Dazzling waterfront edifice becomes an instant national theater landmark
Beginning this evening, Friday October 22, 2010, Washington’s venerable Arena Stage launches its gala re-opening weekend, celebrating its rebirth in a gleaming, attention-grabbing new facility that will open to the public for the very first time. Dark for roughly thirty months while Arena’s casts and crew mounted productions elsewhere in the area, Arena’s once aging complex has been utterly transformed into a multifaceted, landmark venue whose brash and quintessentially American aim is to propel the U.S. theater scene to still greater heights in this still-new 21st century.
Your reviewer was privileged to take an exclusive private tour of this new facility late last week, graciously escorted by Kirstin M. Franko, Arena’s Director of Media Relations, and Brian Ackerman, Bing Thom Architects’ hardworking and knowledgeable Site Coordinator who’s helping oversee the final details before the Center formally opens its doors this weekend.
But before we take a closer look, let’s start by taking a look back to help us put this new facility’s debut in historical perspective.
Arena Stage: Back in the day…
The smallest of the four quadrants that comprise the Nation’s capital, Southwest DC (SW), outside the Mall area, has long been the city’s least distinguished, architecturally speaking. A goodly chunk of the area had become disgracefully blighted after the Second World War, and much of the quadrant was bulldozed on the cusp of the 1960s to make way for what was then hopefully called “urban renewal.”
What was the city’s reward for all this destruction? A large, undistinguished mixed-use area with a generally antiseptic look and feel. Sterile, modernist apartment buildings and town homes—all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s—and a random office plaza or two are scattered within the area bounded by Maine Avenue and M and South Capitol Streets SW. To the south of M, a few troubled areas remain, butting up against some reasonably decent-looking and rather desirable condo and apartment complexes that make at least partial use of the quadrant’s extensive water views.
Aside from folks who lived and worked in SW DC, the quadrant remained little-known to outsiders, save for those who patronized its marina area and the city’s still bustling fish market docks, as well as the relatively undistinguished seafood restaurants plunked down in bunker-like complexes that obscured the water view for those driving down Maine Ave.
For years, the only other area draw was DC’s venerable Arena Stage. Occupying the peninsula of land jutting into the asphalt curve where Maine morphs into M, the Arena complex drew eager theatergoers from around the region—and sometimes much further—to savor some of the best professional theatrical productions in the country. Its 1967 production of Howard Sacker’s The Great White Hope attracted national attention and launched the storied career of James Earl Jones. The entire production moved to Broadway in 1968—marking the first time a regional production had made that difficult journey.
By the 1970s, the Arena complex housed two bustling theaters, plus a little black box afterthought called the “Old Vat Room” that for years was mostly occupied by Stephen Wade’s one-man song and story retrospective, Banjo Dancing—the Arena’s cash-cow version of the Kennedy Center’s evergreen, never-to-close whodunit, Shear Madness.
The complex itself, designed by Harry Weese, skewed into its oddly shaped urban parcel to make the most of the available space. Yet its bland exterior, consistent with the area’s character and the restaurants across the way, was not particularly distinctive. While the theaters frequently hummed with activity in the evening, the Arena was just another building commuters and tradesmen drove by every morning and afternoon during the commute.
But all this has now changed. Radically.
The Mead Center: A new national landmark
Realizing its aging complex was in need of a major renovation, Arena’s management hit upon a bold plan to go considerably beyond upgrading its theaters to current ADA compliance. The ultimate concept: a dramatic new national theater complex that would anchor professional theater in Washington in much the same way that the Kennedy Center now provides a focal point for the (mostly) musical performing arts.
The result: a dramatic, swoopy edifice of glass and concrete whose soaring postmodernist curves hearken back to the area’s modernist past while reaching out to the 21st century future. It’s a brand new national landmark, the most remarkable public building constructed here in decades, save perhaps for the Smithsonian’s intriguingly imaginative, cliff dweller-inspired Museum of the American Indian on the Mall.
Now rechristened “Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater” in honor of the new complex’s major benefactors, Dr. Jaylee M. Mead and the late Gilbert Mead, the new edifice arguably will inspire a complete re-imagination of the Southwest’s currently uninspiring waterfront area—once the still-lingering effects of the Great Recession begin to recede. In the meantime, the new theaters will bring life back into the near Southwest, perhaps kick-starting some much needed area redevelopment.
