$100 mil expansion gives D.C. space flexibility

WASHINGTON — Arena Stage has settled on a plan for its $100 million expansion. The 43-year-old complex will be converted into a sweeping facility with new and revitalized performance spaces and residences for visiting artists under a concept created by Canadian architect Bing Thom.

The facility will incorporate under one roof the two existing theaters as well as a new, 200-seat experimental theater called the Cradle. New administration, rehearsal and design spaces as well as underground parking also are in the plan, which will triple Arena’s size from 61,500 to 192,000 square feet.

In addition, new public spaces will include a cafe, bookstore, multilevel lobby connecting all theaters and a balcony affording views of the Washington Monument and the nearby Washington Channel. The facility also will house 21 apartments for visiting artists. The entire complex will be encased in high glass walls and surrounded by a curving pool of water.

Thom’s design was selected in a process that included consideration of more than 100 architectural firms throughout North and South America. The 62-year-old Hong Kong-born Thom is the principal of Vancouver-based Bing Thom Associates which has designed such structures as Vancouver’s Chan Center for the Performing Arts and the Yuxi Opera Theater in Yuxi, China.

Current plans call for construction to begin in the fall of 2005 and end two years later. Executive director Stephen Richard said he expects to announce the fundraising aspects of the building project early next year.

It promises to be an exciting new chapter for the prominent 53-year-old regional theater, which was launched with a $14,000 investment by Zelda and Tom Fichandler.

Its first home was the old Hippodrome Theater at Ninth and New York Avenues, a former burlesque theater and arthouse cinema. Five years later, it converted the Old Heurich Brewery into a theater and “the Old Vat,” as it was called, was Arena’s address for four years. Arena broke ground on its current two-acre site in 1960, building two theaters within a distinctively disjointed complex — the 816-seat, four-sided Fichandler Stage, now a historical landmark, and the 500-seat Kreeger Theater.

Thom’s design will preserve the two theaters while upgrading them technically and acoustically. The Fichandler will be reduced to 650 seats with the elimination of its boxes, while the glass walls will add a valuable layer of sound insulation.

Clearly the concept’s most startling feature will be its cantilevered roof, a free-flowing design that suggests the nearby waterfront and the vibrant energy housed within.

The project’s most enthusiastic supporter is artistic director Molly Smith, who says it incorporates her vision for developing and presenting American plays. “Bing has ensured that this complex will become a true home for American artists, including two light-filled rehearsal halls and apartment complexes on site with a shared community kitchen and meeting place. No one in the country has ever done it this way,” she says.

Smith says the planned oval-shaped performance space will enable Arena to nurture new plays and “ensure that we have right-size spaces for the theater that we do.”

Meanwhile, she says, the entire complex will be transformed from two separate and unconnected theaters to an inviting community with amenities for audiences and performers alike. Arena’s far-flung educational activities will also be housed there, Smith says.

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