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Revitalizing a Local Stage

Arena Theater Will Stay in Southwest D.C.

The Arena Stage production company held a ceremonial groundbreaking on Wednesday to launch the construction of its newest stage in Southwest D.C., The Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle.

The event is part of a broader remodeling project, and marked the culmination of almost a decade of planning, said Stephen Richard, Arena Stage’s executive director.

Construction of the 200-seat theater is one of several upgrades that the production company will undertake on the grounds of its historic location in the Waterfront area. Other projects include a renovation of the Fichandler and Kreeger theaters — both of which have been a part of Arena Stage since the 1960s.

The company is taking a gamble on the revitalization of the Southwest neighborhood where the theaters have resided.

Richard said the board of directors decided in 1999 to keep the theater in its current location and not to move to a more affluent location in Northwest D.C. because the board wanted to give the neighborhood an economic boost.

“It would have been a nail in the coffin had we decided to leave [the Southwest quadrant],” Richard said.

The Arena Stage cashed in on its gamble Wednesday during the groundbreaking event, when a large construction crane removed the roof of a parking attendant booth, to pave the way for the company’s newest stage.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D), who attended the ceremony, said the expansion of the Arena Stage will be an asset to the Waterfront neighborhood.

“It’s really a tangible gesture to make good on a promise to the city,” Wells said, calling the theater “a jewel in a crown of many jewels.”

Charles Allen, Wells’ chief of staff, said Wells and his predecessor, Sharon Ambrose, have worked closely with the leadership of Arena Stage to help support the production company.

“I think [Arena Stage] wanted to stay and they’ve been a great neighbor in Southwest,” Allen said.

The D.C. government has given Arena Stage $30 million in grants over the course of six or seven years, Richard said, and is expected to loan another $10 million to the production company in order to help meet budget goals. Richard described the D.C. government’s financial support as “essential.”

Arena Stage will spend $125 million on its revitalization project, but has raised only $107 million to date, Richard said, despite some major donations by families like the Meads’ $35 million contribution and the Kogods’ $7.5 million.

The new Arena Stage — slated to be complete in time for the fall 2010 season — will link all three stages with a common lobby and a grand staircase. Arena Stage productions are currently being held in a temporary location in Crystal City, Va.

The project’s architect, Bing Thom, said he expects the new design to create a “town hall” feel, giving audiences the opportunity to congregate in the common lobby during intermissions.

“They can talk about the shows with each other,” he said.

The Cradle stage, which will be elliptical in shape, incorporates a new system of acoustics to support the theater’s unusual design, Thom said.

“Most experimental theaters are black boxes and [are] usually rectangular,” Thom said. “I said, ‘We can’t just do a normal black-box theater. We have to draw inspiration.’”

The end result required Thom and his architectural team to mold pieces of wood — shaped like a cradle — to form an innovative new acoustical design.

Thom said it has taken Arena Stage longer than anticipated to break ground on the new project, but he added that such delays are not unusual.

“All performing arts venues are labors of love,” Thom said.

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