Northern Virginia’s changing arts and nightlife scene is lively and innovative
Here in Northern Virginia, we go to state-of-the-art theaters and parks to watch blockbusters, foreign films and indies. We visit bars for artisanal cocktails and brewpubs for crafts on draft. We drink mocktails. We see first-rate theater and concerts and art exhibits. From Old Town Alexandria to Middleburg, we have so many places to play. We are learning new things, and we are having a good time doing it.
Film Festivals Show Something for Everyone
When it comes to film festivals, Northern Virginia rolls out the red carpet, Hollywood-style.
The Middleburg Film Festival, now in its third year, brings visitors to the rolling hills of horse and wine country. That combination provides the perfect backdrop between films and suits its big-screen venue choices, from the Salamander Resort to Boxwood Winery. This year, the festival opened with the heavy-hitting “Spotlight,” starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, and screened a total of 26 films, many likely to be Oscar contenders.
Founder Sheila C. Johnson, a member of the Sundance Institute, says she had been kicking around the festival idea for years but wanted the Salamander Resort completed first to serve as an anchor. It also helped, Johnson says, that when Robert Redford came for a visit, he looked at the town and its pastoral surroundings and pronounced it a great spot for a film festival.
Organizers are most excited about the number and caliber of films directed by women. “We have seven films directed by women in this festival,” says festival executive director Susan Koch. “And that’s a hot topic in Hollywood this year.”
Film festivals have become much more popular in recent years, says Elyse R. Roland, Angelika Film Center at Mosaic’s promotions and events manager. And there is room for all of them. The Falls Church-based art house cinema, which opened in 2012, serves as a venue to show creative, diverse works to a wider audience.
Alexandria-bred Fernando Mico, founder of the 2-year-old Northern Virginia International Film & Music Festival, which showed at the Angelika, focuses on connecting filmmakers with other industry professionals. And although he receives high-quality submissions from “every corner of the planet,” Mico reserved a NoVA Night to spotlight works made by area filmmakers. A happy coincidence in Mico’s first festival: the Film of the Year award went to “Last Pyramid,” a poignant documentary that was produced locally.
The 5-year-old Washington West Film Festival opened with Indian-American docu-rom-com “Meet the Patels.” It also showed the “Back to the Future” trilogy at Reston’s Bow Tie Cinemas, and Christopher “Doc” Lloyd was in attendance, 30 years to the day Marty McFly time-traveled in the DeLorean.
Ten years ago, the Loudoun County Public Library started a teen film festival as digital moviemaking grew more popular. Now, in an effort to bring family-friendly films to residents of Loudoun County, the winning teen entries are screened as part of Washington West, a synergy that makes sense, says Carolyn Reagle, adult services librarian at Gum Spring Library in Stone Ridge.
“Festivals have a way of building community,” says Koch. “And there is nothing like sitting in a theater and watching a film and then having a conversation afterwards.”
Fall for the Book: A Novel Idea
Back in 1999 George Mason University English professor Ben Miller, now director of the MFA program, was one of a handful in a mini study group tasked with the concept of bringing books and their authors to the Fairfax campus.
Now a jam-packed weeklong autumn festival, Fall for the Book is a literary success. Each day of the festival week, about 200 best-selling, well-known authors of all genres take up residence for panel discussions and cozy chats, interacting and engaging with delighted readers.
What began as a weekend event in the GMU campus bookstore basement has grown exponentially. The campus ran out of space, so some years ago, Miller, now the festival director, began researching more venues. Today, libraries, bookstores and auditoriums throughout Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., resonate with the good words straight from the mouths of popular fiction writers and academic authors alike.
Miller recounts a moving moment for all in attendance at last year’s festival: Author Tim O’Brien, who was awarded the festival’s highest honor, the Fairfax Prize, spoke candidly about the Vietnam War in “The Things They Carried.”
There were a lot of teachers in the audience who had taught that book, says Miller, and afterward “they emailed me about how insightful that whole experience was. That’s just a phenomenal kind of thing. You can’t engineer it, but that’s what you hope to have happen.”
