Back in September, I traveled down to Washington to see the Arena Stage’s revival of its hit staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (see my report on ROT, 17 October). I might have gone down under any circumstances, but what clinched this deal was that the production, which was originally presented in October, November, and December of 2010, was the début production in the newly-rebuilt home theater of the venerable theater troupe, a complete reconstruction of its longtime home on 6th Street and Maine Avenue, S.W., near Washington’s waterfront. Arena, which was born in Washington soon after I was, has had a long history for an American regional theater company, one of the oldest in the country and highly-regarded as well. It’s been a part of my cultural life since I can remember, starting long before Washington had any kind of cultural identity, much less a theater rep.
Not too long ago theater in the Nation’s Capital meant a touring show at the National, whatever was at Arena Stage, and a college production at Catholic University. Occasionally a special treat, such as a visit from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, would come along. Otherwise, the choices were pretty limited, and, except for Arena, pretty tame. Not only has the landscape changed considerably since then, but it keeps changing as if there had been an earthquake under the Potomac. Current activity certainly proves that theater is alive and kicking in D.C. The strongest evidence that Washington acknowledged its own status back in 1985 and proclaimed it to the world was the inauguration of the Helen Hayes Awards to recognize outstanding artistic achievement in the city’s professional theater. The award was named after one of theater’s true queens, a native Washingtonian, and the planners gathered a varied group of presenters connected with Washington theater life for that first year: Robert Prosky, Bruce Weitz, Robert Foxworth, George Grizzard, and Linda Carter. Now, can a city that claims the First Lady of the American Stage as a native daughter be anything but a theater town at heart?
The Arena was founded in August 1950, before I even turned four, by Edward Mangum, a professor at George Washington University; Zelda Fichandler, who became the long-serving artistic director; and her husband, Thomas C. Fichandler, who was the executive director. At that time, theater in Washington was limited. The oldest playhouse, Ford’s Theatre, built in 1863 (after the original, converted from a church in 1861, burned in 1862), had ceased presenting plays after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln there on 14 April 1865, not to reopen as a theater until 1968; it has been essentially a booking house since then. The National Theatre, where pre- and post-Broadway productions were mounted, opened in 1835 (though the current building only dates from 1921); I saw many plays and musicals there as a youngster, either on their way to New York or on their way around the country after their Broadway runs, but its fare was exclusively commercial. As for original productions, the only other outlet was the theater department of Catholic University, whose renowned director, Father Gilbert V. Hartke, provided Washingtonians with excellent college-level productions of the classics and stage standards. During the summer, Hartke, the “show-biz priest,” ran the Olney Theatre (1938) in exurban Montgomery County, Maryland, which, in the ’50 and ‘60s, was countryside. The fare at Olney was the usual summer-stock shows that played across the country on the straw-hat circuit, fun but hardly exciting or innovative. Finally, there were the Lisner Auditorium (opened 1943), on the campus of G.W. University, and Carter Barron Amphitheatre (1950) in Rock Creek Park which both hosted tours that included theatrical productions (I saw the D’Oyly Carte present several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at the Lisner when I was small, for instance, and I saw my first Shakespeare play at the outdoor Carter Barron—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I believe) as well as other entertainments (Danny Kaye did a wonderful program for children at the Carter Barron back around 1956). The current Warner Theatre in downtown Washington, built as a movie theater in 1924, was converted for live performances in the ‘70s but didn’t present theatrical fare until 1992. When the Arena Stage joined the line up as the notion of regional theater spread across the country in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and, early ‘60s, part of the movement that produced Margo Jones’s Theatre ’47 in Dallas (1947), the Alley Theatre in Houston (1947), the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego (1947), the Coconut Grove Playhouse near Miami (1956), the Hartford Stage (1963), and the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis (1963), prospects for theater in Washington started to look up.
When the Arena began in 1950, there was little regional theater in the United States and no indigenous professional theater in the Nation’s Capital. Furthermore, audiences at the National Theatre in the ‘50s were still racially segregated, although black actors could perform on its stage. (A movement spearheaded by Helen Hayes, Washington Post reviewer Richard L. Coe, and Father Hartke failed to desegregate the National so in 1948 the activists persuaded Actors’ Equity members to refuse to play there. Rather than integrate, the theater’s management ceased presenting live theater until 1952, two years after the Arena began producing, when the National reopened to integrated audiences.) That was the cultural atmosphere into which the new theater venture, the first in Washington to play for a racially mixed audience, inserted itself.
