Putting big money where its theatrical ambition is, Arena Stage announced a single-source $2.5 million donation Monday for its Power Plays, a series of new works on politics and power.
“This is a transformational gift,” Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith said. The first major benefactor for the largest commissioning program in Arena’s history is Curtis T. Bell, a real estate investor and loyal Arena patron.
The $2.5 million is the initial splash in what will plainly need to be a very deep bucket. The Power Plays, first announced in November, are new works focused on politics and power — one for each decade of America’s existence. The 10-year, 25-work series will be composed of five related cycles: Presidential Voices, African-American Voices, Insider Voices, Musical Theater Voices and Women’s Voices.
Bell’s gift will support Presidential Voices. Arena considers it a matching grant, aiming to raise another $2.5 million to fully fund the five works in that cycle. Smith says the $5 million will support commissions for the five Presidential Voices writers, research and development, and production.
Substantial amounts will need to be raised for the other four phases of the cycle?
“Oh, yeah,” Smith says.
Power Plays already looks bigger than the American Voices New Play Institute, launched in 2009 with $1.1 million from the Mellon Foundation. It also seems more aggressive about moving from page to stage. Two Power Plays have already been produced: John Strand’s “The Originalist,” a drama about the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia that returns to Arena this summer, and Lawrence Wright’s play about the 1978 Jimmy Carter-Anwar Sadat-Menachem Begin summit, “Camp David.” Both were directed by Smith, who subsequently shepherded her productions to other theaters across the country.
A third Power Play, Jacqueline E. Lawton’s “Intelligence,” has just begun performances in Arena’s Kogod Cradle; that drama, directed by Daniella Topol, deals with Valerie Plame’s blown cover as a CIA operative. A fourth Power Play will be announced later this week as part of Arena’s 2017-2018 season. Other commissioned writers so far include Sarah Ruhl, Rajiv Joseph and Eve Ensler.
Bell has been a regular attendee at Arena since 1986, figuring he’s seen more than 100 shows there. Lately he has been a season subscriber, purchasing blocks of eight tickets per show. He says he has not previously been a heavy-hitting supporter of the company but he takes a particular interest in presidents.
His family ran a silver and antique shop near the White House; Bell remembers first ladies Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy visiting the store. He has a large collection of political campaign buttons that he started as a kid stuffing envelopes in Democratic and Republican party offices downtown, with some of his items dating to the 19th century.
“This is a special program,” Bell says of Arena’s presidential cycle, which forecasts works on John Quincy Adams and Theodore Roosevelt. “I think it’s very timely.”