Zelda Fichandler, 1924-2016

Zelda Fichandler, co-founder of Arena Stage and inspiration for regional theater, once said that “there is a hunger to see the human presence acted out. As long as that need remains, people will find a way to do theater.”

Fichandler, who died at the age of 91 on July 29, found a way.

If you were visiting Washington in, say, 1949, and you had that hunger, there were few ways to assuage it. There were offerings at Catholic University and other universities. And at the National Theatre you could find Broadway touring companies and tryouts.

There was no Kennedy Center, none of the dozens of companies and theaters that now make Washington something of a regional theater powerhouse, a viable alternative to Broadway and New York.

Daughter of a government scientist and Lithuanian immigrant, Fichandler had a degree from Cornell in Russian language and literature, but gravitated toward the theater. In 1950, she, her husband Thomas Fichandler and director Edward Mangum, after a difficult search for a space, founded Arena Stage and opened its first season with Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stooped to Conquer,” starring George Grizzard.

Fichandler brought intense curiosity and passion and intelligence to the task at hand, and what most would agree was a tough-minded spirit not easily sidetracked or defeated. She loved classical theater — especially Chekhov — and was always searching restlessly for new work, new talent.

It’s fair to say that she left her mark all over town and the region. She insisted she was not the pioneer of regional theater, giving due credit to Nina Vance in Houston and Margo Jones in Dallas. But when Arena opened in what was once the old Hippodrome, where vaudeville had been on the menu, she sowed seeds that would eventually flower in abundance.

She ignited a hunger for theater, for that desire to see “the human presence acted out,” bringing in gifted and talented directors, most notably the late Alan Schneider. The list of actors who enriched Arena Stage with their gifts includes Grizzard, Robert Prosky, Jane Alexander¸ Stacy Keach, Raúl Juliá, Ned Beatty, Tana Hicken, James Earl Jones and Georgetown resident Dorothea Hammond.

Schneider was a towering force in theater, going on to direct the Broadway debut of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and becoming a master at presenting the absurdist, poetic and haunting works of Samuel Beckett, including “Waiting for Godot.” He died in 1984 after being struck by a motorcycle in London.

Like a force of nature, Arena and Fichandler spread their wings. The theater went dark for one year during the 1955-56 season. In 1956, the new Arena, a 500-seat theater in the round, opened in the old Heurich Brewery, or the Old Vat, with Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.” The last season in the Old Vat was highlighted by Schneider’s direction of Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.”

In 1961, Schneider directed Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” in the new Arena space, an 827-seat theater in the round at 6th Street and Main Avenue SW.

Fichandler put Arena on the map during the turbulent 1960s with new and often politically edgy plays, as well as the classics, but especially with the 1967 premiere of “The Great White Hope,” a long and ambitious play that starred James Earl Jones as the controversial black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. It ran well over three hours and featured a cast 63 in number.

In 1973, Arena went to the Soviet Union with performances of two very American classics, “Inherit the Wind” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” In the 1980s, Fichandler’s production of Miller’s “The Crucible” was performed in Jerusalem at the Israel Festival.

By the time this writer arrived in Washington in the mid-1970s, Arena was already a legendary and well-established force in the community. The theater itself had grown with the addition of the smaller Kreeger Theater, which would later be augmented by a resurrection of the Old Vat Room. I remember seeing — and not quite getting — a production of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” with the images of an emotionally wounded Prosky staring into a glass of scotch in what was clearly a dark night of the soul.

Over the years, I saw a lot of plays at Arena and in the many theaters that had sprouted up in Arena’s and Fichandler’s lengthy wake, some of them run by women — Joy Zinoman at Studio, Leslie Jacobson at Horizons, Frankie Hewitt at Ford’s — adding their gifts to a scene that included, among others, the Folger, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Woolly Mammoth, Signature in Virginia, Olney in Maryland. Fichandler stepped down as producing director at the end of the 40th-anniversary 1990-91 season, having directed more than 50 productions. Douglas Wager took over as artistic director for eight years, followed by Molly Smith.

In 1970, Arena staged Clifford Odets’s energetic play about an intensely alive New York family during the Depression. The play was called “Awake and Sing,” a Fichandler favorite, and it drew her back to Arena in 2006 to direct it anew. We had a chance to speak with her in a phone interview at the time. She was then chair of the graduate acting program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

She talked movingly about theater, about Schneider, about her mother. In her rehearsal notes, she wrote that her mother went to one of the plays once, and was pleased, saying, “Isn’t that just like life?”

Schneider, in his memoir “Entrances,” said this of Fichandler: “What is immeasurably clear to all of us in the American theater for more than a generation is the breadth and persistence of Zelda’s artistic vision, as well as her social conscience, together with her unique ability to articulate with poetic expressiveness the strength of that vision.”

Molly Smith, in a tribute on the Arena Stage website, wrote: “Zelda Fichandler is the mother of us all in the American Theater. It was her thinking as a seminal artist and architect of the not-for-profit resident theater that imagined resident theaters creating brilliant theater in our own communities. A revolutionary idea. Her thinking and her writing haves forged the way we were created and the resident nature of our movement. She is irreplaceable.”

In the end, at Arena — where the main theater is dubbed the Fichandler — and in all the other theaters that blossomed in its wake, we sated our hunger to see the human presence acted out.

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