“When you have a 130-seat theater with a semi-thrust stage,” Carolyn Griffin says, “you better have the best actors in town because there are no secrets on that stage.”
True to form, Griffin has consistently recruited the best actors for shows at Alexandria’s MetroStage. In fact, the 30-year-old outfit was originally named the American Showcase Theatre Company, “founded to showcase acting teachers and students.” Griffin changed the name after becoming artistic director a few years later, but never changed focus on presenting strong actors, working in tandem.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a critic say I had an uneven cast,” asserts Griffin, who has numerous Helen Hayes Award nominations for best ensemble performance to prove it. “I take pride in … these kind of remarkable ensemble pieces that resonate with an audience. And because the audience is so close to the stage, it is really a very powerful theater experience.”
It’s also consistently not the kind of experience — or show — you can get elsewhere. “All you have to do is look in the back of American Theater magazine and you’ll see what the hot shows are,” Griffin says. “Everybody is doing the same shows — and we’re not.” Instead, MetroStage has made its name with less buzzy, history-steeped plays featuring just a couple actors — such as Athol Fugard’s The Island, on tap for next spring — and for small, intimate musicals generally focused on the cultural experiences and impact of African Americans. Griffin concedes this can add to the challenge of attracting audiences to MetroStage’s location of the past 12 years, in a developing but still off-the-beaten-path area near the Alexandria waterfront. But it’s worth it in the end, for her, and for audiences, too.
Take, for example, the musical that kicks off MetroStage’s 30th anniversary season. Directed by MetroStage’s most frequent collaborator, Atlanta-based Thomas W. Jones, who also wrote the book and lyrics, Three Sistahs features original gospel, R&B and funk music by William Hubbard, and focuses on sisters who reconnect at their father’s funeral. The show stars MetroStage veterans Bernardine Mitchell and Roz White, along with newcomer Ashley Ware Jenkins — “three of the most terrific African-American performers you’ll ever see on a stage any place,” Griffin boasts.
Noting one theatergoer who vowed to renew long lost ties to her own sister after seeing the show, Griffin says, “It’s leaving people with a powerful feeling as they leave the theater, and that is what I think theater is meant to do and should do.”
Three Sisters runs to Nov. 2 at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St., Alexandria. Tickets are $55 to $60. Call 800-494-8497 or visit metrostage.org.
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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.
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