Designed by Northwest Canadian architect Bing Thom, the $135 million Mead Center’s gracefully curving exterior—inspired, perhaps, by a flock of seagulls soaring over the Potomac—is in many ways a visually intriguing marriage between Eero Saarinen’s quintessentially modernist Dulles Airport Terminal and the attention-grabbing curves of Frank Gehry’s popular public building designs. Arguably now Washington’s most forward-looking edifice, the new center’s space genuinely reflects its updated mission: supporting, developing, and staging American theater in the Nation’s capital, and, by extension, throughout the United States itself.
Like the Dulles Terminal, the Mead Center’s graceful, cantilevered, cast-concrete roof—one of the largest such structures in the United States—seems to float on an undulating sea of glass set at an angle that reaches out to the city, gracefully but intentionally following the flow of Maine Avenue. Thom’s building marks a decisive and welcome break with the angularity of the city’s surrounding commercial structures, providing a much needed challenge to area re-developers who still tend to favor easy-to-build (and cheaper) glass and concrete econo-boxes for their urban redevelopment and infill projects.
Let’s step inside: Something old and something new
Longtime Arena patrons will find the building’s main entrance in a familiar place, 6th St. SW. They’ll even catch a glimpse of the good old Fichandler and Kreeger Theaters, right where they left them some 30 months ago when Arena closed their building for renovations, wandering, along with their productions, throughout the Washington area as the lengthy renovation of the company’s old home commenced.
It’s good to see the old theaters, a bit like greeting two old friends—but what a reintroduction. Both theaters, including much of their old façades, are now contained inside the sweeping new structure that clothes the entire 200,000 square foot complex. According to the architects, the whole visual concept was inspired by the jellyfish, whose translucent exterior allows a glimpse of everything within.
Whatever the case, the new edifice literally “contains multitudes” to borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman. It’s a brilliant symbolic stroke, viscerally communicating that Arena’s new century will continue to build and expand on those traditions that successfully transformed this once purely regional company into a living national theatrical landmark.
A Walking Tour
Entering the Center lobby, visitors and theater patrons will still feel as if they’re outdoors, though they’ll often be glad they’re not during Washington’s frequent spring monsoons and icy, wintry rains. To their right, they’ll discover an expansive, glassed-in ticket lobby, sunken a few steps below grade to separate the space from the main lobby complex. This area should go a long way toward reducing lines for ticket purchases and will-call pickups.
Once inside, patrons will also get a better idea as to how the building’s massive concrete roof is actually supported. At a distance, a bit like Saarinen’s Dulles Terminal, this roof seems to be actually supported by the glassed exterior that sweeps down to ground level. But when you look back on the building from the outside, you’ll note that the roof is actually supported by a series of large pillars.
While Saarinen’s concrete roof is held up by concrete supports that seem to flow into it, Thom’s innovative pillars, while wholly functional, also bring a bit of the flavor of the American and Canadian Northwest into the lobby. Of widely varying lengths, due to the various interior elevations of the structure, Thom’s supports are built of engineered parawood, a renewable East Asian resource. The wood was stranded and re-engineered in Canada, and finally re-formed into pillars with the help of a durable epoxy mix.
Die-hard home renovation fans will readily perceive that this procedure for creating what the architects call “parallam” is not far different from the construction of “glue-lam” support beams, now in increasingly common use in upscale home construction. Stronger than structural steel, these are often employed in home renovations as well, offering a code friendly alternative that helps open up and unite interior spaces once necessarily enclosed by traditional load-bearing walls and headers.
The engineered wood supports are tapered on both ends for a modernistic effect. Yet in an odd way, they also create the impression of a wood or log-beam chalet you might find near Thom’s Vancouver HQ—or, better yet, around the former Juneau, Alaska haunts of current Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith. Providing added support, the parallam beams are tied in, at intervals, to the window frames with additional parallam struts, no doubt to prevent the glass from bowing outward.
As you walk through the Center’s magnificent glass and sealed concrete lobby—whose space is broken up and softened by stylish red and brown inset carpeting designed by the architect’s designer wife, Bonnie Thom–to your left you’ll spot the good old Fichandler, Arena’s reliable, squared-off 683-seat theater in the round. Up and to the right is the 514-seat Kreeger, Arena’s more traditional stage. Upon entering each, alert Arena veterans will breath a sigh of relief when they see that the interiors of these fine theater spaces have remained largely intact.
