By Katelynd Anderson
If you stand in the Molly Smith Study and listen closely you can hear the wind moving through Arena Stage. It moves with a unique energy and sound—not unlike that of Arena Stage itself. For the last seventy seasons, Arena Stage has been an anchor not just in our Southwest community, but in the theater movement as well. Rich in history, the company is one of the most important, innovative and revolutionary regional theaters in the country.
As a pioneer of the regional theater movement, Arena Stage was founded in 1950, calling the Hippodrome Theatre at Ninth St. and New York Ave., NW its first home. It quickly outgrew the space and moved to the gym of The Heurich Brewery six years later, in a space affectionately called “The Old Vat Theater.” The company came to Southwest in 1960, moving into its current location on Sixth St., into a complex that was built specifically for them by Harry Weese, who would go on to design the entire Metro system. In 1961, in what is now known as the Fichandler Stage (named for one of Arena’s founders Zelda Fichandler, who also served as its artistic director from its founding to the 1990-1991 season), Arena Stage opened as the first theater-in-the-round tailored specifically for the needs of an existing resident theater company.
Arena Stage has quite a long line of firsts, including as one of the first non-profit theaters. It was the first regional theater to transfer a production to Broadway with “The Great White Hope,” which opened in 1967 and was sent to Broadway with its original cast including James Earl Jones, where it won a Tony Award for Best Actor (James Earl Jones) and Actress (Jane Alexander), as well as a Tony Award and the Best Pulitzer Prize for drama. The production would be named in 2015 as one of “Washingtonian’s” 50 Moments that Shaped Washington, DC. In 1973 Arena Stage was the first regional theater to be invited by the US State Department to tour behind the Iron Curtain. The company was the second theater outside of New York to receive a Tony Award for theatrical excellence in 1976 (the first award was granted in 1948). Arena Stage was at the forefront of creation of audio description services for live productions in the 1980s, and today uses technology that captions the show in real time and displays them on hand-held devices for attendees.
For two years from 2008-2010, the home of Arena Stage underwent a massive renovation led by Artistic Director Molly Smith and Architect Bing Thom, which would for the first time in the company’s history bring all staff and operations under one roof. The renovation totaled $135 million, and when it was completed in October of 2010, the complex would be renamed Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. This new complex reimagined the typical theater design, putting on display the administration areas, construction shops, and the common room where artists and staff interact. When complete, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater would host three theaters in three separate buildings all insulated in a 45-foot high “glass skin” held in place with heavy timber columns, each supporting more than 400,000 pounds on average. Spaced 36 feet apart, these columns also support the free form roof and 140-foot cantilever. The complex is the first heavy timber building structure to be completed in modern Washington, and the first time this hybrid of wood and glass enclosure has occurred in the country. When completed, over 15,000 cubic yards of architectural concrete were used. As Edgar Dobie so accurately described the architecture “(it) promotes transparency… it is not predictable… it is floating, but yet grounded.” Three phrases that also fittingly summarize Arena Stage and its mission.
With a combined capacity of over 1,200, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater is now the second largest performing arts center in the District, behind only the Kennedy Center. Each year, over 300,000 individuals come to Arena Stage to see the world class productions. With another 100 events that happen at the complex each year, including weddings, annual meetings, career and job fairs, the number of individuals who walk through those glass doors is even higher.
Arena Stage is the largest company in the country dedicated to American plays and playwrights. Always looking to stay true to its roots, Arena Stage looks beyond the typical definition of a performance, specifically to tell those stories that impact America. It recently began a series of additional community conversations called the Arena Civil Dialogue series. These free and open to the public conversations seek to provide an opportunity for members of the DC community to engage in civil discourse about issues in society and politics. The goal of each is to demonstrate that diverse viewpoints can still mean individuals have fruitful dialogues with one another. In another instance of telling the story of America, just last month, Arena Stage hosted an 11-hour marathon reading of the Mueller report, that included a diverse group of over 200 readers, including some from right here in Southwest, and even included “redacted” signs. As Molly Smith, the current Artistic Director who last summer celebrated her 20th season in the role noted, “Why read the Mueller Report at Arena Stage? As a theater focused on American plays and American stories, the Mueller Report is a far-reaching and intricate American story about DC and the people in it. This is our city and so many of these events happened here.”
The 70th season, as Molly Smith so accurately put it, has a focus on resiliency and the fighting spirit, and the line-up of productions appears to achieve just that. Productions include “Ann,” based on the life of legendary Texas Governor Ann Richards; “Jitney” which celebrates August Wilson, and kicks off the national tour of one of the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright’s greatest masterpieces; Disney’s “Newsies,” which will hit the stage this holiday season; and the international best-seller “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” The season will run now through May 31, 2020.
Even with its national and international success, the company has not forgotten the importance of the Southwest neighborhood in the role of its success and development. Arena Stage has long hosted Southwest nights, select nights during each production where residents of Southwest can purchase discounted tickets. It also hosts a community day each summer, which feature a day full of live music, face painting, dance performances and even pony rides, in addition to the not-to-miss prop sale from numerous Arena Stage performances. (This year’s community day is taking place on August 24 from 1-6:30 p.m.). Many of the company’s employees choose to live in Southwest, meaning seeing actors out of character is not a rare occurrence in our neighborhood.
Having this world-renowned theater company in our backyard means that the vibrations of both communities interact with each other. Kids can think about arts as a place to spend their lives, community members can be encouraged by the stories and creativity they see, and hopefully bring those experiences out of the theater and into their lives. It shows that great theater can happen in our communities—not just in far away places.
Upon the reopening of Arena Stage, renowned architect Bing Thom, who passed away in 2016, is quoted as saying about the design “Together we have created a home for American theater that will allow audiences to interact not just with the art, but also with each other. We are convinced that the positive energy that will come from this building will send ripples—not just throughout S.W. Washington but throughout the region and artistically even further.” Standing and pausing amidst the glass and timber, one truly feels those ripples of energy and can almost see them moving this one-of-a-kind company, and our neighborhood, into the future.