By Sheila Wickouski
Since 1998, Molly Smith has served as Arena Stage’s Artistic Director, racking up credits for directing, new play development and work with great playwrights that are now part of theater history. The completion of Arena Stage’s current season will mark her last in the role as she steps into retirement, marking the end of an era for Southwest’s arts community.
Smith has connected DC’s theater scene with the nation’s brightest stages, bringing Broadway shows to Arena Stage and Arena Stage productions to Broadway. During her time with the company, Arena Stage has workshopped more than 100 productions, produced 39 world premieres and nurtured nine projects that went on to have a life on Broadway.
AT HOME IN SOUTHWEST
For those in Southwest DC, a point of special import in Smith’s long career is her work leading to the re-invention of Arena Stage, including reshaping its architecture and repositioning it as a national center for American artists.
As the Southwest waterfront has transformed, Arena Stage has changed along with the neighborhood. The first permanent home for Arena Stage was an 827 seat theater on 6th Street and Maine Avenue SW founded by Zelda Fichandler in October 1961. The Kreeger Theatre opened in 1971 and The Old Vat Room in 1976. (It would make history with its 10 years and 2300 performances by Stephen Wade and Banjo Dancing.) Southwesters might also remember that actors on the stage during those years, Richard Bauer and Halo Wines, were also our friends and neighbors.
In a recent interview with The Southwester, Smith explained the strong connections between the community and the theater. Throughout Washington DC, where local theaters have started, like Studio Theater and others on the 14th Street NW corridor and the Shakespeare Theater on 7th Street NW, commercial entities and major developments have followed.
“When I came on, there was a momentous decision about moving downtown versus staying in Southwest DC, and ultimately the Board decided to stay in Southwest and rebuild,” Smith said. “After that, we knew we wanted to preserve the two historic buildings and demolish everything else. And that the center needed to be bold and dynamic. Mission accomplished!”
Smith’s early years at Arena Stage were spent preparing to build the new center. She described the tremendous amount of time spent looking at architecture firms, talking with architects, working on the design, and planning programming for the new theater over a period of a dozen years. Construction commenced in January 2008 and lasted two and half years, a period when Arena worked offsite, splitting time between Crystal City and downtown DC.
“It was thrilling when we came back together in 2010, all under one soaring roof,” Smith said.
AN AMERICAN MISSION
Prior to Smith’s arrival, Arena Stage spent the majority of its first 47 years presenting audiences with classic shows with a few new projects sprinkled in. Smith turned that approach on its head.
“One of the most important parts of my past creative life was working on new plays. When I arrived, there was a major shift into American work of past, present, and future and Arena now produces one-third to one-half of our work as new,” Smith said.
While Smith equates trying to pick a favorite show or initiative with trying to pick a favorite child, insisting she loves them all the same, she has brought to life a range of productions focused on social justice and contemporary political issues.
In 2016, Arena Stage was one of the originating theaters of the Women’s Voice Theater Festival, a two-month effort of 50 theater companies to produce works by female playwrights.
“We didn’t know how important the festival was until two to three years later,” Smith said. “By the third year, there were 150 productions around the country that came from premiering these plays. All of us in the city were really proud of that.”
Most recently, in Smith’s final directorial venture, My Body No Choice, eight of America’s most exciting female playwrights shared what choice means to them. Politics is not a new setting for Smith, who built an initiative called Power Plays, encompassing a series of stories exploring politics and power.
The new paths Smith has paved are built on a solid foundation she found when she first came to Arena Stage to direct Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
“When I was in need of something or had a problem, the head of that department would come talk to me and within an hour or two, it was resolved,” Smith said. “This is one of the greatest theaters in the country and we have many people who have worked here for ten to twenty and more years. We are able to do so much because we have had an incredible staff that makes it happen. That’s how you do it. You could be sitting around having the most amazing ideas in the world, but if you don’t have a team of artists and administrators to push the rock up the hill with you, it won’t happen.”
In the 2010’s, Arena Stage inaugurated new community engagement programs and a project called The Writer’s Council, even as they worked to raise funds and complete the theater’s renovation. It was also a record-breaking decade for productions and ticket sales.
Community engagement has grown and changed with the times, expanding to include programs like Camp Arena Stage and the Voices of Now festival.
“Young artists are the future, and they have a lot to say,” Smith said. “With Voices of Now, young artists are able to create stories about their own lives and their lives in the world today. What they are facing is daunting, in their own lives and also in the world, and I am consistently heartened by the joy, pain, and fury they use to energize the stories that they tell. We believe that imagination is our greatest creative asset as human beings. If we are able to ignite the imagination of young people, it ends up being essential for their future.”
In 2021, during the height of a global pandemic, Arena Stage opened its doors to host a city-run vaccination site, where Smiths said 10,000 people were vaccinated against COVID-19. The facility has also hosted a dozen job fairs, welcoming approximately 15,000 job seekers from across the District.
“The not-for-profit movement was started over 75 years ago to create theaters that are integrated in the community, as opposed to going to New York or seeing touring shows,” Smith said. “Having programs that are of and about the community is important because those programs knit us into the community.”
A NEW CHAPTER
While a farewell dinner honoring Smith and the announcement of the next Artistic Director are on the horizon, Smith is only looking forward as she prepares for the next phase for Arena Stage and for herself.
“Exciting times ahead for Arena,” she said. “A new artistic director will bring in fresh ideas and new artists from around the country. There is no question this will energize staff, board and the community.”
As for what’s next for her personally? “What’s next for me is whatever I want to do,” Smith said. “That’s what you get to do when you turn the page. Part of me wants to wait for the ground to go fallow to see what shoots of green grow up. We will also travel because I have missed it. About a year ago I went back to a pottery studio, and now I am throwing pots. I love learning a new craft and working as a solo craftsperson since I’m usually working with groups in the theater.”
For 25 years, Molly Smith has nurtured the powerful and magical gift of live theater in our shared community of Southwest DC. To read more about her legacy, visit arenastage.org/mollysmith25.