Both theaters, however, have been refurbished in a variety of tasteful and helpful ways. The old seats are still there, but, as in the case of the Kennedy Center’s recent renovations, they’ve been completely reupholstered and refinished with neutral, updated color schemes. I got a chance to try them out. They’re much more comfortable than the refurbished seats in the KenCen’s redone Opera House which I complained about several years ago. There are also improved provisions for theater patrons using wheelchairs, and some of the railings are removable for that purpose, depending on need.
Additional railings have been provided where needed. “That’s so patrons going down the steps don’t have to use the shoulders of people sitting in the aisle seats,” said Franko with a laugh.
Walls and overhead spaces in both theaters have been improved, both with regard to lighting as well as acoustical properties, creating spaces where the sound should be even more immediate that it was previously. HVAC systems in the theaters as well as throughout the entire complex are brand new, state-of-the-art equipment and will prove, no doubt, to be a major energy—and overhead expense—improvement over the previous complex according to Ackerman.
An added plus in the Kreeger: newly redesigned ceilings in the balcony provide better light and a more spacious feel. Another: the sound and control booth on this level is now open in the center, enabling the techies to hear the same things the audience is hearing which should help them tailor the sound for each performance even more effectively.
About those “necessary rooms”
While in the main lobby area, I was offered—and accepted—a special bonus tour of the facility’s brand new main rest facilities, specifically the (unoccupied) ladies’ room. Don’t laugh. Over many years of reviewing concerts, operas, and plays I’ve overheard many a snarky critique of actors, singers, and productions from always lively and highly opinionated ticketholders. But none have ever compared with the high-decibel rants I’ve overheard emanating from incensed female patrons frustrated and disgusted by inadequate and/or unkempt bathroom facilities.
Though I admit to lacking an additional X-chromosome, I believe that Arena’s female patrons will quickly agree that the Mead Center’s primary women’s rest facility could very well be DC’s best ever in a public space. Not only is there superb “potty parity” here—20 stalls, count ‘em—but the space itself, including the wash area, is one of the finest examples of clean, functional modernism I’ve yet seen.
A long, bar-like row of brilliant, white, contiguous washbasin/vanities–with spigots that stretch far enough into each basin to prevent the irritating knuckle-rapping that results from cheaper, shorter fixtures—is set into a curvy, indirectly-illuminated wall finished in gleaming white Venetian plaster burnished to a fare-thee-well. And the best touch of all—no mirrors.
Not to worry, though. There are plenty of them. Just not where you might expect. A series of nearly body-length mirrors is set at right-angle intervals in the walls opposite the washbasins. (Which, BTW, are finished in a marvelously contrasting burnished red Venetian plaster.) The practical idea here—and it’s a good one—is to improve the traffic flow, by allowing some patrons to access the washbasins while their predecessors step to the rear of the area to perform any necessary appearance adjustments prior to re-entry.
Bonus factoid: at the rear of the women’s wash area, just past the final mirror at the north end, the room’s original design ended in an exterior wall, according to Franko. But at the urging of staffers, the wall was opened here to accommodate a narrow window. In addition to bringing in some natural light by day, this window, mirabile dictu, also provides a perfect view of the George Washington Monument.
A positive note for Y-chromosome patrons: The magnificent, aforementioned ladies’ rest facilities don’t achieve potty parity at the expense of the men as is usually the case in a major remodel. The Mead Center’s men’s facilities, utilizing the same color schemes seen in the ladies,’ are also more than satisfactory. Ultimately, both sexes will very much appreciate not having to endure lines that stretch beyond the Beltway for those important personal moments that occur at the beginning minutes of each intermission.
Enter the Kogod Cradle
Moving back out to the main lobby, there is, as Steve Jobs often says at Apple events, “just one more thing.” And that’s Arena’s addition of yet a third theater space, the brand new “Kogod Cradle.” Replacing, in a way, the inadequate and long-gone Old Vat Room, this intimate 200-seat performance space is designed to comfortably house smaller productions, readings, workshop productions, and perhaps even some purely musical performances.
Some have called the Kogod a “black box.” But it’s not that at all. It is, quite simply, a unique, elegant, small, carefully designed and configured performance space that promises to have such good sound qualities that Arena folks may soon find chamber music ensembles clamoring to rent the theater.
