The last 20 years at Arena Stage could be called the years of Molly Smith. Since she began, although the quality of the productions remained high, the focus changed to American musicals and plays. She also tried to include what they call Power Plays, or those that focus on politics and social issues. Arena also saw the expansion of the complex and more renovations are planned. The area around the complex has also changed since the early days. Restaurants and other arts facilities have either opened or are being built along the pier.
Since Smith came on board, the theater has hosted numerous resident artists, including playwrights Amy Freed, Katori Hall, Lis Kron, Charles Randolph-Wright, Karen Zacarias, Samuel D. Hunter, Lydia R. Diamond, John Strand, Ayad Akhtar, mixed reality artist Patty Rangel, and movement director and intimacy advisor, Samantha Egle. Arena broke box office records in 2003 with the critically acclaimed, “South Pacific.”In 2008, “Next to Normal” got a second production before heading to Broadway.
Edgar Dobie became the new managing director in 2009. The production “33 Variations” also went to Broadway with actress Jane Fonda. Both “Next to Normal” and “33 Variations” (Best Scenic Design) were nominated for several Tony Awards. “Next to Normal” was nominated for 11 Tonys and won three – Best Original Score, Best Orchestration, and Best Performance of a Leading Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming the eighth musical in history to receive the honor. Arena was also awarded a grant from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to launch American Voices New Play Institute.
The Mead Center opened in 2010 with the production “Oklahoma!” directed by Smith. Then in 2011, with some of the original Broadway cast, the Tony award-winner, “The Normal Heart,” by Larry Kramer and directed by George C. Wolfe, opened to coincide with the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.
Again moving to Broadway, in partnership with Steppenwolf Theatre Company, was the production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which opened at Arena in 2013. Critically acclaimed and also Broadway bound, “A Night with Janis Joplin” returned to Arena and a “A Time to Kill” also opened that year.
“The Velocity of Autumn” directed by Smith went to Broadway in 2014 with Molly at the helm after it’s run at Arena. Smith would also direct “Fiddler on the Roof” that year to commemorate the show’s 50th Anniversary.
2015 was a year to remember. It a marked the production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which became a landmark musical when it opened on Broadway the following year after playing to sellout crowds in D.C. After winning three Helen Hayes Awards here, it won six Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Performance by a Leading Actor (Ben Platt), Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role and Best Orchestration.
2016 marked the debut of Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” which opened on Broadway the following year and won a Pulitzer for Drama.
Molly Smith would mark her 20th year in 2017. She would direct three power plays that year – “The Originalist” by John Strand, based on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and starring four time Helen Hayes winner, Edward Gero; “Sovereignty” by Mary Kathryn Nagle that focused on the struggles of Native Americans; and “Snow Child” (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) by Strand with music by Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt and lyrics by Georgia Stitt. In addition, Arena produced “The Great Society” which dealt with the life of LBJ, written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Kyle Donnelly, and August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” directed by Juliette Carrillo in co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre which focused on the Civil Rights Movement in 1969.
The next season had two huge productions and three world premieres. “Dave,” taken from the movie by the same name, premiered with the book by Thomas Meehan and Nell Benjamin, music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, and directed by Tina Landau with an award-winning team. It was headed for Broadway before the epidemic hit. “Jubilee” followed the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African American a cappella ensemble that broke down racial barriers here and abroad. It was written and directed by Tazewell Thompson with vocal arrangements, music, and direction by Diane Adams McDowell. The power play was “JQA” written and directed by Aaron Posner which is a portrait of John Quincy Adams and other historically important Americans. Arena also presented “Turn Me Loose,” about the comedian and black activist, Dick Gregory, written by Gretchen Law and directed by John Gould Rubin and Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” directed by Smith.
