After years of work and a combined effort by many archivists and student assistants, we have finished the Arena Stage reprocessing project. The project culminated in the creation of a brand-new finding aid, including a 739-box inventory, to help researchers access the riches of the collection. The scope of the collection covers both the administrative and artistic sides of Arena’s work, documenting over 60 years of the life of a ground-breaking theatre institution.
Arena Stage ’s impact on American theatre is hard to overstate. Since its founding by the indomitable Zelda Fichandler and her drama professor Edward Mangum in 1950, Arena has challenged the racial and political status quo, while pushing artistic boundaries and presenting high-caliber theatre. One of my favorite discoveries in the collection, one that I posted on Facebook a few months ago, was a simple brochure advertising the 1967 premier of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope. The ad features a photo of James Earl Jones (pre-Darth Vader!) and Jane Alexander, with Alexander’s head resting on Jones’s shoulder (pictured below). In the context of the time, this image is deeply significant – interracial marriage was illegal in the state of Virginia until the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967, just months before The Great White Hope’s world premiere at Arena. An advertising image depicting an interracial couple – married or not – was a brave choice in 1967 Washington, DC, just across the Potomac River from Virginia. Such courage and principle was typical of Arena, however, particularly in those years.
Aside from documenting Arena’s incredible contributions, the collection is a treasure trove of information on actors, including a number who went on to major careers in film and television. The collection’s personnel sub-subseries includes headshots, CVs, and/or correspondence from James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, Sigourney Weaver, Annette Bening, Ron Perlman, Henry Winkler, Edward Hermann, and many others. Particularly entertaining is a series of letters, headshots, and a CV from John Lithgow (also posted on Facebook), who very much wanted to act and possibly direct at Arena Stage as a young man in the early 1970s, decades before he was on Third Rock from the Sun and voicing Lord Farquaad in Shrek.
Reprocessing the Arena Stage collection has been an adventure – the sheer scale of the task was monumental, but it was also a source of constant discovery and surprises. We hope that the reprocessed collection and the finding aid that accompanies it allow researchers to experience the incredible history of Arena Stage and make discoveries of their own.