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Arena Stage starts a new act with opening of new facility

The $135 million Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater complex is set to reopen.
The $135 million Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater complex is set to reopen. (Linda Davidson - The Washington Post)

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By Danielle Douglas
Monday, October 18, 2010

This weekend's official reopening of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater will usher in a new era for the historic theater's artistic mission and business model. By more than doubling its space to 200,000 square feet, Arena now has the capacity to develop more productions and support them with the revenue generated by its new cafe and events business.

The $135 million complex is being closely watched by the local arts community, which has been battered by a downturn in which government and institutional contributions evaporate.

"When the building was originally envisioned, it was anticipated that there would be an opportunity to grow our revenue model with [the theater] as an event destination space," explained Edgar Dobie, managing director of Arena Stage. With that in mind, he and his staff set out to position the theater as a full-service venue capable of hosting upwards of 1,800 guests.

Toward that end, Arena has signed on José Andrés Catering With Ridgewells, a joint venture of the famed local chef and the Bethesda-based caterer, to operate its expanded concession stand and cafe, Next Stage by José Andrés. Menu options will change throughout the season in the spirit of the theatrical performances. Patrons attending the coming production of "Oklahoma," for instance, can have their fill of Cowboy Caviar Salad or Bison Short Ribs.

The cafe, which includes a bar, will stay open 2 1/2 hours before curtain time, while lighter fare at the concessions will be available during intermission and after the show.

"This is a good fit for us," said Susan Lacz, principal and chief executive of Ridgewells. Arena "will be the newest, hottest venue in D.C., and we want to be a part of it."

The Ridgewells-Andrés team was also selected as one of the theater's four preferred catering partners, along with Design Cuisine, Fresh Start and Salamander Hospitality.

Renowned architect Bing Thom's critically acclaimed design is a veritable advertisement for the Southwest waterfront. The sweeping curtain of glass, reinforced by sloping wooden columns and topped with a brilliant white roof is unlike any other structure in the city, intended to be a draw for groups looking for unique space, of which the theater has plenty. The fishbowl facade encapsulates the two original theaters, an added stage, classrooms, rehearsal space, three lobbies and a spiral staircase that connects it all -- 10 rentable spaces. Prices start at $1,000 for smaller spaces and climb to $5,000 to rent an entire theater.

Members of the Greater Washington Board of Trade got a preview look at the new Arena Stage earlier this fall, when the organization rented several spaces for its Fall Classic. Some 800 guests mingled in the multi-tiered lobbies and alongside the rock garden in the cafe, or took in the unencumbered views of the Washington Monument from the terrace.

About a dozen private events have already been booked at the center just through word of mouth, Dobbie said. Revenue from the catered events and cafe will flow into the center's annual operating budget, which is $17 million for the 2010-11 season. Dobbie says the company has not made any projections on how much the new income streams will contribute.

"We didn't assume a significant amount of growth in this first season. So we used a benchmark of what we did at the original arena," he said. "We're going to use the experience of the first couple of quarters of operating to really do a much more informed assessment. Just based on the interest that there has been in the space, I think we're going to have a robust business."


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