Remodeled Arena Stage may transform D.C. theater and the city

Virtually every big theater company in and around Washington has built new stages -- or theaters -- over the past decade. The construction era comes to an end with the most expensive project of them all: Arena's $135 million makeover of its campus in Southwest Washington. It officially reopens Oct. 23, so get a preview tour here.
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010

Arena Stage is about to make the most dramatic entrance in its storied, 60-year history, reintroducing itself to the city in a radical new shape, with a $135 million remodeling that seeks to turn it into a gleaming fixture of Southwest Washington and a national center for the presentation, development and study of American theater.

When it officially reopens its doors to the public on Oct. 23 after its 30-month architectural overhaul, the company will finally be able to show off the tangible results of the renovation of its campus on Sixth Street and Maine Avenue -- the most expensive project in a transformational decade of theater construction across the region. The structure also promises to be a linchpin of a broader redevelopment of a long-neglected stretch of Southwest.

The metamorphosis of Arena's look, and the towering glass cage in which Vancouver architect Bing Thom has enveloped the complex, gives the theater an imposing presence. But the even more consequential changes are of the interior kind.

The new enclosed space, encompassing about 200,000 square feet, is more than double the area Arena used to take up on a parcel that had grown seedy with age. Arena's main stage, the Fichandler, was built in 1961, and its second space, the Kreeger, was built in 1971; the shells of both remain intact in Thom's design, now sitting under a roof some 450 feet long. In addition to refurbishing the 683-seat Fichandler and 514-seat Kreeger, Arena has added an intimate third stage: the 200-seat Kogod Cradle, a warm space with permeable, aubergine walls and a curving entryway -- a lyrical design with a unique aesthetic.

In and around the theaters, Arena plans something like a think tank of the American stage: public conversations, industry colloquies and artistic residencies to supplement the works Arena will both import from other theater companies and produce itself.

"There's a feeling of vitality and rebirth in this," says Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a longtime Broadway theater owner and producer. The building is "arresting," he says, "but what's most exciting about this for me is that Arena not only wants to present and produce theater, they want to study it and think about it." That, he adds, "is exactly the kind of thing" the company should be doing.

"The building is an art wrapped around art," says Zelda Fichandler, Arena's co-founder and board trustee for life. It is widely acknowledged among Arena insiders that it was Fichlander's fierce opposition a decade ago to proposals to move Arena to a site in Penn Quarter that inspired the rehabilitation of the company's longtime headquarters under its current artistic director, Molly Smith.

The new structure and renovation -- paid for with a mix of public and private funds -- could have an inspirational effect on the psyche of the city's theatergoers. While Ford's Theatre has more historical heft and the Kennedy Center is more firmly part of the national cultural consciousness, Arena has traditionally set the pulse in Washington for that pivotal theatrical concern, the crafting of the serious play. The company, established in 1950, was at the forefront of a national movement to bring sophisticated drama to metropolitan areas outside New York. Now, with a soaring building that allows visitors to explore at various elevations, Arena seems to be speaking to the city of its desire to take its art to new heights.

Still, along with the sweeping vistas; the sprawling, multi-level lobbies; the state-of-the-art workshops and rehearsal spaces -- even the new cafe adorned by a garden of polished rocks and catered by celebrity chef José Andres who operates Jaleo and other Washington restaurants -- the new Arena faces some nagging uncertainties. The chief worry is whether the quality of what Smith and her staff of about 100 will put on the stages can match the extraordinary impact of the building itself. As Fichandler put it, "When I took my family on tour, one of my sons said to me: 'Mom, can you have a flop in this gorgeous space?' "

The question of how long Arena will be able to afford the array of new initiatives and productions it is planning remains a concern, too, especially in a belt-tightening age: Its 2010-11 season is budgeted at $17 million, a roughly $4 million increase from the previous one, when the company staged plays and musicals in temporary digs in Crystal City and U Street NW. (Arena's annual spending had been around $14 million a year prior to that, the theater says.)

"The starting point is the fiscal challenges," says Mark Shugoll, who presided over Arena's board of trustees for the duration of the renovations. "We're brimming with ideas, and that's hugely exciting. But will the audience support some of the ideas? We don't know." Arena officials acknowledge that the qualitative results over the last several years have been mixed, as the company has struggled to balance artistic goals with the need to fill seats. In her dozen years at the helm, Smith has made Arena's focus the American play and musical, but there have been wild swings in taste that have puzzled some theatergoers. For every accomplished staging of a piece by Pulitzer winners such as Edward Albee or the musical-writing team of "Next to Normal," there has been a corresponding low point, with a desultory revue like "Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano" or a creaky touring vehicle for a TV star, like the second-rate "Looped."

Longtime fans of Arena say that the latter productions never would have been showcased in what is regarded as Arena's heyday, the Fichandler era of the 1950s through 1980s, when the company earned such distinctions as the first Tony awarded to an American regional theater, and the first such organization to export an original play to Broadway, "The Great White Hope."

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