New Artistic Director To Keep The Flags Flying at Arena Stage

Douglas Wager plans to retain renowned company's mix of classics, new works, musicals , and occasional imports

`I think that every show we do should be wildly popular and people should be beating the doors down to get in,'' says Doug Wager, the new artistic director of Arena Stage. On July 1 he succeeds Arena founder Zelda Fichandler, the hardest act to follow since Lady Gregory and her friends started the Abbey Theater in Dublin. Tony-Award winning Fichandler has just left Arena as producing director in its 40th anniversary year to become artistic director of The Acting Company.

In his new role Doug Wager says, ``I think that nothing succeeds like success.... There's not the sort of esoteric elitist goal of saying, `We'll do the art and if you don't want to come, fine, and if you do want to come, fine.' ... I love doing what I do because I love audiences as much as I love artists.''

There is that sort of creative exuberance in some of his best productions, such as the crisp wit and crackling elegance of Wager's George Bernard Shaw play ``Man and Superman.''

In Wager's recent ``Pygmalion'' you could almost hear GBS cackling in the back row.

His bold and brassy restoration of the '40s musical ``On the Town,'' a rousing, poignant musical version of Robert Penn Warren's dark political novel ``All the King's Men,'' was full of suspender-snapping humor and tears.

Wager also produced a sizzling, non-traditional casting of Shakespeare's ``The Taming of the Shrew.'' A musical version of the Marx Brothers movie ``The Coconuts'' was so zany, perfectly in period, and hilarious, that the laughs reverberated like strings of firecrackers.

Wager plans to maintain the Arena tradition of a theatrical mix which includes the classics (like Shakespeare, Shaw, Pirandello, Ibsen), new and vintage musicals, new and traditional American plays, and occasional imports.

Next season Arena's audiences can expect a few surprises. Eight plays proposed for the 1991-92 season (though subject to change) include: William Saroyan's ``The Time of Your Life''; Moliere's ``The Misanthrope''; Chekhov's ``Three Sisters'' transformed to ``Trinidad Sisters'' by Mustapha Metura in an American premi`ere; Dick Beebe's adaptation of ``Common Ground,'' J. Anthony Lukas's book on Boston school desegregation in a world premi`ere; The Flying Karamozov Brothers starring in a Brooklyn comedy v ersion of Dostoevsky's ``The Brothers Karamozov''; the musical ``A Wonderful Life'' based on the Frank Capra film, with the late Joe Reposo's music and book and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; ``Yerma,'' Lorca's tragedy of a Spanish peasant's life; and ``Jar the Floor'' by Cheryl West, a comedy about a quartet of black women in four generations.

The man behind all that talent sits in his office filled with books, Arena posters, scripts, one of two red bubble gum machines (the other is outside his door) a full window view of Washington Harbor where boats float on a gray-blue Potomac River.

Doug Wager was a graduate directing student at Boston University in 1973 when he took a seminar Zelda Fichandler taught on directing. It included a visit to Arena. Later that year he worked with Arena director Alan Schneider who invited him to become a stage management intern in l974. In a way he's never left Arena since then, despite occasional free-lance directing jobs. ``I grew up as a director within the institution'' co-founded by Zelda and Tom Fichandler. Wager worked with Zelda Fichandler as asso ciate producing director to the point where ``we were planning seasons together and directing plays together and picking [them].'' He is working in a troika with executive director Stephen Richard and general manager Guy Bergquist, a team Wager suggested. He has sharply honed ideas on keeping the theater true to its original vision:

``We don't treat our audience as an audience of consumers, and we don't try to pander to the consumer mentality, even though consumption of the work (audiences buying tickets) is something that's vital. The box office is absolutely vital to the survival of the institution. But we are not a presenting organization [simply presenting outside shows] we actually are an organization that presents a body of work, and intends from an audience point of view to have the greatest number of people see the greates t number of things....''

Arena has been described as a flagship of the national resident theater movement. Wager, who wants to keep the flags flying, believes that the secret of a repertory theater like Arena is to remain accessible to audiences. ``And I think that accessibility is being threatened by the economic pressure that's being brought to bear on the not-for-profit arts at large.''

Arena's budget for the coming season is a hefty $8.9 million, which comes from box office revenues, unearned income and contributed income.

Doug Wager says ``I would like to think that ... it gets to the point where the combination of what is created in the box office plus what is contributed to the institution actually creates a meaningful and positive cash balance that provides a cushion so that ticket prices don't have to continually [rise].''

And then there are moneys like the $1 million challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, that means they have to go out and raise a matching $3 million in matching funds over the next four years.

The NEA grant was given specifically for Arena's Cultural Diversity Program ``increasing the involvement of ethnic minorities in the life of the theater.'' At this point, 38 percent of the actors in the 1990-91 season are minority artists, as is director Tazewell Thompson, Artistic Associate.

His creative life as a stage director is so important to Wager that he accepted the job of artistic director only with ``the understanding that I wouldn't direct less than I'd been directing....'' In that role, he says, ``I certainly intend to be a nurturing artistic leader.''

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