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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Local Stage Hopes New Digs Will Spotlight Theater

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Local Stage Hopes New Digs Will Spotlight Theater

Local Stage Hopes New Digs Will Spotlight Theater

Local Stage Hopes New Digs Will Spotlight Theater

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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.

T: 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 there's 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.

M: 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")

U: (Singing) Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a beautiful day...

M: We've worked very, very hard to really be a beacon in this area of the city.

KEYES: That's Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith. She says they've 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.

M: 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: 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.

M: 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 you're 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: Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey.

M: 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 it's 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")

U: Your mama draw me that bath yet?

U: No, but she did take out her knives.

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

M: 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: Who's 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)

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

M: Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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