Arena Stage Moving to Va. While Venue Is Expanded

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.

Everyone agreed on the Crystal Forum as the interim home. "I bet we looked at 40 theaters or spaces that we might adapt as theaters. Like all good things, if you keep looking you find the right thing," Executive Director Stephen Richard said.

The work can start because most of the money has been raised -- $104 million so far. Richard said the total cost, including the move, will be about $125 million, including $100 million for construction. The renovation of the Crystal Forum will cost $500,000, he said.

The largest gift came from board member Jaylee Mead and her late husband, Gilbert Mead, who contributed $35 million. The expanded complex will be renamed for them as Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. "Our board contributed over 50 percent of the money we raised," Richard said. The District government provided $30 million through tax-exempt bonds.

Arena usually presents eight shows a year in its two theaters, and expects to keep up that pace starting next year while it's in temporary quarters, but the productions may have shorter runs. Officials are planning to use 460 seats at the Crystal Forum and perhaps about 800 at the Lincoln. "We would not use all of the balcony at the Lincoln," Richard said. That's roughly equivalent to what Arena has now.

The transition to the Crystal Forum starts on Dec. 28 with "Ella," a one-woman show about the great vocalist (through Feb. 24), followed by two Arthur Miller plays, "Death of a Salesman" and "A View From the Bridge," running alternately March 14 through May 18. The final show, Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep," originally scheduled for May 2-June 8, will now run June 6-July 13. The theater has postponed "Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway," a musical.

Arena has about 14,000 subscribers. They were sent letters yesterday describing the changes. Questions and complaints will be handled on an individual basis, but refunds may be granted.

Since the Thom design was completed in 2005, the plan has been modified. One change is the elimination of 21 apartments for artists.

"It is sad, but there were some pieces we had to give up and we had to give up what was not directly about the theater itself," Smith said.

The Crystal Forum is less than a quarter-mile from Crystal City Metro station, in the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel on Jefferson Davis Highway. The historic Lincoln Theatre, a survivor of the ups and downs of U Street, is now in the midst of a condominium and restaurant boom.

"For us it is an opportunity to reach out in Northern Virginia, Adams Morgan and U Street," Smith said. "And we will be coming back to an area that will be transformed, with the new baseball stadium and the revitalization of the waterfront. And when we leave the space in Crystal City, we will leave a ready space for theater groups. That is the Arena way."

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