When Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, Molly Smith, CAS/MA ’76, longtime artistic director of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, turned to the stage, sparking dialogue through monologues.
My Body No Choice—which ran for 18 performances this fall at Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle—was a collection of eight, all penned by female writers, on choice and body autonomy, from reproductive rights to the right to die. As part of the project, women and trans and nonbinary individuals were invited to share two-minute stories about choices they’ve made for the theater’s digital media channels.
“Women haven’t been open or willing to tell their stories because there’s been so much shame and fear around abortion rights,” Smith said in September. “Unless women start talking, people can always put it on the back burner. They can put it to the edge of the screen.” In bringing that conversation center stage, she completed her final directorial effort, capping off a triumphant 25-year run that officially ends in July 2023.
Smith, who returned to DC in 1998 after 19 years leading Juneau, Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, has propelled Arena Stage to many crowning achievements. Under her direction, the theater planned, fundraised for, and in 2010 completed a $135 million renovation to its Southwest Waterfront home. Nearly 150 productions “have come right out of the heart of Arena Stage” to theaters around the country. (Nine—including Dear Evan Hansen and Next to Normal—have reached Broadway.) The theater’s audiences and playwrights have become more diverse. And the Power Plays initiative, launched in 2016, is on target to deliver 25 political plays and musicals—one for each decade of American history—from a variety of lenses by 2025, further underscoring Arena Stage’s sense of place in proximity to the federal seat of power.
“The resident theater movement was about creating theaters that are resident in their own communities and are a reflection of that setting,” Smith says. “Politics is a reflection of DC, so that’s why that [political] work is important to me and important to [Arena Stage].”
For her second act, Smith is setting the stage for at least a few plans. She and her partner, Suzanne Blue Star Boy, will likely spend some time at their cabin in Alaska. Smith anticipates traveling at a clip she has been unable to maintain since her tenure at Arena Stage began. She’ll also spend some time throwing pots, having recently rediscovered the craft after a 50-year hiatus.
“And then who knows?” she says. “When you turn that page, you need to have a moment for the world to go a little fallow to see what’s going to come up. I know it’s going to be something because that’s just the way I am.”
Smith pulls back the curtain on DC’s best theater companies:
Woolly Mammoth: We don’t have a lot of experimental theater in DC. Woolly Mammoth, led by the incredibly smart Maria Manuela Goyanes, provides that missing piece. Cofounder Howard Shalwitz had it in his DNA, and the tradition continues, from lobby programming to productions.
Studio: A smaller, more intimate setting often allows Studio to have more open conversation with audiences. David Muse also does a great job with programming, mixing in productions people might have seen in New York.
Shakespeare: Classical theater for a contemporary audience is a difficult needle to thread, but longtime artistic director Michael Kahn and now Simon Godwin have managed it well. [Godwin] brings both a restless imagination and guts to his work.
Signature: Artistic director Matthew Gardiner brought freshness in taking that chair in 2021. The Arlington-based theater has pushed into a deep vein with musical theater—particularly with Sondheim—and been very successful with it.
Ford’s: I love the way theater director Paul Tetreault focused on Nancy Robinette—one of the most important actors in the city—in The Trip to Bountiful. Ford’s also consistently introduces families to the theater through its holiday programming.