The New and Enclosed Arena Stage

Once Arena Stage started their capital campaign to expand their complex, it became part of a larger urban plan for the Southwest waterfront area. At this point the new Mead Center for American Theater holds more than just the landmark Fichandler main stage and Kreeger stage inside the glass enclosure; it is THE LANDMARK for the Southwest Waterfront area.

Imagine — a theater anchoring an urban plan. I’m just happy I won’t meet on-going traffic when I go out the side exits anymore. But where have they put the stage door? I’ll find out when I see “every tongue confess” by Marcus Gardley and featuring Phylicia Rashad. The play will be directed by Kenny Leon in the new Kogod Cradle, an oval shaped 200 seat theater with a fascinating curved entrance — like walking inside a Nautilus shell.

I wonder with such a grand entrance, will I still see Artistic Director Molly Smith at the neighborhood Starbucks. This new stage has definitely put her in a unique orbit in the theater world. And we’re not even talking about New York. Molly may be one of the few who can genuinely say “Who needs it?”

Molly Smith has steered the Arena Stage towards American theater; including new works and the classics. Jaylee and Gilbert Mead bankrolled her vision. They were not theater professionals but loved the stage. Both Meads worked in science. But their fortune was acquired from an inheritance from Gilbert Mead’s father’s estate. Unfortunately, Gilbert Mead died in 2007.

The Washington Post devoted their entire Sunday Arts & Style section (9/26/10) to the new Arena Stage:
Theater critic Peter Marks gives the front page overview; Philip Kennecott looks at the design, planning and the architect Bing Thom of Canada; Jacqueline Trescott introduces the donors who bankrolled the project; Derek Kravitz looks at the big picture for the neighborhood. This section is a keeper for theater geeks.

Live to Read

I got a special “educators” tour of Arena Stage a week ago as part of the introduction of a partnership with the Humanities Council of Washington, DC for the launch of a new initiative, “Live to Read.” The initiative kicks off with a citywide read of “Ruined” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Nottage was at the educators event to talk about the play which she wrote after visiting with and interviewing Congolese women refugees in Uganda. The women were ages 20 – 70 years old; all had stories of being raped, said Nottage.

“Ruined” is set in the rain forest of the Congo where a shrewd woman entrepreneur is serving both sides — the brutal government and the “ruined” tortured women — in the middle of the country’s civil war. Though officially, the Congo’s civil war is over, Nottage says, in reality it goes on and its most tortured victims are women and children. The violence continues because of turf battles over natural resources, particularly coltan which is used in electronic products including cell phones.

A week before the tour, I was working with ITVS and a coalition of NGOs in the Rayburn House Office Building where Rose Mapendo, a Congolese refugee and survivor, told her story. Mapendo is the subject in Pushing the Elephant, a documentary by Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel. Mapendo is now an activist and advocate to stop violence against women. Pushing the Elephant will be shown as part of ITVS Community Cinema and on the PBS documentary series “Independent Lens” during the Arena Stage run of “Ruined” and the “Live to Read” initiative.