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Arena Stage narrows hunt for new leader as Smith picks her final plays

Board of acclaimed D.C. theater plans to announce successor to artistic director Molly Smith soon; her 2023-2024 slate includes new musicals and plays

Molly Smith is planning her last season at Arena Stage, in anticipation of her retirement July 1. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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After a quarter-century of setting the dramatic agenda, artistic director Molly Smith decided her last season at Arena Stage should be a link between what’s already happened at a major American theater and what’s still possible.

“I wanted to really ensure that the new artistic director had a great launch, and I also wanted to plant breadcrumbs throughout the season that have a through line from other seasons,” she said.

So as Smith prepares to vacate her ground-floor office July 1 on the Southwest Washington campus she glitteringly redeveloped, she has mapped out a 2023-2024 valedictory roster of seven productions — with an eighth slot left vacant for her successor to program. The company reports that it is deep into the process of finding that person, who will be only the fourth to hold the top job in Arena’s 73-year history.

According to Edgar Dobie, Arena’s executive producer, the search committee has winnowed the applicants to a dozen. “And I think they want to be in a position where they’re aiming for late March, early April” to name a new artistic director, he added. Smith said she will interview four finalists, although she gets no formal say in the decision.

In the meantime, Smith has picked the plays that will leave her final imprint on the three-theater complex, housed under a towering roof designed by the late architect Bing Thom. The lineup starts with Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” (July 18-Aug. 27); the Broadway-tested comedy “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” (Oct. 13-Nov. 12); and “Swept Away” (Nov. 25-Dec. 30), a new musical by the Avett Brothers and John Logan, to be directed by Michael Mayer. Completing the fall offerings is a return of Step Afrika!’s “Magical Musical Holiday Step Show” (Dec. 8-17).

Then in 2024 comes the world premiere of Kia Corthron’s “Tempestuous Elements” (Feb. 16-March 17), which is the 11th entry in the Smith-curated “Power Play” initiative, and “Unknown Soldier” (March 29-May 5), a musical by Daniel Goldstein and the late Michael Friedman. (Its off-Broadway run abruptly ended in 2020 when the pandemic shut down live performance.) Last on Smith’s list is another piece by Step Afrika!, part of a five-year Arena residency: “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence” (June 6-July 14).

Smith, who arrived in 1998, described the slate as embodying aspects of her legacy, including her early decision to make Arena an outlet for American work; the company’s $135 million headquarters is called the Mead Center for American Theater. A new musical with commercial producers attached, a power play and productions with roots in the D.C. community are all embedded in the new season, and all are linked to ideas central to Smith’s tenure.

As much as the next few months will be a farewell for Smith — a gala honoring her is set for May 23 — it will also be a time when the new artistic director is learning the ropes. This will entail becoming familiar with a staff of 130 that is still rebounding from the effects of the pandemic and the shutdowns. And the revenue to support Arena’s budget, which Dobie put at $18 million to $20 million, isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels. “Like most institutions, we are experiencing a new way of approaching life,” he said. “Not having a balanced budget every season but taking a longer arc.”

Along with adjusting to “planned deficits” for the next few years, Arena also still carries a hefty debt on the complex it reopened more than a decade ago. That mortgage, Dobie said, is “a little under $60 million. Happily, we built cash reserves during the fat years. It’s manageable.”

“As we know, our new leader is going to be challenged, to say the least,” said Beth Newburger Schwartz, a member of Arena’s Board of Trustees since 1993. “We have a theater world that is going through painful changes. Audiences have changed; two years of being closed have changed the way audiences look at theater. As we’re saying these days, ‘Seventy is the new 90,’” meaning that a show that fills 70 percent of seats, not the pre-pandemic 90 percent, is the new measure of financial success.

“That changes the whole economic structure of theater,” she added. “And I think for regional theaters, our subscription model is questionable. We depended on our subscriber base so we knew we had a certain number of seats to fill that weren’t filled, and we can’t do that as much anymore.”

One of the newest trustees, Marc Blakeman, who joined the board in 2019, acknowledged that finding the right person might mean going in entirely unanticipated directions.

“Maybe we don’t know where we need to go,” he said. “Maybe it’s being open to them telling us their vision. Molly was not a known commodity when she came from Alaska.” (She ran Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre before her Arena appointment.) “But she had a purpose and vision that were clear. She drew a line in the sand. I think that kind of bold leadership is what we really need to continue to look for.”

Indeed, theater is often at its best when taking its audiences in new directions, a phenomenon that “Ride the Cyclone” — the cult hit musical that just ended a highly successful run in Arena’s Kreeger Theater — exemplifies.

“We were worried about our long-standing subscribers, with something that was designed arguably for a younger audience,” Dobie said. The happy lesson for the future was that older ticket holders seemed to appreciate it, too.