The 18-year-old festival now runs like a well-oiled machine—on-site techs make sure mics are working; volunteers silently choreograph the placement of additional chairs for over-attended turnouts—but Miller knows there’s still room for improvement.
In 2015, the entire freshman class read “A Lesson Before Dying” over the summer. At the start of the festival, 4,000 freshmen piled into EagleBank Arena to hear 83-year-old author Ernest J. Gaines speak about his book.
The large-scale event was a success, but it was also a learning experience, says Miller. The concept of the summer read will now become part of the freshman back-to-school tradition, but the venue needs tweaking; it turns out the sound inside the arena was just right for basketball, but all wrong for an intimate literary discussion.
As the festival nears the two-decade mark, Miller and his seasoned crew keep trying and learning new things. After all, where better to do so than in a university setting?
Local County Arts Programs Get Exhibited
Historically, when county budgets are being trimmed, the arts get cut first. But here in Northern Virginia, the arts are alive and well and continuing to generate interest and a sense of community. From large-scale public installations in Arlington to First Friday gallery walks in Leesburg, the area is buzzing. Classes for adults and children are filling up at county facilities, and schools are adding the all-important A in STEAM—the artistic, creative component that is essential to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In Fairfax County, Lorton Workhouse Arts Center’s 55 acres continues to experience a renaissance. Almost from the moment the last prisoner left in 2001, six refurbished buildings have become sold-out studio spaces for working artists. The campus regularly hosts gallery evenings, complete with live music, that provide a chance to meet the artists, see their work and tour their studios. The Workhouse is also a site for the performing arts; there’s a theater for staging shows, and the campus boasts an extensive catalog of class offerings. Ava Spece, CEO and president, has her eye on the future for additional improvements: An excavation revealed a 300-seat theater from the early prison days that she would like to make over as well as an amphitheater she hopes will eventually bring in more performances, harking back to its functioning days when the prison hosted legends Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Chuck Brown.
Prince William County is experiencing a delightful surge in its arts scene, says Caroline Shaaber, arts recreation specialist at the Department of Parks and Recreation. “I think what we’re seeing is more diversity, for sure, and not having to go to Fairfax for quality arts performances.” Shaaber credits the county’s Hylton Performing Arts Center for its impact and for providing a home for the first-rate Manassas Ballet Theatre and Manassas Symphony Orchestra.
Jill Evans-Kavaldjian, president of the Loudoun Arts Council, recalls the progress of the Western Loudoun Studio Tour, the county’s largest arts event. Started in 2005, the weekend-long festival allows 60 local artists to showcase their talents from textiles to paint.
Arlington County’s award-winning public art program includes 60 pieces in its permanent collection and continues to evolve. The program, headed by Angela Adams, serves as a national model for developers and parks and recreation officials to integrate works into new construction.
Arlington’s director of cultural affairs, Michelle Isabelle-Stark, says this summer will see the launch of a new mobile art program, a white art truck that will cruise the county showcasing the work of artists and bringing their art into the community. It will welcome the public to climb aboard the ever-changing mobile studio space to get a good look at how different artists create. Photographer Cynthia Connolly will curate the artist project, which will rotate every six weeks.
Art is about experimenting and engaging the public, says Isabelle-Stark. And the truck is an exciting idea. “I can’t even predict what it will be—and I like that,” she says.
Northern Virginia Nightlife Is Meant to Be Seen, Sipped and Savored
Northern Virginia is rife with opportunities to see first-rate performing arts. From Shirlington’s Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre to Manassas’ Hylton Performing Arts Center, there is no shortage of things to do. Venues are busy booking big names, and audiences are snapping up tickets.
Settle in for a night of live music from big acts to throwbacks at Jammin’ Java, the Birchmere or the State Theatre. Pack a picnic for a summer evening under the stars at Wolf Trap (musicals, opera, symphony) or Jiffy Lube Live (popular concerts). These days, it seems every town and city hosts free outdoor movie nights, from Crystal City to Lovettsville.
