Alex Levy sees 1st Stage as a local arts focal point, which he mentions is “in the back of this strip mall here, above the garage and next to the dog spa.”
The artistic director for the professional theater in Tysons Corner laughs about the unlikely location for the company: the Spring Hill Business Center in McLean. The 1973 structure is home to a Meineke, hot tub store and yes, a doggy daycare called Dogtopia. But up a mint green staircase, the facilities at 1st Stage are surprisingly pristine. Show posters from all 10 seasons line one of the brightly colored lobby walls on the way to a theater that greets roughly 10,000 visitors per year.
Levy has been at the company’s helm since 2014, when the company conducted a nationwide search to replace founding artistic director Mark Krikstan. Then a theater teacher at nearby George C. Marshall High School, Krikstan launched the theater with a group of volunteers in 2007, a time when many locals had to travel outside the neighborhood for live theater.
“We are in a county of 1.2 million people—so twice the size of D.C.—and had no theater at all,” Levy says. “So what happened was it grew very quickly, much faster than theaters usually do.”
In the decade since it opened, 1st Stage has evolved from an all-volunteer operation to a professional theater with six Helen Hayes Awards under its belt and plans in the works to build a new facility in the next five to 10 years. It’s also home to an art gallery, dance shows and orchestra performances.
My Name is Asher Lev, an adaptation by Aaron Posner on the Chaim Potok novel of the same name, is on stage through Dec. 17. In the show, 20-something Lev is a Hasidic Jew and painter whose artwork violates the moral codes of his conservative community. With just three actors on stage, Lev revisits key struggles from his past as he wrestles with how intently to pursue his passion.
Director Nick Olcott, whose credits include Arena Stage (D.C.), Metro Stage (Alexandria) and the Kennedy Center Family Theater (D.C.), vividly remembers his initial response to the novel, which came out when he was in high school in 1972.
“Even [for] those of us who were not Jewish, who were not part of this, the idea of finding yourself even at the cost of alienating your family, alienating your community, resonated very deeply,” Olcott says.
In selecting shows for each season, Levy focuses on pieces that are likely to inspire conversation among audience members that lasts long after they’ve left their seats. Though Levy is Jewish, he says he was drawn to the show more for its focus on “how we speak our truth in complicated and difficult times.”
For Olcott, live theater offers an opportunity that can’t compare to film directing.
“The internet has given us such a feeling of all-powerful anonymity, that we can just say the most vile things out into the void and it doesn’t matter,” Olcott says. But with live theater, he says, spectators are in the same room, “breathing the same air,” able to impact the actors on stage.
“I think it makes us more empathetic people and it builds community. And that’s desperately needed right now.”