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Molly Smith Enters a New Arena

The artistic director of Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage discusses the bright future of the acclaimed theater company.

Molly Smith
(© Scott Suchman)
2010 marks a new era for Washington D.C.'s beloved Arena Stage. It has just moved back to its home base, complete with new and renovated theaters; boasts a season line-up that includes a daring new production of Oklahoma!; the world premiere of Marcus Gardley's every tongue confess with Phylicia Rashad and Leslie Kritzer, and the D.C. premiere of Anna Deavere Smith's Let Me Down Easy -- not to mention, the yearlong support of President Barack Obama and first lady Michele Obama. TheaterMania recently spoke with artistic director Molly Smith about these exciting developments.

THEATERMANIA: Tell us about the new facilities at Arena and how they contribute to your overall vision of the theater.
MOLLY SMITH: Arena Stage reopens not as just a theater, but as a center for the production, presentation, development and study of American theater. The soaring new building is a physical manifestation of our expanded mission. We have lovingly restored the Fichandler and Kreeger theaters and added a third space -- the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, which will be used exclusively for the first, second and third productions of new work. The Mead Center also boasts a dedicated Education Center, which will be used to touch the lives of 20,000 area students each year, and a Study stocked with books on the American Theater.

TM: Why did you choose to kick off the season with Oklahoma!, which you have directed. What is about this show that appeals to you?
MS: Oklahoma! was an important pioneer in musical theater -- it was the first time that music and choreography were used to advance the story line. The plot focuses on people living on the edge of a brand new world; and Arena Stage is at a similar pioneering moment. To me, the opening of the Mead Center is a moment of great excitement as we move into the unknown future, and since Oklahoma! captures this spirit, it was a natural choice to inaugurate the new center.

TM: Can you talk about the non-traditional casting of the show? You have an African-American Laurey and Aunt Eller and a Hispanic Curly. Are audiences supposed to take this into account or are you aiming for a color-blind production?
MS: My idea was simple -- I wanted to create an Oklahoma that looks and feels like 1907 on the Frontier, which was a time when it was a robust territory, not a state. This Oklahoma was a place where no one knew what it would become, but they all were ready to move forward. There is an essential wildness about the place and people. African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans lived in Oklahoma at beginning of the 20th Century. They shared a territory, but lived in separate communities.

TM: Was there a particular challenge in putting this season together?
MS: Planning a season is always an exciting, frustrating, interesting process. This year, however, there was the added pressure of programming for a new center. Our inaugural season celebrates the tapestry of the American spirit; it showcases world premieres, visiting companies, and American giants and is as diverse as the country we represent.

Katori Hall and Amy Freed
(© Scott Suchman)
TM: Can you tell us about the importance of The American Voices New Play Institute?
MS: The American Voices New Play Institute is designed as a center for the research and development of effective new play and development practices; it echoes Arena's commitment to the production, presentation, development and study of American Theater. Over the next three years, we will have five resident playwrights: Amy Freed, Katori Hall, Lisa Kron, Charles Randolph-Wright, and Karen Zacarias. Arena is providing these artists with the resources to write and develop new or unfinished works -- including a full-time salary, health care and both administrative and production support. This level of support for artists is nearly unheard of, and Arena is pleased to lead the field in changing that.

TM: What is it like to have President and Mrs. Obama as the Honorary Chairs for this season?
MS: I am honored that President and First Lady Obama agreed to serve as Honorary Chairs, not only for the gala, but for the entire inaugural season. It's heartwarming to have a President in office that supports and enjoys the arts. The doors to Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater are always open to them.

TM How do you see the state of theater in Washington D.C. in general?
MS: Washington, D.C. is a wonderful theater town; there's no place that I'd rather be. There is something unique about being in the nation's capital, because this is a place where you can raise issues and where your voice will be heard.


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