By Eliza DuBose ’20
Molly Smith doesn’t possess the stereotypical stature of a commanding
figure. She’s small in build and doesn’t necessarily call much attention to herself via her clothing or hairstyle, but she has the raspy, well-used voice of a seasoned director. When she speaks, one can’t help but feel the urge to pull out a notebook and write down her observations, which, much to her amusement, many students actually did at her workshop during rotation one on Tuesday. It’s this voice that helped Smith completely reshape the mandate of Washington’s Arena Stage. Her influence comes from her ability to use her voice, as well as the voices that she chooses to amplify through her work as the Artistic Director of Arena Stage in Washington, DC.
When Smith was encouraged to interview for the position of Artistic Director at Arena Stage, she scoffed. “Arena is the mothership of American theater; it is probably 12 million dollars. Why would you ever think of me
for this?” The response was simple, “You share the same values.” With that, Smith was hooked and immediately entranced by the world of major theater production.
When she arrived in DC from Juneau, Alaska, where she’d founded her own theater company, she walked the streets of the capital trying to get a feel for the metropolis. This walk shaped her approach to her new role. “I wanted, on the simplest level to reflect the city… [because] by reflecting the city, that’s telling a story of who we are as Americans today. And to reflect the
city meant it had to be reflected through the repertoire that you put on stage,” Smith said.
Since that realization, Smith has ensured that over a third of the plays staged at Arena are written by African Americans. “Over the last 10 years, more than half our work is written by women or people of color. I’m proud of that. And proud that 70% of our directors are either women or people of color,” she said. This focus on a wide ranging set of plays doesn’t just affect the stage, it changes the audience’s demographics too. Now, about one third of Arena Stage’s audiences are people of color. “Whatever you put on stage is what you’ll see in your audience,” Smith explained. “This [shift] also means you’ll burn down some of your old audiences but they’ll just go somewhere else.”
Smith’s commitment to presenting a diverse group of voices on stage comes from her own very personal connection to the theater. Smith said,
“I don’t go to a regular church; I go to the theater as my church. And having all those voices in one space, breathing and moving and touching each other, and experiencing work together, I think draws people together in a community in a really powerful way.” To Smith, the theater is a tool of democracy. She has helped organize the Civil Dialogue conferences at Arena Stage, in which citizens and experts band together to discuss the political and social problems that afflict America and the world today. This past summer, Smith helped direct an eleven hour reading of the second edition of the Mueller Report. Over a thousand people attended the event. “It was a civil, educational, democratic act,” Smith said.
This passion, connecting people, is shared by Smith’s long time friend and Mercersburg Academy alumnus, Andrew Ammerman ‘68.
Ammerman is responsible for sponsoring Mercersburg’s annual Monday evening lecture that bears his family’s name. “Andrew’s gift is that he’s a connector,” Smith said. He also sits on the board for Arena Stage and has, therefore, served as an instrumental part of establishing the partnership that allows for Mercersburg Academy’s frequent trips to Arena Stage.
These two friends have served their individual communities, both at Mercersburg and in the nation, to better connect and amplify the voices of America.