Why is a magic show at DC’s largest regional theater?

Hana S. Sharif, new Arena Stage artistic director, shares her thoughts on choosing ‘Mindplay’ as her first production.

As we near the end of yet another theater season, one of the more distinct productions on a DC stage is neither a play nor a musical. In Southwest DC, Arena Stage is presenting Vinny DePonto’s Mindplay, featuring a type of magic known as mentalism. What was it about this show — a late addition to Arena’s 2023/24 season, and the only show in the season programmed by Arena’s new artistic director, Hana S. Sharif (who came on board after outgoing artistic director Molly Smith programmed the rest of the season) — that led Sharif to insert it, for a lengthy seven-week run, into Arena’s schedule?

In an interview, Sharif explained why this production resonated with her. “This is a show that ends with a sense of community. I think that is what is really powerful and unique about it. And I am excited by how theatrical experiences that are intimate and unique, which invite the audience to be part of it, might catalyze new audiences.”

Vinny DePonto in ‘Mindplay’ at Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

She further explained her role in choosing Mindplay. “It is the job of the artistic director to give audiences a wide spectrum of theatrical experiences and works.” This is vitally important, she added, because “regional theaters were built on an economic structure that no longer works.”

Sharif’s comments track: an October 2023 study from the National Endowment of the Arts revealed that fewer people are going to the theater. Subscriptions, long the foundation of a theater’s economic model, are also declining. Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre recently shared that its subscriptions are down 40 percent compared with pre-pandemic.

DePonto’s production, which Sharif describes as “a theatrical experience unlike you will have ever experienced at Arena,” is now at its second major regional theater. Mindplay had its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2022 for 10 weeks.

The decision to choose this production may have something to do with audience development. In a recent interview with American Theatre, the new executive director of the Theatre Development Fund, Deeksha Gaur, spoke of bringing in new perspectives to the theater. “When you bring in more audiences, you support the development of audiences, and that is how you serve the art and the artmakers.” Gaur, a former staffer at DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, added, “To me, audience development is using shows as tools to develop new audiences.”

Hana S. Sharif. Photo by Cheshire Isaac

For Sharif, while Mindplay is not a straight play or musical, it is akin to those tentpoles of theater in that they all showcase “profound stories,” akin to StepAfrika!’s recent Magical Musical Holiday Step Show at Arena. Mindplay offered Sharif a unique opportunity to entice new patrons into the theater. “Theaters opening the door to experience art and storytelling in unexpected forms is part of the future,” she said.

As we turn toward the upcoming theater season, will we see more magic on DC stages? More audio experiences, akin to Solas Nua’s One Moment Now? More cabaret, like Signature Theatre’s Disco Fever? Sharif, for one, is not ruling anything out: “The slate of shows [for Arena’s 2024/25 season] changes every day.” She emphasized the value of getting new and different patrons out to Arena’s southwest home. “Where we have been in the past is trying to meet the demands of our core audiences, and where we are now is trying to expand the base of who our audience is.”

Mindplay plays through March 3, 2024, in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($41–$95) may be obtained online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or in person at the Sales Office (Tuesday-Sunday, 12-8 p.m.).

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Arena Stage offers savings programs including “pay your age” tickets for those aged 30 and under, student discounts, and “Southwest Nights” for those living and working in the District’s Southwest neighborhood. To learn more, visit arenastage.org/savings-programs.

The program for Mindplay is online here.

COVID Safety: Arena Stage recommends but does not require that patrons wear facial masks in theaters except in occasional mask-required performances. For up-to-date information, visit arenastage.org/safety.

In on the act at ‘Mindplay’: two audience participants react (interviews by John Stoltenberg, January 31, 2024)


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