Smith, a surprising and unconventional choice, will be only the third person to run the 47-year history of the company, long considered one of the most influential theaters in the country. Although she will begin immediately planning the shape and content of the 1998-99 season, she will not take over the post officially until July 1, when Arena's current artistic director, Douglas C. Wager, steps down.
"Arena Stage has a rich bloodline, like a beautiful racehorse," Smith said. "Some of the best people in the country and in the world have worked there. I want very much to be a part of that bloodline."
The appointment ends a yearlong search for a new artistic leader to revitalize Arena Stage, which has seen some of its luster dim in the 1990s. Smith, 45, a little-known figure even in theatrical circles, was selected over some 50 candidates, including several with national reputations.
"Molly Smith is not a household name, and some members of the board wanted a star," acknowledged lawyer Riley Temple, former president of Arena's board, who headed the 10-member search committee. But he said that in a series of meetings over the past few months, Smith impressed the committee as "a true visionary, who stood head and shoulders above everyone else."
Besides looking for someone who could maintain Arena's artistic standards, the board wanted a dynamic figurehead. Smith has been described by a colleague as "a Pied Piper who can get people to jump off cliffs for her," and her skills as a communicator counted strongly in her favor.
Smith founded Perseverance Theatre in 1979 in her home town, Juneau, a city of 28,000 that is inaccessible by road. The theater was named for the quality Smith thought most necessary for survival in a frontier state, and also for a gold mine in the area. She has since built it into an adventurous institution with a full-time staff of seven and an annual budget that hovers around $600,000. Arena's budget, by comparison, is $10 million, and it employs a full-time staff of 90.
Defining itself as "an artist-driven theater rooted in the community," Perseverance produces five contemporary and classic plays a season in a 150-seat auditorium, and a wide range of experimental fare in a smaller rehearsal space. It draws heavily on the local populace for its performers and volunteer help has been a significant factor in its success. The troupe has toured extensively to fishing villages, logging camps and mining towns in the farthest reaches of the state — traveling sometimes by ferry, sometimes by small plane — often in the dead of the arctic winter.
Smith's selection generated outright surprise in some quarters yesterday. "I don't think I would ever have guessed Molly, although I think it's a fabulous choice," commented Leslie Jacobson, the artistic director of Washington's Horizons Theatre, where Smith did some of her early directing in the 1970s. "Arena must be looking for a big-time change."
Paula Vogel, the Washington-born playwright ("How I Learned to Drive," "The Baltimore Waltz"), noted that "Molly is definitely not one of the same-old, same-old institutional figures Arena could have gone with."
What impact Smith would have on Arena Stage is conjectural at this point. But she is likely to downplay British and European theater traditions in favor of works from "the Americas," by which she means the United States, Canada and Latin America. "Most of my colleagues are always talking about going to England to see the latest plays, instead of looking at the diversity in our own back yards," she noted. At Perseverance, she has made a concerted effort to develop original plays by native Alaskan writers and train indigenous artists. Among her proposals to the Arena board was a plan to use the Old Vat Room, a cabaret space in the Arena complex, to develop and showcase the best student playwrights from the area's colleges and universities.
Perseverance Theatre came briefly to national attention in 1984 with ". . . A true visionary, who stood head and shoulders above everyone else."
"Yup'ik Antigone," a retelling of the Greek tragedy from an Eskimo perspective. The production, acted by tribal elders in the Yup'ik language, traveled to New York City, France and Greece. Although the bulk of Smith's theatrical work has taken place in Alaska, she has staged plays for Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I., and the Taragon Theater in Toronto. "Brides of the Moon," a sci-fi spoof starring a quintet of actresses billed as the Five Lesbian Brothers, opens under her direction next week off-off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop.
After a seven-year tenure as artistic director, Wager will leave the position at the end of the season to pursue an independent career in directing. At Arena he enjoyed significant success with such plays as "Arcadia," "The Odyssey" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (for which he won a Helen Hayes Award). Rising costs and shrinking revenues, however, forced him at one point to downsize the theater's operations by 20 percent and dissolve the resident acting company, long one of Arena's glories.
"Doug kept alive the creative spirit of the institution during a difficult time," said Zelda Fichandler, Arena's co-founder and its artistic director until 1991. While noting that Smith would have to adjust to a considerably larger organization than the one she is running, Fichandler said, "I am sure she will move the institution forward and make it her own. She's a very intrepid woman."
Besides her theater credits, Smith has directed two independent films — "Raven's Blood," a detective story adapted from a novel by her sister; and "Making Contact," a comedy about people drifting toward middle age and the millennium. Neither has been released nationally, although "Raven's Blood" has had screenings in Alaska.
Smith said film was an area she would like to explore with Arena actors and technicians in the future.
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