The exterior of the Mead Center for American Theater, home to Arena Stage. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.
The Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater announced today that Artistic Director Molly Smith will retire in July 2023. This retirement will cap 25 years of visionary leadership with the company, including a transformative renovation and expansion of what is now the Mead Center.
An alum of Catholic University of America and the American University in Washington, DC, Smith moved to Juneau, Alaska shortly after completing her MFA in theatre at American University. While in Juneau, she founded Perseverance Theatre in 1979 and grew the organization into a celebrated regional theatre featuring both local and international voices.
In 1998, Smith moved to the Washington, DC area to take up the reins as Artistic Director of the Arena Stage – the third artistic director in its history, succeeding founder Zelda Fichandler (1950-1991) and her successor Douglas C. Wager (1991-1998). Over the past 25 years, Arena Stage has presented more than 200 productions, featuring numerous works by both emerging and established playwrights.
A champion of creating new works and finding fresh, stirring takes on classic musics, Smith frequently programmed classic American musicals such as South Pacific, Anything Goes, and Oklahoma!. These shows appeared side-by-side with new shows, many of them Broadway-bound – including Tony Award winners Dear Evan Hansen and Next to Normal. In total, more than 150 new works that premiered or were developed at Arena have been produced around the United States, including including The Originalist and Destiny of Desire.
“I came to Washington 25 years ago with an important mandate: we needed to focus Arena on American plays, American voices, and American artists,” said Smith. “In that process, we mined a rich vein of talent for our stages. It was a bold move that led to our audiences and programming becoming as diverse as America. And I was fortunate to be able to do it with a remarkably talented, fully committed staff who excel at bringing dreams to life.”
Smith’s visionary leadership also drove the design and development of The Mead Center for American Theater as a home for all American voices, past, present, and future. After a major renovation from 2008-2010, the theatre complex is one of the most distinctive buildings in Washington, D.C.
“With its glass walls around all three theaters and soaring 65-foot roof, the Mead Center is built for American artists, who I always tell to ‘hit the roof’ with their performances,” said Smith. “Zelda Fichandler called it the 8th Wonder of the Theater World. Today, our groundbreaking Mead Center contributes to our community long after the stage lights have dimmed, as it continues to drive development on D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront.”
Smith’s theatrical innovations included showcasing American history through the ambitious Power Plays Initiative which is currently scheduled to have commissioned 25 plays by 2024. This includes works by Lawrence Wright (Camp David); Eduardo Machado (Celia and Fidel); Aaron Posner (JQA); John Strand (The Originalist); Craig Lucas (Change Agent); Kenneth Lin (Exclusion, in the upcoming 2022/23 Season); and Nathan Alan Davis (The High Ground, also in the upcoming 2022/23 Season).