With an open house attended by thousands, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater celebrated its rebirth on October 23rd with a public ribbon-cutting ceremony and full day of performances, activities and tours of the new facility. The festivities continued on Monday evening with an inaugural black-tie event attended by Washington DC elite and Broadway stars Brian Stokes-Mitchell and Alice Ripley. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama lent their support to the opening as honorary chairs, and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and his wife Michelle Fenty served as honorary co-chairs of the celebration. Local website, The Washington Scene: The Hill reported the event and noted, “A beautiful and animated crowd mingled and enjoyed the entertainment and dining but most of all reveled in the beauty of Bing Thom’s elegant structure. A new icon has been added to the Washington skyline. It was appropriately welcomed.” The new building, designed by Bing Thom Architects, one of Canada’s most renowned architectural firms, has re-imagined this legendary theater and re-created a cultural destination in Southwest Washington, DC. With the opening of this new $135-million facility, Arena Stage becomes the second largest performing arts complex in Washington after the Kennedy Center and will be one of the country’s leading centers for the production, presentation, development and study of American theater.
As one of the most important and trailblazing regional theaters in the United States, Arena Stage has a rich history. It began in the 1950s and, like many theater companies, started in found space. By the late 1950s, the company had grown and was strong enough to commission Harry Weese (the legendary architect who went on to design the entire Washington, DC Metro system) to design a theater to its specifications. In 1961, what is now known as the Fichandler Stage (named for Arena Stage’s founder Zelda Fichandler) opened—the first "in the round" permanent theater to be built in North America. This theater and a modest support building were followed by the Kreeger Theater in 1971, a modified thrust stage, also designed by Weese. Both theaters are considered architecturally significant enough that Washington, DC has listed them as Historic Structures. Despite the strength of Weese's architecture, Arena Stage suffered, along with the rest of its surroundings, from the brutal "urban renewal" program in the 60s and 70s that decimated the historic neighborhoods of Southwest Washington. In the late 90s, under the direction of Molly Smith, Arena Stage began to reinvent itself and Bing Thom Architects won the commission to redesign Arena Stage in 2000. Considering the rich history of the property, BTA was faced with the challenge of maintaining the original listed historic structures while effectively doubling the size of the overall facilities, improving the acoustics and creating an innovative design that lives up to the strength of the original.
BTA devised an ingenious plan that saves and reuses the two original, historic theater buildings—while adding the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, a versatile new theater. This new complex has reconsidered the building typology and inverted many of the typical assumptions of theater design. For example, the administration areas overlap with the passageways between the construction shops and the theaters. Not only is this arrangement unusual, but these uses have been put on public display, visible from the street for all to see. Similarly, the “kitchen,” the common room where all artists and staff relax and interact, is also visible through screened openings that look into the public lobby. By wrapping all three buildings in an insulated glass skin and topping them with a heroic, 475-foot-long, cantilevered roof, BTA combines the old and new to create an imaginative and forceful theatrical compound that has already become a catalyst for the revitalization of Southwest Washington DC. This new enclosure provides critical acoustic improvements by isolating outside noise while still maintaining the integrity of the historic buildings. The glass is held in place by a system of 18 large, heavy timber columns (each one between 45’ and 55’ tall and each supporting more than 400,000 pounds of load on average) that also support the roof. Made of an engineered wood product called Parallam, the columns have an elliptical shape to reduce their visual impact, and are spaced 36 feet apart so that the building still feels quite transparent. This is the first structure to employ heavy timber on this scale in modern Washington, DC, and also the first application of this efficient form of hybrid wood and glass building enclosure in the United States. The roof cantilever above salutes the Washington Monument, summoning visitors and establishing Arena Stage as one of the preeminent landmarks of the new Washington.
The powerful and unique performance spaces that established Arena in its early life have been improved and expanded. The Fichandler and the Kreeger have been refurbished, each to attract specific audiences – the 683-seat, in-the-round Fichandler to re-invent major musicals as well as classic plays, while the 514-seat, fan-shaped Kreeger, will present intimate classic and contemporary works, as well as small-scale musicals. A new venue—the 200-seat Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle Theater—will nurture new and developing plays. The Kogod Cradle is a radical breakthrough in experimental theater spaces. Located in the heart of a spiral shaped structure, the oval shaped room successfully breaks theatrical and acoustic convention. From its spiral entry to the character of the walls defining the space, this room will be a new venue that is as adventurous as the work that will be performed in it. Architect Bing Thom states, “The design of Arena Stage was inspired by Molly Smith’s desire for ‘a theater for all that is passionate, exuberant, profound, deep and dangerous in the American spirit.’ In particular we are grateful for her courage and for giving us the opportunity to design a powerful new theater form for the Kogod Cradle. Together we have created a home for American theater that will allow audiences to interact not just with the art, but also with each other. We are convinced that the positive energy that will come from this building will send ripples—not just throughout Southwest Washington, DC but throughout the region and artistically even further.”
Not only does the new Arena Stage provide a 21st-century home for the theater and revive Southwest Washington, DC, but the center will also be a responsible and sustainable addition to the area. As Bing Thom says, “Buildings are not islands; they interact with and impact their surroundings in ways that architects are only beginning to address, and it is at this macro level that Arena is exemplary. The initial decisions made on the project’s location and its role in the urbanization and revitalization of a key area of the city are as relevant as ever in both the sustainability and the urban debates.” The retention and adaptive reuse of existing buildings in a location with close proximity to transit have a considerable impact towards reducing the carbon footprint of the project as a whole, both initially and throughout its life. The grouping of three theaters at a single location generates immediate and potential savings in the form of a shared lobby, administrative and production space. Furthermore, BTA paid close attention to technological concerns by creating efficient interior temperature zones and incorporating a chemical-free water treatment system. As BTA principal Michael Heeney states, “Architecture is a sort of stage set for life.” It is at the Mead Center for American Theater’s Arena Stage where BTA will open a new stage set for revitalizing the life of southwest DC’s residents.
BTA’s work at Arena Stage is already having an impact on the neighborhood. Art collectors and philanthropists Mera and Don Rubell have purchased the historic Randall School site, four blocks from Arena Stage, and have hired Bing Thom Architects to design a museum/hotel/residential complex. Other development around Arena Stage is also beginning to take shape in this long overlooked area. And, just weeks ago, a distinguished jury assembled by the Urban Land Institute named Arena Stage one of the 10 best new buildings in Washington, DC. The jury’s selection of Arena Stage was unanimous and enthusiastic.