Gleaming new site opens Jan. 20

For 13 years, Signature Theater subscribers were unsure if they were queuing for theater tickets or an oil change: The Arlington, Va. theater was housed in a converted auto repair garage with temperamental plumbing, 11-foot ceilings that drove set designers crazy, and a tiny rehearsal space separated from administrative offices by a thin half-wall.

Matinees were a Sundays-only proposition because of the piercing noise coming from the auto mechanics next door every other day of the week.

This month, after enduring two construction delays, Signature Theater will finally put the pedal to the metal in its much anticipated new facility.

Officially opening Jan. 20, the gleaming $16 million complex in the Shirlington Village section of Arlington houses two flexible black box theater spaces, three spacious rehearsal rooms, scenery and costume shops and other accoutrements. Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” has been selected as its inaugural production, but perhaps the Horatio Alger musical, “Shine,” would have been more appropriate considering Signature’s dramatic rags-to-riches ascendancy.

Eric Schaeffer, Signature’s artistic director who co-founded the operation 17 years ago, promises a new era of artistic achievement and a boosted production budget of $4.5 million. Under his guidance, Signature has earned a national reputation for musicals, especially the works of Sondheim. To date, the troupe has presented 21 world premiere productions and six world preem commissions.

Signature’s new home occupies 45,000 sq. ft. on three floors of a new county-owned building that also houses a public library for arts-related literature. Its two performance spaces include a 300-seat main stage called “The Max” and a more intimate second stage dubbed “The Ark.”

The mid-season move requires Signature to compress the remainder of its skein, which will include July’s U.S. premiere of “The Witches of Eastwick,” the Cameron Mackintosh tuner that Schaeffer helmed in London in 2000. Schaeffer will restage the musical as a more intimate production.

Also on tap is April’s world preem of tuner “Saving Aimee,” Schaeffer’s collaboration with Kathie Lee Gifford; and another world preem called “Nest” by British playwright Bathsheba Doran (formerly titled “Susanna Cox”). Signature also will present the Sarah Kane play, “Crave.”

The theater will open the 2007-08 season with Kander and Ebb’s “The Visit” featuring Chita Rivera.

The new facility represents the latest development in an unprecedented D.C. area arts building boom. Other new properties include the Shakespeare Theater’s 800-seat Harman Center for the Arts, slated to open next October, and Arena Stage’s planned $100 million expansion. Construction projects have recently been completed at Studio Theater, Woolly Mammoth and Olney Theater.

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