Arena Stage Moving to Va. While Venue Is Expanded

The plan for the Arena Stage complex, seen in an architect's rendering, will add another performance space and a lobby that connects all the theaters.
The plan for the Arena Stage complex, seen in an architect's rendering, will add another performance space and a lobby that connects all the theaters. (Bing Thom Architects)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

Arena Stage, Washington's pace-setting, Tony Award-winning theater, is moving to Crystal City in less than three months. It will stay for almost three years while its home on Maine Avenue in Southwest Washington is renovated and expanded.

Theater executives say the construction will require the company to decamp until the fall of 2010. Work will start in January.

Beginning Dec. 28, Arena will stage the rest of the season's shows in the Crystal Forum, an old movie house space being renovated as a 460-seat theater. For its 2008-09 season, the company will again use the Forum, as well as the Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW and possibly other locations.

Since its founding in 1950, Arena has been one of the nation's most important regional theaters. It was the first regional theater to send a play to Broadway, where "The Great White Hope" won three major Tonys. In 1976 the theater won a Tony for its overall contributions. Today it is regarded as a leader in producing new American plays.

Artistic Director Molly Smith said she is confident audiences will follow Arena to Virginia.

"Arena Stage will be in transit. We will be nomadic but our audiences have been adventurous for the last 57 years," Smith said. Though it moved at least twice in its early years, Arena has been on the same property in Southwest since October 1961.

Arena has two principal theaters: the 827-seat Fichandler, a theater in the round, and the 514-seat Kreeger Theater, a more traditional stage. It also has a cabaret space called the Old Vat Room.

The renovation, designed by Bing Thom Architects of Vancouver, will add another performance space, a 200-seat theater nicknamed the Cradle. It will be used as an incubator for works in progress by American playwrights.

"We believe we are the first regional theater in the country to create a theater expressly for the purpose of creating new American work," Smith said.

Talk of an expansion goes back to 2000. The final plan adds two rehearsal spaces, workshops for building sets, classrooms, office space and a full-service cafe, in addition to the Cradle.

Almost as important to Smith is the unifying central lobby for all three theaters. "We will be able to do the type of work that we want to do, that is in our bloodline to do, and that demands theater spaces and workshop spaces," Smith said. "What audiences will now have is the ability to go see a new play by Sarah Ruhl and come into the common room and see someone who has just been to an Edward Albee play in the Kreeger and then bump into another friend who has seen a Jerry Herman musical. Imagine the synergy that will be happening."

The trustees gave their go-ahead on Monday.

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