When Arena Stage moved into its newly expanded $135 million complex two years ago, the company aggressively courted a reputation as a national leader in the field of new American plays. Arena had erected a brand-new theater specifically tailored to producing new, riskier works, and it was the recipient of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar grant supporting seven writers whose plays would be produced at Arena. The hype was huge in Washington and throughout the not-for-profit theater world.
But by spring 2013, Arena will not have produced a single new work by any of its funded writers, all of whom will be at or near the end of their three-year residencies. And the Kogod Cradle — the state-of-the-art, 200-seat theater that helped drive Arena’s debt-inducing expansion — will have gone two years between premiering new American works.
Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith says she is comfortable with the Cradle’s programming record. The new space is “a cradle for first, second and third productions of new work,” Smith says, “and to cradle risk.” She defines “risk” broadly: as an example, Smith says it “could be if someone had a different interpretation of a classic American play. That would be a wonderful space to do it in.”
And, of the playwright residencies, Smith says, “There are plays in gestation now that I have hopes will end up in the Kogod Cradle.” And she also says the new theater should not be viewed strictly as a playwrights’ space.
“I would like it to also be a space where actors come in and want to do work,” Smith says. “It’s an imaginative space for artists in terms of risk-taking.”
Track the publicity back nine years and the Cradle message raised hopes of a more direct and consistent link to new works, fully staged and publicly performed. With its intentionally pregnant name, the Cradle was devised to birth original material and to protect new plays — an exceptionally delicate breed of theater, as the public is frequently reminded — from the pressure of having to fill Arena’s two bigger spaces, the 514-seat Kreeger and the 683-seat in-the-round Fichandler.
In 2004, Smith said a key reason for a costly expansion and the third theater was because Arena felt handcuffed when it came to new material. “This is where finances come in,” Smith told the Post, describing her programming choices for the 2004-05 season, when a classic, a musical and a Pulitzer winner edged out the untested works being considered. “We realized we can’t do any brand-new plays by living authors.” At that time, Smith and the staff talked about the bright future when the Cradle would set them free to stage new works.
At the moment, Kathleen Turner has sold out the Cradle, fetching as much as $143 per ticket, for “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” The show has been as big a publicity bonanza as the company has ever seen, thanks to Turner’s tireless stumping for this monologue about the late political columnist.
But: “That’s not ostensibly what the Cradle was built for,” says Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists in New York and author of “Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play. “That’s what the Cradle was supposed to be inoculated against.”
Smith defends using the expensively engineered Cradle for workshops and readings. Playwright and co-founder of the theater industry Web site 2amtheatre.com David J. Loehr notes the fine-tuning of the Cradle and says, “You can do readings and workshops upstairs by the cafe or in the open spaces. I can do it in my living room.” Smith says that the reading and workshop functions of the Cradle are “important.”
The Cradle opened two years ago with a Turner-like splash as Phylicia Rashad headlined a new work called “every tongue confess,” commanding $100-plus for tickets. This year the Cradle was dark — no publicly presented professional productions — for nearly six months before “Red Hot.” It will be dark for three more months after Turner departs at the end of October. Then the Massachusetts-based Double Edge Theatre will present “The Grand Parade” for five days in February. In March, “Mary T. and Lizzie K.” by former Arena artistic associate Tazewell Thompson, a play that was canceled last season and is now aided by a $30,000 NEA production grant, will make its belated debut.
The sophisticated Cradle was painstakingly designed for production. The room is oval with comfortable stadium seating. The ceiling is high to accommodate scenery. The visually striking walls are wooden planks in an acoustically sensitive basket-weave pattern. The stylish panache and technical functionality made the Cradle the tip of the spear as Arena crusaded through a heavy period of fundraising and two years of producing off-site during construction.
“You couldn’t or wouldn’t have raised that much money without something as cool as the Cradle,” says Stephen Richard, Arena’s executive director from 1991 to 2008.
“That’s what I wanted,” Smith told the New York Times last year. “A small, enveloping cradle where we could nurture and stage newly birthed American plays.’’
As the Cradle was becoming reality, Arena made significant efforts to brand itself as a nationally recognized new-play force. Two major initiatives helped advance the image: the National Endowment for the Arts New Play Development Program and the Mellon Foundation-funded American Voices New Play Institute. Neither went according to plan.
The New Play Development Program was the NEA’s idea. In 2008, Arena was named over other regional theaters to administer NEA grants for new works. But perceptions of conflicts of interest ensued, and according to NEA spokeswoman Victoria Hutter, Arena asked the NEA to reclaim administration of the program so its resident writers could apply for those NEA production funds. The program was disbanded soon afterward.
The AVNPI has been funded with at least $3.6 million since 2009 from the Mellon Foundation, and it had two complementary components. The one that got the most attention was the lavish funding of playwrights: Five dramatists were put on the payroll, each receiving $40,000 a year for three years. On top of the salary, playwrights receive benefits, access to Arena housing, supplemental research funding and administrative support.
