Inside the Hylton Performing Arts Center on a hot summer morning, friendly ushers prepare for a familiar onslaught. Soon several schoolbuses arrive, disgorging summer campers in color-coordinated T-shirts who swarm like improbably cute june bugs into the lobby. Laughing and pointing, abuzz in their neon pinks and purples, their electric blues and greens, the little ones gape at the bright space. Today they’ll hear the Rootstone Jug Band, purveyors of American roots music.
Tomorrow others—children, adults, families—might be here to see a puppet show or play; to hear an orchestra, symphony, or mariachi band; or to marvel at an illusionist, the Shanghai Acrobats, or the Russian National Ballet.
From morning well into evening, throughout the year, the Hylton Performing Arts Center glows as the cultural hearth for its region: a place that celebrates the arts, creates community, and enriches lives across Northern Virginia.
A Community Vision
The Hylton Center story began in the early 1990s. It was then that Prince William area leaders formed a vision for how a once-rural county could direct its rapid growth to bring residents improved quality of life and new cultural and recreational opportunities.
Mason played—and continues to play—a lead role in that story. The university formed a partnership with Prince William County and the City of Manassas, developing Innovation Park, a research center that attracted biotech and information technology companies. The Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center, the first facility at Mason’s Science and Technology Campus, opened in 1999; academic and research buildings soon followed.
By then, the area badly needed a quality performing arts facility. “There were many local arts organizations by that time, many of them very good,” says Rick Davis, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts and executive director of the Hylton Center since 2011. “Those groups really needed a place to shine.”
The community rallied, eager to show it was ready to support top-quality cultural offerings. With a $5 million gift from the Cecil and Irene Hylton Foundation, the Hylton Performing Arts Center opened in 2010. Just as Mason’s Center for the Arts was the cultural anchor for Fairfax County, the Hylton Center would serve that role for Prince William—both “symbol and agent” of the county’s progress.
Creative Commons for the Commonwealth
The value of the Hylton Center as “creative commons of a vibrant region” is a brilliant illustration of why the arts matter, observes Davis, whose resume includes roles as playwright, dramaturg, and opera director. To explain, he paints a vivid picture.
“Imagine early humans at night, facing the darkness. What did they have but each other, and their imaginations?” asks Davis. “To keep back the darkness, they gathered around their fire, around the hearth, and began telling stories.”
“We still need that hearth—a place to tell stories,” Davis says. Our modern hearth is the arts center itself, he posits: “Now we gather around a stage, gazing at the glow of the light on the performers’ faces. The reason we build theaters, and why we built the Hylton Center, is to create community.”
Today the Hylton Center creates community through a breadth of performances, exhibits, and educational programs. They are housed in a building that impresses, an architectural jewel clad in an arresting mix of copper, glass, and masonry that soars more than nine stories. The center is home to 1,123-seat Merchant Hall along with the smaller Gregory Family Theater. Inside the light-flooded Didlake Grand Foyer, visitors find floor-to-ceiling glass walls, fluted cement columns, and a sea of the venue’s signature color, purple.
Arts, and People, at Home
The acoustical quality of Merchant Hall draws top-notch touring artists who are eager to return. The center is also home to five “resident arts partners”: the Manassas Ballet Theatre, Manassas Chorale, Manassas Symphony Orchestra, Prince William Little Theatre, and Youth Orchestras of Prince William.
Since 1997, Becky Verner has been the artistic director of the acclaimed Manassas Chorale. She also leads the Greater Manassas Children’s Choir and delights in the awe-struck reactions of her youngest singers as they enter Merchant Hall for the first time.
“The Hylton is a place that sparks connections,” Verner says. “People meet each other here and become friends.”
For Youth Orchestras of Prince William, performing at the Hylton lets them reach far more people than concerts at local schools. “The Hylton performance opportunity is crucial for us,” says executive director Claudia Morales, BIS ’07, MA Arts Management ’13. “It’s the only venue in our county that provides a professional setting like this.”
Mason students use the venue as well. Dance, theater, art, and music students have regular opportunities to perform and exhibit; many give their graduation recitals at Merchant Hall.
In fact, between performances and multiple daily events, the Hylton is in such demand that it has literally run out of space. A new Education and Rehearsal Wing, slated to open in 2018 (see sidebar), will add full-size rehearsal halls, private studios, ensemble rooms, and educational spaces. For resident arts partners, the wing will allow them to truly call the center home.
That feeling is natural, explains Rick Davis, because art is how people have always established a sense of home. “We create art to civilize ourselves, to form that sense of community—that sense of family—without which the darkness begins to encroach.”
The Hylton Performing Arts Center exemplifies Mason’s service to the region it calls home—a cultural hearth that glows, and grows, brighter each year.