In its guise as a company town, Washington is the nation’s hub for lawmaking, rulemaking and policymaking. Now, Arena Stage is mounting a major effort to make plays about all those things that Washington has been making.
Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, announced Tuesday that the organization will devote a considerable chunk of its energies over the next 10 years to commissioning and, in many cases, producing new works that focus on the ideas and people shaping American policy and politics.
Called Power Plays, the initiative will encompass 25 plays and musicals, one for each decade of American history, going back to the country’s founding. The project has, in fact, already begun, with two previous world premieres, “Camp David” and “The Originalist,” newly designated as part of it, and the forthcoming “Intelligence” by Jacqueline Lawton, becoming the third entry.
Of the 22 remaining slots, playwrights for seven of them have already been picked and are in various stages of writing or research. They include such prominent playwrights as Sarah Ruhl, Eve Ensler and Rajiv Joseph, and other respected dramatists such as Nathan Alan Davis, Aaron Posner, Mary Kathryn Nagle and John Strand.
“We are the perfect place to be producing Power Plays because this is the most powerful city in the world,” Smith declared. “And in the middle of the tumultuous change we’re going through, it’s the right time to say we’re doing it.”
Although the notion may sound like a no-brainer — presenting plays in Washington about the effect of decisions reached in the White House or on Capitol Hill — in actuality, there has long been a reluctance on the parts of many theaters here to concentrate too much on political topics. A feeling has pervaded the theater community for some time that people who think and talk politics for a living don’t necessarily want to spend money listening to actors do it, too.
Power Plays will test that assumption. Some of the playwrights who signed on early have picked subjects or even submitted early drafts, according to Seema Sueko, Arena’s newly installed deputy artistic director. Davis, for instance, is writing about what came to be known as the “black Wall Street,” an affluent African American neighborhood of Tulsa that was the scene of a massacre by whites in 1921. Posner, Arena says, is focusing on the life of the nation’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams; Strand, on Teddy Roosevelt; and Nagle, on Native American tribal sovereignty. The others are still refining their topics.
The project bakes into Arena’s schedule a predilection of Smith’s for offerings that exist on the edge of current affairs. She’s had the company explore this terrain before, in fictionalized pieces like Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” about the anguishing choices of a Republican couple who traveled in the circle of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and Anthony Giardina’s “City of Conversation,” a dramedy that centered on the social and political interests of a Georgetown hostess.
Even more centrally concerned with power and politics were the Arena world premieres of Lawrence Wright’s “Camp David,” about the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord brokered by President Jimmy Carter, and Strand’s “The Originalist,” a portrait of Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court justice. Lawton’s “Intelligence,” which begins Feb. 24 at Arena, is another play in the company’s growing collection of pieces portraying real figures from contemporary Washington; in this case, the figure is Valerie Plame, the former CIA officer whose cover was blown by the late columnist Robert Novak in the midst of the controversy over whether Saddam Hussein had been trying to acquire nuclear weapons.
It’s not clear at this point how many of the 25 commissioned works — for which donors who will underwrite them are being recruited, Smith said — will receive full productions at Arena. But, the artistic director added, the strong preference will be to put the plays into the company’s seasons. “There’s a commitment to developing the plays and a strong potential for producing them,” she said, adding that the funding and dollar amounts of the commissions will range, depending on the project.
One of the advantages the playwrights will enjoy in many instances is the deep pool of local authorities on their subjects that they’ll be able to turn to. Sueko said that she’s already talked to a historian at the National Museum of African American History and Culture about consulting with Davis for his play about black Wall Street. She told Sueko she’d be only too happy to.
“The excitement about this,” Sueko added, “is not just on the playwrights’ side. It’s on the experts’ side as well.”
One of the commissioned plays, Strand’s “The Last Progressive: The Life and Deaths of Teddy Roosevelt,” had its first reading at Arena on Monday. It’s a play that the dramatist believes can help us understand the politics of our own time.
“If, as a playwright, I am going to explore a character or period from the past, it has to reveal something about our present, and our present selves, that matters,” Strand said. “I think the character of Teddy Roosevelt does that. We are able to trace the origins of the two major political parties and what is left of their earlier aspirations. It’s a bit of political archaeology.”