Backstage at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts || TERRAGOES.COM

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in America’s one and only national park dedicated to the performing arts. It’s located in Vienna, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., and is super close to where my grandmother used to live. I grew up knowing about Wolf Trap, but for some reason I never realized it was a national park.

Wolf Trap, as it’s full name suggests, is a venue for the performing arts. It’s an outdoor venue, with its main season running April – October, and it hosts a variety of performers, from musicians to dancers, symphonies to comedians. Wolf Trap’s main stage, the Filene Center, is an amphitheater, with room for 3,800 in-house, including 88 pit seats, plus additional space on the lawn. In total, the Filene Center can accommodate 7,000.

A few times a year, during Wolf Trap’s off-season, the park offers guided tours of the Filene Center. Along the way, you get a glimpse into the dressing rooms and the musician’s lounge, the backstage area and finally, the curtain comes up and you get to stand on a stage that’s hosted performers including Ringo Starr, Ke$ha, Elvis Costello, ZZ Top, Billy Idol and a whole host of Grammy-award-winning performers.

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts || TERRAGOES.COM

WOLF TRAP’S HISTORY

In 1930, a woman named Catherine Filene Shouse, of the same Filene family who founded Filene’s Basement, started buying up land in an attempt to create for herself a refuge from Washington, D.C. She first purchased 53 acres at $100 an acre and by 1956, she’d acquired 168 acres. She used the property as a working farm where she bred horses and dogs, raised crops and other critters.

Years later, as Northern Virginia grew, development started to make her farm less of a refuge. Mrs. Shouse wanted to preserve her land, to turn it into a cultural landmark. She wanted something uniquely American, but also to create something new.

Mrs. Shouse first approached the National Symphony Orchestra to see if they might be interested in developing her land as a venue. They passed, so she went to the National Park Service, straight to the Secretary of the Interior, and in 1966, she donated 100 acres of her land to the federal government.

Wolf Trap was, essentially, an experiment by the National Park Service. They figured if the whole National Park for the Performing Arts thing worked, they’d build more. But that idea never materialized, despite the success of Wolf Trap over the past 50 years.

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts || TERRAGOES.COM

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts || TERRAGOES.COMAt the same time the park was created, a nonprofit, the Wolf Trap Foundation, was founded to assist in running the park. Together, the park and the foundation make Wolf Trap work, with federal dollars paying for grounds maintenance and park staff, and foundation money and support managing the performances.

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts || TERRAGOES.COM

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts || TERRAGOES.COMA few years later, in 1971, the Filene Center hosted it’s inaugural performance, featuring Van Cliburn, Julius Rudel with the New York City Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the United States Marine Band and the Madison Madrigal Singers.

Then, on April 4, 1982, the Filene Center burned to the ground. It happened in the middle of the night, was likely started by an overheated piece of equipment, and wind gusts helped fuel the fire. Nearby residents reported that dinner plate-sized pieces of ash floated down into their backyards.

After the fire, millions of dollars came in from more than 16,000 donors from 47 states and five foreign countries, and included support from President Ronald Reagan and former Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

Despite the fire, the Wolf Trap Foundation said the season would go on, and it did, in a big-ass tent in a nearby meadow, called the Meadow Center.

The new Filene Center opened in 1984 and Mrs. Shouse herself was in attendance to witness the dedication of the new building.

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts || TERRAGOES.COM

THE TOUR

Our tour lasted about an hour and a half and started at the Stage Door, where staff are responsible for getting an autograph from each and every performer who passes by. We learned about the history of the park, about Mrs. Shouse and the first and second Filene Centers. We explored a dressing room, complete with a private outdoor area, and the musician’s lounge, then headed backstage to learn about how the venue works. We learned about the fly system, about the way different parts of the stage are used and moved to accommodate different types of performances, then the park ranger raised the curtain and we headed out onto the stage.

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts || TERRAGOES.COMWolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts || TERRAGOES.COMWolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts || TERRAGOES.COM

From the stage, the seats feel impossibly close and the view is great. The Filene Center is beautiful, built from Douglas Fir and Southern Yellow Pine and there’s not a bad seat in the house.


Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is open every day from 7 a.m. to dusk, except on New Years, Thanksgiving and Christmas. In addition to the venues, the park includes several walking trails. For a schedule of upcoming events at Wolf Trap, visit wolftrap.org.

12 Discussion to this post

  1. san says:

    I had no idea a place like that existed. I love it.

    • terrabear says:

      I feel like it’s an idea that could only have been imagined in the 1960s. It’s like, hey, you guys, let’s make refuges for the arts all over the place. It’s so great!

  2. Sara Beth says:

    I’ve lived within an hour of here for 8 years and still have yet to visit! After reading your post (loved how you told the story BTW), I’m moving it up my to-visit list. I even emailed to check on future tour availability for this winter. Thanks for the kick in the pants! 😉

    • terrabear says:

      It’s such a neat place and the backstage tour was fantastic! I hope you get in on a tour and that you enjoy it as much as I did!

  3. Cool story. I haven’t been to this place, but I’ve heard of it. Pretty impressive they got it back up just 2 years after it burned down!
    Kelsey @ So Much Life recently posted…My Great Big 2017 Book ReviewMy Profile

    • terrabear says:

      I think after it burned there was very much a national effort to get it back up and running. And I love the whole, “the show must go on!” attitude everyone seems to have had.

  4. Anita says:

    This is so interesting! I hadn’t heard of this park but it sounds like a cool place to see a show. It’s too bad the idea didn’t catch on.
    Anita recently posted…Fearless Wanderlust v.31 – December 2017My Profile

    • terrabear says:

      It’s a pretty cool spot, and they said because the foundation is a nonprofit, you can often see shows for cheaper here than you can anywhere else.

  5. Stephany says:

    Who knew that there is a performing arts venue that is also a national park?! You learn something new every day! 🙂
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  6. Kristin says:

    We saw Steve Martin and Martin Short at Wolf Trap a while ago – it’s the first time we’ve been there and we’re looking forward to going again, and maybe trying out the behind-the-scenes look!
    Kristin recently posted…Mom’s Christmas Cinnamon RollsMy Profile

    • terrabear says:

      We toured the dressing room that Steve Martin and Martin Short shared. The ranger talked about some pictures they had posted from in there and you can see the couch or whatever. It’s such a neat place!

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