Arena Stage: So Nice to Have You Back Where You Belong!
By Kathleen McDonough
he lyrics from the classic American musical “Hello Dolly” express perfectly the feeling theater lovers are experiencing as they welcome Arena Stage back home to their newly expanded campus near Washington DC’s Southwest waterfront.
And the homecoming becomes official on Saturday, October 23rd when Arena Stage formally opens the new Mead Center for American Theater with a full day of events and launches its 60th season - fittingly to begin with the staging of the first modern American musical, Oklahoma.
After eleven years of planning and two and a half years of construction, the theater that has defined its mission as a celebration of American drama and musical theater settles into space that is itself uniquely American: modern and expansive, yet still warm and inviting, with a serious multitasking side that offers space for performance, education and research, as well as community engagement.
As Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith puts it, “We are finally home again and it’s beyond words how it feels to return. For the first time in Arena’s history, all our staff will be under one roof, and to have this historic re-opening happen in the year of our diamond anniversary is all the more sweet.”
When building began on the new campus in January 2008 the company temporarily moved performances to Crystal City in Arlington, VA and the Lincoln Theatre on U St., NW. But Arena’s return to Southwest DC has had an impact that’s more than cultural: the development of the Mead Center has served as a catalyst for community-wide revitalization, with new restaurants and commercial retailers now joining the center’s waterfront neighborhood.
Arena’s two original stages, the historic Fichandler Stage and the Kreeger Theater, have been completely renovated and are now joined by a third, the 200-seat Kogod Cradle, where new plays will be workshopped and talent nurtured.
In addition, the Mead Center features a community engagement classroom and an outdoor stage.
“The Arena Stage as we have it now will be a major center not only for the production and performance of theater, but for the study of theater. It will be a research center, a truly all-purpose theater center,” Smith says. Arena’s Managing Director Edgar Dobie calls it, more simply, “a theatrical utopia”.
With all of Washington anticipating the opening of the Mead Center, it’s only right that President and First Lady Michelle Obama should join the welcoming committee, and will do so by serving as the honorary chairs for Arena’s 2010-2011 season and October 25th black-tie “homecoming” dinner.
After waiting more than a decade for the new Mead Center to become a reality, the Arena family is not viewing its completion as the culmination of the theater’s rich, sixty-year history of contribution to the arts, but instead a new jumping off point for its next – even more exciting – act.