Oh, yeah, baby. Wow, just wow.
Welcome home to the Mead Center for American Theater
For the past two seasons, Arena Stage left its southwest waterfront home for an old movie theater in Crystal City and the venerable Lincoln Theater on U Street, NW. A capital campaign raised more than $100,000,000 of the $125,000,000 cost to completely reimagine the space. Now, Arena Stage has come home and will open the new complex in October with a gala day of free performances and then, a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!
What has two years and all that cash produced? The Fichandler and Kreeger Theater buildings are intact and as you walk into the immense new lobby space that links the two theaters with the new Kogod Cradle theater you will notice the former outer walls of the Fichandler space. There is an immense staircase, large glass enclosed elevators (no more one wheelchair at a time lift!), spacious box office area, and most dramatically the 35 foot glass windows/walls which while decorative also serve as a sound barrier. No more listening to the firetruck speeding by on Maine Avenue during that quiet moment on stage.
The three theaters have different color schemes, are fully accessible to the handicapped and the Fichandler, in particular as had some upgrades to its facility.
The classic theater -in-the-round space (really theater in a square) has had its seats re-upholstered in deep burgundy. The box seats, which were rarely in use for the past several seasons have been removed and new acoustic panels have been installed. New handrails have been installed in the aisles. The air system has been modified. There are air vents under every third seat, so air will circulate from under the audience rather than from above. The ceiling appears new, but is the original, the wood having been stripped of years of paint and varnish to its original light brown color. Technical improvements include a new catwalk and the pit has been lowered giving the theater more hydraulic versatility. For the production of Oklahoma, a band stand has been constructed in the seats and the audience will be surrounded by the new construction hinted at in the book of the musical.
There are now two entrances to the theater. The traditional entrance from the north and a new entrance from the west of the building.
The first production in the Fichandler will be Oklahoma!
The colors for the Kreeger are deep blue. Interestingly, the mezzanine entrance is at the level of the main lobby. For orchestra seating you must use the stairs or the elevator. For those needing that central elevator it goes up to the new Cafe/Terrace level, down to the main lobby, the Kreeger orchestra and also descends to the new underground parking garage. It appears that the sound/light booth has been renovated, but the pleasing space of this traditional stage has been retained.
The first production in the Kreeger will be Teutonic Theatre Company's performances of both parts of The Laramie Project.
The Kogod Cradle
The Kogod Cradle was built on the old parking lot. To enter the Kogod you walk around the entire theater. As you walk you are enveloped in warm brown wooden walls and you subtly realize that the sounds of the outside world have faded away. You enter the 200 seat arena. The seating is stadium-like, but the first three rows are in a pit and can be removed or moved to make a thrust stage. The stage itself has a full trap in the floor and three large columns -almost Greek-style- entrances at the back of the stage as well as two stage level entrances/exits which also serve as the handicapped entrances for audience. The warm brown wood panels become woven creating unique acoustic panels. The plan is for Arena Stage to continue to use natural voices as much as possible, only resorting to microphoning the actors for some musicals and in cases where it is necessary to blend the voices with the sound.
The first production will be Every Tongue Confess which is rapidly selling out.
The new cafe space and terrace is located on the third level. Cleverly it sits on the roof of the Kreeger Theatre and to insure proper weight bearing part of the space is reserved as a display area that is not designed to bear too much weight. The curving walls behind the cafe service area are actually the fly house for the Kreeger. Chef Jose Andres is providing the menu which will change nightly. Seating is about 280 indoors and 500 when you count the outdoor space. It is a lovely space for a meal before the show providing a beautiful view of the sunset.
The second floor between the Fichandler and the Kreeger has a much expanded concession area. There is plenty of space for milling about.
One of the poorest experiences of the old Arena Stage was its restroom facilities. You had to go up a narrow stairway to cramped stalls and sinks. During storms the toilets would occasionally stop working.
There are amazing new restroom facilities. And the women's restrooms have a foundation sponsor.
For handicapped patrons there are stalls in all the main bathrooms, in addition there are handicapped only restrooms near the box office and at the orchestra seating level of the Kreeger Theater.
Opposite the Kreeger Mezzanine are the smaller women's restroom and the men's restroom. Both feature expanded stalls (six for the women) and a separate spacious sink area. There are no mirrors over the sink in the women's restrooms requiring you to step away from the sinks to "fix" yourself.
The main women's restroom is a marvel. It is located to the left of the concession across from the west entrance of the Fichander. It features approximately 20 stalls, a wall of sinks and booth like mirrors with small shelves away from the sinks. And, you can see the Washington Monument from the window.
For subscribers only who purchase in advance, parking is available for $18 a performance underneath the complex. Parking is valet as the spaces are tight and the entrance for the valet is on Maine Avenue.
Central Parking operates two garages. 1101 4th Street, SW - entrance on 4th Street between I & M SW and 1100 4th Street, SW entrance across the street from the first garage. Parking is $10 and must be validated at the theatre's Visitor's Services area.
Metro is available on the Green Line at the Waterfront Station.
There will be an open house with free performances on October 23. Tickets are required for the performances and will be available on October 8 at the website, www.arenastage.org.
There is also an gala on October 25. Honorary chairs include President and Mrs. Obama and Mayor and Mrs. Fenty. Information on the gala is also on the website.
Due to a back-up I was privileged to have as my group's tour guide the Associate Artistic Director, David Dower. He provided a really fun tour.
For information on Arena Stage and the Mead Center for American Theater visit www.arenastage.org