intact and everybody with their salaries and insurance.
Zebra: Anything you can tell me about the future?
Maggie: Our staff is working closely with our Board of Directors to answer that very question. As the circumstances continue to evolve, how are we going to respond as an organization? I’d be lying if I told you we have all the answers to that right now. But I know for sure that we have some of the most committed, seasoned, smart, and creative people working in the theatre industry at our table and as I said before, Eric and I feel very positive about this year’s future and we are trying to work through all the uncertainty with as much creativity and passion as we can.
Zebra: I can’t ask for anything more, except is there anything else you want to say to our readers?
Eric: I would just say that we’re going to continue to do the Tuesday night show (Signature Strong at 8 pm on Facebook Live). And we’re going to be back and stronger than ever!
Maggie: And we’re counting on our audience to be there when we are ready to come back.
For more information on Signature Theatre’s current offerings online and in general, including ways to support them, visit their website: www.sigtheatre.org or call 703-820-9771.