Arena Stage’s $135 Million Capital Revamp Makes Concrete Sexy

Arena Stage
The main entrance of the expanded Arena Stage in Washington. The curving glass walls enclose two circa 1960s stages and a new studio theater designed by Bing Thom of Vancouver B.C. The $135 million project reopens October 25, 2010. Photographer: Nic Lehoux/Bing Thom Architects via Bloomberg

Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) -- The Washington theater complex that sent “The Great White Hope” and “Next to Normal” to Broadway has revamped itself with an eclectic expansion by architect Bing Thom of Vancouver.

Flying in the face of the capital’s pomposity, Thom gave the pugnaciously concrete Arena Stage high glass walls that sensuously undulate along Sixth Street in southwest Washington. He ran a broadly projecting roof over the two existing theaters, the arena-style Fichandler and the Kreeger, and a new small venue called the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle.

Thom sweeps visitors up a curved staircase to a lobby of rounded walls, stairs and ramps that overlap and flow around the three venues as if they were islands.

Contrasting concrete with tapered wood columns, the Hong Kong-born architect conjures elegance with a touch of grit. Amid the swirling spaces, the dated Fichandler, with its unmistakable resemblance to a Pizza Hut, looks like it arrived at the wrong party.

There’s a method to Thom’s madness. The Fichandler was designed by Harry Weese, a key figure in Chicago in the 1960s and ‘70s. (He also designed the grand concrete vaults of Washington’s Metro.) At the time, the no-nonsense Fichandler and the later Kreeger signaled the avant-garde aspirations of founders Zelda Fichandler, Tom Fichandler and Edward Mangum.

By preserving Weese’s in-the-round auditorium, Thom preserves the legacy of this challenging, now rarely built theater form. The audience is seated on all four sides of the square room, with no one more than eight rows from the front. It’s a difficult configuration for artists, an exciting one for audiences.

‘Oklahoma’

Thom did not tamper with the plain cast-concrete interior, except to close off upper-level boxes for better acoustics. The room seats 683, almost 200 fewer than it used to. A multi-ethnic “Oklahoma” began performances this week.

The exterior of the 500-seat Kreeger visually disappears behind a new bar and beneath a dining space that overlooks the lobby action. Inside, it remains an unadorned 500-seat space with modified thrust stage painted dark blue. In an invisible upgrade, Thom maintained its extraordinary intimacy. “Let Me Down Easy,” written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith, begins Dec. 31.

Thom has added the 200-seat studio Kogod Cradle, a name that signifies artistic director Molly Smith’s intention to use the room to nurture new works. Thom wraps both audience and stage in a womblike oval surfaced in a handsome aubergine-stained basketwork of wood. Actors enter from high doorways at the rear of the curtainless stage.

‘Every Tongue Confess’

Thankfully Smith dispensed with the loading-dock ambience and dead acoustics of most black-box theaters in favor of this comfortably unassertive room that subtly builds audience anticipation without getting in the way of the performance. “Every Tongue Confess,” by young playwright Marcus Gardley, premieres Nov. 9.

Spending $135 million to more than double the square footage of a nonprofit regional theater complex in today’s chilly arts economy may seem foolhardy, but it is the culmination of a decade-long effort by Molly Smith. She will continue to commission new work but also nurture “those second and third presentations of plays that would otherwise get overlooked,” she said on a recent tour.

A $1.1 million Mellon Foundation grant supports the American New Voices Play Institute, which will host five resident playwrights. The Arena has been rechristened the Mead Center for American Theater to reflect the broadened mission and the support of Gilbert and Jaylee Mead, who gave $35 million for the renovation.

Thom has brought a welcome theatricality to the Mead Center without obliterating Weese’s legacy: making theater spaces that banish the distance between actors and audience. The Mead is an untidy collage, but that’s a comfort compared to the arid grandeur of the Kennedy Center. It should free Smith to keep pumping new life into American theater.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at jamesrussell@earthlink.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.