The theater became the first non-profit company to transfer a production to Broadway when The Great White Hope moved to the Alvin Theatre in 1968 (having premièred at Arena the previous year). This feat has been followed by 15 other transfers, including Indians (1969), Moonchildren (1972), Zalmen or The Madness of God (1976), Tintypes (1980), Execution of Justice (1986), and the recent Tony-nominated (2009; it won for best score) and Pulitzer Prize-winning (2010) Next To Normal. (Zalmen had previously been broadcast on PBS in 1975 as part of Theater in America on Great Performances. In 1985, Arena’s presentation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Happy End was broadcast on PBS’s America’s Musical Theater.) Arena Stage became the first U.S. theater troupe to tour the Soviet Union, taking a repertory of Our Town and Inherit the Wind in 1973. In 1974, the renowned innovative Romanian director Liviu Ciulei (who died this past January) made his U.S. début at Arena with a staging of Georg Büchner’s Leonce and Lena; in 1987, exiled Russian director Yuri Lyubimov made his U.S. directorial début with his adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to great critical acclaim and attention. In 1976, Arena won the first Regional Theatre Tony.
The demonstrable success of the theater impelled other artists to found area theaters, giving Washingtonians a broad selection of theater sources. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the grand complex of theaters and concert halls that hosts both domestic and touring performances of dance, music, opera, and theater, opened in 1971, providing competition for the historic National. In 1970, the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill, which has a three-quarters-scale Elizabethan theater in its facility, began producing plays of Shakespeare’s period with the Folger Shakespeare Group. After reorganizing as an independent company called the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger in 1988, it moved downtown to the Lansburgh Theatre in 1992 and became the Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Since 2007, the STC has also operated the Sidney Harman Hall nearby.) A new company, the Folger Theatre, was formed in 1992 to perform on the Elizabethan stage. Today’s other outlets in the District include the Round House Theatre of Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland, started in 1973; the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which moved to Washington from New York City in 1980; the Studio Theatre, formed in 1988; the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, devoted to musicals old and new and founded in 1990; and Theatre J, a Jewish-oriented company housed at the Washington Jewish Community Center, founded in 1990. As Washington Post writer Peter Marks puts it, however, “While Ford's Theatre has more historical heft and the Kennedy Center is more firmly part of the national cultural consciousness, Arena has traditionally set the pulse in Washington for that pivotal theatrical concern, the crafting of the serious play.”
Arena’s first home was a former movie theater, the Hippodrome Theatre, opening there on 16 August 1950 with Oliver Goldsmith’s Restoration comedy She Stoops to Conquer directed by Edward Mangum. In 1956, after one dark season, the company moved into the converted “Hospitality Hall” of the old Heurich Brewery in Foggy Bottom (“The Old Vat”), demolished ironically to make way in part for the Kennedy Center. Its inaugural production at The Old Vat, named in reference to both the brewery equipment in their new facility and to Britain’s famed Old Vic, was Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge directed by Alan Schneider, opening on 7 November. The company opened its current location on the Potomac waterfront on 30 October 1961 with Schneider’s staging of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. Designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, the over-800-seat Arena Stage was the first theater-in-the-round conceived expressly for a resident acting company. The troupe’s name, obviously, came from the type of stage it used, an arena, or in-the-round stage. In 1971, however, the company added the 514-seat Kreeger Theatre, a proscenium house also designed by Weese, expanding not only the quantity of its productions but the variety of plays and stagings it could offer. The U.S. première of Peter Barnes’s The Ruling Class, staged by David William, inaugurated the new theater on 15 January. On 13 January 1976, the company opened the Old Vat Room, a 130-seat cabaret space in the converted rehearsal studio below the Kreeger (occupied for ten years by banjo-player and storyteller Stephen Wade’s solo Banjo Dancing and its sequel On the Way Home which ran for more than 2,300 performances after having been booked in 1981 for a three-week engagement). After Zelda Fichandler retired from active leadership of Arena in 1991 (in 1984, she’d been named chair of the graduate acting program of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University), the original theater-in-the-round was renamed the Fichandler Theatre in 1992, known as the Fich, in honor of Zelda and Tom Fichandler. (Tom Fichandler had retired in 1986 and died in 1997. Edward Mangum had left the theater in 1952 and died in 2001.)
