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Women Bisnow
October 15, 2007

From Grizzlies to Groundbreaking Theater

This issue of Washington Women is brought to you
by Ernst & Young: "Quality in Everything We Do."

By Karin Tanabe

It’s every child’s dream. You wake up one morning right before your senior year of high school and your parents tell you you’re moving to sunny Alaska. At 16, Molly Smith, Artistic Director for Arena Stage, decamped from Washington State and headed to Juneau, which she loathed for the first couple months. What about the disproportionate number of men we ask her? “The odds are good but the goods are odd,” Smith says with a laugh.

SW Washington’s Arena Stage has been a pioneering force in theater since its inception in 1950. The first theater to receive a Tony outside of New York, the first to bring a play to the Big Apple, and the first theater in the Washington area to achieve an integrated audience, Arena is now focusing on new American works.

Beginning her 10th season with Arena Stage, Molly knew she wanted to run a theater by the time she was 19.

Having come to love her northern habitat, Smith attended the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and then came to Washington for graduate work. “I had a really cheap subscription to Arena,” remembers Smith, who at 26 moved back to Juneau to start a theater company.

“My husband was in the military at the time,” says Smith, who recounts that everyone thought she was crazy for going back. But she was determined. “I bought 50 used theater seats from a Washington DC porno film house and had the US Navy ship them to Juneau by truck and barge. Then it all started to come together.”  She met actors, directors, and set designers at places like hotdog stands. The aptly named Perseverance Theater was born and soon garnered a reputation as the little theater that could.

The company toured all over the 49th state, taking tiny planes across the tundra to obscure fishing communities that had never seen anything like it. “We did a lot of work that was indigenous. The theater that we see on stage should be reflective of the community, the people that we see in our streets. That is what we do in DC.” After 19 years leading Perseverance, Molly came back to Washington to be Arena’s Artistic Director. “It was very hard for a woman to rise to the top in theater at that time. In fact it still is. There are only 4 women at the helm out of the top theaters. But women are starting to break the glass ceiling with their stiletto heels,” says Molly with a kick.

All good things must come to an end. Arena employees strike a set as Smith strikes a pose.

DC is often considered the strongest theater city in America after NYC. When Molly came to Arena she was faced with a theater that already had a glittering history. “So I said, what’s next? A focus on American plays and American theater. Not many theaters do that.”

Molly in her office flanked by memories of Alaska. She is currently building a cabin on stilts 90 miles from Juneau, but in close proximity to 14 grizzly bears.  It has no running water and lots of salmon fishing nearby.

Youth, “full of grace, force, fascination”—Smith knows that many young theater buffs don’t have funds to match their fervor. This spring Arena adopted a program where patrons under 30 can pay $10 per ticket. “It’s the same price as a movie,” says Molly, who directs two works out of an eight show season. The Women of Brewster Place is currently on one of Arena’s two stages and Death of a Salesman and Ella are coming soon.

These works will not be gracing Arena’s historic stages but are crossing the river to Crystal City. Beginning December 28, all Arena shows for the 2007/08 season will be staged at the Crystal Forum, a movie house currently under renovation. Arena will remain in the Commonwealth, and other theaters in and around DC, for the next three years while the expansions to its home on 6th Street, SW, are under way.  Arena already boasts two theaters, and the renovation will bring in a third, a 200-seat theater called the Cradle. “It’s just for the production of American plays,” says Smith. “And I guarantee you that the Cradle will rock.”


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