Molly D. Smith has worked "from sea to shining sea" -- literally.
For the past 19 years the newly appointed artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., has run the Juneau, Alaska, Perseverence Theatre -- which she founded in 1979 and built into an institution that's today known for its cross-cultural programs.
But now Smith, 45, is bound for the U.S. capital. When she officially takes the reins on July 1 from longtime Arena Stage artistic director Douglas C. Wager, Smith will be returning to a city that holds many happy memories for her -- she attended Catholic University and went on to graduate school at American University, from which she received a master's degree in theatre.
It was during her salad days in D.C. that Smith began attending plays at Arena Stage, which was then under the artistic direction of its founder, Zelda Fichandler.
To this day Smith vividly recalls those early-1970s productions at the famed regional theatre. "My work at Perseverance has been very much influenced by Arena Stage," Smith said in a recent phone interview sandwiched between myriad meetings at the D.C. theatre. "I've always experienced Zelda Fichandler as the great mind of the American theatre."
It was while she was a student in D.C. that Smith met another 'great mind' of American theatre: the then-fledgling playwright Paula Vogel.
"Twenty-five years ago Paula and I sat together in the back of a classroom at Catholic University," said Smith, "and ours has been a relationship that has held together through time and space." Smith produced the world premiere workshops of Vogel's The Baltimore Waltz and The Mineola Twins at Perseverance and also directed Berkley Rep's current production of How I Learned to Drive (which runs through Feb. 27) -- and there is a "strong possibility" that How I Learned to Drive will be one of the two productions she will stage during her first season at Arena Stage. (Smith is slated to direct two of the eight mainstage productions next season.)
Audiences for the 1998-99 Arena Stage season can also expect to see "an American classic by Tennessee Williams" and a "large-scale American musical" (although at this point Smith said she could not be more specific about the lineup, which is still in the planning stages).
Unlike her predecessors, who put the focus on Eastern European and avant-garde works (Fichandler) and musicals and classics (Wager), Smith is looking for something more homespun.
"I plan to focus on America," said Smith. "After all, what do we go to Washington, D.C., for?"
Smith, who was born in Yakima, Washington, and moved to Alaska at the age of 16 with her mother and sister, said she is striving for Arena Stage to become a "great palette" that produces new plays, adaptations of novels and solo performance works.
She has no plans to start up a permanent resident company at Arena (the theatre's long-time resident company was disbanded in the mid-'90s), contending that "a loosely based company of performers as opposed to those on year-long contracts in some ways serves the needs of the artists more."
As for the "Old Vat," Arena's smaller and more intimate performing space, Smith would like to collaborate with theatre departments at neighboring colleges and universities (Catholic, American, Howard, University of Maryland et al) and use the space for workshops, solo performance artists, and "all kinds of other cross-fertilization."
"Theatre is a civilizing event," says Smith. "It's a place to argue, to discuss, and to have conversations...
"My strength as a leader is being inclusive -- listening to a lot of ideas. Where I live and breathe is in the realm of ideas."
-- By Rebecca Paller