In Memoriam: Zelda Fichandler, 1924-2016
It’s almost impossible to overstate Zelda Fichandler’s impact on American theater
By Peter Marks, Theater Critic, The Washington Post
July 29, 2016
If you love taking in the bracing air of the American theater, you have Zelda Fichandler to thank. Because she supplied the oxygen.
The dream she saw fulfilled, of a dynamic environment in which actors, playwrights and audiences could share in her passion for great drama, gave the breath of life to an art form, one that was struggling at the time that she and other visionaries, such as Margo Jones at the Dallas Theater Center in Texas, came on the scene in the early 1950s.
Under the stewardship of Fichandler and her cohorts, theater developed into something refined and earthy, serious and accessible, in parts of the country that might otherwise have remained culturally parched. Her brainchild, Washington’s Arena Stage, founded with then-husband Tom and their colleague Edward Mangum as a for-profit enterprise, would revise its business model and enter the vanguard of the country’s nonprofit theater movement — by far the dominant creative engine today of the American theater.
On the occasion of her death Friday, at 91, we must pause and reflect on the impact this tough, perceptive, impatient, wily and ferociously dedicated woman had on the nation’s stages. It’s almost impossible, in fact, to overstate the case. Her love of plays new and old, foreign and domestic; her business savvy and reverence for talent; her devotion to actors in the in-house corps she maintained were characteristics that informed the ethos of Arena. This philosophy permeated Arena through the four pivotal decades during which she was there, from Arena’s establishment in 1950 in a converted burlesque house on Ninth Street and New York Avenue NW, until 1990, long after the company had moved to its current multi-theater Southwest Washington campus.
Indeed, Fichandler’s priorities would come to embody the values of the national theater movement itself.
“She was the mother of us all in the American theater,” is the way Molly Smith, Arena’s current artistic director, puts it.
A demanding mother, to be sure. A tenacious mother. A sometimes exasperatingly meticulous mother who treated the theater as a spiritual place, one in which, in the words of an admirer in the theater business, “the high priest was the actor.”
Audiences were her parishioners and, after entering her temple, they had to be taken care of at every turn. “She made me understand that every decision about this place — including whether the toilet paper in the bathrooms rolled down this way or that way, was an artistic decision that affected the audience’s experience,” said James C. Nicola, who worked as a budding director (among other jobs) on the staff of Arena for eight years in the 1980s, and went on to become the widely respected artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, birthplace of “Rent.”
Fichandler would continue to broaden her impact after her time at Arena, building the acting program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts into one of the most formidable in the country. But Arena and its innovative spaces — the company’s main stage, challengingly configured in the round, is named for her and Tom — remained the crowning achievements of her career. Little could she have known in the ’50s how influential the place would become and how many trails it would blaze. With its production of “The Great White Hope,” starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, for example, Arena became in 1968 one of the first nonprofit theaters to have an original production move to Broadway. It was also the first to be honored with the special Tony Award now bestowed annually on a regional theater of distinction. And she broke ground overseas, too, with the Arena plays she toured to the Soviet Union in 1973, when such cultural exchanges were virtually nonexistent.
Her theater seasons were wildly ambitious, stocked with plays of both the adventurous and classic stripes, and often with a focus on raising social and political awareness: Nicola says Fichandler recounted for him the story of the death threats the Caucasian Alexander received after the December 1967 Washington opening of “Great White Hope” because of her intimacy onstage with the African American Jones.
Arena’s founder selected plays as if her mission was to convince people of the limitless horizons of the stage. If her agenda could include, as it did in 1972-73, a production of something as austere as Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” directed by Alan Schneider — best known for his seminal work with Samuel Beckett — it could also encompass Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s absurdist “A Public Prosecutor Is Sick of It All.”
“It was actually pretty fantastic, progressive, cutting-edge avant-garde, kind of phantasmagorical,” recalled Douglas Wager about the latter play. As a graduate student at Boston University, he took a course with Fichandler, in which she led the class through the evolution of her concepts for “A Public Prosecutor Is Sick of It All.” The encounter was the precursor to a series of jobs at Arena, which culminated in Wager becoming Fichandler’s successor as artistic director in 1991.
Wager, who now is associate dean for theater, film and media arts at Temple University in Philadelphia, describes working with Fichandler as “a mentorship unlike anything I could possibly have wished for.”
