Sunday, April 2, 2017

2017 Interview with Molly Smith Artistic Director of the Arena Stage

Artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington DC Molly Smith directs John Strand's The Originalist about the Supreme Court onstage at the Pasadena Playhouse beginning April 11. The play focuses on a clerkship between a young woman and recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia portrayed by Edward Gero. It fits the times to perfection as the two characters spar on a grand scale to defend their interpretation of the truth as written in our constitution. In our chat, Smith talks about the play, its mission, this co-production and also about her work at Arena Stage.

Tell us the major points at the core of The Originalist and what drew you to it as a director.

Naturally it was Justice Scalia himself. The hair on the back of my neck raised up when John Strand described his idea to me. John’s drive to understand the Justice’s viewpoint, to place it in a context where Americans might be able to find a way forward through compromise and conflict, is simply fascinating and challenging and absolutely about this moment in time.

If you had to pick just one urgent theme, conflict or challenge that the play reflects upon in our troubled world, what would that be?

Understanding. This play is about the willingness to have a dialogue with someone you disagree with. America is strong when we have diverse opinions and have the guts to have the hard conversation. Only then can we reach compromise.

Does the play present any resolutions to our problems within the justice system? If so, what are they?

As with any great piece of art, the play doesn’t provide the answers—it provides options, questions, and hopefully points us in the direction we need to go. Both characters gain an understanding of opposing viewpoints when they thought they wouldn't be able to. If everyone approached every argument with the desire to listen and learn, or posed questions in an open way, American society advances.

Tell me about the balance of humor with drama within the play. Why is that important, do you think?

John's use of comedy is exquisite. Justice Scalia was known as having a great sense of humor and the quickest wit on the Court. I believe that in any drama the further you take the play into dark areas, the more it will swing to the light. The Originalist is a great example of this rubber band theory. It is a very funny play.

Talk a bit about the Arena production, its success and Ed Gero's performance as Justice Scalia.
Edward Gero as Justice Scalia; Jade Wheeler behind

Justice Scalia called Ed Gero 'his doppelgänger'. Ed's research on Scalia was exquisite. They had lunches together, went skeet shooting and Ed watched him in action at the Supreme Court. Ed became Scalia-he had Scalia’s mannerisms, his point of view, his vocal characteristics.

The production has been wildly successful and after Asolo will go on from Pasadena to two other cities. It's been filmed by Stage17 and taped for the radio by LA Theater Works. Audiences have embraced it with curiosity and strong opinions.

Often a play goes to Asolo to workshop, and one expects to see revisions and rewrites. Is it in tact for Pasadena audiences as it was originally presented or have some revisions in fact been made to John Strands's script?

The play premiered at Arena Stage in Washington DC, rewrites happened at Asolo Rep in Florida and audiences will see the same script in Pasadena. The interpretation will continue to grow as the artists understanding of the world of the play will be deeper and more potent because time has passed. That's the remarkable part of making plays--the artists keep living and bring that life force to the stage.

Talk briefly, if you would, about your wonderful association with Perseverance Theatre in Juneau Alaska. When you founded it in 1979, what were your goals? You produced some wonderful plays there, so you must feel a great sense of satisfaction. Do you have a favorite play produced there?

My goals were to start a theater of, by and about Alaskans. I was Founding Artistic Director for 19 years. We toured 80 times while I was there to Nome, Kotzebue, Anchorage and Fairbanks. I loved the wildness and the adventure of taking theater all over the state.

Memorable plays included all of the Greek plays we produced. The landscape in Alaska takes you to the mythic and the relationship of human beings to the gods. Greek Plays were a perfect way to understand our connection to the earth.

Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter in Camp David at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for AmericanTheater March 21-May 4, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

As to Arena Stage, what mission sets this theatre apart from all others? How do you feel about new American plays today after encouraging the downstairs series some 20 years ago? Is the process as difficult as when you began or more so? It sounds like you may have another big hit with The Orignalist. May it be on its way to Broadway?

Our focus on on American plays, American ideas and American artists definitely sets us apart. It’s not just about the American theater canon, it’s about ways to support the playwright in new work and over time and over their careers. We now produce at least a third of our plays as premieres. We have just launched an ambitious commissioning program called Power Plays, which will commission 25 new plays or musicals over the next ten years covering every decade of American history since 1776 to the present decade.

Is it harder than before? Theater is an impossible art form: difficult to do brilliantly because it's a perishable art form. It takes all of our talent, ideas, inspiration and drive to make great art. But that's what keeps us trying. And that's part of the reason why I love the challenge. As I mentioned The Originalist has magically turned into a 6 city tour--one never knows what will be next for this subversive, cheeky, heady play.

What area do you still want to explore in theatre? What topics and themes need further exploration in light of our troubled world?

In my lifetime I have not seen the whole country as awake and politically active as it is right now. This is the most exciting time to be producing plays. Arena is a theater that welcomes people from every walk of life and all political leanings. We welcome dialogue and fierce conversations, because it makes all of us stronger and better human beings. I’m very excited to see the new Power Plays ideas flourish—like The Originalist, there is a political focus and we will have plays about presidents and regular people in extraordinary moments in time.

The Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena. THE ORIGINALIST ​plays from April 11, 2017 to May 7, 2017, with the official press opening on Thursday, April 13 at 7:30 p.m. Preview performances are on Tuesday, April 11 at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday, April 12 at 8:00 p.m. Performance schedule is Tuesday - Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (Notes: There are no Tuesday performances on April 18 and 25. There will be one Sunday evening performance at 7:00 p.m. on April 30.) Tickets range from $25 - $80 with premiere seats at $115. Tickets are available online at, by phone at 626-356-7529 or at The Pasadena Playhouse Box Office (39 South El Molino Avenue). 

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