When Zelda Fichandler moved on from Arena Stage’s leadership in 1991, her former assistant and a 17-year veteran of Arena, Douglas C. Wager, assumed the artistic directorship. He remained at that post until his resignation seven years later. Wager continued Fichandler’s interest in both new works and classics from around the world. In 1998, the Arena board hired Molly Smith, founding artistic director of Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre for 19 years, who refocused the theater’s mission to produce American works from the past and the present. Smith has also projected Arena’s focus into the future by starting a commissioning program for American playwrights as well as a development program for new scripts. In December 2007, Smith launched the New Play Development Program and the American Voices New Play Institute in Summer 2009.
In January 2008, the Arena broke ground on what would be a $135 million reconstruction of its home base in Southwest, opening it to the public in 2010 with a gala evening on 25 October featuring President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as honorary chairs and then-Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty and his wife Michelle Fenty as honorary co‐chairs. (In the interim, the company performed in several other local facilities, including Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, and the historic Lincoln Theatre on U Street, N.W., in downtown D.C., which, with its sister house, the Howard, have their own story about Washington performing arts to tell. I hope to present a précis of that illustrious history, which has a small connection with my family, in a subsequent article on ROT.) The new theater complex, designed by Bing Thom Architects of Vancouver, British Columbia, has been named Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre for philanthropists Gilbert and Jaylee Mead whose gift of $35 million is the largest single donation ever made to an American regional theater. (Gilbert Mead, who died in 2007, was a retired NASA physicist and the heir to a paper-manufacturing fortune. He and his wife, Jaylee, a NASA mathematician and astronomer, were longtime supporters of Washington-area theater. They were, in the parlance of show business, true Angels.) At a time when theaters and other arts organizations are drawing back on their capital outlays and reducing their budgets, Arena is one of the few in the country that ventured an immense investment in both its own future and the future of its community.
“The design of Arena Stage was inspired by Molly Smith’s desire for ‘a theater for all that is passionate, exuberant, profound, deep and dangerous in the American spirit,’” architect Bing Thom stated. In the Washington Post, Roger K. Lewis, a practicing architect and a former University of Maryland professor of architecture, writes that BTA had created “an aesthetically bold, sometimes theatrical, architectural ensemble” for the Arena’s new home. The new facility is 200,000 square feet in size, twice the size of the old theater, making it the largest regional theater in D.C. and the city’s second largest performing arts complex after the Kennedy Center. It houses three performance spaces sharing a common lobby with a graceful staircase linking the three theaters psychologically and physically. (In the old theater, the two main performance spaces were wings of the same building but had separate outdoor entrances with no public access from one to the other.)
The octagonal Fichandler Stage, seating 683 spectators, closely resembles the original arena theater, with its steeply raked seating separated by four aisles at the corners of the platform. The Fich’s stage has been updated with state-of-the-art technical equipment and a décor in dark maroon. Spectators are never more than eight rows above the stage, allowing the audience to be closer to the stage than before. The box seats are around the perimeter of the audience area as they were in the previous house, but they’re sealed off and covered by acoustic panels to improve sound within the space. The renovated Fichandler was inaugurated on 22 October 2010 with the opening of Molly Smith’s hit revival of Oklahoma!, the remounting of which I went to Washington to see this fall.
The 514-seat Kreeger Theater, a fan-shaped house decorated in deep blue, affords an intimate relation between actor and audience. With a modified thrust stage that’s also updated with current technology, it has excellent acoustics and sightlines. Named for David Lloyd Kreeger, the late Washington millionaire and arts patron who headed the GEICO insurance company, the Kreeger has ramps around its outer walls so that one critic characterized arriving at the theater as “intentionally reminiscent of entering a Richard Serra Cor-Ten steel sculpture.” The Kreeger Theater reopened with the Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project/The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, opening on 19 November 2010.
The Kogod Cradle, a new performance venue, is a unique, oval-shaped theater with flexible seating for 200 and the latest technical capabilities. This theater, named for philanthropists and culture patrons Robert P. and Arlene Smith Kogod, is designed to “cradle” productions of new and developing plays within its acoustically sound, wooden basket-weaved, eggplant-hued walls. The Cradle’s walls are covered with horizontal, black-stained poplar panels molded scientifically in a non-repeating pattern to neutralize the acoustical problems caused by the theater’s ovoid shape and the floor doesn’t touch the walls, but sits on 20 separate, shoebox-sized isolation pads to ensure acoustic separation. The first production at the new Kogod Cradle was Kenny Leon’s presentation of the world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s every tongue confess on 9 November 2010.