The other AVNPI component was a “think tank” that has become an online “theater commons,” a national clearinghouse for projects and ideas connected to the new-play field. Features include the Web site journal HowlRound and the coast-to-coast New Play Map.
Earlier this year, though, the AVNPI “commons” relocated to Emerson College in Boston. Four staffers departed with the program, including AVNPI Director Polly Carl — a major recruit from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre who had only been at Arena for six months when the move was announced last December — and AVNPI mastermind David Dower, Arena’s associate artistic director. Dower says the unprecedented arrangement of the NEA program and the “think tank” branch of AVNPI led to a certain amount of industry backlash against Arena. Dower also says that after the reopening in 2010, “I was looking for the next set of challenges.” Last December Carl said it was difficult to be part of Arena while critiquing Arena.
The AVNPI resident playwrights remain under Arena’s auspices, and the company has promised to produce a play by each of them. Illustrating the disconnect, though, between the availability of the Cradle, the Mellon funding, and the mission-defining word “risk” is Arena’s offering this season by a resident writer: Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop.”
“The Mountaintop,” a two-character drama about Martin Luther King, has already been a hit in London and New York. It is being produced this season from Boston to San Diego. Hall did not need a residency for Arena to choose the play, and Arena did not need the Cradle to produce it. In fact, “The Mountaintop,” the only show by a resident writer this season, will occupy the Kreeger next spring in a co-production that will run first at Houston’s Alley Theatre.
Meanwhile, new plays by the in-demand Hall are being premiered by other companies, including at Manhattan’s Signature Theatre, where Hall is one of five residents guaranteed three premieres in the next five years.
Also elsewhere, major theaters are finding progressive methods of putting new plays and audiences together on mission-specific stages. The most notable is Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 program in the new 120-seat Claire Tow, complementing the 1,000-plus-seat Vivian Beaumont and 299-seat Mitzi Newhouse theaters. The Tow (rhymes with “now”) is dedicated to producing new plays and capping prices at an audience-friendly $20.
Responding to a question about the $100-plus top price for Turner in the Cradle, Smith points to Arena’s several discount programs.
Last year, though, Smith told the Times, “The American public is scared of new plays today, which is why producers cast stars so the public will feel assured by the familiar. That can leave playwrights wondering about the future of new plays. So we’re trying, in a big way with a new building and with money, to see that new plays have a home here.”
The standing complaint among playwrights in America is they get commissions and lip service, but not productions. The problem was explored at length in The Gates of Opportunity, an in-depth nationwide study of the new-play sector funded by Mellon. The author of The Gates of Opportunity, which was the direct blueprint for much of what Mellon funded at Arena: David Dower.
“A sense of ‘gaming the language’ or ‘spin’ pervades the field,” Dower wrote. “Everyone wants to be perceived, to a greater or lesser extent, as an ‘artist-focused home for the development of new works by emerging voices.’ They design ‘workshops’ and ‘residencies.’ They fund activities that ‘develop’ plays.”
Rocky finances are commonly cited as complicating Arena’s current programming choices. As of this summer, Arena continued to carry $16 million of what could be called “expansion drag,” debt from the fundraising shortfall around the refurbishment.
In this, Arena is hardly alone. Recently the University of Chicago released its study Set in Stone, which starkly chronicles the debt and post-opening revenue shortfalls endured nationwide by new or expanded museums and performing arts complexes between 1994 and 2008. Of a timetable to retire the debt, Smith says, “We’re always hopeful.”
The current season is made up of recent New York hits, presentation of other companies’ works, and co-productions, like the current jukebox musical in the Kreeger, “One Night With Janis Joplin.” (Arena’s creative fingerprints are increasingly hard to divine beyond Smith’s revivals of such musical chestnuts as the recent “The Music Man” and next month’s “My Fair Lady.”) In a recent economizing move, the box office is now closed on Mondays.
Diane Ragsdale, a scholar researching nonprofit theater economics and a former Mellon program officer who oversaw the initial $1.1 million AVNPI grant to Arena, says of building expansions, “There’s often great promise made to communities about what will be delivered when it’s built. It’s rhetoric, but we assume it’s real. What has happened in more than one organization for sure is that the goals are compromised; it happens over and over again. . . . Look at the programming. That’s often the first thing that gets compromised.”
Jason Loewith is the executive director of the National New Play Network, which was involved with some early phases of AVNPI. He notes, “I’m not blaming Arena for anything that’s not happening around the country. It’s extremely hard to hold to that mission. I wish the stars had aligned differently to fill the Cradle with new plays. That was the dream.”
Last month Arena announced more reading and workshop initiatives in the Cradle, with Smith declaring Arena “a hothouse for new work.” Samuel D. Hunter, whose “A Bright New Boise” was a hit for Woolly Mammoth last season, has been added as a one-year resident.
The message from Smith is that the Cradle is active, the fruit of the residencies will be revealed in coming years, perhaps on Arena’s stages, but hopefully also well beyond Arena’s walls.
“I think the Cradle is in the process of becoming,” Smith says. “I think we’re in the process of evolving.”