Remembering Zelda at Arena

In the one and only interview I did with Zelda Fichandler, the founder (with her husband) of Arena Stage and quite a few other enterprises theatrical and artistic, she talked about many things in ways both measured and freighted with real feeling. She mentioned, for instance, the time when her mother Ida went to one of her plays at Arena.

Ida Diamond’s response was to say, “Isn’t that just like life?”

I was reminded of that while sitting in the audience and, afterward, mingling with the gathered crowd at the public memorial service for Fichandler, who died at age 91 on July 29. It was just like life, only a little more so, and it was also just like theater.

The memorial, on Monday, Oct. 24, came the day after a session of readings by Washington-area artistic directors from Fichandler’s speeches on the arts and theater. It was held appropriately and hauntingly in the Fichandler Stage, where part of the set for Arena’s upcoming production of “Carousel” loomed overhead.

The occasion was a mix of life and art, daily doings and the creative doings of theater artists. It was joyful and sorrowful — the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, was recited — and it was uncommonly funny at times, a celebration of the life of a woman of many gifts who had a reputation for eloquence and seriousness, and was also said to like jokes (if they were good ones).

It began with music, the song about home and gardens and creativity, “Make Our Garden Grow,” from Bernstein’s “Candide,” a full chorus singing sweetly and energetically. At times, it seemed like both the first-rehearsal reading of a play and a summation of it. It seemed like the out-loud telling of the story of a big life, which Fichandler somewhat famously tried to spend out of the spotlight — an effort that was one of her few failures, because excellence and vivid personality will out. It sounded like a book coming to life with both prologue and epilogue, and a few stories as footnotes.

The stage was filled with colleagues, some of them quite noteworthy themselves, with children and grandchildren and the family of theater and mankind. It was filled with song and banjo music and stories of the kind only theater people or beloved family members are allowed to tell. It was the Arena family and the Fichandler family telling the story of — as Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith has often said — the woman who was and remains “the mother of us all.”

All the people who came to pay their respects, to tell stories, to share memories — not only actors and directors and playwrights but critics and theatergoers and ushers and designers and costumers and set painters — were made to feel part of a community, which was the theater community, which had lost and would miss an inspirational and transformative figure.

Fichandler is considered by many to be the founder of the regional theater movement, a status she always insistently shared with Margo Jones and Nina Vance.

Theater is of course the ultimate collaborationist performing art, noted most especially for being there in front of the last collaborator, the audience, in the moment. There were eloquent, articulate examples of what it takes to put on a play or a show, beyond the imaginings of Mickey Rooney or Judy Garland. All of us watched and listened, sitting in the house that Zelda and her husband, the late Tom Fichandler, built in the beginning, along with directors like the late Alan Schneider. The building, the theater, the stage were filled not only with those present but thickly with actors and plays, characters that marched across the stage, from Shakespeare to Chekhov to Mamet to Albee, from “Inherit the Wind” to “Our Town,” both of which Arena toured to Moscow.

Here in the present were Smith, the much-honored lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes, former Arena producer and project manager Guy Bergquist, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society Executive Director Laura Penn, Theatre Communications Group Executive Director Teresa Eyring, Fichandler’s successor at Arena Doug Wager, actor Terrence Currier, actress and playwright Danai Gurira (via video) and Tazewell Thompson, the gifted African American playwright and director who rose to prominence at Arena.

Thompson recalled the enormous row that occurred when he told Fichandler, “I wanted to be free from the Arena Stage plantation.” He said, to laughter, that she “cursed me in Yiddish and Russian and a tirade of Shakespearean curses, even Chaucer.”

Wager, who frequently visited Fichandler when she had settled in to live in Washington, where she would spend the last days of her life, recalled a time when he and others went sailing with her. “She had this magnificent hat,” Wager said. During the course of things, the hat blew off into the water, “and she looked at me, and I looked at her, and, of course, I said, ‘I’ll get it,’ and jumped in.”

Not to forget, there was banjo music and talk from Stephen Wade, the one-of-a-kind performer who took up residence in the Old Vat Room in the old, pre-renovated and new Arena for years.

Stories like these multiplied, along with family stories from her sons Hal and Mark and grandchildren Emily and Matthew, in which she become the doting mom, the grandmother, the prolific writer of lengthy letters and notes, the caller who left messages that would fill up message machines. What emerged was the inspirer, the maternal orderer of things, the teacher, the person who loved deeply and unforgettably, who occupied the full minds and imaginations of her offspring and their offspring, who required every part of her life to have meaning.

This was the same woman who strode the rehearsal rooms, who fought with and shared theater with people she worked with because they were part of her larger family. She truly occupied space in the lives of theater people, which is to say all of us who perform or watch.

The late and much-beloved actor Robert Prosky — he starred as Willy Loman at Arena, as well as Galileo and the Stage Manager — recalled once that he was “scared to death” when he auditioned for her. Arena was a huge part of his life: “It was here that I met my wife, raised my family,” he said. “I moved here. It changed my life.”

We chatted with Studio Theater founder Joy Zinoman, herself a pioneer, and Georgetown actress Dorothea Hammond, who performed in Arena’s first play. The speeches, the conversations at the reception, brought back an era and a place and a remarkable woman one last time. People laughed and remembered.

You thought, to quote Ida Diamond: “Wasn’t this just like life?”


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