Correction to This Article
ยท An April 10 Style article about Arena Stage's new season incorrectly said that Daniel Beaty's "Resurrection" is a solo piece. It is a play for six actors.

Arena Stage to Expand Its Season From Eight to 10 Plays This Fall

(Photo By Joan Marcus - Photo By Joan Marcus)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008

You could call it "playflation."

Not to be outdone by some other major theater companies in town that recently boosted their annual output from five productions to as many as eight, Arena Stage plans to expand this coming season from eight offerings to 10.

That nearly one-new-piece-per-month pace is a highly ambitious number for a regional theater, or for any theater. But Molly Smith, Arena's artistic director, says that in an initiative being marketed as "Arena Restaged," the company is seeking to prepare audiences for the magnitude of work it will generate come 2010. That's when Arena will return to its Southwest Washington campus, which is undergoing a $125 million renovation.

In the interim, the 58-year-old Arena is presenting its shows in a theater in the belly of a Marriott in Crystal City -- a sort of Fichandler Stage-in-exile. In September, the company will add a second temporary stage, the historic Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW. It is in those two venues that Arena will produce its 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, although the company says it might seek a third interim space to carry some of the load.

Three spaces, after all, is what Arena has in its overall blueprint. When it moves back after July 2010 to its longtime Southwest headquarters -- renamed the Mead Center for American Theater -- the existing Fichandler and Kreeger spaces will be supplemented by a new third stage, to be christened the Cradle.

Arena says it will present 10 productions in each of the next two seasons. "We're in our transition years," Smith says, "but we began thinking about all the programming we want to have, focusing on American voices. In the volume and the range and variety, we're introducing audiences to the type of work they'll be seeing at the Mead Center."

The opening of new theaters across the region has prompted upticks in the number of shows that many companies are producing. In its first season in both the Lansburgh Theatre and the new Harman Center, the Shakespeare Theatre Company is putting on eight productions, up from the traditional five. Signature Theatre, in its new two-space building in the Village at Shirlington, has stepped up its output by a similar magnitude. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company now offers eight shows on its recently opened mainstage and in an adjacent flexible space. And Studio Theatre, which operates in a four-theater complex, presents and produces as many as 11 works in its main stage, second stage and special-events programs.

Arena has experienced a minuscule drop-off in subscribers in the move to Crystal City -- "We've lost only 1 percent of our season ticket holders," Smith says -- but still, a theater, like any other enterprise, thrives on growth.

The calculation of "Arena Restaged" seems to be an effort to keep ticket buyers' eyes on Arena's appetite for projects of many stripes. The agenda for the coming season includes a cabaret featuring Maureen McGovern, and three other solo shows: a world premiere of "Resurrection" by Daniel Beaty (of "Emergence-See!" fame); Josh Kornbluth's "Citizen Josh"; and the Arena debut of Carrie Fisher in her new piece, "Wishful Drinking."

"Resurrection" will open the season at Arena at Crystal City, and Fisher will inaugurate Arena's residency at the Lincoln. On offer, too, will be two American classics: at the Lincoln, Tennessee Williams's "Sweet Bird of Youth," directed by Tazewell Thompson; and at Crystal City, Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance." Pam McKinnon will direct the Albee play, with a cast that includes Jane Houdyshell, Kathleen Chalfant and Ellen McLaughlin.

The other world premiere will be of Karen Zacarias's "Legacy of Light," directed in Crystal City by Smith, about the struggles of female physicists in the 18th century and in our age. "Crowns," a play with music about African American women and their churchgoing regalia, has been popular in return engagements at Arena; it will be staged by the company at the Lincoln next Easter time. Smith says they might bring it back in the Easter of 2010, as well.

Other varieties of American music will be featured at the Lincoln in "Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano," conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley and based on 64 Berlin standards. And in an intriguing experiment, an off-Broadway musical that recently received encouraging reviews will be retooled by its creative team at Arena next season -- a run envisioned as a precursor to presenting the show in its new form again in New York.

That musical is "Next to Normal," by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Its director at New York's second stage, Michael Greif ("Rent"), will come to Crystal City to restage the show, which is a portrait of a mentally ill woman and the impact that her condition has on her family. Alice Ripley and Brian d'Arcy-James were its stars off-Broadway.

Smith, in another departure, says she plans to announce programming for the second year of "Arena Restaged" as early as this fall. Already, she adds, talks are in the works for a production in 2009-10 of "Yellow Face," David Henry Hwang's deeply personal comedy-drama of ethnicity and identity.

Smith also has been in discussions to have Arena's founding artistic director, Zelda Fichandler, return that season to direct a revival of "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company