Arena's New Look
For the performing arts in Washington — as elsewhere — fall is a big deal; it’s the start of a new season, its festival time, its gala time, its opening night for theaters and performing venues, for dancers, actors, directors, musicians, and orchestras all over the city.
It’s also fair to say no event quite resonates with so much history and meaning for the future as Arena Stage’s return to its old home on the Southwest waterfront.
As Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith put it, “We are finally home again.”
Well, the old homestead isn’t exactly what it used to be. Smith made those remarks recently on the occasion of a 60th anniversary celebration for Arena Stage, which also served to unveil the new stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, its old Southwest location. The ceremony — presided over by Mayor Adrian Fenty, other elected officials, Smith and her Arena compatriots — seemed appropriate to the place and time, looking forward and backward all at once.
The new site, as you get off the Waterfront Metro station, appears almost immediately to the eye like a glass-curved visitor’s vehicle from some nifty galaxy far, far away.
Modern, expensive and two-and-a-half years in the making, the Mead Center manages to be warm and inviting, a multi-task kind of venue which serves as performing space (three theaters), keeper of the historic flame (not to mention education and research) and community center in its role as cultural jump-starter for revitalization and development in Southwest Washington.
The new Mead Center marks yet another turning point for Arena, which in 60 years has seen many such key moments. Most of them, in one way or another, are part not only of the history of Arena Stage, but are literally embedded in the $135 million center, whose core remains the Fichandler Stage’s theater-in-the-round auditorium, a 683-seat space perfect for big-scale theater such as, for instance, “Oklahoma,” which starts off Arena’s fall season on Oct. 23.
The new theater also sports the Kreeger Theater, a 514-seat space with a thrust stage, the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, an oval-shaped 200-seat theater with flexible seating, a space where new plays are workshopped and talent, new ideas and ways of creating are nurtured.
“The Arena Stage as we have it now will be a major center not only for the production and performance of theater, but for the study of theater. It will be a research center, a truly all-purpose theater center,” Smith said.
It was designed by famous Chinese-Canadian architect Bing Thom, who sees the space as “accessible, warm, modern and historic at the same time, intimate, vast, a part of the community.” The center reflects Arena’s past, but its transparency and structural impressiveness speaks to the future. “We hope for everlasting life for our hometown theater,” a local said.
Hometown is exactly what Arena is and has always been, even as it’s grown to a theater of national stature. “In 1950, the only way you could see theater here was at colleges, or through touring companies of Broadway plays,” Smith said. “Zelda Fichandler and her partners were pioneers; they created the first regional theater in America and the only professional theater here.”
From its first theater, which was called the Hippodrome on New York Avenue, Arena has moved and gone through various stages and incarnations. Five years after Hippodrome’s founding in 1950, it moved to a 500-seat theater called “The Old Vat” in Foggy Bottom.
In 1961, the 800-plus-seat theater-in-the-round Arena Stage opened at the current location with a production of Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” an ambitious, difficult play that spoke to founder and artistic director Zelda Fichandler’s ’s theatrical vision.
It was evident that Arena was bound to enlarge or move. “There was serious consideration about moving to Seventh Street, where there was already a bustling theater scene,” Smith said. “But we decided to build here.”
Spurred by a $35 million donation from trustees-for-life Dr. Jaylee M. Mead and her late husband Gilbert Mead (the largest gift of this sort by individuals for a not-for-profit regional theater), the project to revamp Arena took hold two and a half years ago. This necessitated that the company and the institution scatter its offices and performing spaces all over the city. “We were a nomadic enterprise,” Smith said. “It was difficult, but it also increased the profile of Arena, acquiring new audiences, both in Crystal City and at the Lincoln Theatre in the historic U Street District.”
For Smith the new center is also a personal homecoming (again). An American University grad, she was picked to succeed Douglas Wager (who took over as artistic director after Fichandler retired) 12 years ago after leading the Perseverance Theater in Alaska for 19 years.
She dedicated herself to building on a standing — and pioneering — tradition at Arena. While she focused on American plays and the American theatrical canon, she continued to reach out to the community at large and build an African American audience, a hope that became a larger reality after the stint at the Lincoln.
“I think we have always encouraged new plays, new playwrights, new ideas that reflect the great creative energy in this community, as well as its diversity,” Smith said. She continued a process where two Arena productions, the spectacularly successful “Next to Normal” and “33 Variations” went to Broadway, a tradition that began with “The Great White Hope” in the 1960s.
She also started directing musicals. “I kind of surprised myself,” she said. “I never did them before. You know, I’m part of that generation that thought musicals, especially Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, were kind of square.” She began with “South Pacific,” a big hit, which looked and felt not old-fashioned, but fresh and big of heart.
The inaugural season at the Mead Center can be expected to embody what Arena, Smith and the building itself stand for. So it begins with “Oklahoma,” a rarely revived musical that revolutionized musicals when it was first staged in the 1940s, building book and music into a seamless whole.
“We recognize the diversity that existed and the show, with all of its great music, will also embody that spirit. It’s not just an exercise in nostalgia,” said Smith In short, it will be a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic cast that will sing and perform the show. “It is THE great American musical. All of Arena’s optimism, hopes and dreams will be embodied in this moment of fierce individualism.”