Molly Smith, the artistic director of Arena Stage — the first company to be awarded the Regional Theatre Tony Award for its contributions to American performing arts — will complete her tenure after 25 years at the end of this season. But rather than looking back and resting on her laurels, Smith shares what she’s learned and how she’s kept her vision fresh. From streaming plays and film-live theatre hybrid works, Smith has remained focused on the next generation of performing artists and future classics of American theatre.
District Fray: Happy 25th season to you! At this point, you are the longest serving artistic director in the DMV. How do you keep the ideas fresh?
Molly Smith: Thanks, it’s a big celebration. I am surrounded by a really creative artistic team led by [Associate Artistic Director] Teresa Sapien. We meet on a weekly basis, and have lively discussions about ideas, about projects that are interesting to us. And I have conversations with friends and colleagues all across the country: What are they engaged in? What’s keeping them up at night? What artists do we really need to be looking at?
The world premiere of “American Prophet” was supposed to open two years ago. How does the play, which finally opens July 15, reflect the current moment?
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the composer Marcus Hummon and the director Charles Randolph-Wright continued to rewrite and go more deeply into the material. Charles and Marcus have written this play, but the credit also goes to Frederick Douglass, because a lot of the lyrics come directly from Douglass. This is about Douglass as a young, vital man in the process of becoming a prophet, a real revolutionary; it’s about racial injustice and how an enslaved man was able to free his people. It’s an ideal time to be opening this show.
What should we look forward to in “Sanctuary City”?
We have all heard a lot about immigration, but not many plays look beneath the covers to allow us into the lives of people struggling to be Americans. The two characters in “Sanctuary City” speak in the poetry of everyday language. We follow their lives as they fight to establish a place for themselves and each other in America. It offers a realistic view of our country’s promise of safety and responsibility, through humor and heartbreak.
I’d love to hear more about next season’s “power plays,” these newly commissioned works about power, politics and representation that are now coming to fruition after years of development.
Well, interestingly enough, “The High Ground” was commissioned five years ago. This was at a time where not very many people knew what happened during the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Playwright Nathan Alan Davis’s piece actually has evolved into a very elegant meditation on what happens with trauma in the body and in the spirit over time. “Exclusion” is one of the most wickedly funny new plays that I’ve ever read, because playwright Ken Lin knows Hollywood inside out and understands what happens when the story that you’re writing as a serious writer becomes Hollywood-ized.
What about this revival of a 1920s rom com “Holiday”?
“Holiday” is a true page turner, the story of a young man who wants to reverse engineer his life. So instead of retiring at the end of his life, he’s retiring right before the 1929 stock market crash. And for people who love to see great costume designs, that’s going to be in full force at Arena Stage.
And then there’s “Ride the Cyclone,” which seems like a wild ride.
We’re doing this co-production with the McCarter Theatre Center. It has a crazy plot, darkly subversive: A group of kids from a Canadian choir all die in a roller coaster. Karnac the Magician tells them that the one who tells the best story will live. It’s like the “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or the “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” It’s one of those shows that develops a cult following.
You are staging one of the great contemporary American epics: “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.” What’s new in this production?
It’s 30 years old, but when you read the play, it feels like it was written yesterday, and it’s time for somebody from an entirely different culture to come in and reexamine it. And that’s János Szász, a Hungarian director, whose work I first saw over 20 years ago. He is deep, he’s dangerous in his work. I think audiences are going to be provoked by it, the kind of thing that’s going to send shivers up your arms.
During the pandemic, it was pivot, pivot, pivot. Arena did a great job with that, moving from a live theatre to a film production company. What was the takeaway from the pandemic for theatres as far as experimenting and innovating?
The pandemic was a real game-changer for us at Arena. Finding a meaningful way of connecting with our audience meant we produced five different films — films created around the “51st State” or created through our community engagement program. I think we’re going to see more innovations on stage that combine film and theatre, because more people received training in filmmaking during the pandemic, so they bring that technical sophistication and those ideas with them. We’ve developed and evolved “Arena Riffs” by commissioning artists to do five- to six-minute pieces from different storytelling angles about the plays we are doing this season. It’s a way to continue using the creativity that we were fostering with filmmaking and keep feeding it into the main season.
Finally, what’s your parting advice for anybody who dreams of being an artistic director for theater?
Hold on. You’re going for a ride. I’ve been fortunate to do this for 25 years, and it is absolutely joyful. But it is also challenging. Every single part of me is used up every day from my brain to my heart to my soul. And it’s a total thrill.
What was the last play you saw in D.C.?
“Our Town” at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
What’s your favorite restaurant in the DMV?
Rasika. I love the flash-fried spinach served with chutney. It’s delicious.
What’s your go-to coffee order?
Three shots of decaf espresso over ice with light water. Anybody who can tell you the difference between decaf and caffeinated is crazy.
If you weren’t Arena’s AD, what would you be?
A potter throwing pots. I just began about seven months ago at Hinckley Pottery in Georgetown. I love it.
Do you have an opening night tradition or ritual?
I have a night-before-opening ritual if I’m directing something: I completely give the play away. I don’t give anybody notes on opening night. I just let the show go.
What’s a dream play that you haven’t yet directed?
I’ve been really lucky. I’ve directed most of what I want to direct.
What are you most excited for in the upcoming season of D.C. theatre?
I’m most excited about “Angels in America.” And I really am curious to see “Clyde’s” over at Studio Theatre.