(The 2011/12 Season Opening Celebration dinner catered by Ridgewells at Arena Stage. Photo by Cameron Whitman.)
Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage and the Pentagon are practically neighbors, but for all the interactions the institutions have shared they may as well be a world apart. All that changes on Friday, November 25 when Arena hosts 260 servicemen and women and their guests for Thanksgiving dinner and a show. It’s “the least we can do for the huge sacrifices they make for us,” managing director Edgar Dobie wrote in a press release.
The seeds for the plan were sown at a local event last summer when artistic director Molly Smith sat next to a high-ranking military official. Chief development officer Danielle St. Germain-Gordon says the two spoke “about the need to bridge the gap between the arts and the military.” “Given our physical location in southwest D.C.,” St. Germain-Gordon notes, “the thought that we’ve never actively partnered is kind of crazy.”
That early interaction blossomed into a meeting with Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Doug Wilson, who helped draw the plan for the unique holiday initiative. Guests arrive for cocktails at 5 p.m., followed by a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and a speaking program. (St. Germain-Gordon says that a “major general” will address the crowd.) At 8, attendees take their seats at one of Arena’s two currently running shows, Amy Freed’s You Nero or Bill Cain’s Equivocation.
Wilson’s office is putting together the guest list, a trickier task than might appear. St. Germain-Gordon says there are ethical hoops to jump (those on government payroll are prohibited from receiving gifts of $25 or more), and equality of access has to be ensured (seniority won’t play a role in attendance). The Department of Defense is distributing five sets of 52 seats evenly between the four branches and the National Guard, and a portion of each lot is being held for wounded soldiers.
Of the planning St. Germain-Gordon says, “It’s so seat of our pants—it’s fabulous.” Still, Arena has managed to assemble an ever-growing list of donors for the event. As for the evening’s theatre, the Roman farce You, Nero has gotten more requests, although the 260 tickets are split evenly between the two shows. (The initiative’s other play, Equivocation, is an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production that makes political-thriller hay out of Shakespeare’s life and trials.)
For Arena, it’s all part of an effort to use its particular resources to say “thank you.” As Edgar Dobie wrote, “The United States military is a volunteer service, and we are living in a world where we all need to be thankful for those who volunteer to be in the armed forces.”
Harrison Hill is an editorial intern at American Theatre magazine and writes the blog theater-words.com. He is also an actor, and has performed at Playwrights Horizons, London’s Old Vic Theatre, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and elsewhere. He holds a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is originally from Charlottesville, VA.