Women Cultural Leaders: Molly Smith, Artistic Director, Arena Stage

Our spring arts preview featured 20 women cultural leaders in Washington, D.C. We wanted to amplify their voices in our online newsletters, spotlighting each of them individually. Our Monday March 14 newsletter features Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

MOLLY SMITH: That’s easy: “Catch Me If You Can!” It’s a new version of this knock out pleasurable musical, and it’s fabulous and full of joy. It’s a story of fathers and sons, both biological and created. The music, the dancing, the costumes, the set, the sound, the lights — it’s just a thrill to be in rehearsals with these talented artists. 

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.
MS:Believe it or not, I first went to college to become a lawyer. A trip to Europe changed everything and cemented my mission to start a theater in Alaska I decided to follow my heart and not my head. After finishing college and graduate school here in Washington, D.C., I moved back to Alaska (where I had spent my teenage years) with my then-husband who was in the military.…  After 20 years there, I was ready for a new challenge, and was fortunate that Arena Stage was looking for an artistic director. I’m proud of the work we’ve done at Arena including building the Mead Center for American Theater. My inspirations are varied — from my fantastic mother, Kay, and her dedication to social work and her love of the arts, to my partner Suzanne Blue Star Boy, a fierce spirit always pushing me to be my best. I’m inspired by so many artists, and even more so through this pandemic….

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization? 
MS: Edgar Dobie, Arena’s executive producer, says this well: it’s the balance of ambition and capacity. Of course we cannot reach our potential without ambition, but we have to be mindful of our capacity and ability to do the work. We would love to produce huge plays, but often that’s not the best decision. I’m sad sometimes when we’re in the midst of season planning and there’s a beautiful, giant, ambitious project that cannot overcome the challenges of both human and financial resources. 

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?
MS: Well, I was not the first woman to lead Arena Stage. In fact, the regional theater movement was founded by women. That said, the role of artistic director has been dominated by men, and so I make it a mission to seek out and highlight the work of other women artists. When I first came to Arena, there were only four other female artistic directors of large organizations. It’s changing but not as quickly as I had hoped. 

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?
MS: I’m proud of the artists and staff that work for and with us. I’m proud of building the Mead Center against all odds. I’m proud of having created one of the largest diverse audiences in the country. I’m proud of the Power Play Cycle where we’ve commissioned 25 plays, one for every decade of America from 1770 to the present. I am proud of the fact that we’ve focused on American plays, American ideas and American artists and we were the first large theater in America to do so. There really isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t see something amazing in the Mead Center, because the people working here are truly arts warriors. 



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