And that of course is a gargantuan IF.
Nevertheless, Artistic Director Molly Smith is setting her sights on an ambitious 2020-21 season for one of the nation’s leading regional theaters. The agenda, outlined Tuesday during a Facebook Live presentation, includes a second stab at the company’s curtailed spring slate of “Celia and Fidel,” Lydia R. Diamond’s “Toni Stone,” about a female Negro League ballplayer, and a revival of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars.” A world-premiere musical about Frederick Douglass — “American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words,” by Charles Randolph-Wright and Marcus Hummon — will follow, and a second musical, from Canada — Britta Johnson’s “Life After” — will close the season.
Those pieces are to run successively between January and September, with no overlapping of their runs to maintain minimal foot traffic in the expansive, three-theater complex. Social distancing in the theaters will be the norm, Smith said, with a hope of creating seating for about 240 patrons per performance in the larger spaces, the Kreeger and the Fichandler. That would fill less than 50 percent of seats. Washington is in Phase 2 of its reopening plan, allowing for gatherings of 50 people or fewer, and it’s assumed that by early next year, Phase 3 — permitting as many as 250 people to assemble — will be in place.
The rapid reordering of schedules as the pandemic shifts has become a new staple of life in the theater. And of course, the possibility exists that the schedule will change again.
“The fact that theaters have been able to move as quickly as they have has been kind of extraordinary,” Smith said. “We’ve had so many plans and episodes that we’ve created, and then let go, and created and then let go, depending on the changing circumstances.”
Those circumstances could change again, which is why there’s a whiff of “the best-laid plans . . . ” suffusing Arena’s announcement. It should be noted that, for the first half of the season, the company has in store an agenda that can be safely counted on, because much of it is digital.
The virtual aspects reveal how nimble a theater company has to be in this uncertain age about maintaining its creative edge and simply reminding its patrons and supporters that it is still in the business of making art. Smith said that Arena is producing another film, akin to the hour-long movie it premiered in June, “May 22, 2020,” in which 10 actors, playing everyday citizens of the region, delivered monologues that characterized life during the outbreak and shutdown.
The new movie, “The 51st State,” will deal with the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the District, as well as the campaign for statehood, Smith said. Its debut is planned for September, when the company is also premiering an online festival of 20 short plays. Called “Flash Acts,” the project will feature 10 plays by American writers — including Craig Lucas, Lauren Yee and Kia Corthron — and 10 by Russian dramatists. The theme of the festival is isolation, Smith said, and it is being produced with Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the singer Mary McBride and the Forum for Cultural Engagement. The plays will be translated into English and Russian and performed by Georgetown students and actors in Moscow.
A few socially distanced cabaret nights, featuring Washington-area performers, are planned for this fall in Arena’s upper-level terrace and refreshment tier. But the company has its expectations pinned to that January day for a re-engagement with the core of its mission. Who could have predicted that the theater season itself would be the real cliffhanger?