- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

Stephen Richard wants to know if a panini bread sandwich is classy enough for the average theatergoer. He wants to know where in the District he can put a circus tent large enough for a theatrical production. He would like to find out whether a theater should have one big lobby or two smaller ones.

Most of all, he would like to get a clearer picture of the future of the Arena Stage, the 53-year-old theater in Southwest that has hosted productions by everyone from Tennessee Williams to Shakespeare and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

As executive director of the theater, Mr. Richard has been intensely busy trying to raise money for a massive renovation and expansion project, while also trying to find a temporary location for the theater as the work is being done.

Plus, he must run the theater’s day-to-day business operations.

It’s proving to be a job filled with long days, few weekends off and frequent calls from his wife wondering whether he will be home for dinner.

“If you love it, you love it. You do it without any grief,” the mild-mannered Mr. Richard said of the workload.

On this day, his schedule is jampacked with meetings involving consultants and theater staff. At the top of the agenda are the Arena Stage’s big plans: It is targeting 2008 for the grand opening of a larger, more modern facility with expanded stage space, classrooms, rehearsal halls and a restaurant.

Mr. Richard, now in his 13th year with the theater, appears to have practiced the art of moving a meeting along without skipping important details. In the theater lobby, he has a brief sit-down with architects and designers from the Orr Company and Next Step Designs, consultants on the design of a new theater restaurant. Mr. Richard quickly outlines his vision — a place for patrons to grab a nice, quick meal before the show — while digesting the team’s advice.

Poring over an architectural rendering of the planned restaurant, they discuss minute details, like how much space to give workers behind a counter and the pros and cons of having meals prepared off-site. Things that may seem trivial, like whether or not to serve soft drinks in bottles or cups, Mr. Richard treats seriously. Time is tight; he had hoped to have a detailed plan for the restaurant in hand by March 31.

But the restaurant may be down on the list of Mr. Richard’s worries. More important is the question of where the theater will operate once construction and renovations begin in 2006. One option theater staffers are exploring is a large circus tent located somewhere in the District. The Mall is off-limits, but the redeveloping Southeast Federal Center is one option. Mr. Richard meets with staff members, and instructs them to scour the city for possible sites, and even suggests buying a large map of the city to find open space.

“There’s an enormous responsibility in directing all of the operations of the theater, never mind adding this other project,” said Brian Heller, the facility project manager for the theater and Mr. Richard’s right-hand man. “There are a lot of different hands tugging on his time.”

Mr. Richard, a Houston native, had originally aspired to be a playwright, before realizing he was more skilled at the business side of the theater. He started out as the head of the Los Angeles Theater Company, then moved on to the Pittsburgh Ballet before arriving in Washington in 1991, around the time when whispers of an expansion and renovation of the Arena Stage began.

Since then, he has worked feverishly to raise money for the project by making constant calls to potential donors and setting up meetings with people with money to spend. To pull it all off, the theater must raise $100 million, a hefty amount especially given the drop-off of patrons right after September 11, and a base of visits from schools that can plummet with any warning of terrorist attacks.

The good news for Mr. Richard is that the District views the Arena Stage as a vital cog in plans to redevelop the Southwest Waterfront with new homes, retail and open space.

“[The job] has stress, but it also has an excitement that’s phenomenal,” he said. “For a nonprofit organization to do something of this magnitude … it takes full community buy-in. It just takes time.”

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