By Sheila Wickouski 

Photo courtesy of Arena Stage

The 2019-20 season celebrating Arena Stage’s 70th Anniversary was planned with performances of people “fighting for what matters to them.” Early in 2020 and throughout the year, though, things changed dramatically, from on-stage stories of people fighting to real protests and riots in the streets. 

We talked with Molly Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage, about what it is like to create works in a time of great changes.

While Arena productions have always been relevant to the issues, has there been more focus on what is happening now? What is behind the choices of shows that have been selected for Spring 2021? 

Our previous films focused on speaking to our immediate community and our Winter/Spring 2021 Looking Forward Season is broadening our focus. For Arena Riffs, we commissioned three teams of musical artists to create 20-30 minute musical theater pieces – on topics and themes burning in their hearts at this moment. They will be reflections of what our American society is thinking. 

Indigenous Earth Voices is a film project featuring Indigenous playwrights, interviewees, actors and directors exploring their relationship with the Earth. Six playwrights will write a 10minute monologue each based on interviews with tribal leaders and storytellers, which will be performed by an actor, filmed, and woven together into one film. All the artists (writers, interviewees, actors, directors) are Indigenous. 

Ongoing programming, such as masterclasses, classes for youth and theater lovers, my weekly Molly’s Salon, and the Artists Marketplace provide ongoing connections to our audiences as well, until we can be on stage and in the theater together again.  

Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise: Love Letter Experience will continue to be available for purchase. How are patrons responding to this unique opportunity of theater via mail? 

With enthusiasm. I think everyone is really looking forward to having something arrive in the mail – something tangible and to have a story play out over time. The virtual world can feel rushed, and these beautifully detailed letters can be cherished and shared over time.

Everyone from financial planners to therapists is offering advice on how to cope in this difficult time in history. What advice does an artistic director of a major theater company have?

Find the glimmers of hope. I was listening to a lot of Yo Yo Ma early on, and I am a voracious reader. I think a nice phone call is great too. Reaching out with your mind and heart – taking time to watch a sunset from a window and not on a screen.

What keeps you going?  

Honestly, it’s the tenacity of artists. In that, I include the wonderful staff at Arena, whether you might recognize them all as artists or not. How much everyone has pitched in and worked together. Artists have not stopped creating at all! There is so much art out there in this remote and virtual world. Strong and important messages from artists around the country.

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