Molly Smith has shifted Arena Stage’s focus to ambitious works on American issues—ideal for the DC audience.
Molly Smith’s 16th season as artistic director of Arena Stage features a delectable menu of American theater. And in an ambitious act of self-casting, she’s directing three of the 10 productions running in the 2013–2014 season.
Her first was The Velocity of Autumn, starring Estelle Parsons as a widow who refuses her children’s attempt to put her in a nursing home; the Broadway-bound show ended October 20. This winter Smith will direct Kathleen Turner in her return to Arena Stage in Mother Courage and Her Children. Opening January 31, the play focuses on a single mother trying to care for her family and save her business during the Thirty Years War. Smith calls the lead “one of the great roles a woman can ever play.”
Her last hands-on directing project is Camp David, about the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords brokered by President Jimmy Carter (opening March 23). To ensure authenticity, she spent a few days with the former first couple in Plains, Georgia, earlier this year—“a highlight of my life,” she reveals.
And although Smith is not directing the holiday-timed Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which opens November 29 and stars Arena Stage newcomer Malcolm-Jamal Warner, she believes that reviving the 1960s interracial romance will challenge audiences to see “if it has the same resonance today.”
Smith’s celebrated Arena Stage tenure represents her own Washington encore. While a pre-law college student in Alaska, her passion shifted from the courtroom to the stage. She came east to study in 1971, and six years later she had earned two theater arts degrees: a bachelor’s from The Catholic University of America and a master’s from American University. Returning home in 1979, she launched the Perseverance Theater near Juneau, and spent 19 years as its founding artistic director, focusing on Alaskan works.
Since her 1998 DC comeback, Smith, 61, has remade Arena into “a center for American work, American artists, and American voices.” She also presided over a $125 million renovation and expansion that produced the architecturally dramatic Mead Center for American Theater. The average age of Arena patrons dropped from 56 to 50 since her arrival, thanks to Smith’s clever mix of productions. She knows if she hooks fans when they’re young and single, “they may drop off to raise families, but they’ll return.”
It helps that the “sleepy Southern town” of her student days has become what she calls “a dynamic city, very much taking its place as a world capital. We can see this tremendous excitement in the city, new businesses, and the young people staying.
“Artists come here because our audience is part of official Washington—decision-makers who understand nuance and all kinds of material,” she adds. “Artists love to perform, produce, and direct plays here. Because our focus is on American subject matter, it’s even more interesting as a crossroads.” Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW, 202-488-3300