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

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; E01

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."

The company, however, seems to have taken to heart the opportunity this fresh start offers, and, buoyed by an astonishingly successful construction period -- completed on time and within budget -- Arena is about to launch its liveliest and most varied season in years. It is, in fact, one of the most ambitious any theater in the city has assembled in some time. Plans include opening the Kogod Cradle with the world premiere of "every tongue confess," starring Phylicia Rashad and written by a promising young African-American playwright, Marcus Gardley; the first presentation of a stage version of John Grisham's novel "A Time to Kill"; a festival of Albee's works that will include a full production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and staged readings of all 30 of his other plays; visiting productions by theater luminaries Anna Deavere Smith and Mary Zimmerman and by the city's own Theater J, and Arena's new production of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer-winning drama set in Africa, "Ruined."

All this and a lavish musical to kick things off, Smith's multi-ethnic version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "Oklahoma!" Relaunching with a theatrical warhorse may seem counterintuitive, but Smith argues that among other things, the pioneer ethos of "Oklahoma!" is a good match for the spirit of the new Arena.

At the same time -- and perhaps, a bit more precariously -- Smith's Arena is embarking on a daring enlargement of its mission: to become a magnet for theater research and development, and to experiment with novel approaches to producing new work, such as putting playwrights on the payroll for extended periods. Even the name given to the new complex, the Mead Center for American Theater, is meant to underline the expansion of Arena's reach. (Benefactors Gilbert and Jaylee Mead contributed $35 million to the project.)

"One needs to have perseverance and drive and energy to do big things," says Smith, as she sits in the Kogod Cradle, the new theater that formed the core of her vision for the renovation. "When Zelda started this theater, she helped foment a revolution. Now for Arena, it's time to innovate yet again."

Aside from the building, the real innovation is the attempt to come up with a new leadership role for Arena, as a national catalyst for the development of plays and moderator of an ongoing discussion about where the profession wants to head. As a theater in the nation's capital, Smith says, taking the reins for such a mandate seemed natural. "Five years ago, she said this building has the potential to be this thing," says associate artistic director David Dower, recruited from San Francisco's Z Space to oversee Arena's artistic development efforts. "We asked what was our responsibility to the community and to the form. That's where the conversation started."

One result was the American Voices New Play Institute. Established last year with a $1.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the venture is functioning as Arena's research and development arm. It offers fellowships for young producers in training, invites audiences to sit in during the rehearsal process of Arena's productions, and convenes national meetings of theater leaders, like the big one that will bring Broadway producers and non-profit theater administrators to the center in January.

The initiative with the most intriguing implications is one that is paying five playwrights $40,000 a year for three years, plus health benefits and production seed money, to create or refine works on Arena's stages. Arena has even opened a playwrights' townhouse not far from the theater where the dramatists -- Lisa Kron, Katori Hall, Charles Randolph-Wright, Karen Zacarias and Amy Freed -- can live while working for the company. Dower says: "We've totally reconstituted the purpose and vision of the organization. And new work seemed like the most natural place for us to start."

Between now and the end of the 2012-13 season, Dower adds, Arena has commitments to produce nine new plays. The company has committed, too, to becoming a veritable digital tracking station for original work across the country, with the creation of an online New Play Map, to be unveiled early next year. "It looks like a Google map of the United States," Dower explains. "It's a real-time look at the entire infrastructure of new works nationwide."

Maintaining these new programs and sustaining the momentum generated in this year of promise is going to be daunting. Arena officials say they know they will have to be artistically successful in the next few seasons if this broader vision of Arena can be sustained. In the meantime, they are gauging both the ephemeral and practical effects at a time of major transition and high expectation. Summarizing the wide range of possible pitfalls, Edgar Dobie, Arena's managing director, says with a laugh: "We're all waiting to get our first Pepco bill."

Still, if the early reactions to the new building are any indication, Arena may be on an exciting new creative track. Gardley, a 2004 graduate of Yale Drama School and the author of "every tongue confess," a play inspired by a spate of church burnings in the South in the 1990s, says he so loved being in the Cradle he didn't want to leave. "I spent time writing in the space," he says. "This architect," he adds of Thom's handiwork, "this was his great gift to the theater."

For Smith, getting the job done has constituted a personal and professional triumph. Harder tasks may loom, but with performances of "Oklahoma!" set to christen the Mead Center on Oct. 22, she's trying to marshal her energies and not reflect too deeply on the magnitude of the achievement or the enormous volume of change she and her staff is trying to manage.

"Someone asked me, 'Have you had a good cry in the space yet?' " recalls Smith. "I said, 'No, but I can feel it coming on.' "

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