Essentially, everything was demolished except the shell of the old modernist brick-and-concrete structure that housed the Fichandler (the original 1961 theater) and the Kreeger. Everything else was to be reconceived, especially the lobby space, the source of most of the unhappiness with the old building for its inadequacy—and the fact that the Kreeger really had no lobby to speak of at all. The other common complaint was noise interference from airplane overflights out of National Airport and helicopters from the White House. Smith and the Arena board had contemplated moving to a location in Northwest Washington not far from the downtown home of the Shakespeare Theatre, but decided to stay in the theater’s Southwest home site. Rather than create separate facilities in a village-like configuration, the Arena leadership and BTA decided to tie all the new facilities, including extensive backstage augmentation, into one unified form. The three new theaters, the administrative offices, and the technical shops were all enveloped by the undulating glass curtain which also defeated the outside noise infiltration. (One major consideration for the whole project was soundlessness, both from outside and from within. All the materials and construction methods were carefully chosen to dampen sound production and reduce noise from equipment.) The whole structure is covered by a 475-foot-long, curved and cantilevered roof with a steeply angled tip pointing westward at the Washington Monument in what the architects call a “salute.” It also forms a dramatic landmark in Southwest that is otherwise mostly architecturally drab. One architecture critic called this gesture “the kind of big aesthetic move that Eero Saarinen might have made.” (Saarinen, the Finnish-born American architect, designed, among other famous buildings, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, as well as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.) From the street front, the glass panels of the “curtain wall,” hung from the roof and tilted slightly outward at the top, allow the inner structure to be visible—a particular delight at night with the interior lit up—an inspiration the designers took from the transparency of jellyfish. The 45-foot-tall, ground-to-roof glass wall also makes the roof seem to hover in the air like a flying carpet.
The steel roof structure is supported by 18 elliptical wooden columns to which are also attached the wooden struts that brace the glass curtain wall. (The wood-and-glass construction, according to BTA, is unique in Washington and rare anywhere in the country.) From the inside of the Mead Center, the 45-to-55-foot-high pillars look like masts, making the lobby feel a little like the deck of sailing ship. (On the other hand, the curved wood-and-concrete walls and broad, sweeping staircases also made me feel as if I’d gotten inside a grounded spacecraft.)
The Mead Center has more spaces than the old theater for artists, staff, and board members to permit access of one by the others easier. All under one roof for the first time are the state-of-the-art costume and scene shops as well as the administrative offices, education spaces, and rehearsal halls. In fact, the designers intermingled the administrative offices with the workshops and performance spaces so that all the people who make the theater run are within view of one another’s working areas. Furthermore, the shops are visible from the street and the “kitchen,” where the staff and performers relax and mingle, can be seen from the lobby.
Practicality and convenience play a role in the new Arena as well. Instead of the old, limited parking lot next to the theater, so small that other, nearby lots for apartment and office buildings were usurped by theatergoers when street parking, problematical in the neighborhood under any circumstances, wasn’t available, has been replaced by a relatively large underground garage beneath the new structure. (Access in rain or snow doesn’t require going outside to go from car to theater or vice versa.) Replacing what amounted to overgrown concession stands for before-curtain repasts is the large, open Catwalk Café overlooking the new lobby. Even the habitual complaint of theatergoers worldwide has been addressed: there are an increased number of restrooms at the Mead Center, especially for women. Furthermore, BTA paid close attention to technological concerns by creating efficient interior temperature zones and incorporating a chemical‐free water treatment system. The entire structure is wheelchair accessible, of course.
Praise for the new building was forthcoming from preservationists and architecture critics alike, such as the chair of Washington’s Historic Preservation Review Board, Tersh Boarsberg, who said, “It’s exemplary . . . the architecture is unique and different, and imaginative and forceful,” and Ben Forgey, former architecture critic for the Washington Post, who wrote, “People will come to look at, as well as be in, this building. Its transparency will be compelling day or night.” Asserts architect Lewis, “There are two compelling reasons to visit Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater: the theatrical productions and the wonderful new work of iconic modern architecture that preserves and envelops the older modern architecture.” Approved by the District’s Board of Zoning Adjustments and twice by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the Mead Center was named one of the ten best new buildings in Washington by the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit research and education organization that advocates progressive land development.