When Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater opened in 2010, people immediately marveled at the scale and design of the architecture. Our vibrant Washington, D.C. theatre was reborn—again. Through its storied history, Arena has performed in multiple venues. From the old Christian Heurich Brewery (where the Kennedy Center now stands) to the building at 6th and Maine, to temporary spaces in Crystal City and Lincoln Theater, Arena Stage performances have graced many parts of D.C. and even Arlington, Virginia. Arena has been connecting the people of the capitol years before John F. Kennedy would even be President of the United States.
The Mead Center exploded our presence in the Southwest D.C. neighborhood and, 10 years later, the district has grown in epic proportions. But I remember back when we first opened—when people were curious to see this iteration of Arena Stage—and they spilled into the newly dedicated building in droves for tours. I was one of the staff who showed up to meet them.
When the costume shop at Arena Stage welcomes guests, I do my best to let them enter this room and simply take it in. Part fitting space, part storage space, part atelier, and part office, this space always seems to inspire visitors. Perhaps it is the promise of creativity in all of the sketches, the textiles, the dress forms, and the sewing machines. People comment on the room with its beautiful windows and natural light. They marvel at the gowns on the mannequins. They notice all of the boxes of accessories and the jewelry hanging on the walls. They are full of questions.
But, I ask visitors to view the room from a different perspective. The true beauty of the costume shop is not the room itself but the people working within it.
I ask visitors to see the shop as the workers who activate it.
And, boy, do my colleagues know how to activate that room. Perhaps you have seen their work onstage? When I see their work, it’s impossible not to see them. They are masters.
Regional theatre is special because those masters make theatre in our own cities for our own audiences. Sure, sometimes those shows move on to other parts of the country (think Dear Evan Hansen, Next to Normal, or even The Originalist), but for the most part we aim to make and present shows locally. It's as close to "farm-to-table" that theatre can get. Artisans employed at Arena Stage help make theatre in our own city.
All of a sudden, the magic of the Mead Center for American Theater starts to make sense. We are all artisans under one magnificent roof—an architectural marvel, but its power shelters the accomplished and tenured staff. Every employee at Arena Stage, whether in administration, communications, front of house, production, or community engagement works tirelessly to bring stories to life that move and grow through our community. It's for us.
There has never been a more pressing time to consider us.
Working in the arts means not fearing our emotions. I've learned that the hard way over the years. In a year fraught with change, uncertainty, and emotion, I've been thinking about crying a lot. The idea of catharsis taught by Aristotle has a component of humanizing tragedy. These days we contemplate humanity every day.
Tears are certain and necessary, though it’s not easy to see anyone cry. To be honest, the last time I cried at work was watching the cast of Newsies tap dance at the top of Act II.
My family was in the audience and I stood in the back of our Fichandler Stage—as I have done for multiple shows. By that point, I had seen this production many times, but I couldn’t resist another opportunity to see the cast perform “King of New York.” As I watched this epic number with such a prodigious solo performance by Luke Spring, I was moved to tears. Luke’s tapping was unlike anything I have seen, and I just started tearing up. At exactly that moment, Luke tapped the tap right off of his shoe! My tears stopped as instinct took me backstage to him and Alice Hawfield, Arena’s wardrobe supervisor, as he exited the stage with his toe tap in hand. Imagine their surprise when I showed up.
This repair was beyond a simple fix and my experience. I called master cobbler Don Roderigo Restrepo at Old Town Shoe and Luggage Repair for an emergency repair. He rebuilt the whole shoe by that evening’s performance. Major shoe reconstruction wasn’t exactly what either of us had planned on a Saturday night, but Luke’s performance brought so much joy to so many people I understood it as an imperative.
Community artisans like Don Roderigo have never turned me away. (There have been mornings when I have shown up at his doorstep at 6AM with a laundry basket full of shoes for repair that need to be picked up at 10:15AM for an 11:30AM rehearsal.) He always says yes, just like the folks at Presto Valet who turn around the dry cleaning we drop off at midnight for a delivery the next morning. I’m lucky to be able to rely on local businesses that help us elevate our work.
I will never forget that when I delivered the fresh shoe, Luke’s dressing roommate, Chaz Wolcott, exclaimed "Wow. That healed quick." My reply: “That’s what we do at Arena.”
We always show up for anyone on our team because they show up for us. People may need us to show up now more than ever. Showing up for each other is something Arena Stage owns. Folks in costumes have been known to show up early as 6AM and stay as late as midnight to keep the artistry running. We have a community of businesses who support us. Audiences show up for us. Even remotely, people have found ways to show up.
I physically showed up to the Mead Center when the world first began to deal with COVID-19. My mission: to collect fabric to make face masks. The costume staff agreed to band together remotely to create hundreds of washable, reusable face masks to donate to the Children's National Hospital System. When I went in to grab fabric to make reusable face masks I was faced with an empty room. It was only sad for a moment. Somehow my spirits brightened immediately when I realized that though the room was empty, the shop would soon be vibrant—not together in person but definitely together in mission.
For every artist finding ways to contribute through the uncertainty, I say bravo! For all the businesses getting creative to help maintain our community, thanks for continuing in that spirit. For the costume staff, I have unending gratitude and respect. My mom and dad would have given me the same advice as always through this very strange, fragile time. My mom always cautioned me: “Bloom where you are planted.” My dad’s wisdom: “It will come and it will go.”
Yes, we need this time to pass more than ever, but how we bloom during this matters in so many ways. As much as anyone else, I need our community to restore. When it does, I’ll keep showing up.