Arts Aplenty in Alexandria

Alexandria offers everything from vibrant contemporary art to top-name live music to irreverent theater.

By: Sophie Gilbert

At the Torpedo Factory Art Center, you can watch artists at work. Photograph courtesy of Torpedo Factory Art Center.

The cultural linchpin of Old Town is the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a former munitions facility by the river. Before it was converted in 1974, the empty factory was used by the Smithsonian for storage. Today it houses studios for more than 165 artists as well as the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, which preserves relics from Alexandria’s past. Torpedo Factory visitors can walk through six galleries, including the Target Gallery, with work by national and international artists, and the locally focused Art League Gallery. Artists in residence keep open studio hours.

Alexandria has a number of independent galleries, including P&C Art Gallery—sister to the Georgetown institution of the same name—which sells paintings, prints, and sculptures. The Athenaeum  hosts vibrant exhibits of contemporary art as well as music, theater, and storytelling.In the nearby Del Ray neighborhood, Del Ray Artisans Gallery promotes community artists and holds informal workshops for beginners, from drawing to collage.

About three miles north of Old Town, the Birchmere has been an institution since 1966, when it started hosting bluegrass in its 200-seat restaurant/concert hall; in 1996 it moved to its current, larger site. The venue still specializes in bluegrass, folk, jazz, and country, but this year it upgraded its secondary space, the Bandstand. Now called the Flex Stage—with a new sound system and standing room for up to 1,000—it hosts funkier acts such as Dr. John and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.

The Carlyle Club is a smaller Art Deco-style restaurant/nightclub. The lineup this month includes a tribute to Luther Vandross on December 2 and a Christmas With the Rat Pack concert December 21. The menu offers upscale dishes such as filet mignon with wine demi-glace and pan-seared salmon.

MetroStage is Alexandria’s foremost theater, offering plays and musicals with some of Washington’s top talent—its recent production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was directed by Studio Theatre’s Serge Seiden and choreographed by Signature’s Matthew Gardiner. Every December, Kathy Feininger’s irreverent show, A Broadway Christmas Carol, combines Scrooge with show-tune melodies.

The Little Theatre of Alexandria was founded as a community theater in 1934. Through December 16, it presents A Christmas Carol. Port City Playhouse, in its 35th season, is another community theater offering more offbeat productions in a church, including Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, opening in February.

Old Town Theater (815½ King St.), a former vaudeville venue, was sold earlier this year to developers. Residents feared it was going to become a retail space, but the new owner announced he’s keeping it as a theater, hosting day and evening performances.

The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra is a thriving classical-music company performing regularly at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center, 15 minutes from Old Town. Earlier this year, the orchestra hosted virtuoso violinist Midori.

This month sees two big events. The Historic Alexandria Candlelight Tours, on December 8 and 9, take visitors around four sites, including Gadsby’s Tavern and Carlyle House, by candlelight along with period music, holiday decorations, and dancing. On New Year’s Eve, First Night Alexandria is a family-friendly event with live music, comedy, storytelling, and dance.

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