Little did they know that 2019-2020 would be a season shortened by a worldwide epidemic. It would start with “Ann,” written by and starring Holland Taylor and directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven, which recalls the political life of Governor Ann Richards of Texas. (The production was recorded by PBS and it is streaming on their website until Jul 17, 2020). IT was followed by August’s Wilson “Jitney,” directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. It had won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. The season included the world premiere of “Right to be Forgotten” by Sharyn Rothstein and directed by Seema Sueko. “Disney’s Newsies,” directed by Smith, was a crowd-pleasing musical. “Dear Jack, Dear Louis,” a World War II romance, was written by Ken Ludwig and directed by Jackie Maxwell. The season ended with “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini about women in Afghanistan living under the Taliban. It was adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma and directed by Carey Perloff. Finally “Mother Road,” referencing John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” focused on the plight of Latin American migrants in the western states. It was written by Octavio Solis and directed by Bill Rauch. The world premiere of “Celia and Fidel” – a look at the Cuban leader and his political partner, Celia Sanchez, written by Eduardo Machado and directed by Smith – never opened. Hopefully, we will get to see it soon.
The regional, Washington, D.C. theatre has won many accolades for its work. In 2002, it was awarded the Mayor’s Arts Award for Excellence in an Artistic Discipline. In 2008, Arena received The Washington Post Award for Innovative Leadership in the Theatre Community. Arena Stage also won multiple Helen Hayes Awards: 2000 – “Animal Crackers” (2); 2001 – “Dinah Was” and “Blue;” 2002 – “Blues in the Night” (2); 2003 – “South Pacific” and Charles MacArthur Awards for Outstanding New Musical for “Polk County;” 2004 – “Camelot,” “Crowns,” with Regina Taylor (4), and “Shakespeare in Hollywood” (2) plus the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical; 2005 – “Hallelujah Baby” and “Señor Discretion Himself;” 2006 – “Damn Yankees;” 2007 – “The Rainmaker” and “Cabaret;” 2009 – “Next to Normal” (3); 2010 – “The Fantasticks;” 2011 –“Oklahoma!” (4); 2012 – “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?” and “Ruined;” 2013 – “Red” and “Pullman Porter Blues;” 2014 – “Mary T & Lizzy K” and Mountaintop;” 2015 – “Mother Courage and Her Children;” 2016 – “Dear Evan Hanson” (2) and “Destiny of Desire;” 2017 – “Carousel” and “Sweat;” 2018 – “Pajama Game” (2) and “A Raisin the Sun;” and 2019 – “Anything Goes” (4), “Dave,” and “Indecent.”
In 2002, Arena retired the Living Stage program and inaugurated the Community Engagement program, reaching out to thousands of young people in the Metro area. Always connecting to the community and young artists, they launched Camp Arena Stage in 2005 The same year they created the Writer’s Council. In 2012, as part of American Voices New Play Institute, Arena launched the Kogod Cradle Series, giving an intimate site for new and emerging works. The following year the theater would start the Playwrights’ Arena for local playwrights and would be one of seven companies to launch “Women’s Voices Theater Festival” in 2015. In 2017, Power Plays began. It is an initiative that will commission 25 new plays focused on politics and power through 2026.
Construction began in 2008 on the Mead Center, named for Gilbert and Jaylee Mead whose generosity make it possible. The Center opened in 2010.
Arena would reach out to other countries as well, India, Croatia, Peru, and Slovenia.
As the pandemic reached their doors, Molly Smith, Edgar Dobie (Executive Producer and President of the Corporation), and the Arena staff developed an online presence with a variety of virtual offerings: Masterclasses; Molly’s Salon, featuring conversations from some of their best thinkers and creative firebrands; Broadway Dance Class with Parker Esse; and Civil Dialogues. They also produced “May 22, 2020,” a filmed docudrama directed by Smith capturing one day in the region, and “Inside Voices: A Film by Arena Stage’s Voices of Now Ensembles.” There is even a virtual camp this summer. Arena’s senior staff includes Joseph Beradelli, Chief Financial Officer; Khady Kamara, Managing Director; Jackie Rucker Bohi, Director of Human Resources; Anita Maynard-Losh, Director of Community Engagement and Senior Artistic Advisor; and Seema Sueko, Deputy Artistic Director. S. Decker Anstrom is Chair of the Board of Directors.
We will await their opening and hope the next decade is a bright as the first seven.
Meanwhile to help Arena Stage continue as a creative force our area think about making a donation. When they reopen, go to their website to see their line-up for the new season and click on their link to find more about virtual events.
Thanks to Renee Littleton for her help with Part II.
To see Part I of this story, go to our link.
To find out more about Molly Smith, go to our interview.