Follow the artist

When Artistic Director Molly Smith joined Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage 25 years ago, her mandate was to focus the theatre on American plays, American voices and American artists, while honouring her commitment to diversity and equity. As she prepares to retire, Juliette Barber catches up with the indomitable doyenne and looks back on her lasting legacy

Before you came to Arena Stage, you were founder and Artistic Director of the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska for nearly 20 years. What did you learn from your time there and how did it help you at Arena?

One of the most powerful plays we commissioned at Perseverance won the Pulitzer. But it was the play that almost didn’t happen. Perseverance and the Pew Foundation had created a commission for Paula Vogel to write a play about the castrati and I was excited when Paula came to Juneau to write. When she got off the plane, I could tell she was pregnant with her ideas and ready to go. But Paula said the castrati play was not the play she was ready to write, she was ready to write How I Learned to Drive [which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize]. I swallowed my disappointment, and within two weeks How I Learned to Drive was born. The play she wrote in 1997 is almost exactly what an audience sees now and it taught me a very important lesson: Follow the Artist. Because the artist always knows where they are going. You can support, nudge and give inspiration, but it’s their job to write what is within them.

When you came to Arena Stage 25 years ago, you were one of the few women to hold an Artistic Director position in a leading international theatre. That must have not only required a certain type of resilience but also been incredibly exciting.

It was an honour, a privilege, and a challenge! Following in the footsteps of the great Zelda Fichandler [Arena’s Founder], Nina Vance and Margo Jones, I was among the second generation of leaders of the regional theatre revolution. The desire to create theatres in one’s hometown instead of going to commercial theatre in New York, instead of waiting for touring productions, real indigenous theatre, created out of one’s community and authentic to that community – that’s what these pioneers wanted. 

As a woman, I have championed women’s voices and causes. You have to be fierce, you have to have metal. I believe in the resident movement of theatres – I’m a child of it. Now we are the group passing the baton to the third generation. 

What was the landscape like then and how has it changed over the years? 

One of the most important parts of my creative life has been working on new plays. Although Arena had launched some new projects in the first 47 years, it was not top of the mind for the organisation. Arena did more classics. When I arrived, I turbo charged the idea of new work. This opened us up to a diversity of artists and because of this central change in mission, our audiences became much more diverse. Your repertory defines the audiences you have within a surprisingly short period of time. There was a major shift and when I started, new work had the smallest audiences and now our largest audiences are seeing new work.

Since joining Arena Stage you have workshopped more than 100 productions, produced more than 50 world premieres, staged numerous second and third productions, and been a key part of nurturing nine projects that went to Broadway, not to mention the many awards you have received. But which projects have stood out?

There have been many, many memorable highlights. The first is Oklahoma! in 2010, opening the Mead Center for American Theater. There were sceptics about choosing this Gold Standard Musical for such a momentous occasion. We live in a world of multiple experiences, races, genders, religions, cultures and more. I want my work to reflect that world and allow it to illuminate the material I’m exploring. In Oklahoma!, we were the first theatre to cast a Latino-American actor as Curly and African Americans as Laurey and Aunt Eller, in addition to creating an ensemble filled with actors from varied racial backgrounds. Now there is not a theatre in America that would consider producing a majority white production of Oklahoma!.

My Body No Choice was a really exciting project. This was my moment to stand in the fire of my ideas. In the wake of the supreme court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, I felt it was essential that we raise women’s voices about the impact of these decisions on our bodies. Some of the men I spoke with after seeing it admitted that they understood intellectually what women were going through, however the monologues socked them in the gut and made the force of sovereignty over one’s body real and unforgettable for them. The power of theatre!

Another highlight is [the historical drama] Camp David, because I got to speak with, and got to know a little bit, President and Mrs Carter. I was delighted to be able to interview President and Mrs Carter about their experiences at their home in Plains, Georgia, and they attended the opening night, which was nearly a State Dinner. Both of them had tears streaming down their cheeks after the show. It was a landmark experience.

You’ve been instrumental in building Arena Stage’s legacy. What are you most proud of?

I am extremely proud of the three big ideas I brought forward during my time at Arena.

My first is to focus on American artists, American ideas and American stories. I knew our backyard was rich, fertile and diverse, and was ready to spring forward with American writers. As I mentioned before, your repertory defines your audience, and this focus opened us up to a diversity of artists and correspondingly, our audiences became much more diverse.

Second is reimagining the Gold Standard Musical. The Gold Standard Musical has stood the test of time and is muscular in its approach to storytelling, music and dance. To reinvent this, one needs to see the story from today’s point of view. The darker side of these musicals becomes apparent because they mirror the sexism and prejudice of the times when they were written. Many eras were not the “good old days” for everyone. I have found three specific ways to reinterpret these wonderful musicals for today’s audiences through casting, action and interpretation, and line changes with the consent of the writers or the estate.

My final one is Power Plays. Power Plays is an ambitious commissioning initiative, developing 25 new plays and musicals from a diverse mix of writers, composers and lyricists taking on American stories of politics and power, exploring the people, events and ideas that have helped shape our country’s narrative and identity. With one story per decade from 1770 through the 2010s, these works show America at its best and at its worst. It’s been bracing to bring people together who may not otherwise find themselves in the same room and introduce audiences to historical figures or issues and ideas they may not know or understand. Power Plays embraces the diversity of our country to understand who we are as Americans.

Although you’re leaving in July, I know that you have played a large role in planning the 2023-24 season already – is there anything you can share at this time?

I wanted to alleviate the pressure on my successor to immediately plan a season, so along with my incredibly talented artistic team, we selected an exciting and bold season. Six projects including two musicals, a play with music, a comedy, a Power Play commission, and a project with Step Afrika!. The line-up will also feature the return of the crowd-pleasing Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show during the holiday season.

It’s dynamic, powerful and full of something for everyone.

As you look to your retirement, what do you hope is your lasting legacy?

As I was evolving, I searched fiercely for D.C.’s voice in theatre. I realised that our unique voice is political. Our greatest gift is the right to free speech. I believe it is our purpose as theatre makers to bring all voices forward. These stories educate. They challenge. They promote understanding. They illuminate. They can change minds and open minds. We welcome dialogue and fierce conversations because we believe that as a nation, we become stronger when all voices are heard. 

What piece of advice do you hope to pass on to your successor?

Follow the artist. Let the projects lead. Listen to your colleagues and staff – even when it’s hard!

And finally, with a little more spare time on your hands, what are your plans for the future?

About a year and a half ago, I returned to something I did 50 years ago at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks: pottery. I’ve always peered into studio windows with a certain longing as I looked at the pots. Instead of waiting until I retire to trundle into a studio with all my tools, I thought why not now? I’m learning more about myself as an artist in pursuing pottery. I love each step and have a beginner’s mind about the process. I’m a novice and it feels good to be a beginner after being an expert for many years. Additionally, we will travel as much as possible: we’re going to Greece and Sicily and Berlin this summer, spend time at our cabin in Alaska, and rediscover the joys and amazement of experiencing the world.

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