Molly Smith

Artistic Director, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Washington, DC
Molly Smith

Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy

Molly Smith: Well, we know what happens with theatres in difficult areas in cities. Art heals. It just does. One of the reasons the city of Washington D.C. has been so generous with Arena is because this really has been a forgotten quadrant in the city. It is slashed through by a freeway. It's the side of one of the worst urban renewal stories in the country because 30,000 people were displaced in this area. It's one of the reasons why Arena was able to afford the land 50 years ago when it moved here. Fourth Street was closed down, which caused an enormous amount of crime in this area of the city, which has just been reopened with a new Safeway and places for people to walk and talk to each other. A mile away is where the new ball stadium happened. So it's the resurrection of southwest Washington and having Arena Stage here, that's part of the reason why a lot of the condominiums that have been created down here are doing very, very well. It really is serving as a beacon in this area of the city. We want to be able to do that. We want to be part of the economic engine of southwest Washington.

Jo Reed: That was Molly Smith artistic director of the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington Dc.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works, I'm your host Josephine Reed

After more than a decade of planning and two and a half  years of construction, the newly renovated Arena Stage  opened its doors this autumn…just in time for the theater's 60th anniversary. And it is spectacular…a winding glass building that opens up to its southwest Washington neighborhood and features a panoramic view of the river beyond it. It has spacious multi-level lobbies that are shared by the three theaters that make up the Center with state of the art rehearsal spaces and work shops. Leading Arena through the renovation and re-opening, as she has for 11 years is artistic director Molly Smith. Molly has been passionate about focusing Arena's repartory on American voices and American artists,  and she remains committed to developing new plays as well as re-staging the classics…   

I spoke to Molly Smith in her office at the new Arena Stage; I began our far-ranging conversation  about theater  and new play development by asking her about an American classic. I wanted to know why she opened Arena's inaugural season in its new home with the  musical,  Oklahoma

 Molly Smith: I wanted a musical that's about hope and optimism because I think at this moment for Arena Stage is absolutely about hope and optimism. And what was exciting to me about "Oklahoma!" is it's about a frontier on the cusp of becoming a state and Arena Stage is on a frontier in this moment becoming a new center. There is a metaphorical idea that's imbedded in the musical. I'm from the west. I'm a western person. I will always be a western person living in the east. I wanted to bring some of the energy of the west in and the wild west and what it was at that moment in 1907.

Jo Reed: Molly, You have a racially diverse cast which usually isn't seen in productions of Oklahoma…

Molly Smith: We went back and did research. Janine Sobeck who is our wonderful dramaturge here, our literary advisor and found that Oklahoma in 1907 was extremely diverse. If you look back to, I think it was 1897 when the Great Land Rush happened, everybody was there. The Asian people were there. Indians who had had their land taken away from them were there. White people were there. African American freed blacks were there. There was this tremendous land rush were everybody ran and grabbed their 160 acres of land. Now in 1907 there were African American communities, Asian American communities, Indian communities, but they were all separate. So in really taking the play to Washington D.C. 2010, I wanted the play to be cross cultural because that's where we are as modern society. So what I did was I crossed the cultures. But within the production, if for example Aunt Eller has her niece Laurey, they're played by two wonderful African American performers. Ado Annie and her father are white. Nick, because he doesn't have a parent or child on stage, who plays the role of Curly is Latino. So the races are all crossed within the world and yet if there is a family relationship, it's the same race. Someone came in the other day and said, "Do you believe in colorblind casting?"  And I said, "No, I don't." I understand colorblind casting. I did it years ago. It's been a part of my history for forever. But I believe that there is a problem with that, with colorblind casting because I don't think we're colorblind. I think we see race. Of course. So what I want to do is remove from the audience the, "Oh, if he's white and she's black and their father and daughter, what happened?  Was there a white mother?  Was she adopted?  Was she—"  And so by removing that, suddenly everybody can relax and can see the production. So you see that very clearly within this world of "Oklahoma!". I also really wanted choreographer that would bring in the robustness of the west. In Alaska when I was a kid, there were so many barroom brawls that the next morning it wouldn't even be mentioned. Which is to me what the west is. Here in Washington D.C. we'd be talking about it forever and ever and ever on the radio shows and everything else. It was a natural part of the toughness of the life. And so we brought all that on stage.  

