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DC's Arena Stage opens $135M home with big plans

Part of the lobby of the new Mead Center for American Theater, on the waterfront in southwest Washington, which is Arena Stage's new facility, is seen in this photo taken Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010. Arena Stage, Washington's Tony Award-winning regional theater, is moving into its new $120 million home at the Meade Center for American Theater, which will anchor the city's southwest waterfront. Part of the lobby of the new Mead Center for American Theater, on the waterfront in southwest Washington, which is Arena Stage's new facility, is seen in this photo taken Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010. Arena Stage, Washington's Tony Award-winning regional theater, is moving into its new $120 million home at the Meade Center for American Theater, which will anchor the city's southwest waterfront. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
By Brett Zongker
Associated Press / October 28, 2010

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WASHINGTON—Explaining her vision for the newest theater in the nation's capital, artistic director Molly Smith showed architects the cup of her hands. Four years later, they have delivered a unique oval-shaped home for new works at Arena Stage.

The newest of three stages within Arena's $135-million Mead Center for American Theater is not the typical black-box theater hidden in a basement.

Instead, it's a centerpiece of Arena's reopening after a major renovation and marks a new chapter in a trailblazing history that began with its 1950 opening by founders who believed good theater could happen well beyond Broadway's lights.

Starting in November with the world premiere of the Marcus Gardley play "Every Tongue Confess" -- starring Phylicia Rashad -- this 200-seat "cradle" theater for new work will be key in recasting the 60-year-old theater as a leading creator of new American plays.

Arena -- located on Washington's southwest waterfront -- was the nation's first theater with an integrated acting company, the first in Washington with an integrated audience and the first regional theater to send a play to Broadway.

Now it's striving to make an even greater impact beyond the theater capital of New York.

"I had this realization that Washington, D.C., is the crossroads for American work," Smith said, noting the city's history and many museums. "People come here to learn about the culture."

One of Smith's most visible innovations is a new, three-year residency for playwrights who will be paid a living wage and benefits while they carry out their work.

Such a concept is almost unheard of, except for New York's Public Theater, which has a similar residency. Arena is giving the playwrights a budget and free range to guide projects to the stage.

"We all know there's a huge problem in the theater," Smith said. "Our best writers are going to television ... because the theater can't afford them a living salary."

Five resident playwrights are moving to Washington for the program funded by a $1.1 million gift from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Eventually, at least one of their new plays will come to life at Arena.

The first playwright to join the staff, Washington-based Karen Zacarias, said the city's "cool factor" already is rising as it draws writers from San Francisco, Memphis and elsewhere.

Arena has secured a Capitol Hill row house where resident playwrights can live and share ideas. Zacarias said she's thrilled by the residency and the new "gem" of a building with its basket-woven walls in the theater for new works.

"We can dream much bigger than we have in the past," she said, hopeful that other theaters could follow Arena's lead in employing playwrights. "I think it's going to have a huge ripple effect on the quantity, but more importantly, the quality of plays coming out in the next 10 years."

Arena's founders are credited with starting a resident theater movement that now numbers 1,900 theaters nationwide -- a network Arena can tap to highlight new work.

Smith arrived 12 years ago from the Perseverance Theatre in Alaska, which she founded. She has narrowed Arena's focus to working exclusively with American artists and American writers. That led to presenting more plays from other theaters -- and greater focus on fostering new works and theatrical study with university students.

"Even more than anything they put on stage, Arena's work in developing new plays and the conversation around them is what really impresses me," said National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman, a longtime Broadway producer.

Arena is known for its theater-in-the-round space, which is its largest theater and was kept during the overhaul. It opens this week with the musical "Oklahoma!" That theater's original 1960s architecture also was retained within a contemporary glass case that now holds the facility's three stages.

Vancouver-based architect Bing Thom calls his creation "three jewels in a jewel box."

Everything is housed on site -- costume shops, set shops and rehearsal halls -- with paths flowing back to the theater. "When a theater works well, it's a river," Smith explained. "The way it's been designed, all the tributaries move into the river."

New space and lofty goals mean Arena must increase fundraising. A budget of between $13 million and $14 million will have to grow closer to $20 million, and an eight-month season in the past will likely become year-round, Managing Director Edgar Dobie said.

That will require more individual donors, foundation support and corporate sponsors. A terrace off the glass lobby and other spaces with views of the Washington Monument can be rented by private groups. There's even a cafe by celebrity chef Jose Andres of TV's "Iron Chef America."

The center will partner with the National Endowment for the Arts New Play Development Program to broaden its reach beyond Washington. In January, it will showcase seven new works funded by the program.

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