The Arena Stage Renovation & Expansion project turned a decades-old, two-theater facility into the state-of-the-art Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the Performing Arts. Clark built a new theater, renovated the existing theaters, and enclosed all three in a striking, and complex, structure. Standing at the forefront of revitalization in its southwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood, the Arena Stage project has been lauded by architecture critics and has earned several industry awards for craftsmanship, design, and construction.
On the Arena Stage Expansion and Renovation project, Clark brought to life two bold visions. First, for the first time in its 50-year history, Arena Stage has a vibrant campus, including a third theater, indoor public spaces, and all the amenities the Washington Drama Society desired. The second vision was the architect’s. Bing Thom, a Canadian making his debut in America’s capital city, envisioned the new Mead Center for the Performing Arts to be, itself, a performance space. Arena Stage’s transparent exterior and open common areas are all part of the “theater experience."
The scope of work included building a new theater, the 200-seat Cradle, between the existing Kreeger Theater and Fichandler Stage. All three theaters were then enclosed in a transparent glass curtain wall system under a curving white roof. The existing theaters also were fully renovated. The Kreeger’s seats were restored, existing finishes were refurbished, and new rigging and control booths were installed. The theater’s formerly-exposed roof was transformed to an open public area, overlooking the main level. The Fichandler’s renovations include a refinished stage, new catwalk, and carefully-restored plaster, concrete, and woodwork. Additional construction included adding expanded rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, a box office, and office and administrative spaces.
Though the Arena Stage project was not contractually a design-build project, the unique design and complicated engineering required the project team to incorporate elements of the integrated delivery method. Certain elements of the project – including the complex concrete work, the curtain wall system, and portions of the ceiling design – were handled as design-build to ensure that all details and work satisfied the aesthetic demands and constructability requirements. The finished project is a testament to Clark’s engineering, technical, and managerial expertise.
As a state-of-the-art theater, Arena Stage was built under strict acoustical requirements. An acoustician worked with the project team to help ensure that no outside noise or vibration penetrated a performance space. Arena Stage’s acoustical considerations began with the curtain wall system, which deflects outside noise. Within the facility, no structure touches another. All three theaters are enclosed by a three-inch isolation joint, and rubber pads span connections to eliminate ambient noise and absorb vibrations.
The Cradle Theater provided a unique acoustical challenge. The theater's structure is an ellipse, the worst geometry for even distribution of sound waves. To ensure proper acoustics, the interior walls are covered with stained poplar panels that have been bent in a scientifically-calculated, non-repeating pattern to counteract the difficult acoustics of the elliptical shape. What appears to be, at first glance, a random aesthetic flourish is actually the key component to ensuring that sound reaches every space within the Cradle Theater.
Arena Stage’s signature building element is the transparent curtain wall supported by timber columns, underneath the curving roof. Comprised of more than 300 custom-made units, the curtain wall system is backed by a series of timber columns, which also support the structural steel framing above. These 18 parallel strand lumber columns were hand-lathed in Canada, measure between 46 and 58 feet, and are set four degrees out of plumb. Each column is secured at the base with a cast-iron plate. A two-inch pin connection through the base allows the columns to lean four degrees off line. A galvanized steel bearing plate at the column’s head is set at a four degree pitch, creating a perpendicular connection at the bottom of each roof truss.
The concrete work at Arena Stage, self-performed by Clark Concrete, raises industry standards for complexity and architectural finish. Typical concrete projects feature large quantities of horizontal deck compared to a small quantity of vertical framing. Concrete work at Arena Stage was just the opposite; the project featured 200,000 square feet of wall framing and just 140,000 square feet of horizontal elevated deck. There are 250,000 square feet of concrete walls in Arena Stage, and more than half (130,000 square feet) were radial or elliptical, with a large portion sloped four degrees out of plumb.