Jo Reed: Let's talk about American musicals. You have a great devotion to it, which as a residence of Washington D.C. I really appreciate because I like them too and I know I can count on Arena. What drew you to American musicals?

Molly Smith: I was a late bloomer. I was a convert to American musicals. It's what brought me into the theatre when I was a young person. Seeing "Camelot" with Robert Goulet in Yakama, Washington. I can remember where I was sitting in the theatre. I can remember the feel of the light coming from the stage. I can remember the red plush theatre seats. I remember a lot about it. Then I went to a number of small theatres in Yakama, Washington, school programs with everything from "Bye-Bye Birdie" to "Westside Story". And so my passion for the theatre really came in through musicals. I don't think I'm rare in that. I remember playing my mother's record of "Oliver" over and over and over again until I knew all of the songs. You know?  I have really distinct memories of that. But I'm a child of the sixties so when I was in my late teens and early twenties I turned away from the musical as not a serious art form. I really moved into a focus on drama, a focus on contemporary writing and I stayed there for many, many years. It wasn't until about eight years ago that I really had an epiphany and made a decision because of a number of people supporting me who said, "Molly, you really should be directing musicals."  I knew what musicals were doing to audiences because I produced musicals in Alaska at my theatre Perseverance Theatre. I produced them here in Washington D.C. but I still veered away from them. But what I saw happening to audiences is a kinetic response to the material and I began feeling, "Okay, this is our pure American form. I need to understand how to direct this."  So my first musical here in Washington D.C. was "South Pacific". After two or three days within the rehearsal hall, I hopped up and basically said, "Oh my God, I've been such a fool because I love this form."  Because it's subversive. Because you can say things in a musical you can't say in a straight play because it's the music that subconsciously tracks through your brain and takes you places that sometimes the written word doesn't take you to. It acts on a subliminal basis. And because I really do love the combination of music, dance and text. I think there are so many things you can say within it and there is a way of being able to interpret the material, which can make it modern, even when working with some of the older musicals like "South Pacific" or "Oklahoma!". I just became a convert. Like any convert, I am now a revolutionary. I am more passionate than if I hadn't turned from the American musical. (laughs)

Jo Reed: As artistic director your job is to give a vision for the theatre but for the reopening of Arena Stage at the Mead Center, that must have been a real challenge to think about what plays you want to present in that inaugural year. Can you share a little bit of the decision making that went into that?

Molly Smith: I think that beginnings are very important. The new Arena will always be remembered for "Oklahoma!" in the Fichandler Theatre space. How awful it would have been if it would have been a flop because that's what would have been remembered. The new opening for our brand new theatre, the Kogod Cradle, we've opened with Marcus Gardley's "Every Tongue Confess" because I thought it had to be a new play. It had to be a premiere of a play. And also what's wonderful about it is it's the introduction of a promising and important voice in the American theatre, which is Marcus Gardley.

Jo Reed: Let me interrupt for one second. Explain just a little bit about the Cradle because it's also an introduction to a brand new theatre at Arena.

Molly Smith: Yes. Yes. There's now a third theatre at Arena Stage. The Kogod Cradle is shaped like the cup of the hand. If you hold your two hands together, when you look inside of it, that's the cradle. That's what I talked to the architect Bing Thom about and Josh Dachs who was a theatre consultant on it. It's a 200-seat theatre space. It's a beautiful theatre space…perfect sized space to birth new American work or for first, second and third productions. And by that I mean that often times a play does not hit its full creativity until its second or third production. Because the first production is the play with training wheels on. Second production you can take the training wheels off and you're on a bicycle. Third production you may be on a hotrod because the play then is all together. I think too often in this country we throw away new plays if they don't work well the first time, almost as if it's tissue paper. You know?  That's somebody's life for two or three or four years and it's just gone. I believe in new work and really knew that the two theatre spaces that we had, with the Fichandler space, which is the theatre in the round, that seats 680. We have birthed new work there but it's more complex because of the economics of and the expectations of the audience. Audience expects something different in a smaller theatre space. It's the same thing for the Kreeger. The Kreeger is a beautiful theatre space. It's a modified thrust. It's almost an ideal relationship between the actor and the audience but it seats over 500 seats. Audiences' expectations go up depending on the size of the theatre space. It's no mistake that the majority of Pulitzer Prize winning plays over the last 15 years have first been created in spaces that are 100 to 200 seats. There is a reason for that. Because experimentation can be bolder. So that's exactly what happened with "Every Tongue Confess" which is about 300 African American churches were burning in Mississippi during the 1990's. That's right, the 1990's. This is a play that Marcus has written for the arsonists and those that get burned. So the story is a shared story and it's a mystery about how it happened, who did it, what it means, the ramifications of it. So that also was very important to me in the Kogod Cradle that it needed to be a play that was distinctively American.

