- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2001

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and on the Pentagon are very much on the mind of Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith as she settles in for an interview.

"I was stranded in Portland, Oregon, celebrating my mother's birthday," Miss Smith says of that day. "We were on the beach, and [Arena Stage Executive Director] Stephen Richard called and said, 'Turn on the TV.'"

Shortly thereafter, Miss Smith jumped in her car for a frantic cross-country drive back to Washington.

"Actually, it was very healing," she says. "All the way across the country, people's responses were so different from the way East Coasters and those of us from Washington, D.C., and New York are often treated. There was no prickliness or wariness. We all became one country."

She arrived back at Arena Stage safe and sound. Everything had changed.

"The production now, 'Agamemnon and His Daughters' is a different play than it was 10 days ago," she says. "It is a play about war, the Trojan War, which lasted 10 years and left most people exhausted, dirty and miserable. That is probably hard to take right now, but the important thing is there is a moment of reconciliation and peace at the end."

Miss Smith, who is in her fourth year as Arena artistic director, says actors found it hard to take their places onstage after Sept. 11. "It was difficult for the first few days for both the actors and the audience. What we decided was to let the message let the good prevail run all through the play. The relationship between actor and audience changed everyone seemed closer together; no line of demarcation."

She has the uneasy feeling of being a Cassandra these days, what with "Agamemnon and His Daughters" dealing with war and the crumbling of a great city and dreams along with it. Arena's next show is "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey," offering an evening devoted to Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady from 1933 to 1945. "She is a role model, a goddess in many people's eyes," Miss Smith says. "We are bringing Eleanor back to Washington, where she may be needed most right now."

The uncanniness continues with the season's third show, John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," which is set during the Depression. "I swear, I didn't plan it this way," Miss Smith says with a burst of laughter. "We're looking at a recession, and here is this play taking place during the Depression. More than that, I wanted to have one production a year that appeals to a wide audience and is more of a family show. Last year, it was 'The Miracle Worker,' and it all goes back to my vision of Arena as a theater of American voices. We are going to speak to this moment."

The holiday show, "Blues in the Night," is even in keeping with the nation's subdued mood. "Our spirit is in a blue spirit, let's face it," she says. "And there is nothing like the blues to buoy you up somehow when you are down."

Miss Smith has come under some fire for her championing of American plays since coming to Arena from Alaska's Perseverance Theatre. "Agamemnon and His Daughters," a new translation and examination of the ancient Greek play cycle, marks the first departure from her all-American program.

"I plan on only doing one play per season for the canon," she says. "With 'Agamemnon,' I wanted to go back to the beginning. I think the only move for Arena is toward American plays. No other resident theater focuses on American voices."

In fact, she says, many theaters are infatuated with English and Irish playwrights. "Compelling as they are, they are not us. What are Americans writing about America? Where is our voice, our voices? We are getting our truth from Ireland. What about us?"

Miss Smith concedes that American voices could be stronger. "There hasn't been the hard focus lately. Voices are not as strong as they used to be. But in thinking about what is America I had to broaden my definition to think about what is really indigenous to the country: tap dancing, bluegrass, vaudeville, boulevard dramas, blues, jazz, Broadway musicals. The possibilities of a predominantly American repertoire are endless."

This essentially makes Arena a modern theater, Miss Smith notes, since most plays are 100 years old or less. "We are developing a play about Abraham Lincoln, however, and in the last three years I have thought of America in terms of the continent, since Canadian playwrights have been an interest of mine for more than two decades. Latin American and Cuban voices, too."

Although some critics have said that traditional Arena audiences would prefer more Moliere and less David Mamet, they can't dispute Miss Smith's successes. The national tour of "Guys and Dolls," starring Maurice Hines, kicks off next month. The re-invigorated musical started out at Arena in 1999 and played to packed houses there. Last season's "Blue," starring Phylicia Rashad, moved to off-Broadway in June and played until last weekend at New York's Roundabout Theatre. "I know it wasn't a critical favorite, but 'Blue' is accessible and about a group of people, affluent African Americans, that aren't seen that much onstage. Usually when black people are seen onstage, they are poor or homeless and addicted in some way."

Box-office results at Arena have been more mixed. For the 1998-99 season, Arena drew $5.9 million at the box office and 230,000 patrons. Those figures grew to $6.6 million at the box office and 250,000 patrons the next season. In the 2000-01 season (the 50th anniversary season), the box office fell to $5.8 million and the audience total to 230,000, but publicist Denise Schneider says Arena brought in 17,500 new subscribers "the most in 15 years."

Miss Smith is dedicated to developing new works, and this will be the second season of "Downstairs in the Old Vat Room," a series of new-play readings headed by Artistic Associate Wendy C. Goldberg. Playwright Paula Vogel, whose play "Hot 'n' Throbbing" poked many a conscience in 1999, has been commissioned to write "A Civil War Christmas," and Miss Smith is content to let the gestation period go on naturally. "Writers write when they write," she says. "Let me tell you a story. When I was in Alaska, I got a Pew Fellowship for Paula to come and write a play about the castrati. Pregnant with ideas, Paula came to Alaska. I pick her up and settle her into the apartment, and she says, 'I can't write this play.' I replied, 'What can you write "How I Learned to Drive?"'

"Two weeks later, Paula delivered 'How I Learned to Drive' pretty much in the same form as it is now."

Another project Miss Smith is content to watch evolve is the Culture Clash's take on Washington, which began nearly two years ago. "Richard Montoya [of the Los Angeles-based performance company] was in town interviewing people, and it is two-thirds completed," she says. "Of course, our world has shifted since Culture Clash began the project. The stereotypes about Washington have been shattered. So the whole piece has changed, and Richard is incorporating recent events into the piece, interviewing a grief counselor, staff at a recruitment center, and so on."

A shared passion of Miss Smith and of Arena's new artistic associate, Ralph Remington, is to reach junior-high and high-school-age students as a potential audience.

"There are plenty of kids' programs on the grade-school level, and then we lose these kids to athletics," says Mr. Remington, who now leads the Community Engagement Division, including directing the Living Stage Company. "This is a vulnerable age, the junior high school years. Kids this age tend to get irritated and alienated easily and may feel more violent toward their classmates."

It is imperative, he says, to get these youths into the theater. "It may help them process all the things they are going through. My job at Living Stage is to make theater immediate, to ignite and excite these students. I want to reproduce onstage the feeling of rock 'n' roll, that anticipation, that level of catharsis. That is Molly's vision, too."

Miss Smith also longs to create that sense of unpredictability that sense of, what is going to happen next? for adolescents within the safe confines of Arena's stages. "In this way, we are able to have more impact. Arena has more plays that are adult, and it is the next step after the Living Stage. We need to intensify the experience and bring these older kids in. Between grade and high school are some really wretched years, and theater can help," she says.

What strikes Mr. Remington about Miss Smith's vision for Arena Stage is its lack of dogma. "She is an advocate of minimalism and stressing the bond between actor and audience," he says. "Molly is really going out of her way to reach all across America and grab those diverse audiences."

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