Working In The Theatre: Arena Stage


Before Arena, there was very little theatre happening except for the little theatre movement in communities all over the country. Really had to go to New York or there were touring companies and Zelda Fichandler and two other women in Texas, really started the Resident Theater movement. It now has, in the in the not-for-profit resident theater movement, I believe around 1900 theaters operating all over the United States. So, one of the reasons why I’ve always loved Arena stage is because I think of Arena as the mothership and one of the first creators of this movement. I think it’s why theatre companies outside of New York are the ones most likely to be producing and creating Pulitzer prize-winning plays. Arena has a series of firsts that is probably unmatched in the country. It was the first theater to take a play behind the Iron Curtain. It was the first theater to have Monday night readings. So, we can bless her curse the theater for that phenomena. It was the first theater to have an endowment. The first theater to be racially integrated here in Washington, DC. It was the first theater to have a production go to Broadway. And that was The Great White Hope with Jane Alexander. And it was the first theater to receive the Regional Tony Award. When I was a student here in Washington DC, in the early 70’s, I had a mini season ticket to come to Arena Stage, so I studied everything that Zelda Fichandler did here. I started a theater Alaska called Perseverance Theatre. Which began in 1979. And I came here to be Artistic Director of Arena Stage in 1998 I was surprised at what had happened to the theater structure since I had been a student in the 70’s. I found the physical plant neglected falling apart in places, and it was really clear that arena needed to do something bold. I really wanted new theater focused on new American work. In our discussions with the architects, I began talking about this idea of a cradle and people kept saying to me, “It’s a black box.” And I said, “No, I’m actually not interested in black boxes. I don’t think black boxes actually work. And so at one point, the architect came in and he said I think it’s you really are talking about something that is like a Richard Serra sculpture that would go around and around and around and I thought that was a beautiful idea. It’s called, The Kogod Cradle because someone mentioned at a certain point, Oh my god you’re talking about a cradle, a cradle for new work. I was very interested to have everything under one roof. So for the first time in its history, everything from education, shops, rehearsal halls, admin, all of our production staf,f everything is under one roof. Because I think when everything is under one roof, you also have an electrical charge that goes through the building. I got started with Arena many years ago assisting Molly Smith on a production of The Music Man and many years later joined the team as the Director of Artistic Programming. I oversee a number of initiatives. One of them is the Kogod Cradle series which develops new work that is at any stage of development. It’s a way for us to engage our local artists, as well as a series that allows us to present National Artist of interest. This year we’re opening with Shoplifters, which is a world premiere by Morris Panych, one of Canada’s best writers. And it’s really exciting because it’s a new comedy. And how often you hear that. Very hard to write comedies and this is a comedy about our time about a shoplifter who actually has a political agenda [play dialogue] And help it Yeah I know. And I understand it’s, it’s it’s hard to accept that there is wrong in the world but we are not just talking about some ladies with steaks up their dresses. Who are the real thieves? Ask yourself. We don’t have to do this job, you know? Let people steal. Personally, I hate his fucking job. Shoplifters is a story about a woman who challenges the system. She’s someone who, in the course of the play, you discover has complex reasons for her interest in why she shoplifts. It’s an incisive look at a dynamic that happens in capitalistic cultures and in particular American culture. [play dialogue] You said we wouldn’t get caught. Getting caught’s part of the deal. You ever play poke with those Greek guys at Stamos. Play it like it doesn’t matter. You never said it was part of the deal. Well I’m saying it now. You and your limping. It’s my condition. Your condition brings on my conditions so don’t talk to me about your condition. I should have gone to work this morning Let me tell you something Phyllis you wouldn’t be thinking that if we were sitting down to dinner right now eating those steaks. I don’t need a steak. You don’t need a steak! Just look at these fucking things. My God. It’s gotta be two inches thick. Can’t you just hear ’em sizzling away? You are not a thief, stop acting like one. I feel like one. That’s their intention, to put us in their little morality play as if we have any choice in the matter. Don’t we? Can you afford these? We believe that what has been happening in the theater is more and more of our writers are disappearing. They’re going to film. They’re going to television because they can no longer make a living in the theater. And without our writers writing, they really are the initial life force within any theater piece. [play dialogue] No I wanted to read return of Tarzan Return of Tarzan is a kids’ book. Listed in the fantasy section. Sweetie it’s a sequel everyone knows sequels are subpar Maybe I just want to find out what happened to poor freaking Tarzan after he married Jane. I think with the advent of our falling in love with small screens and big screens. the need for human connection is even greater [play dialogue] Forget about last week Martin, he says Forget about it. After the march, the people is calling me chicken alla King. Said I was a commie coward who left other folks to clean up my mess. Martin Loser King. Like times been a little rough on you. Who you telling? Who are you telling? Theater is really the closest art form to our lives. And by that I mean the actor stands in for us. The actor actually acts out stories and we have the opportunity to see ourselves in and through the actor. One of the things that I love the most about the theater is in plays or in musicals there’s always a character with their back against the wall and we watch them fight their way out. [play dialogue] Just saying what he thinks, but you gotta admit this war has turned into a bit of a flop. How dare you! How dare you blaspheme against peace! Courage, you are a hyena of the battlefield. I’m a what? Insult this woman you answer to me. No it’s not you i’m speaking to. It’s quite clear what you are doing here. But when I say you take hold of this piece like some snotty old handkerchief. I’m sorry something in me call, it my humanity! yes my humanity rebels. You thrive on war you actually prefer it because money is the only thing you love. Well let me remind you of a saying, he who sups with the devil needs a long spoon. I have no love for war and war’s shown little enough love for me. I’m not even gonna argue with you. This is a very political city. It is a capital city. It is arguably the most powerful city in the country. And this is red meat for our audiences. I think Arena Stage is one of the theaters that official Washington comes to. And I know that conversations that happen onstage continue to happen offstage as well. So when we can, as a theatre company be part of opening up ideas and presenting questions. That I think is one of our most important functions [play dialogue] Without a Father are you here? I said line of Syria, the King of Jordan I am here. “Comrad Arafat, are you here Assad?”a That’s a list. So you can just roll on that right it should be the kind of thing that we just kind of start picking up these images is he here, is he here, is he here? Last year we created a new play called Camp David which was about the 13 days at Camp David when the Middle East peace accord was forged. The explosion that happened in this city because of this production was far beyond what any of us expected. [applause] President Carter was here. Mrs. Carter, Anwar Sadat’s widow, Secretary of State Kerry invited the whole cast over to the State Department to talk about out-of-the-box ideas in terms of peace in the Middle East. In the theater, we always have the hopes that we will move into everyday life and the everyday conversation. And this is a project that did this time and time again. Theater gets created between the actor and the audience. There’s a space in between us where the play gets created every night. And it has to do with the ideas, the thoughts, the memories that come from the audience to the actor and vice versa. I think it’s actually almost chemical. It’s why in the theater every single night is different. [End Credits]

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