Here’s something you probably don’t know about Molly Smith, the artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage: She’s a parallel-parking whiz. It’s not a talent to sneer at in a city that can be harder on automobile owners than it is on unconfirmed Supreme Court Justices.
One afternoon this past spring, in less time than it would have taken an ordinary citizen to say “Senate hearing,” Smith-–-a sturdy woman who lately favors a pixie haircut and red-and-purple cat glasses—aligned her silver Volkswagen Beetle with a curb in the city’s southwest sector. Her car gracefully positioned, the 58-year-old theatre leader popped coins in a meter and donned a fluorescent yellow hard-hat and matching vest that had been stashed in the Beetle’s interior.
“I have two of these,” she announced, indicating the hat, emblazoned with her name.
Protective headgear was de rigueur that afternoon. Smith was giving a reporter a tour of Arena’s renovated home: a jazzy, glass-swathed facility whose official name is Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. After nearly three years of construction, many more of planning and a $125-million fundraising campaign, the complex will open to the public next month with a production of Oklahoma!, directed by Smith herself.
Clutching a clipboard that displayed color swatches (she wanted to decide what shade some still-unfinished tables should be), the artistic director showed off various highlights of the new building, including the new Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, an oval 200-seat forum for just-hatched plays. Bing Thorn Architects, the firm that drastically redesigned the property, Arena’s home since 1961, has also spruced up the company’s two older spaces, the 514-seat Kreeger Theater and the in-the-round Fichandler Stage, which seats 683.
Connecting and embracing the three is a new lobby, whose tree-like pillars are made of recycled wood. “I think of them like totem poles,” remarked Smith, who spent 19 years as the founding artistic director of Perseverance Theatre in Douglas, Alaska—a state where such indigenous artworks appear with some frequency.
And what does she make of the new complex’s signature 35,000 square feet of glass? In Smith’s view, the transparency signals an inclusiveness that’s key to Arena’s identity.
“I wanted a building that would welcome the whole waterfront,” Smith says. “People will drive by and see all these activities and know: It’s theatre!”
As this comment implies, the souped-up facility is not just a brick-and-mortar upgrade for Arena. The Mead Center is, in some sense, a physical manifestation of the plans and ideals that Smith brought to the company when she took its helm in 1998.
“The building is inspired by her and her vision of what Arena could be, in so many ways,” says lead architect Thom, pointing for instance to the lobby where three sets of audiences can “collide” and “discover each other”—another kind of inclusiveness.
Just as significantly, the Kogod Cradle indirectly recognizes the pivotal development of Smith’s tenure: the focusing of Arena’s energies on American artists and American scripts. For nearly half a century after its 1950 founding by Thomas Fichandler, Edward Mangum and the now legendary Zelda Fichandler, the flagship regional theatre dabbled in everything from Shakespeare to Shaw to Slawomir Mrozek. With the ascension of Smith, the company homed in on native fare, including the kind of just-off-the-presses work the Kogod will nurture. (Every Tongue Confess, a world premiere by Marcus Gardley, will inaugurate the Kogod in November.)
In an interview before the hard-hat tour—sitting in her office at Arena’s temporary administrative quarters in Crystal City, Va., where a table once used in a production of Lisa Loomer’s The Waiting Room was serving as her desk—Smith recalled the epiphany that led her to tinker with Arena’s mission. During a meeting with the search committee seeking a replacement for artistic director Douglas C. Wager (who had succeeded Zelda Fichandler in 1991), committee members summed up what they saw as the theatre’s dilemma: “People were not sure what the stamp of Arena was,” Smith says, “because Arena for many years had had to be everything for everybody.” With the growth of D.C.’s variegated theatre community, that all-purpose mandate was no longer desirable.
After the job interview, Smith recalled, she was browsing in a bookstore. “These books started leaping off the shelves at me—all these American writers,” she remembers. “And I thought, that’s it! Arena needs to focus its life force on American voices.” After all, she points out, “Here we are in this nation’s capital. This is the place to which people travel to learn about America!”