Wineries, breweries, cideries and distilleries have proliferated from Washington, D.C., to the far reaches of verdant Loudoun County. It’s become big business, and there are plenty of palate-pleasers for even the most discerning taste buds. The Ale Trail, with its picturesque backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is booming with crisp pints and smooth sips as more “craft”-eries set up shop.
Jay Clement, founder of Wild Hare Hard Cider in Bluemont, turned to apples from the Shenandoah Valley in an effort to go gluten-free. With Loudoun County’s 45 wineries and 20 breweries, Clement says, “We have a lot of people who come in looking for something unique and different.” His approach is less-than-traditional; he asks customers what they like. And although cider has been around for centuries and is more popular across the pond, he says, it’s finally taking off here. But that’s due to his job as tasteful educator: “Many people aren’t aware that different apples can produce really different flavors and produce a really interesting drink,” he says.
Victoria Trummer, half of the husband-and-wife owners of Trummer’s on Main in Clifton, says one of the biggest changes she has seen in the past few years is that customers are much more aware of ingredients and where they come from.
Employees tend to an edible garden behind the restaurant. Trummer’s harvests its own vegetables, which take on starring roles in entrees, a trend that reflects more healthful eating. Besides, homegrown just tastes better, she says.
They pluck the herbs that flavor and infuse their artisanal cocktails and mocktails, shaken and stirred by master mixologist/co-owner Stefan Trummer, who plays with the magic of smoke and fire.
Victoria’s favorite: Pain & Pleasure. “It’s so fun,” she says. The tequila-based, hibiscus-infused cocktail is concocted around a showstopping jalapeno ice ball. As it melts, each sip gets hotter. Some guests “like to eat the ice ball at the end,” says Victoria, “which I could never do.”
Theatre Venues Provide Dazzling Backdrops for New Works
Founded in 1989, Shirlington’s Signature Theatre was already working toward its signature: musical theater and its longtime relationship with Stephen Sondheim and his esteemed works. The theater staged professionally produced world premieres at its industrial-garage black box digs. Fast-forward 13 years and the theater co-founded and led by artistic director Eric Schaeffer is even more firmly cemented into the arts world in Northern Virginia.
In 2007, the theater moved down the street into its stunning, wide-open space (where it can now perform multiple shows simultaneously) in the Village at Shirlington above the library, serving as a true anchor and a source of pride to that strip of shops and restaurants, to Arlington and to Northern Virginia. Then, in 2009, it won the Tony Award for Regional Theater and has continued to blaze a trail of groundbreaking, thought-provoking works in its multiple theater spaces ever since. Recent mountings include the glittering “Dreamgirls,” the sharp “Sweeney Todd,” the provocative “Really, Really” and the pointillist “Sunday in the Park with George.”
That neighborhood liveliness is precisely the goal for Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. Years in the making, but complete thanks to good working relationships of all those involved, it opened to much fanfare in 2010 and has served as the dazzling setting for six seasons of creative and varied works in its complex.
Executive director Rick Hylton knows that civic development comes on the heels of successful arts centers. “We are at the epicenter of what we think, in some number of years in the near future, will become a thriving town center,” says Davis, adding there’s already evidence of such growth. There is land nearby available for such a project, “and we think having a major arts facility in the heart of that is an extremely attractive idea,” he says.
Of recent performances that have graced the stages at the Hylton, Davis counts a couple as near and dear to his heart. The Manassas Ballet Theatre, which outgrew its old space, is now a Hylton resident performing group and the only professional ballet company in Northern Virginia. In 2014, artistic director Amy Grant Wolfe choreographed the memorable “Colin: Son, Marine, Hero,” a deeply moving, original piece that honored her son, himself a ballet dancer, who had traded in his slippers to serve in Afghanistan, where he was tragically killed at the age of 19.
“It was beautiful, and it was cathartic for her,” says Davis of Wolfe’s ballet. “And it was beautiful work for the audience as well because it was mostly celebratory.
“It needed a stage, and it needed a venue that could make the production happen,” he says. And the Hylton was “the right space for it. And I’m just so proud that we were able to be part of that.”
( January 2016 )