Arena Stage modifies research role as major players depart


(Amanda Voisard/THE WASHINGTON POST)
December 28, 2011

Underlining the challenges it faces in realizing its aspirations to be a national center for research, Arena Stage announced Wednesday that major components of its 2½-year-old American Voices New Play Institute are relocating to Emerson College in Boston.

The transfer will mean a loss of some key personnel who have been deeply involved in the molding of Arena’s widely talked-about play development programs. Most notably, David Dower — Arena’s associate artistic director and one of the chief architects of Arena’s transition to its refurbished complex in Southwest Washington — will be leaving in April for a new job at Emerson. Departing, too, is the institute’s director, Polly Carl, who joined Arena only last July from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and will be working with Dower in Boston.

Arena officials say the shifts in institute programs will alleviate some of what they characterize as tensions that have arisen in the theater world over the company’s multiplicity of roles. Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, says a suspicion has developed that Arena gets some sort of leg up in devising its own offerings by its sponsoring of such projects as the New Play Map, a digital attempt to catalogue the development of original stage work across the country.

“There have been times when there’s been an uneasy fit,” Smith said. “There were concerns from the field about Arena being ahead of the field as opposed to Arena wanting to see the field grow.”

At the time of Arena’s move into its newly renovated, enclosed campus on Sixth Street and Maine Avenue SW in fall 2010, Smith outlined the company’s ambitions not only to produce its own plays and bring in top-notch productions from other regional theaters, but also to be a national center for theater study. The institute, created in July 2009 and funded in large measure by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has been the vehicle for those plans. Out of it came Arena’s widely heralded playwright residency program, which has given each of five dramatists three-year stipends, health coverage and seed money for development of works produced at Arena.

The institute itself will remain at Arena to supervise the ongoing residency initiative, which has already resulted in two Arena productions: new versions of Karen Zacarías’s “The Book Club Play” and Amy Freed’s “You, Nero.” (The other playwrights are Charles Randolph-Wright, Katori Hall and Lisa Kron.) The troupe’s “audience engagement” efforts, such as Theater 101, will also stay, Smith said. That program invites spectators to follow the evolution of a given production through the rehearsal process.

What will leave with Dower and Carl are the institute’s online projects, run for the industry as a whole: the New Play Map, the live-streamed New Play TV and HowlRound, a journal of provocative essays on American theater edited by Carl that has become a lively and popular digital forum.

In addition, Dower and Carl will run out of Emerson the industry “convenings” that had been based at Arena, on topics such as diversity, black playwrights and developing new work, though the company will continue to be an occasional site for the symposium. (Smith said that because of the foundation support for various institute programs, the financial impact of the shift is negligible.)

The changes were triggered by Dower’s acceptance of his new job in Boston, in which he will serve in a senior leadership position in the ArtsEmerson program at the college, an institution that has long had a vigorous arts curriculum. “We opened this building and that was the work for a lifetime for me,” said Dower, who arrived at Arena in 2006 from San Francisco’s innovative Z Space. “Now as we move into the next five years, I’m ready to move into a new leadership position.”

Carl, in her short tenure in Washington — she starts at Emerson in June — discovered that perhaps an academic setting is the more appropriate one for a journal challenging an industry’s assumptions. “It was uneasy at times to be asking questions of the way things happen at an institution that you’re working at,” she said. Which, of course, throws into question the issue of how Arena might have to alter its vision of itself as an institution with a research arm.

Smith said she thinks Arena still has a major leadership role to play in considering how theater moves itself forward, through the residencies and efforts to make the institution more transparent to its audiences. The most important consideration, she added, is that the programs initiated or nurtured at Arena prosper, no matter where.

“The most important thing is where these programs can go to reach their fullest potential,” Smith said.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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