Smith’s ties to D.C. stretch back to her college years. Her bond with Alaska—where she and her partner, Suzanne Blue Star Boy, are now building a cabin—dates back even further. Born in Yakima, Wash., Smith moved to Juneau with her family when she was 16, and the region got under her skin. Briefly a pre-law student at the University of Alaska, she realized at the age of 19 that what she really wanted to do was found a theatre in the state.
To equip herself for the task, Smith transferred to D.C.’s Catholic University—which her parents and sister had attended, and which is known for a robust drama department—to study theatre, and later enrolled in a graduate theatre program at American University. During her years in the nation’s capital, Smith volunteered at various small theatres, working as a box-office staffer, a script reader, a stage-management trainee, and so on—essentially creating her own internship. While at American, she also worked as a drama therapist at Saint Elizabeths Hospital, the historic psychiatric facility. “I worked with the chronics, the criminally insane, drug addicts,” she says. “I learned about the extremes in human nature—so that now nothing surprises me in the rehearsal hall.”
At Catholic, Smith met future playwright Paula Vogel, whose career would converge with her own; at American she met Joy Zinoman, who, after starting an acting school, engaged Smith for a while as a teacher. (Zinoman later co-founded and led D.C.’s Studio Theatre.)
But all the while, the 49th State was calling. After about seven years inside the Beltway, Smith accepted a present of a few dozen used theatre seats from a friend, and—in the company of visual artist Bill C. Ray, her husband at the time—drove west. Way west.
She launched Perseverance in Juneau in 1979 with Pure Gold, an original work about life in Alaska, drawing on interviews with 35 locals. “I actually thought it was going to be a bomb,” Smith confesses now, but the piece turned out to be a smash hit. “That event captured the imagination of Juneau,” remembers Bruce Botelho, the nearly lifelong Juneau resident who is now the city’s mayor.
On the heels of that success, Smith and her colleagues renovated an old bar on nearby Douglas Island, and Perseverance was on its way. “She did an incredible job energizing the community” to champion the theatre, says Botelho, commenting on a trait that others have also noticed—Smith’s flair for rallying audiences and supporters behind a new undertaking or idea.
Pure Gold was by no means the last Perseverance production to tap into regional traditions and talent during Smith’s tenure: Yup’ik Antigone drew on Native Alaskan myth to reinvent the Creek classic, and the festive King Island Christmas riffed on a tale from the Bering Sea, just to name two examples.
“I very much wanted to develop an Alaskan voice in theatre,” Smith says, drawing a connection between that early goal and Arena’s more recent concentration on U.S. artistic cadences. “I can see in my own life a real through-line,” she adds.
During Smith’s tenure at Perseverance, several Vogel plays, including the Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive, were developed there. All the while, the theatre was invigorating the local arts scene. According to Botelho, Perseverance was “important to creating that critical mass of the arts in Juneau,” he says. “The arts feed on themselves, in terms of that sustaining energy, and I think this was Molly’s vision. She could see [the need for] this at the outset.”
In the late 1990s, a headhunter called to sound Smith out about the Arena post, and, Smith says, she began to consider for the first time the possibility that she had concluded her Alaska work. As for her soon-to-be-citymates on the other side of the country, the passing of the Arena baton to Perseverance’s founder was something of a surprise to the D.C. community, recalls Victor Shargai, who serves as board chairman of the region’s Helen Hayes Awards. “Somebody coming all the way from Alaska!” Shargai exclaims, reliving the moment.
The Washington Post called Smith “a surprising and unconventional choice” for the post. Certainly, a lesser mortal might have quailed at the prospect of transitioning from a spunky young company like Perseverance (where, Smith recalls, the staff topped out at 10) to one of America’s oldest and most storied regional theatres—the first to transfer a production to Broadway; the first to win a regional-theatre Tony—with around 100 employees.
And then there was Fichandler’s legacy, which still loomed large. “That was Zelda’s theatre in absolutely every way,” says longtime observer Shargai, who thinks Smith’s steering of Arena into new waters has been “daring.” “What she has is guts—incredible guts,” he says admiringly.
