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Arena Stage narrows the hunt for a new leader as Smith chooses her final moves


After setting the dramatic agenda for a quarter of a century, Artistic Director Molly Smith decided her final season at Arena Stage should be a link between what has already happened in a major American theater and what is still possible.

“I really wanted to make sure the new artistic director had a great launch, and I also wanted to plant breadcrumbs throughout the season, which have a through line from other seasons,” she said.

So as Smith prepares to leave her ground-floor office July 1 on the Southwest Washington campus she’s redeveloped glitteringly, she’s mapped out a farewell roster for 2023-2024 of seven productions — with an eighth spot left for her successor to programming. The company reports that it is deep in the process of finding that person, who will be only the fourth to hold the top job in Arena’s 73-year history.

According to Arena executive director Edgar Dobie, the search committee sifted applicants down to a dozen. “And I think they want to be in a position that they’re aiming for at the end of March, beginning of April” to appoint a new artistic director, he added. Smith said she will interview four finalists, though she will not formally have a say in the decision.

In the meantime, Smith has chosen the plays that will make her definitive mark on the three-theater complex, housed under a soaring roof designed by the late architect Bing Thom. The lineup begins with Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” (July 18 – August 27); the Broadway-tested comedy “POTUS, or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” (October 13 – November 12); and “Swept Away” (November 25 – December 30), a new musical from the Avett Brothers and John Logan, directed by Michael Mayer. Completing the fall offerings is a return of Step Africa!’s “Magical Musical Holiday Step Show” (December 8-17).

Then in 2024 comes the world premiere of Kia Corthron’s “Tempestuous Elements” (February 16 – March 17), the 11th entry in the Smith-curated “Power Play” initiative, and “Unknown Soldier” (March 29 – May 5). ), a musical by Daniel Goldstein and the late Michael Friedman (the off-Broadway run ended abruptly in 2020 when the pandemic halted live performance). Last on Smith’s list is another piece from Step Afrika!, part of a five-year Arena residency: “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence” (June 6-July 14).

Smith, who arrived in 1998, described the slate as embodying aspects of her legacy, including her early decision to make Arena an outlet for American work; the company’s $135 million headquarters is called the Mead Center for American Theater. A new musical with commercial producers, a power play, and productions with roots in the DC community are all embedded in the new season, and they’re all linked to ideas central to Smith’s tenure.

As much as the next few months will be a farewell to Smith — a gala in her honor is scheduled for May 23 — it will also be a time for the new artistic director to learn the ropes. This means familiarizing yourself with a staff of 130 still recovering from the pandemic and lockdown. And revenue to support Arena’s budget, which Dobie estimated at $18 million to $20 million, has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. “Like most institutions, we are experiencing a new way of approaching life,” he said. “Not having a balanced budget every season, but taking a longer arc.”

In addition to adjusting to “planned shortfalls” for years to come, Arena also still has a hefty debt to the complex that it reopened more than a decade ago. That mortgage, Dobie said, is “just under $60 million.” Fortunately, we have built up cash reserves during the good years. It is manageable.”

“As we know, our new leader will be challenged to say the least,” said Beth Newburger Schwartz, a member of the Arena board of directors since 1993. “We have a theater world that is going through painful changes. The audience has changed, two years being closed has changed the way audiences view theater. As we say these days, “Seventy is the new 90,” meaning a show that fills 70 percent of the seats, not the pre-pandemic 90 percent, the new benchmark is for financial success.

“That changes the whole economic structure of the theater,” she added. “And I think our regional theater subscription model is questionable. We depended on our subscriber base, so we knew we had a certain number of seats to fill that weren’t taken, and we can’t do that very often anymore.

One of the newest trustees, Marc Blakeman, who joined the board in 2019, acknowledged that finding the right person could mean taking completely unexpected directions.

“Maybe we don’t know where to go,” he said. “Maybe they’ll be open to telling us their vision. Molly was not a known commodity when she came from Alaska” — she ran Juneau’s Perseverance Theater before her appointment to the Arena. “But she had a purpose and vision that were clear. She drew a line in the sand. I think that kind of bold leadership is what we really need to keep looking for.”

Indeed, theater is often at its best when it leads its audience in new directions, a phenomenon that “Ride the Cyclone” – the cult hit musical that just ended a highly successful run at Arena’s Kreeger Theater – exemplifies.

“We were concerned about our long-term subscribers, with something arguably designed for a younger audience,” Dobie said. The happy lesson for the future was that older cardholders seemed to appreciate it too.

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