Coal Mine Theatre in Old Town Alexandria, the sort of faded power house for homegrown theater that hasn’t gone more than five or six seasons without a change, is celebrating its 80th anniversary season this year. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, or anything more meaningful, the future finally came knocking and life returned to what this nation’s oldest professional theater troupe has been calling home since it opened its first New Year’s Eve program in 1938.
During the same season in which the current season starts, Mariana Henry, a Virginia native who has performed throughout her life in various theaters across the country and acting school and who taught in the Drama Department at Old Dominion University, presented her play “Loyal!” at Coal Mine. The production was held right around the time of the great Flu. Henry describes it as a very simple little office comedy, written and directed by her. The local cast included Larry Bernard and several founding members of Coal Mine, including Jennifer Hanly and Rae Nance. A cheque from Martha Henry was what kept the theater going through whatever Pandemic times may have lay ahead, especially during the early ’80s.
Since Henry performed in the show, I asked her whether it was a Cheque or a check, and she explained that the theatre was under threat of closing because the phone line wasn’t working. “We were down to one actor and were paying a monthly rent of $600, which they wouldn’t pay if the phone wasn’t working,” she said. She writes and directs at least one show a year at the theatre, bringing with her her comedy and drama courses and training students in the classics and newer dramatic plays.
As one would expect, she was not happy about the CVS/pharmacy closing down so close to the theater. “They are only 21 minutes away from us and they are already seeing so many people,” she said. She said she understands that “there is not enough of a location for our programs,” but understands what the staff was trying to do.
“People need jobs, especially small businesses,” she said.
The season kicks off on Wednesday, May 15, with a production of Paul Simon’s opera “Loves Loves,” which is co-produced with Washington National Opera.
Mariana Henry has been a patron at Coal Mine for 40 years. She is also the president of the ensemble board, which handles business issues. “I like to help the board and the people who are still actively out there” she said.
It is from these people at whom she gives most of her monetary contributions. “The majority of our patrons are wonderful,” she said. “I know them and know their lives. My entire endowment and their foundation have been so vital to the theater through so many years.”
The theater is part of the Old Town Alexandria Arts District, which also includes the Nook Bar and this K Street Nook. The Public Theatre and the Folger Theatre are both nearby. It is visible to anyone who steps off I-66 at the end of Rosslyn Street at the end of Bowers Street. There is parking as well as street parking, and there is an on-site administration office.
In addition to offering fresh local and regional works to the local community, it also offers free events such as Underground Bookstore Night, Open Forum Literary Nights and ArtRave. And there is plenty of seating.
As Henry said, “We have an incredibly loyal audience. I think a lot of that is the fact that we are a small theater.” The theater caters to those 60 and over. The kids are not too far away in their local Players Theatre programs and, of course, the Washington Nationals are only a few blocks away and a light-rail commuter train transfer is just a short walk down Bowers Street.
“As to my future, I am only 57,” Henry quipped. She said she would love to direct again and maybe even teach again.
Not so fast, she said. She has several plays under her belt, including “Loyal!,” and wants to do “That’s My Story and I’m Sticking To It!”