Power Plays: How a Long-Time Theater Fan Turned into a Big Donor

Tapped phones. Shadowy Russian ambassadors. And of course, paranoid early morning tweets. It seems as if every day we read a new story that, at its core, represents a collision of politics and power.

Yet this tension is as old as the republic itself. For proof, look no further than Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage's Power Plays, a series of new works on politics and power—one for each decade of America’s existence. The production recently received a huge cash infusion in the form of a $2.5 million donation from Curtis T. Bell, a real estate investor, consultant, and loyal Arena patron.

At first blush, the production—a 10-year, 25-work series composed of five related cycles: Presidential Voices, African-American Voices, Insider Voices, Musical Theater Voices, and Women’s Voices—comes across as both incredibly bold and niche-y in an "Inside the Beltway" sort of way.

But if the success of Hamilton has taught us anything, it's that the American public has a thirst for compelling takes on American history, and, perhaps even more importantly, savvy producers have found ways to effectively partner with foundations to transform these productions into enriching learning experiences.

Indeed, all it really takes is one committed donor to help propel a production into that next critical phase. Which brings me back to Bell. His philanthropic track record, at least according to Google, is sparse, although Arena Stage's press release does tell us that "the sale of the estate home and other real estate investments has afforded him the opportunity to give back to the D.C. theater community and other D.C. charities."

If anything, he represents an organization's dream donor—a devoted fan who quietly sat in the audience for decades before finally deciding to cut a check. (A common variation on this demographic is the unassuming campus librarian who never gave a dime, only to bequeath a fortune upon his passing.) Bell has been a regular attendee at Arena since 1986 and estimates he’s seen more than 100 shows there. He says he has not previously been a "heavy-hitting supporter" of the company but he takes a particular interest in presidents.

And therein lies the connection between Hamilton and Power Plays. Just as the Broadway blockbuster turned on millions of people to the complexities of our Founding Fathers, Bell cited the recent presidential election as a pivotal awareness-raiser:

We’ve just come out of a riveting presidential campaign, one that woke up everyone in the country about presidential elections—even those who had no interest before. Through Power Plays, Arena is ensuring that people who live here know the political figures and the stories that have shaped this powerful city...I’m honored to play a small part in giving back to an organization that has given so much to me.

Now comes the fun part. As previously noted, the production is as bold as the American experiment itself. Arena considers Bell's gift a matching grant, aiming to raise another $2.5 million to fully fund the five works in that cycle. According to Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith, the $5 million will support commissions for the five Presidential Voices writers, research and development, and production.

Will Arena need to raise substantial amounts to pay for the other four phases of the cycle? "Oh, yeah," Smith said.