Toward the end of our phone conversation Tuesday, I ask Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith, if the company’s choice of Oklahoma! as its late-October season-opener—the first performance in its dramatic, glassed-in, $125 million Mead Center for American Theater on the Southwest waterfront—was a safe one, a surefire audience draw.

She demurred: Arena is devoted to American plays, and Oklahoma! is a classic American musical.

“It is a dynamic choice for the new center. It was written about a moment in Oklahoma history of great hope and optimism, in 1906, before it became a state,” she says. I cringe in anticipation of an Obama analogy, which never comes. “I feel that’s where Arena is. There’s hope and optimism and a desire to leap forward.”

Certainly all those things could be sensed Monday, the day Arena Stage’s staff moved into the new structure. (See more of Darrow Montgomery‘s photos here). I entered at the ground-level stage door, where hands and movers circulated in and out of the complex’s cathedral-like set shop, and through its elliptical, industrial-concrete halls. Upstairs, a slightly sweaty David Dower, the company’s associate artistic director, was lifting a computer tower. I first mistook him for an IT staffer.

“The stakes are higher in terms of people’s impression of us and whether the building was worth building,” Dower says, but he says financially, the company’s not worried. Preseason sales have been good, and there’s “pent up interest” in the new center.

But in several senses, the frontier analogy feels apt. Arena has expanded its mission during its two years in self-imposed exile—that’d be in Crystal City and at the Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW—to include in-house, full-time playwrights; more educational programs; more productions by visiting companies. It’s staying in Washington’s seemingly perpetual frontier, Southwest, despite briefly considering a move to Penn Quarter 12 years ago.

And it’s not in a position to get comfortable yet—it still hasn’t raised all of the $125 million it budgeted for the Mead Center, though it’s close.

For the last two and a half years, Dower shared a workspace with several others at Arena’s temporary headquarters in Crystal City. Before that, in the administrative office that used to bridge Arena’s theaters in this plot in Southwest, he worked out of “half a utility closet.” So he was happy to sit for the first time in his new office.

“It’s sort of like now it’s the mothership, like we’ve been living in our colonies for the last couple of years and now we’re coming home,” he says.

The expansion plans began more than a decade ago but came to a head as the world’s economy tanked.
By 2006, Arena had raised $100 million out of the projected $125 million construction budget, and managed to raise much of the rest by early 2008, when contractors broke ground. Vancouver-based architect Bing Thom says he eventually had to alter his plans when it looked like they would exceed the budget by about $20 million—as a result of inflation, he says: Twenty-one apartments for visiting actors, one of two levels of parking, and “water gardens” surrounding and inside the complex were scrapped. And the roof shrunk by about 150 feet.

That last downgrade was actually a plus, says Smith, who began conceiving the renovation at the beginning of her tenure in 1998: The resulting structure, facing the Washington Channel waterfront, is welcoming and dramatic but not imposing. And the cuts had no impact on Arena’s programming ambitions, Smith says.

The structure preserves Arena’s two existing, brutalist-style theaters while adding the 200-capacity, studio-style Kogod Cradle, whose weaved wood and spiraled form open into the atrium where patrons of all three venues may mingle once Arena begins using them simultaneously this spring. Thom calls the theaters “three jewels in a jewel box.”

The theater complex faces the waterfront, but it’s the desolate spaces on its other sides that Arena—and more crucially, the District government, which kicked in more than $30 million for the project—are hoping will see new life. “The biggest challenge here has been the paucity of audience services,” says Dower, who lives in Southwest.

He’s seeing more restaurants opening up on 4th Street SW, and new condos. There are crowds following baseball games. The prominent art collectors Mera and Don Rubell are building an art museum and hotel at the site of the Randall School in Southwest; Thom is its architect. Dower also says the Safeway, recently renovated, seems to have more customers these days.

And Dower says it’s good to return to the site that Arena first arrived at in 1960, especially compared to the corporate-feeling Crystal City HQ. “This is very clearly a building where art gets made,” he says.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery