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Bing Thom’s new Arena Stage

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There’s always a lot of talk in Washington about creating a “big tent” that embraces diversity, and now the capital finally has one—literally: architect Bing Thom’s new Arena Stage at the Mead Center, an arts complex—D.C.’s second-largest, after the Kennedy Center—that locates the company’s two preexisting landmark theaters and a new black-box stage, each of which offers different programming, behind 45-foot-high glass walls and beneath a sharply cantilevered 130-by-500-foot steel roof. Curtain up!

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  The original Arena Stage complex, designed by Harry Weese, included the 680-seat Fichandler Stage (1961)—the country’s first permanent theater-in-the-round facility—and, a decade later, the thrust-stage 500-seat Kreeger Theatre, both now listed as historic structures.
    The original Arena Stage complex, designed by Harry Weese, included the 680-seat Fichandler Stage (1961)—the country’s first permanent theater-in-the-round facility—and, a decade later, the thrust-stage 500-seat Kreeger Theatre, both now listed as historic structures.
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  Though one of America’s foremost companies, the Arena suffered from challenges both programmatic and urbanistic. An administration building linking the two theaters “made sense internally,” Thom explains, “but separated the front doors to both houses—there was no ‘there’ there.” Rehearsal, storage and workshop facilities were inconveniently off-site. And the southwest Washington location had deteriorated thanks to 1960s-era urban renewal programs.
    Though one of America’s foremost companies, the Arena suffered from challenges both programmatic and urbanistic. An administration building linking the two theaters “made sense internally,” Thom explains, “but separated the front doors to both houses—there was no ‘there’ there.” Rehearsal, storage and workshop facilities were inconveniently off-site. And the southwest Washington location had deteriorated thanks to 1960s-era urban renewal programs.
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  Artistic director Molly Smith said, “Bring everyone together, and give me lots of light,” Thom recalls. The architect sunk the administration offices one level and replaced them with a communal public lobby faced by the Fichandler, Kreeger and new 200-seat Kogod Cradle. Thom also built extensive rehearsal and workshop space at the top of the triangular site—tripling the overall amount of space.
    Artistic director Molly Smith said, “Bring everyone together, and give me lots of light,” Thom recalls. The architect sunk the administration offices one level and replaced them with a communal public lobby faced by the Fichandler, Kreeger and new 200-seat Kogod Cradle. Thom also built extensive rehearsal and workshop space at the top of the triangular site—tripling the overall amount of space.
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  Light is supplied by the enveloping glass walls, which accomplish multiple objectives. The landmarked theaters, Thom observes, “are encapsulated and celebrated as objects in the new space, their original facades intact.” The glass provides acoustical insulation from the ambulances and airplanes that previously disrupted performances. And by opening the administrative and certain back-of-house functions to the street, the Arena invites in the community.
    Light is supplied by the enveloping glass walls, which accomplish multiple objectives. The landmarked theaters, Thom observes, “are encapsulated and celebrated as objects in the new space, their original facades intact.” The glass provides acoustical insulation from the ambulances and airplanes that previously disrupted performances. And by opening the administrative and certain back-of-house functions to the street, the Arena invites in the community.
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  “The way it was designed by Harry Weese, which I believe was correct, the audience comes in and has to go up six to eight feet to enter—a theatrical space is much more dramatic when you enter from the top and the seats and stage unfold in front of you,” Thom observes. “I got rid of the steps and sloped the lobby about two degrees, so you can go into the old theaters without encountering stairs.”
    “The way it was designed by Harry Weese, which I believe was correct, the audience comes in and has to go up six to eight feet to enter—a theatrical space is much more dramatic when you enter from the top and the seats and stage unfold in front of you,” Thom observes. “I got rid of the steps and sloped the lobby about two degrees, so you can go into the old theaters without encountering stairs.”
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  The 18 columns, which are set at 36-foot intervals and range in height from 45 to 60 feet—and each support an average 400,000 pounds of load—are made of Parallam, which Thom describes as “high-tech wood—95 percent recycled Douglas fir chips and five percent glue.” Stainless steel fittings on the columns, says Thom, “hold the weight of the glass in tension.”
    The 18 columns, which are set at 36-foot intervals and range in height from 45 to 60 feet—and each support an average 400,000 pounds of load—are made of Parallam, which Thom describes as “high-tech wood—95 percent recycled Douglas fir chips and five percent glue.” Stainless steel fittings on the columns, says Thom, “hold the weight of the glass in tension.”
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  The vast roof, resembling an arrowhead launched into flight, is constructed from steel trusses and decking, and covered in a waterproof membrane. It is supported by the columns and Kogod Cradle, a taller structure than the original theaters. “I poetically say that the child is holding a big umbrella over Mother and Father,” Thom offers.
    The vast roof, resembling an arrowhead launched into flight, is constructed from steel trusses and decking, and covered in a waterproof membrane. It is supported by the columns and Kogod Cradle, a taller structure than the original theaters. “I poetically say that the child is holding a big umbrella over Mother and Father,” Thom offers.
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  The ovular shape of the new space, built to showcase new and developing work, derived, according to Thom, from Molly Smith’s habit of shaping a cradle with her hands when describing how the Kogod would nurture the theater of the future. “I wanted people to lose their memory of the big spaces outside and discover a new reality,” Thom says of the long spiral leading into the space, inspired by Richard Serra’s enveloping sculptures.
    The ovular shape of the new space, built to showcase new and developing work, derived, according to Thom, from Molly Smith’s habit of shaping a cradle with her hands when describing how the Kogod would nurture the theater of the future. “I wanted people to lose their memory of the big spaces outside and discover a new reality,” Thom says of the long spiral leading into the space, inspired by Richard Serra’s enveloping sculptures.
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  “The outside is concrete and the inside is wood, like an oyster with a rough exterior,” Thom says of the Kogod. The rippling wall is composed of 3/8th-inch-thick poplar in a basket-weave pattern. “This allows the sound to scatter, and gives the place character—not like most studio theaters that are black curtains and bleacher seating.”
    “The outside is concrete and the inside is wood, like an oyster with a rough exterior,” Thom says of the Kogod. The rippling wall is composed of 3/8th-inch-thick poplar in a basket-weave pattern. “This allows the sound to scatter, and gives the place character—not like most studio theaters that are black curtains and bleacher seating.”
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  The complex’s open-to-the-public components include a cafe and rock garden atop the Kreeger Theatre and a terrace that leads the eye to the Washington Monument and the heart of the capital—making an explicit connection between the imperial city and a neglected district that, it is hoped, the new complex will help to revitalize.
    The complex’s open-to-the-public components include a cafe and rock garden atop the Kreeger Theatre and a terrace that leads the eye to the Washington Monument and the heart of the capital—making an explicit connection between the imperial city and a neglected district that, it is hoped, the new complex will help to revitalize.

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