Jo Reed: And you have Anna Deavere Smith.

Molly Smith: Yes.

Jo Reed: Inaugurating the Kreeger.

Molly Smith: That's exactly right. Anna Deavere Smith, who's a quintessential theatre artist, who creates her work through interviews with hundreds of people will be bringing in her project, "Let Me Down Easy", which is about our bodies. It's about how our bodies carry us through our lives, how our bodies transform us, how our bodies fall apart and how our bodies serve us. So she went out and did a couple hundred interviews with everybody from Lance Armstrong when  he went through cancer, Ann Richards, it's extraordinary, including a rodeo rider who has some of the most profound things to say about the body. It also is a story of healthcare. So it's perfect for here in Washington D.C.

Jo Reed: Molly,  when you first came to the Arena Stage, were you clear about your vision for the theater? Did you know you wanted to focus on American artists or did that evolve?

Molly Smith: The search committee 13 years ago, they felt as a group that Arena Stage, which had been here at that point almost 50 years had really lost some of its identity. That's not unusual for a theatre to have happen to it. When it was first created it was the only theatre in the city. It really was a pioneer of the not for profit resident theatre movement. And the Board felt that Arena did not have that distinct identity other than the fact that it was the theatre that had been here the longest and that it does extraordinary work. So they asked me where I would focus the work and would it eclectic as it has been in the past or this mixture of international and national work. That day I went into a bookstore and everything that called to me was American work. I just began thinking, "Oh my God, wouldn't that be amazing to really have a theatre focused on American voices," whether they'd be American writers or American artists. We don't have a theatre of this size in the country that's specifically focusing this way. Washington D.C. is a crossroads for America. The work could always be endlessly diverse. So I ran back in to the second half the search committee meeting and I was very excited about this idea because what I really felt is all right, if we're going to move into a different focus, it would either be international work or American work and my own taste really moves towards American work. So then we were off to the races.

Jo Reed: And it's fair to say, it's been a great success.

Molly Smith: What's been exciting about it is for years I've felt a little upset because most of my colleagues in the American theatre are always looking over their shoulder at what's happening in London, what's happening outside of America. I really think the work that's being done in America is distinctive. It's robust. It's muscular. It's our own world. The American musical, that's our art form. It's our seminal art form. It was created by us and it continues to be innovated through us. We have brilliant contemporary writers. We have a broad base of what I would call American Giants, whether it's Miller, whether it's Williams, whether it's Albee and all these wonderful writers could converge in one new theatre center and that's what we have now at Arena Stage. I think that the difference between Arena of many years ago and now is first of all we are a theatre center now. That's a profound shift, moving from being a theatre into a theatre center.

Jo Reed: Explain the difference.

Molly Smith: I think that the biggest difference is a broad artistic strategy. And the artistic strategy is about the production, presentation, development, and study of American theatre. Production I think is what Arena has known for the last 60 years; fantastic productions that are created here. We have all of our own shops on site. We have rehearsal halls on site. For the first time we actually have everything under one roof. We aren't split at all in the city so there is theatrical energy within all of the spaces. That piece has to do with what we produce on stage that purely comes from us. Could also be co productions. The second is presentation. This is the pillar that is about bringing in great American companies from around the country. This year Steppenwolf is coming in with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf". Looking Glass Theatre is coming in with "Arabian Nights" and it's also visiting local companies. So Theatre J will be in with their production of "The Chosen". Georgetown will be in with Derek Goldman's production of a Tennessee Williams and also there will be a touring production, which will start its tour here of "Let Me Down Easy" with Anna Deavere Smith that comes out of Second Stage out of New York. So having the new center gives us the potential of really being able to spotlight the best and the brightest from around the country for our Washington D.C. audiences.

