There was plenty of evidence in 2011 that Arena Stage is D.C.’s smartest, most ambitious theater. In its first full year in the Mead Center for American Theater, Arena hosted more—and more difficult—plays. It honored one of our greatest modern playwrights, Edward Albee, with an exhaustive festival. And it invested in new, not necessarily bankable plays via readings, discourse (including a disappointingly closed-to-the-public conference on fostering new work), and productions—its American Voices New Play Institute put playwrights on the payroll and guaranteed stagings. In a nice nod to the transparency suggested by the Mead Center’s sheer glass curtain, communications director Chad Bauman blogged about business practices like dynamic ticket pricing, shared his feelings toward social media (critic embargoes are basically evolutionary toast), and offered his take on subscription sales (the model’s not dead, just in need of tweaking).
So it was surprising, to say the least, to see the theater abruptly announce it was axing two new plays from its season. One, a musical version of the Laura Esquivel novel Like Water for Chocolate, was postponed because of creative difficulties and replaced with a touring production of The Normal Heart. The other, Tazewell Thompson’s play Mary T. and Lizzy K., was dropped from the schedule because Arena anticipated losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants. So has Arena reached the proving point of how much a regional theater—even a well-funded and well-run regional theater—can grow? It seems so, especially since this year’s remount of the classic American musical Oklahoma!, the longest-running play in Arena’s history, probably provided a financial cushion. Come next season, Arena needs to find the funding to pull off its ambitious programming. Otherwise, that shiny new building by the waterfront will begin to seem more and more like a white elephant.