Accessed off the lobby, your brief trek to the Kogod is a bit like a miniature mountain-climbing adventure, at least the first time. You arrive at the interior space by climbing a ramp that circles the theater—actually a modified oval—at a very gentle incline. As you ascend the spiral ramp, you’re embraced—embraced, really—by a curving basket-weave wall on each side, each clad in hand-stained poplar strips specially designed and cut to fit each curve in a precise, pre-determined pattern. (Arena has billed the color of these walls as “eggplant” but it looks more like a warm brown to moi.)
As the lobby disappears from view, so, too, do the Center’s curtain-like exterior windows, and along with them, the lobby light. The whole experience is like entering a new, Hobbit-like realm, particularly when the ramp opens out once again into the beehive-like theater space, again clad in those deep brown, basketweave strips. Brian Ackerman notes that staffers have dubbed this unusual entryway “Bing’s Journey”—an affectionate hat tip toward the project’s imaginative architect. Quite simply, it’s a stunning effect.
The theater area effectively floats on twenty isolation pads, assuring the space of maximum acoustic separation from the periodic hubbub emanating from the main lobby area. Making things even more intimate, the Kogod’s steeply raked seats are arrayed in individual, continuous rows, a bit like church pews. Unlike church pews, however, the seat cushions—trust me—are quite comfortable. Individual seating areas are bounded by simple, integral chair arms so that each patron is assured of more-than-adequate personal space.
The Kogod’s orchestra pit is actually underneath its stage, according to Ackerman. Additional space can be created and/or accessed by collapsing and rolling back the bottom few short rows of seats, creating a great deal of flexibility in the performance area.
Attention: Foodie Alert
On the upper level of the Mead complex, accessible via stairwell or elevator, patrons will discover, quite literally, the Arena’s pièce de résistance. Newly christened “Next Stage”—or, perhaps, “Next Stage by José Andrés” (graphics were not yet in place during my visit), the complex’s new food court is the brainchild of its eponymous chief chef.
Already well-known in the area for Jaleo, Zaytinya, Oyamel, Café Atlántico among other popular dining venues, he has, according to Arena’s website, “partnered with Ridgewells, the premiere catering and event company in DC, to create José Andrés Catering with Ridgewells.” i.e., many of Andrés’ legendary edible artworks will be available at Next Stage before and after the performance and during the intervals of each show.
That’s a good thing, too. When the Arena expansion and renovation was planned, it was anticipated that the re-creation of Southwest DC would be well underway by the time the complex re-opened. Unfortunately, due to the current economy, the expected gourmet restaurants in the area have yet to materialize. Next Stage will go a long way toward filling this gap, and might even inspire a couple of new restaurant openings once the anticipated buzz gets out.
As most Washington theater fans already know, Arena Stage will officially open this weekend with tours, a gala opening show, and, of course, with a new production of one of America’s greatest musical shows, Oklahoma!. Happily, Chef Andrés intends to tailor Next Stage’s initial menu around that show.
Ranging from $5 to around $20, some of his Oklahoma!-themed edibles include “State Bird Wild Turkey Noodle Soup,” “Cowboy Caviar Salad,” “Chuckwagon” Panini combos, and a special “Bison Short Rib” special with sides like “Oklahoma Succotash” and topped off with desserts like an “Apple Charlotte” compote with “Conecuh Ridge Whiskey reduction.”
Andrés promises to continue drawing on Arena’s shows for culinary inspiration.
Of course, additional snacks and non-themed items will be available, as will a good selection of adult beverages. Box lunches will also be offered as will special fixed price dinners if ordered in advance.
The dining area on this level is separated from the kitchen/pickup area by a virtual water feature—virtual in the sense that it’s an informal, ground level sculpture of polished black river rocks that create the appearance of a riverbed. (An earlier design concept featuring an actual water feature was discarded for a variety of reasons.) Beyond this area, behind frosted glass, are staff areas we’ll explore shortly.
In good weather, the dining area will flow outside onto a generous outdoor plaza, perfect for those late spring, early summer, and late fall al fresco afternoon and evening repasts.
