A new first act: Arena Stage's 2010-11 season at the Mead Center

Ground was broken Jan. 2008 on a new performance space for Arena Stage. With the July target date for completion approaching, we take a look at how the construction is progressing.
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

After a $125 million makeover -- the most expensive theater renovation in Washington history -- the first words to ring out at Arena Stage in Southwest Washington this fall will be old ones. But the sentiment they express, the company hopes, will seem as fresh and vital as the architecturally remastered complex itself.

"There's a bright golden haze on the meadow," an actor will sing, as the initial lyrics of "Oklahoma!," the quintessential 20th century American musical, serve as a kind of invocation for Arena's new life on a block of the waterfront it has occupied for 49 years. Only now, Arena's revitalized landmark spaces -- the in-the-round Fichandler Stage and the more traditionally configured Kreeger Theater -- will be joined by a striking new 200-seat playhouse, the Kogod Cradle.

And all three will be clustered under a soaring, cantilevered roof that not only significantly alters the streetscape in a visually drab part of town, but also creates a veritable village of drama on Sixth Street and Maine Avenue, in an enclosed campus that has been re-christened the Mead Center for American Theater.

"Oklahoma!," directed by Arena's artistic head, Molly Smith, is the opening act in late October, in a season that takes the venerable company out of exile in Crystal City and U Street NW and back to the spot on which the legendary Zelda Fichandler built her theatrical temples. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, launching the refurbished 680-seat Fichandler, is one of nine offerings that represent an ambitious refocusing of the company's agenda, as it strives to situate itself more centrally in a national conversation about theater.

The roster also includes a festival devoted to the works of Edward Albee; the Washington debut of last year's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Ruined"; and, to open the Cradle in November, the world premiere of "Every Tongue Confess," a play by a young American writer, Marcus Gardley, about church bombings in the South.

The inaugural season back in Southwest Washington could be pivotal for Arena, which has struggled over the past several years to find an effective balance between philosophy and execution; the quality of its offerings has swung widely, from distinguished productions of "A Delicate Balance" and "Next to Normal" to more desultory entries like "Irving Berlin's 'I Love a Piano' " and "Looped."

Under Smith's stewardship, Arena has defined its mission as a celebration of drama and musical theater emanating from this country. That concentration will continue, Smith says, though a more concerted effort is to be made to bring other theater companies -- from the region as well as across the nation -- to the renovated complex. The notion, too, is to transform Arena into something akin to a think tank for the stage, for deeper considerations of theatrical ideas, through festivals and residencies for playwrights.

"It moves Arena from being a theater into being an education center, into a center for research and development, and into a theater that does more presenting than before," Smith said, referring to the greater volume of productions originating elsewhere that will play on Arena's stages.

Some of these goals are evident in the company's 2010-11 season, its bigness reflected, in a sense, in the larger footprint Arena will occupy: The complex expands to more than 200,000 square feet, from the 90,000 it previously covered. In addition to the Kogod Cradle, an intimate theater with permeable walls in a basket-weave design, Arena has added rehearsal rooms, classrooms, administrative offices and huge new public spaces -- lobbies and dining areas on a variety of levels.

Returning patrons will still recognize the facades of the Fich and Kreeger as they enter the new environment. "It's a miniature town square," explained Bing Thom, the Vancouver architect who designed the structure. "The linchpin was encapsulating the older buildings in a new jewel box."

"That solved the acoustical problems," he added. "It created a double shell and it allowed us to create a new dramatic image. Before, the two buildings were back to back and didn't share anything in common. Now it allowed me to create a central space, with all three buildings looking at each other."

The Edward Albee Festival that begins next winter is a centerpiece of the season because of its scope: All of Albee's plays will be performed, in readings or full productions. Smith says Arena will be sending out invitations to companies in the region and throughout the country to present one of 30 plays that will make up these readings. Separately, the seminal "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" will be given a full run and production in the Kreeger, by a major national company that has a record of moving its shows to Broadway. Pam MacKinnon will direct. And "Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo," an evening of Albee one-acts that includes "The Zoo Story," will also be fully staged, in the Cradle.

Plans fell through for Arena to be the site of the regional premiere of the acclaimed "Black Watch," a play from the National Theatre of Scotland, about Scottish troops in Iraq. But in January, the Fichandler Stage will host Chicago director Mary Zimmerman and her Lookingglass Theatre production of "The Arabian Nights."

That same month, Arena will also present readings of nine works by seven playwrights and theater troupes, developed in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts. The Arena season's two other offerings -- including the play that will reopen the Kreeger this fall -- have been narrowed to a few possibilities but are still in negotiation, Smith said.

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