Perhaps equally important to Smith’s work at Arena has been her ability to kindle the determination and enthusiasm of others.
“Molly is really one of the best leaders in terms of galvanizing a community and incorporating a community into her decision-making,” says Wendy C. Goldberg, formerly an artistic associate at Arena. Now the artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Goldberg remembers with admiration Smith’s handling of the “huge mission shift” as Arena became a forum specifically for American plays—including new American plays.
“She shifted the entire culture of the organization to understand what it means to work on a new play and what that sort of vulnerable moment is for an artist,” says Goldberg, who worked with Smith to found Arena’s Downstairs program, dedicated to readings and workshops of fledgling scripts.
With Smith guiding it, Arena mounted the newsworthy, belated premieres of Zora Neale Hurston’s Polk County in 2002 and Sophie Treadwell’s Intimations for Saxophone in 2005. Recent company accomplishments include luring Edward Albee to town in 2009 for rehearsals of his A Delicate Balance (an event that led to the scheduling of next season’s three-month Edward Albee Festival) and, in the spring of the same year, sending two award-winning productions, Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations and the musical Next to Normal, to Broadway. This year, a production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and starring Maurice Hines, became the best-selling offering in the company’s history.
Smith also takes particular pride in the company’s cultivation of a diverse audience–an effort that builds on Arena’s legacy as the first racially integrated theatre in Washington. She wants the company’s audience to “be a reflection of the city itself,” Smith says.
And she exudes optimism about Arena’s latest play-incubation initiative. In 2009, supported by a $1.1-million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Arena unveiled the American Voices New Play Institute, which, among other things, sponsors symposia and hosts residencies that provide the selected playwrights with salaries, health benefits and other perks. [See sidebar below.]
With the Institute’s inception, “Arena is no longer only a theatre—it is also an education center. It’s also a center for research and development,” Smith asserts. (She credits associate artistic director David Dower as a driving force behind the Institute.)
Considerably before this latest venture, though, Smith was exercising her own personal art-nurturing talents to significant effect, if several high-profile theatre figures are to be believed.
“She’s a visionary with new plays,” asserts Sarah Ruhl, whose three-part Passion Play premiered at Arena in 2005. Without Smith as director and true believer, the triptych would never have come together, Ruhl believes.
“I think people should really fight their way to get to work with her,” says Tom Kitt, composer of Next to Normal, which won Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize after its round of fine-tuning at Arena.
Randolph-Wright, who has often directed for Arena and who as a playwright debuted his scripts Blue and Cuttin’ Up there (he’s among the Institute’s first resident playwrights), says Smith supplies just the right mix of encouragement and distance, “pushing you to be your best, but also allowing you the freedom to fall on your face or soar—and I feel sometimes you can’t soar unless you fall on your face!”
Karen Zacarias, whose play Legacy of Light premiered at Arena in 2009, concurs. Smith’s support, she remarks, “was the perfect combination of being really caring” and “giving me space to breathe and make the work my own.” Zacarias, the Institute’s first resident playwright, posits that Smith “can have seven balls in the air and let all those balls hang for a while and completely concentrate on the person in front of her.”
Plus, there’s that genius for car-wrangling. “She can talk and hold a soy latte in one hand and parallel park!” Zacarias marvels.
Two days before the hard-hat tour, Smith even managed to stash her Beetle in the environs of Capitol Hill, where parking regulations verge on the draconian. In the company of a small group that included Janine Sobeck, Arena’s literary manager, she had an appointment to browse through the Library of Congress’s Rodgers and Hammerstein holdings, in preparation for staging Oklahoma!
Smith has plunged into directing musicals since arriving at Arena, and in doing so has experienced what she describes as an artistic “rebirth.”
“At Perseverance, I was saying, we will produce musicals, but I won’t direct them,” she remembers. “I was a child of the ’60s who thought that theatre was only serious” where straight plays were concerned.
