Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater has announced that Artistic Director Molly Smith has decided to retire in July 2023. The Arena Stage Board of Directors will conduct a nationwide search to appoint a new Artistic Director to build on the pioneering legacy of the founder of Smith and Arena. Zelda Fichhandler.
Smith took over the management of this historic, internationally acclaimed theater – the first integrated theater in Washington, DC – at a time when female artistic directors at major theaters were in short supply. For 25 years and under his direction, Arena Stage has produced over 200 productions, championing the work of countless emerging and established playwrights.
Smith regularly breathed new life into classic American musicals such as South Pacific, everything is fineand Oklahoma!while developing and/or producing several Broadway hits, including Tony Award winners Dear Evan Hansen and next to normal. Plus, over 150 new works from the Arena, including the originalist and Destiny of desire, were produced in the United States.
“I came to Washington 25 years ago with an important mandate: we had to focus Arena on American plays, American voices and American artists,” Smith explains. “In this process, we tapped into a rich vein of talent for our stages. It was a bold move that brought our audiences and programming is becoming as diverse as America. And I’ve been fortunate to be able to do so with a remarkably talented and fully engaged staff who excel at bringing dreams to life.
Smith also led the design and development of the Mead Center for American Theater – one of Washington, DC’s most distinctive buildings – as a home for everything American voices, past, present and future. “With its walls of glass around the three theaters and its 65-foot roof, the Mead Center is built for American artists, who I always tell to ‘hit the roof’ with their performances,” Smith said. “In fact, 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 gone out, as it continues to spur development on DC’s southwest waterfront.
Smith’s theatrical innovations included the presentation of American history through the ambitious Power Plays Initiative which, by 2024, will have commissioned 25 plays over 10 years. Arena’s Power Plays include works by Lawrence Wright (Camp David); Edouard Machado (Celia and Fidel); Aaron Posner (JQA); John Strand (the originalist); Craig Lucas (Stockbroker); Kenneth Lin (Exclusion in the future Season 2022/23); and Nathan Alan Davis (Heightsalso in the next season 2022/23).
Edgar Dobie, Arena’s executive producer, has worked with Smith for 13 seasons and calls their day-to-day balance of ambition and ability an “incredible race for any partnership, especially when it’s passed with an artist and executive like Molly who knows his heart and his mind”. , and remains a pioneer. He continues: “With her talent and innate instinct to build a legacy worth protecting but also sharing, Molly is nothing short of spectacular.”
Decker AnstromArena Board Chair, paid a moving tribute to Smith: “Molly Smith has built an indelible legacy of excellence, creativity, inclusion and bold leadership during her remarkable 25 years as As Artistic Director of Arena Stage, Arena Stage, our Greater DC community, and indeed all of American theater will forever be better for what she has accomplished.
Born into an acting family, Smith’s early years in the theater have long since become an industry tradition. After earning her undergraduate degree at Catholic University and her graduate degree at American University in Washington, DC, she started Perseverance Theater in her hometown of Juneau, Alaska. “At age 19, I was crazy enough to think I could start theater in Alaska. At age 26, we dragged 50 used theater seats across the country and, by sheer willpower, Perseverance Theater was born.
“When I think of Molly Smith, these words come to mind: visionary, community builder, artist, provocateur, influencer, feminist, activist and leader,” said the award-winning playwright, performer, activist and entertainer. Tony Awards. Eve Ensler. “Arena Stage is a model for American theater in the way it supports writers, actors, and artists and nurtures working relationships with them over time. She has built a wonderful community in Washington, DC through her bold ideas, diverse programming, and awesome risks. She envisioned a grand new building and the Mead Center for American Theater was born. She will be greatly missed!”
“Molly Smith literally changed my life and the lives of so many others with her brilliant advice, impeccable wisdom, infectious laughter and genuine joy,” said theatre, television and film artist Charles Randolph- Wright, winner of Arena’s 2022 “American Artist” Award. Award and co-creator of Arena’s upcoming world musical premiere American Prophet, which will kick off its 2022/23 season. “Her influence is global, her loyalty is unwavering, and her heart belongs to the Smithsonian for the love she truly gave the world with her exemplary artistry.”
Randolph-Wright continued, “The past two years have seen a much needed toll and hopefully a seismic cultural shift, but Molly has been at the forefront of inclusion all her time at Arena and before. She has always demanded diverse, intriguing, challenging and important work, especially American work and voices, and in doing so she has led a revolution. She forced us all to become braver and stronger artists. Thank you for seeing us, hearing us and loving us, Molly!”
A lifelong citizen activist, Smith’s deep commitment to the community has touched over a quarter of a million lives through creative programming, including the Voices of Now festival for young artists and the Camp Arena stage. “Even during COVID-19, we continued to innovate by making five films. These included May 22, 2020a DC time capsule for a day in the life of 10 people during COVID [sic]and The 51st Statea film about the Black Lives Matter uprising in DC and a conversation about DC’s statehood.
Among Smith’s many accolades and accolades, he served as Creative Advisor to the Sundance Institute Theater Lab on several occasions between 1999 and 2004; named to the American University Alumni Hall of Fame in 2003; named “Washingtonian of the Year” in 2011; and named Director of Distinction by the Academy of Arts in Cairo, Egypt in November 2019. She made her Broadway debut in 2014 with The velocity of fallwhere Estelle Parsons was nominated for a Tony Award.
Smith received the Governor’s Award for the Arts from the Alaska State Legislature in 1998 and was inducted into the Washington, D.C., Hall of Fame Society in 2018. She holds honorary doctorates from American and Towson Universities . In addition to his many artistic accomplishments, Smith and his partner Suzanne Blue Star Boy, along with a group of Facebook friends, organized the March on Washington for Gun Control after the Sandy Hook Massacre.
Watch a video statement from Molly Smith on his decision to retire after his 25th Arena Stage season here.
Lily Molly Smithfrom director to Arena Stage here.
Arena stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, under the direction of artistic director Molly Smith and executive producer Edgar Dobie, is a national center dedicated to American voices and artists. Arena Stage produces pieces of all things passionate, deep, deep and dangerous about the American spirit, and features diverse and groundbreaking works by some of the nation’s top artists. Arena Stage is committed to commissioning and developing new plays and impacting the lives of over 10,000 students each year through its community engagement work. Now in its eighth decade, Arena Stage serves a diverse annual audience of over 300,000. arenastage.org