Jo Reed:  You also have a great emphasis on development…Tell me about the American Voices New play Insitutute.

Molly Smith: That institute is really about the understanding, devising and furthering of infrastructure to create new plays and new musicals. Imbedded within that are national convenings that we've been having over the last two years, one on diversity, one on devised work, one on the American musical, one on black playwrights. And another area which has gained a lot of excitement around the country has to do with our resident writers program.

Jo Reed: Tell me about that program.

Molly Smith: We now have five writers on salary, playwrights. Over a three period of time they'll receive a full time salary, healthcare benefits, housing when they're in Washington D.C., a resource budget that they make their own decisions on as far as their research and development of their work and a young producer to work along with them. Each one of the writers has a full menu of work that they're writing on, not even necessarily for Arena Stage. It could be a play that they're going back to do a rewrite on, a new musical, a project that's coming out of interviews, whatever they want and need to write. This is really a program about following the artist. The plays that they're writing could be plays they're writing for Arena Stage or for theatre companies around the country. It's completely open. So there are the five writers embedded in the program and there are also two project residencies with Lynn Nottage and David Henry White who are each writing a project for us. So there's that as well. There is also understudy of American theatre. That has to do with our community engagement program which reaches 20,000 young people every year and it has everything from the Student Playwrights Program to Voices of Now, which is young people creating their own work on stage to an Actor's Gym where actors come in every Monday and work on projects that are of interest to them so they can keep growing and developing as artists. This is for expert actors here in the Washington D.C. area. There are ongoing programs with Georgetown University to the point that Georgetown is now talking about the creation of an MFA in new play development for young producers. Also within the Study of American Theatre, by January there will be the creation of a new play map. Everybody from around the country can log in to.

Jo Reed: Explain what that is.

Molly Smith: It's a map of the United States which will of course include Alaska and Hawaii. You can go online and be able to touch Seattle and find out all the new play development activities going on in Seattle in that moment of time. There will be programming that will be live streamed as well. For the first time, the American theatre will see itself as far as new play development. We'll be able to see what's happening in Minneapolis. We'll be able to track how a play might start in Dallas and move on to Washington D.C. and move on from Washington D.C. to Minneapolis and move from Minneapolis into New York. We'll be able to track that. It's very, very exciting. So you'll be able to see how new plays are children. It takes a village to create a new play. It often isn't just created by one group of people. It's through the writer of course, the playwright. The playwright is really the most important artist within this world. But you'll see how it can be developed in one city, taken into another city with a series of readings and changes. Going onto another city and having a first production, another city in a second production and how it really grows and flourishes during that period of time. You'll be able to see that on the new play map. It will be useful for journalists. It will be useful for theatre people all over the country. It will be useful for educators, for students of the theater.

Jo Reed: And it'll be fun.

Molly Smith: And it will be fun.

Jo Reed: Explain why new play development is so important to theatre.

Molly Smith: I think it's important because the theatre is a modern art form. Modern means living. Living means writers that are creating now, about this moment in time. I think that we need to see and understand the wa y in which new plays are created and we need to know what's happening in different parts of the country. We need to understand what best practices are as far as the creation of new work. We have a real problem in this country with our best writers having to leave the theatre because they cannot make a living. They can't make a living. They move to television. They move to film. I'm a great believer in working in all mediums. I think it's smart. But for us, that voice is the playwright's voice right in the center of the theatre. So if we're losing all of our best writers to other mediums and they don't come back, that's a problem for audiences and it's a problem for the theatre of the future. So finding ways to help support writers, to support directors, to support designers and to support theatre companies in this pursuit I think is some of the most important work we can do as a theatre company.

Jo Reed: Molly Smith, thank you.

That was Molly Smith Artistic director of the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts from "The Farmer and the Cowman" music by Richard Rodgers, music by Oscar Hammerstein from the play Oklahoma, sung by the company, used courtesy of Arena Stage

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Next time,   we turn our attention to jazz…I talk to NEA Jazz Master Dan Morgenstern….

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Molly Smith talks about American theater, including the often-overlooked musical, her commitment to new play development, and her vision for the newly-renovated Arena Stage at the Mead Center. [27:16]