Like so many other area theatres, Arena Stage has been closed since March. As luck would have it, they were set to celebrate their 70th Anniversary in May. Molly Smith has been the Artistic Director for over 20 years. Her imprint on Arena Stage and the D. C. Metro Area theatre community has been deep. Under her guidance, Arena Stage has become a prominent voice in not just regional theatre but the American stage. Many of its productions have gone on to Broadway and other nationally known venues. Several American playwrights have made their mark from their ties to Arena Stage.
I had a chance to interview Molly Smith recently. You will notice that this is really “A Quick 6.” I added another question due to the pandemic and our country’s overwhelming response to the George Floyd video which put the focus on our racial divides, not only in the United States but globally.
Molly Smith has served as Artistic Director since 1998. Her more than 30 directing credits at Arena Stage include “Carousel,” “Oliver!,” “The Originalist,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Camp David,” “Mother Courage and Her Children,” “Oklahoma!,” “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Great White Hope,” “The Music Man,” “Orpheus Descending,”
“Legacy of Light,” “The Women of Brewster Place,” “Cabaret,” “South Pacific,” “Agamemnon and His Daughters,” “All My Sons” and “How I Learned to Drive.” She most recently directed “Our Town” at Canada’s Shaw Festival. Her directorial work has also been seen at The Old Globe, Asolo Repertory, Berkeley Repertory, Trinity Repertory, Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, and Perseverance Theater in Juneau, Alaska, which she founded and ran from 1979-1998. Molly has been a leader in new play development for over 30 years. She is a great believer in first, second, and third productions of new work and has championed projects including “How I Learned to Drive,” “Passion Play, a cycle,” “Next to Normal,” and “Dear Evan Hansen.” She has worked alongside playwrights Sarah Ruhl, Paula Vogel, Wendy Wasserstein, Lawrence Wright, Karen Zacarías, John Murrell, Eric Coble, Charles Randolph-Wright, and many others. She led the re-invention of Arena Stage, focusing on the architecture and creation of the Mead Center for American Theater and positioning Arena Stage as a national center for American artists. During her time with the company, Arena Stage has workshopped more than 100 productions, produced 39 world premieres, staged numerous second and third productions, and been an important part of nurturing nine projects that went to Broadway. In 2014, Molly made her Broadway debut directing “The Velocity of Autumn,” following its critically acclaimed run at Arena Stage. She was awarded honorary doctorates from American University and Towson University.
Can you tell us a little about your background before you came to Arena Stage?
I was raised in Yakima, Washington until I was a teenager when my mother moved me and my sister to Alaska in search of a better job and adventure. At first, I was miserable, but I persevered and came to love it. I started college on a pre-law track. Then I traveled to Europe. When I was 18, my eyes were opened, and I realized I had to follow my heart into the theater. I decided to start a theater in Juneau. I moved to Washington, D.C., got my undergrad degree from Catholic University, and my MFA from American University – all the while (over seven years), planning the theater. I had this crazy unstoppable passion to go back to Alaska and form a theater company. I was given 100 red theater seats which we lugged (with the assistance of the U.S. military because my former husband was in the Navy after graduating from the Naval Academy) to Juneau. With the support of my family, friends, and a great community, Perseverance Theatre was born and thrived. We focused on local stories about Alaska at least once a year. We performed anywhere we could — airplane hangars, Quonset huts, church social halls, you name it.
What made you want to come to Washington, D.C. and Arena Stage, in particular, from Juneau, Alaska – two dramatically different cities?
I had been with Perseverance Theatre for 19 years, and the opportunity came up at Arena. I needed a larger stage, and I wanted a place and a theater where we could reflect world events instead of just focusing on plays. I was moving into filmmaking, and only this job at Arena Stage changed my mind. I’ve never turned back. Arena Stage has brought me so much – an amazing staff, Board, audiences, and a place where all my creativity and ideas would be realized.
How do you think you have changed Arena Stage since you arrived, and how has Arena Stage changed physically since you began?
My first initiative was to focus our work on American artists. This was a departure from the organization’s affection for classic American work and Eastern European work. I wanted to focus on American writers and American artists. At that time, most of my colleagues were looking overseas for their inspiration, and I wanted to shine a bright spotlight on our best and brightest. Washington, D.C. is a crossroads for American thinking, and I wanted Arena to be in the thick of it. Physically, we undertook a major renovation and expansion completed in 2010 with the Mead Center for American Theater. Designed by Bing Thom, the new center enveloped the Kreeger and Fichandler theaters with a very sexy glass wall and majestic wooden columns, and we added a third theater, the Kogod Cradle, to cradle new work and reinterpret American classics in an intimate space.
With the pandemic, Arena Stage, like every other theatre in the world, has had to put on the brakes and refocus. How has the pandemic affected Arena Stage in particular, and what are your short term and long-term goals to keep things going until you open again after theatres are allowed to safely open their doors?
Indeed, our art form is based on human interaction – on stage, back stage, and from the stage to the audience. However, early into the forced closure, I realized I was artistic director of online content also. We launched into an online season, with weekly and monthly short event content, creating two hour-long films, and building a summer season of classes and special events. We formed a health and safety committee that is putting together guidelines for how we can safely open the building when the restrictions are lifted.
What do you see for the future of theatre in general after we have a vaccine and things are calmer?
I’m still pondering this. There is no “going back to normal,” but I don’t know yet what the new theater looks like. We don’t have a vaccine for the common cold. So, I think we will need to learn to live with this virus in the safest way possible.
I know Arena Stage has dealt with racism in the past. Once you open, or even before, are you thinking of doing productions that will touch on the topic? Any in mind?
Arena has been fortunate to have a broad African-American audience – about a third of our audience – and we have always strived to have half of our season’s playwrights and directors be BIPOC or women. The shows that have been postponed from the 2019-20 season all represent this group: “Celia and Fidel” by Eduardo Machado (Cuban-American), “Seven Guitars” by August Wilson, and “Toni Stone” by Lydia Diamond.
To find out how Arena Stage is still serving their community during this time of Covid go to their “Looking Forward” page on their website. There are many online performances, a Master Class program, and even a Virtual Camp. Don’t miss “Inside Voices: A film by Arena Stage’s Vices of Now Ensemble.” I highly recommend this for young adults who are coping with isolation due to the pandemic and for adults who want to understand what the issues are for this age group. The film features a talented group of youthful performing artists. If you would like to contribute to Arena Stage, think of it as the price of a ticket or subscription to the future. You can donate by going to this link.