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The Molly Smith era dawned this past weekend at Arena Stage, and one thing that can safely be predicted about the company’s future is: It’s gonna be bright.
Arena’s resident designers Allen Lee Hughes and Thomas Lynch have mounted a grid filled with dozens of tiny track lights over the entire ceiling in the main lobby. Some of the lights are aimed at shiny metal signs that most patrons won’t previously have noticed over the refreshment stand and the entrance to the Fichandler auditorium. Others are aimed at vibrant new chartreuse curtains and freshly bleached stone flooring, still others at huge color photos of Arena hits K-2, The Cherry Orchard, and Stand-Up Tragedy.
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Designed to conjure up memories of vivid moments from the company’s past, these photos, with their decidedly outdoorsy images of snowy mountain peaks, expansive fields of wheat, and prancing urban gangs, replace comparatively austere theater posters and donor plaques on walls that have themselves been brightened up with spot colorred-orange behind the refreshment stand, a splash of deep purple elsewhere.
Inside the Fichandler’s in-the-round auditorium, things are even brighter, though at present, that’s mostly because of the show in residence. The first things patrons will notice are a glowing-from-within glass-brick setting and the 18 mismatched chandeliers that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s designer has hung beneath the lighting grid. Still, there are structurally significant, if less obvious, changes offstage.
Chief among them are the burgundy panels covering the mezzanine boxes (originally thought to offer the hall’s most desirable seating, but never all that popular with patrons), reducing the 818-seat capacity to a more manageable 664. These cloth panels are designed not merely to increase intimacy for certain shows (they’re removable, so Marx Bros. musicals can still pack patrons to the walls) but also to infuse a little color into the place.
“Color and light,” the qualities idealized at Arena’s Kreeger Theater by the protagonist of Sunday in the Park With George, were factored into similar changes in that space, as well as exterior renovations that included painting the theater’s nameplate, once black, a more vigorous orange, and steam-cleaning the entire building and all its concrete walkways. New external lighting accents all this sprucing up, and logo flags in bright oranges and yellows will soon flap in the breeze near the theater’s entrances.
Some of this “brightening”the steam-cleaning, for instancequalifies as deferred maintenance on what is now a 37-year-old building, while other itemslike the flags and photosare obviously more discretionary. And the whole project is minor compared with the grand plans for Arena’s future reportedly being considered by the company’s board of directorseverything from glass-enclosed arcades to whole new complexes.
Still, Smith wanted to signal a new era, right from the start of her tenure, and making the theater more welcoming seemed a good way to do so. In terms of time, dollars (roughly $85,000), and resources expended, it cost the company about what it would to build and costume one extra show during the summer.