“We’re a theatre that focuses on American ideas, American plays, and American artists. I like to think that Arena has broad shoulders—from a great American musical to a one-person play. We commission works. We delve into the classics. It’s important to me to show the full complexity of the American stage.”
That’s Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., talking about her primary goals. She has been leading Arena since 1998, presenting more than 39 world premieres and helping nurture nine Broadway projects, including this season’s hit musical Dear Evan Hansen and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which began previews March 4.
Smith recently announced Arena’s new Power Plays Initiative, with the goal of commissioning and developing 25 new plays and musicals in ten years. In keeping with Arena’s D.C. location, the concentration will be on politics and power. Each work will deal with one decade of American history—one play or musical per decade—from 1776 to today. The all-American playwrights will include the relatively new and the veterans, among them Rajiv Joseph, Eve Ensler, Sarah Ruhl, Jacqueline E. Lawton, and John Strand.
“It’s right in the sweet spot of what we do,” Smith says, adding that she has been thinking for a long time about D.C.’s singular voice in theatre. “Washington is the crossroads of America. We’re the capital city, where all three parts of government live. We live, eat, sleep politics from the time we wake up in the morning until we go to bed. That is our D.C. voice.”
Onstage through April 9 as part of the Power Plays Initiative is Lawton’s Intelligence, based on the true story of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, whose covert identity was revealed in connection with the Iraq War.
Smith says another Arena goal is “diversity and parity”—because “that’s the world we live in.” This season includes seven titles by women, six playwrights of color, and six female directors. It also featured a festival for playwright Lillian Hellman—“an American giant,” Smith says—including The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine, three staged readings, a community-wide reading of her memoir Pentimento, and two panel discussions about “Lillian Hellman, the revolutionary.”
In keeping with that theme of diversity, next up is a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (March 31–May 7), followed by Smart People by Lydia R. Diamond (Stick Fly), which played Second Stage last year, about researching the brain’s reaction to race.
Planning a season, Smith says, “takes two to five years. We take a long view because we do commissioning, sometimes work with commercial organizations and often work on co-productions. People scout projects, scout writers around the country. We have many relationships with artists, who bring us projects. We usually start our season planning with about 20 potential projects. It’s winnowed down to about ten a year. Then it goes through the budgeting process, and we see how much we’re able to do.”
Smith says the Power Plays Initiative is the “artistic vision” driving Arena’s future. “Many experts who have deep knowledge on these subjects live in this area. That’s something almost no other city in the U.S. has, and part of what makes the cycle powerful.”