Expanded agenda, presidential affiliation boost D.C. regional

With its $135 million building renovation virtually completed, D.C.’s Arena Stage is preparing to unveil its refurbished campus with a head of steam unimagined at the start of the facelift’s campaign almost a decade ago.

Featured under the sweeping new roof just off the southwest D.C. waterfront is a premiere-packed schedule that includes works by Lynn Nottage and David Henry Hwang and a heightened presence on the national stage.

Just how heightened a presence? President and Mrs. Obama are aboard as honorary chairs for Arena’s upcoming season, including its Oct. 25 opening gala, an event destined to be the biggest theatrical coming-out party here since the debut of the Kennedy Center.

The Obama link was the result of a year’s worth of quiet work, with the theater pumping up its status as an important regional stage focused exclusively on American plays. Arena also recently finished up a two-year contract with the National Endowment for the Arts’ New Play Development Project, which gave the company further prestige on Capitol Hill.

Arena’s new facility, designed by Canadian architect Bing Thom, houses Arena’s two existing performance spaces plus a new 200-seat theater called the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, all served by a centralized lobby and box office. Other features include new rehearsal halls, tech and costume shops, educational spaces, a cafe and an outdoor terrace with monument views.

That the facility was completed on time and on budget — no mean feat, in this economy — is only one milestone for the 60-year-old org, generally regarded as the “mother ship” for the D.C. theater community that has blossomed in its wake. The company’s return home after two and a half seasons of off-site performances is being proclaimed as its official transition from regional troupe to a national center for American theater.

The expanded agenda, devoted to the production, presentation, development and study of American works, is even reflected in the facility’s new moniker: Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Its season launches in October with “Oklahoma” in the Fichandler Stage.)

Arena a.d. Molly Smith’s longstanding prioritizing of American plays and musicals has spawned the theater’s new American Voices New Play Institute, a groundbreaking program that will focus on developing the infrastructure for new works nationwide. Funded by a $1.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it will research and implement best practices to develop new plays.

The institute will host five playwrights — Karen Zacarias, Lisa Kron, Amy Freed, Katori Hall and Charles Randolph-Wright — over the next three years, providing each with salary, health benefits and housing when needed. Combined with separate residency commissions from writers Nottage and Hwang, Arena will produce new plays by seven scribes.

The institute is guided by David Dower, the theater’s associate artistic director, who proposed the concept to Mellon.

Managing director Edgar Dobie underscores Arena’s eagerness to work with producing orgs of every stripe. Examples include Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theater production of Anna Deavere Smith’s solo play, “Let Me Down Easy,” set to run in January. Arena will provide the initial production groundwork to prep the play for a planned national tour.

The upcoming season also will showcase the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” staged by Pam MacKinnon and featuring actors Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, as part of a three-month festival devoted to Edward Albee. The fest will include readings of all 30 of his works.

Several other theater troupes will be visiting Arena — and its new facility — as part of a January festival of productions funded by the NEA. But if any of those visitors want to make a phone call, they’ll have to step outside. The Mead Center has so much concrete — 14,000 cubic yards of it — that cell phone service is extremely limited.

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