But when Smith finally staged her first musical—a well-received mounting of South Pacific at Arena in 2002—she found herself suddenly smitten. “I realized how subversive the art form is—how you can say things in musicals that you can’t say in any other form because you’ll have people running out the aisles.” (Until Sophisticated Ladies, Smith’s South Pacific held Arena’s box-office record.)
Since then, she has taken Cabaret, Camelot and The Light in the Piazza, among other tuners, for a whirl. Balancing directorial duties with the responsibilities of an institutional leader “is a tightrope,” she admits, but she craves “artistic problem-solving” on a regular basis.
“I always have a secret I’m working on in everything I’m directing—something I think is maybe a problem area,” she says. “Nobody knows about it except for me, but as we work through the production, I make sure that that is my own small stretch of focus.”
She wasn’t giving out any hints as to her covert Oklahoma! enigma as she pored over the artifacts fetched by a Library of Congress staffer: maroon-bound scrapbooks containing press clippings; a manuscript of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” bearing the marks of Rodgers’s erasures; a page where a brainstorming Hammerstein had listed rhymes for “surrey” (“worry,” “arbitrary,” “chauffeury,” etc.); and more.
“Oh my God,” Smith murmured, looking at black-and-white photos of the original Oklahoma! production. She reached for a map Hammerstein had drawn to illustrate the geographical layout of the story. “Isn’t that cool!” she murmured. She took a digital photo.
“For me, it’s all about synthesizing information,” the director said two days later, summing up her research strategy. “So I’ll take in lots and lots of information.” She had, for instance, been studying Historic Photos of Oklahoma, a book she thought might help her craft a production with a bracingly “rough-hewn” aesthetic.
After all, she points out, the musical’s characters are familiar with the “toughness of existence.”
“These are people that, in the morning, they’d birth a calf!” she reasons.
And they’re people who would probably have shared a philosophy central to Smith’s outlook—a philosophy she absorbed early on, in Juneau, and subsequently carried, first to Perseverance, and then to Arena and the epic Mead Center project.
“If a front door is locked, go to the back door,” Smith says. “If the back door is locked, put a ladder up and climb in the window. If you can’t get in the window, go up to the roof and go through the chimney. When there are problems or challenges, make sure you try every single way and every single avenue to get through. I think that’s very Alaskan.”
Celia Wren writes regularly about theatre in the mid-Atlantic region. She is a former managing editor of this magazine.
Arena Welcomes Scribes Home
What tops a playwright’s wishlist?
Frequent visits from the muse, perhaps. But close behind for most are the ideas of financial security and a supportive theatrical home—in other words, control over their own artistic destiny.
For the coming three years, five playwrights—Amy Freed, Katori Hall, Lisa Kron, Charles Randolph-Wright and Karen Zacarias—are living the dream at Arena Stage. In August 2009, thanks to a million-dollar-plus grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the American Voices New Play Institute was launched at Arena, under the guidance of Molly Smith and associate artistic director David Dower. At that time, Zacarias was named the first playwright in residence. This summer, Freed and Kron joined her, and it was announced that Hall and Randoph-Wright will start their three-year residencies in January. The five writers receive:
* unencumbered time to pursue the projects they choose;
* at least one guaranteed production;
* a living-wage salary, health benefits and housing;
* an annual budget of $15,000 to cover collaborating artist fees and development expenses;
* the assistance of the Institute’s New Play Production Fellows;
* access to the theatre’s workspace, artistic meetings, partnership activities with Georgetown University, and “any other Arena Stage activities that draw their interest.”
In addition, also with Institute funding, Lynn Nottage and David Henry Hwang have begun work on commissions that Arena has pledged to assist and produce.
In the case of both residencies and commissions, budgets and development processes will be managed by the playwrights themselves. Their three-year journey will serve as an experimental model for similar residencies nationwide.
Proclaimed Smith when the playwrights’ names were announced: “These writers are so different; my mouth is literally watering at the thought of what each may write. Now the writers will have the time, support and finances to be able to do their best work.”
––Nicole Estvanik Taylor
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