Backstage at the theater factory
The building, the shows, the stars, the politicians, and the food will all feature prominently this opening weekend. But what most people won’t see is the massive amount of behind-the-scenes space in the new Mead complex. Ingeniously designed into the building, and boasting, by and large, the same kind of windowed lighting that graces the public spaces, this vast area of the building houses everything from offices to meeting and rehearsal rooms to a substantial scenery and costume complex.
Beehive busy even when the theaters are dark, the Arena’s new support space houses approximately 100 fulltime staffers, according to Franko who also showed me what’s probably the best staff lunch room ever. Located adjacent to the Next Stage dining area and boasting a high-end stainless steel professional gas stove complete with a pair of ovens, the lunchroom also features a better-than-average fridge and a row of microwaves, along with plenty of sit-down eating space dominated by two of what I’d like to think of as Alaska-style, heavy duty, wild west wooden dining tables.
Such a space may seem like overkill to some. But in this hardly-bustling area of Southwest DC, one can imagine that staffers are more than grateful for a welcoming space for eating lunch and relaxing during breaks or informal meetings. Given that it’s also near some of the facility’s rehearsal and meeting spaces, it will prove handy for busy guests as well.
The lowest level of the new Center houses what could arguably be called Arena’s “magic factory.” A complex of massive workshops, containing state of the art tools and equipment, this is the area that houses Arena’s costume, paint, millinery, and set construction crews. Staffed with mostly full-time Arena employees, this is the place where the company’s special effects, props, period costumes all happen. And happily, the new area now brings under one roof, at last, all the people we never see—the folks who help to make the magic happen, the real powers behind the thespians who ultimately bring live theater to life.
Among these busy employees are full-time carpenters who build sets in a shop that’s so large they can test the whole shebang in their own area before knocking it down and transporting it to a given stage via the facility’s gigantic freight elevator. Also numbered among the staff are a fulltime hat maker and a “painter” who’s a lot more than that. With a paint shop all to himself, his tasks range from spray-painting a black buckboard wagon (the “surrey with the fringe on top” perhaps?) to creating surprisingly accurate faux-Rembrandts, to adorn an English drawing room set.
Where do we park?
Good question. The new complex does have its own underground garage. But it’s primarily devoted, understandably, to the staffers and thespians who make each show tick. A limited number of spaces will be made available to season subscribers on an annualized basis ($18 per show). Handicapped patrons may be accommodated with advance notice, and a limited additional number of nonsubscribers might be able to park here, first come first served, for $20.
As for everyone else… On theater nights, patrons can access paid parking in the new Waterfront Station development right across 6th St. SW for a flat rate of $10, according to Kirstin Franko. Some on street parking is available. But, as pretty much everywhere else in the District, you might need some luck in finding a nearby space on Maine Avenue or Water Street after the official 6:30 pm conclusion of rush hour. Arena believes that more parking will eventually happen, but this will take time. Best advice is to allow plenty of time for your first visit to the new Mead Center if you’re driving.
Meanwhile, however, the Metro’s Green Line Waterfront-SEU stop is only a block away from the new complex, adjacent to the newly re-constructed Safeway. Note: the immediate area has the reputation among some as being a little “dodgy” in the evening. But the area is well lit, the complex will be teeming with theater people on performance nights, and any safety concerns would seem to be largely unwarranted.
Additionally, Metrobuses and DC Circulator buses also will stop in front of the theater and at intersections nearby. Check here for the latest bus numbers and schedules.
…and now…It’s Showtime!
From dream, to concept, to plan, to reality, the magnificent new Mead Center is the crowning glory, the culmination of the effort of a legion of public and private donors, professionals, staffers, and, ultimately, theater aficionados throughout the area and around the country. The all-new Arena Stage promises to further cement Washington DC’s reputation as perhaps the best town for live theater in the US outside of New York.
The debut performance of Oklahoma! will inaugurate this new complex on Friday, October 22. The show then goes on a short hiatus until next week in order to make way for this weekend’s nonstop cavalcade of opening tours and gala kickoff festivities.
Arena Stage has taken upon itself a massive new mission on behalf of American theater in this most uncomfortable time of political and economic uncertainty. Failure can certainly be one outcome. But, given the enthusiasm and hard work on the part of Arena’s staff, patrons, and hardworking construction contractors (who came in on time and apparently on budget), it’s more likely that—as is often the case in the performing arts—the new Mead Center will prove not only a magnet for theatergoers everywhere, but the first step in the long-awaited rebirth of DC’s Southwest waterfront.