by Kitty Kelley
Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, led a troupe of D.C. theater hounds to London recently to see British theater — inside and out. “Since Arena is celebrating its 70th anniversary as the largest theater company in the U.S. dedicated to American plays and playwrights, this seemed like a good time to see what the Brits are doing,” she said.
Arena’s weeklong tour offered a full course of culture: six plays, two operas, three art galleries, a private tour of Tate Modern, coffee with an international art collector in his Cadogan Square flat, lunch in the House of Lords, fish and chips at a gastropub, a trip to Shakespeare’s birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon and many flutes of champagne. Throughout, there were nannies the equal of Mary Poppins and brainiac guides, who seemed to have earned six degrees apiece from Oxford.
We were chauffeured to and from Brown’s Hotel in the heart of Mayfair to see plays that baffled the imagination and gripped the heart. We walked the City of London on a magical tour to see the original Roman settlement that became the famous “Square Mile,” where residences “now cost a minimum of $8 million.”
From the Old Vic to the Young Vic, we explored behind the scenes, touching the props (see Martha Dippell kissing a stuffed rhino), pulling the curtains and walking the boards. We even discovered a “non-religious church” in Islington, not far from the Almeida Theatre,that “believes not in God, but in good.” (For proof, visit new-unity.org.)
A highlight of the tour was meeting Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, who many theatergoers will remember from his years at Center Stage in Baltimore, from 2011 to 2018.
“Now I’m back home in England and a bit of an anomaly — a black man in British theater,” he said. “In 2005, I became only the second black Brit to have a play staged in the West End, and until 18 months ago I was the only black artistic director in the western hemisphere … We have a long way to go.”
From his experience living in the U.S. and the U.K., Kwei-Armah said the British are obsessed with class distinctions and refuse to discuss racial issues, whereas Americans are decades ahead of the British on race but avoid the subject of class. “You are in denial, and out of fear of talking about the working class and the underclasses, you put all your college-educated into the middle class.”
Because British theater is partially subsidized by the government, ticket prices in the U.K. are lower than in the U.S. ($15 to $50 in the U.K. compared to $100 and above in the U.S.) and attract younger audiences. “But in both the U.S. and the U.K., 70 percent of all theatergoers are women,” said Kwei-Armah. “Because of our government subsidy, we can take plays to prisons and refugee centers where they’d never have access to high-quality theater or any theater at all. We go to them.”
Kwei-Armah turned deadly serious on the subject of Brexit. “We are in the midst of a rather profound nervous breakdown here, and Brexit will nearly collapse theater in London and eviscerate all our touring companies,” he said. “We are living in suspense and don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do know it’s going to be nasty, very nasty.”
The Arena Stage troupe returned to Washington, D.C., thoroughly energized by their London theater adventure, which all pronounced “ab fab” (Brit-speak for “absolutely fabulous”).
Originally published in The Georgetowner December 4, 2019