Local Stage Hopes New Digs Will Spotlight Theater

After two years of construction, Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage is opening its season in a spectacular new building. Arena is a founding member of the national regional theater movement, which is struggling with the grim economics of the recession.

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The Arena Stage Theater in Washington, D.C. has just reopened after a sweeping $135 million renovation and has transformed its building into a marvel of class, wood and marble. Now, the 60-year-old regional theater in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood faces a new challenge: How to sustain itself and its $17 million a year budget in a struggling economy.

As NPR's Alison Keyes reports, the answer lies in the changing mission and focus of nonprofit theaters in the U.S.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

ALLISON KEYES: They came in droves, gawking up at the flowing wave form glass with a 450 foot sharply geometric roof, and theres a smile on every face.

(Soundbite of singing)

KEYES: In the street in front of the 200,000 square foot building, the spoken word group Universes has an audience on shiny, black chairs rocking to the music. This stage is one of eight spaces hosting performances at this homecoming, grand opening celebration for the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Lots of folk here drove or took the subway, but Everett and Emma Turner live two blocks away and they are thrilled to be here for the first time.

Mr. EVERETT TURNER: We enjoyed that very much. We love this here. We are part of the neighborhood and we come out to just enjoy this Arena Stage opening.

(Soundbite of musical, "Oklahoma")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a beautiful day...

Ms. MOLLY SMITH (Artistic Director, Arena Stage): Weve worked very, very hard to really be a beacon in this area of the city.

KEYES: Thats Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith. She says theyve changed much more than the building. From the opening musical - an ethnically diverse "Oklahoma" - to the upcoming new play, "Every Tongue Confess," with Tony Award-winner Phylicia Rashad, to the five playwrights the theater has put on staff with salaries and benefits, Smith says Arena Stage rethought its mission as well as its physical space.

Ms. SMITH: I think the original mission of regional theater was that there could be brilliant theater in communities all over America. That revolution has been won.

KEYES: But now, Smith says Arena Stage will act as a think tank for theater.

Chris Jones, long time theater critic at the Chicago Tribune, thinks Arena Stage is straddling the line between the radical moves, like actually paying people to hang around and write plays, and what he calls the traditional ideas of regional theater pioneers. In other words, focus on new work but find ways to make it more relevant and responsive to the community.

Mr. CHRIS JONES (Theater Critic, Chicago Tribune): I think the challenge now for Arena Stage is going to be - can you do both of those things at once? In other words, can you really focus on the community youre supposed to be serving, reflecting its diversity, promoting new work and at the same time, you know, keep the lights on in a facility of that cost and size?

KEYES: One way regional theaters are doing that is by sharing productions. Chicagos Steppenwolf Theater is bringing its production of "Whos Afraid of Virginia Wolf" to Arena Stage in February.

Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey.

Ms. MARTHA LAVEY (Artistic Director, Steppenwolf Theater): I think that that collaborative impulse is a wise one. And I think that it's to the benefit not only of the artists but the audiences. So I think its a salutary move in any case.

KEYES: Economics are part of every decision and theaters often have to walk a fine line between presenting familiar, classical American plays and musicals and edgy new works.

(Soundbite of play, "Every Tongue Confess")

Unidentified Man #2: Your mama draw me that bath yet?

Unidentified Woman: No, but she did take out her knives.

KEYES: Kenny Leon is directing Arena Stages new play "Every Tongue Confess," a piece based on the church burnings in 1996 Alabama. Leon directed this year's Tony-nominated Broadway production of August Wilson's "Fences."

He says the thing about Arena Stage is the theater wants to say something about the world through the work they produce.

Mr. KENNY LEON (Director, "Every Tongue Confess"): I find that many communities - or many theaters in communities - are producing work not for the community. They're not producing work that really says a lot politically. Many of them are taking the easy road out, with the excuse that we have to make box office.

KEYES: Leon credits arena stage for staging musicals like "Oklahoma," with 25 dancers when even Broadway theaters are thinking: Whos going to pay them in these tough economic times?

(Soundbite of musical, "Oklahoma")

KEYES: Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith says they are focused on form and the community. And people like Darlene Wallace are taking notice. The Maryland resident brought her eight-year-old daughter to the opening celebration.

(Soundbite of conversations)

Ms. DARLENE WALLACE: I see a good future. Thats why I'm bringing her down here, to let her see where shell get to perform some day.

Maria-Montes Wallace(ph) is sure she wants to be onstage - but not as an actor.

Ms. MARIA-MONTES WALLACE: I want to be a dancer.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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