“She ran Arena from a deeply feminine understanding of allowing people to be able to speak and contribute, but she held all of the decision-making power and was as fickle as any other person could be,” Wager said. “You knew you were working for an incredibly strong, willful, gifted individual who was also a prodigiously inspired thinker.”
For generations of playgoers, too, the company has been a proud emblem of the city’s cosmopolitan patina, a testament to the fact that beyond being the epicenter of national its politics, the District has matured as an influential hub for the arts.
That’s the Fichandler legacy. As those closer to her will tell you, she may have been a skillful stage director, but her greatness resided in the incisive direction she gave to a theater and a city.
“Directing was never ever her first love,” Wager said. “She got more satisfaction from molding the image and forging the artistic culture of the company and its place in society, and in the mission of how theater becomes important to the daily life of the community.”
About the Zelda Fichandler Award
Named for a giant of the regional theatre movement, the Zelda Fichandler Award recognizes directors and choreographers who are in the center of their creative lives; who demonstrate great accomplishment to-date and promise for the future; and who have made prominent achievements in the field with singular creativity and artistry, and deep investment in a particular place outside of the New York arena. The Award is not to honor lifetime achievement. The goal of the Fichandler Award is to encourage those artists who have made a commitment to creating theatre in the regions.
Established in 2009, the Zelda Fichandler Award is SDCF’s first award devoted to the regional theatre. With this award, SDCF acknowledges the profound impact the founders of regional theatre have had on the field, honoring their legacy through the recognition of the extraordinary individuals who are transforming the national arts landscape with their unique and creative work in the American regional theatre.
The Fichandler Award is given regionally on a rotating basis and comes with an unrestricted award of $5000.
The Fichandler Award serves as a complement to the “Mr. Abbott” Award presented in recognition of lifetime achievement in theatre, and the Joe A. Callaway Award for excellence in direction and choreography. The three awards are the only awards given to theatre directors and choreographers by their peers.
Zelda Fichandler dedicated her early career to the establishment of America’s regional theatre movement. In 1950 she founded Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage and in 1968 she produced The Great White Hope, which became the first production to transfer from a regional theatre to Broadway, winning the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize, and launching the careers of James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. Her production of Inherit the Wind toured Soviet St. Petersburg and Moscow and Arena Stage was the first American theatre company sponsored by the State Department to do so. Like many other regional theatres afterward, Arena Stage cultivated an evolving but resident company over the decades that included some of America’s best actors: Robert Prosky, Frances Sternhagen, George Grizzard, Philip Bosco, Ned Beatty, Roy Scheider, Robert Foxworth, Jane Alexander, James Earl Jones, Melinda Dillon, Dianne Wiest, Max Wright, Marilyn Caskey, Harriet Harris, and Tom Hewitt. In 1975 it was the first regional theatre to be recognized by the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League with the Regional Theatre Tony Award for outstanding achievement. When Ms. Fichandler retired as producing artistic director of Arena Stage in 1990, she had achieved the longest tenure of any non-commercial producer in the annals of the American theater. Ms. Fichandler is Chair Emeritus of New York University’s acclaimed graduate acting program where she personally taught, guided, and inspired more than 500 acting students, including Marcia Gay Harden, Rainn Wilson, Billy Crudup, Debra Messing, Peter Krause, and Michael C. Hall. She has received the George Abbott Award, The Acting Company’s John Houseman Award, the Margo Jones Award, and the National Medal of Arts, and in 1999 she became the first artistic leader outside of New York to be inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.
The nominee must have made and be continuing to make a unique and exceptional contribution to theatre in the selected region. Artistic staff and freelance directors/choreographers are eligible.
The nominee must work and live primarily in the year’s selected region.
The nominee must be a Full SDC Member in good standing or SDC Associate Member in good standing by the nomination deadline.
Note that this is not an award for lifetime achievement; this award heralds both accomplishment to date and promise for the future.
To nominate an artist for the Fichandler Award, please visit this page.
Jonathan Moscone of California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda, California (2009)
Bill Rauch of Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon (2012)
Tim Dang of East West Players in Los Angeles, CA (2015)
Michael Halberstam of Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois (2010)
Charles Newell of Court Theatre in Chicago, Illinois (2013)
Lisa Portes of Chicago, Illinois (2016)
Blanka Zizka of The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (2011)
Joseph Haj of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, NC (2014)