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Zelda’s LegacyBy Janice L. Kaplan

We frequently remember where we were when we first learned that a beloved family member, friend or public figure has died. It’s fitting that Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith got word of the passing of Arena’s co-founder, Zelda Fichandler, while on vacation in Alaska – not far from the Perseverance Theatre Molly founded more than 35 years ago. That is where she began to compose her tribute to the woman credited with founding the regional theater movement in this country. It starts: “She is the mother of us all in the American theater.”

While Zelda’s death was not unexpected (she was 91 and suffered from congestive heart failure), it was nonetheless a shock to our collective system. Since July 29, remembrances have poured in from across the country and around the world. (A celebration of her writings and a memorial service will be held at Arena this Sunday and Monday.)

Small in stature yet larger than life, Zelda is being remembered by colleagues and drama critics, friends and theater fellows as a visionary leader and teacher, a trailblazer, maverick, inspired thinker, devoted mentor and friend – among many other superlatives. Hers is a legacy captured in countless stories, speeches and headlines from the past. But it is also reflected in today’s Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, which is galvanizing the power of theater to understand who we are as Americans while serving as a catalyst for the transformation taking place in Southwest Washington. It all started with Zelda.

In a remembrance headlined, “It’s almost impossible to overstate Zelda Fichandler’s impact on American theater,” Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks wrote: “If you love taking in the bracing air of the American theater, you have Zelda Fichandler to thank. Because she supplied the oxygen.” He went on to say that she pioneered the movement responsible for bringing theater to “parts of the country that might otherwise have remained culturally parched.”

Like Alaska.

It’s a rich and lasting legacy that stretches from coast to coast and especially here in the nation’s capital, which, at the time of Arena’s founding, was a cultural wasteland. Not only that, but when Arena opened its doors in 1950, both of Washington’s commercial theaters were racially segregated. Under the leadership of Zelda and her co-founders – then-husband Tom Fichandler and Edward Mangum – Arena welcomed anyone who wished to buy a ticket, becoming the first integrated theater in the District.

“It is no accident that the transformation of the District of Columbia is marked by the coming of self-government, the rise of theater and the performing arts, and the desegregation of entertainment venues, with Arena Stage as a pioneer,” said Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. “We celebrate Zelda Fichandler who was not content to leave her city in the backwater of American culture and dared to use the stage to lead us to become today’s cosmopolitan D.C.” Inclusiveness and accessibility – in all its forms – have been a priority ever since.

“‘What is to be done?’ and ‘How is it to be done’ were the subtexts of our daily lives,” Zelda wrote of those early days. “The sands take lines unknown, as the poet said, even as a painter lays down on the canvas a random sketch that will define the painting to follow.”

In addition to being the first racially integrated theater in the District, under Zelda’s leadership, Arena was one of the first nonprofit theaters in the country – a decision that allowed the directors to focus on the art rather than bringing in shows that were guaranteed to be a commercial success, and thus serving as a model for sister organizations around the country. It was the first U.S. theater to tour behind the Iron Curtain in 1973, and, in 1976, the first theater to win a Regional Theater Tony Award.

In 1990, Zelda celebrated her 40th and final season as producing artistic director. When she retired that year, she had achieved the longest tenure of any non-commercial producer in the annals of the American theater. In 1992, Arena’s 816-seat arena space was renamed the Fichandler Stage in honor of Zelda and Tom. When she saw the new space in the renovated Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater she reportedly proclaimed, “It’s better than the original!”

Zelda viewed the artist’s place in the community as an interpreter and translator of the human condition. “Theater is the most human of all the arts,” she wrote. “That’s why we do it. Without it, we’re lacking a great avenue through the nature of the human condition.” She ensured Arena’s role as a training ground for promising actors, directors, and technicians, and a venue for emerging playwrights.

“Zelda Fichandler and Arena Stage changed my life forever,” said Douglas Wager, Arena’s former Artistic Director who is now Associate Dean of Theater, Film and Media Arts at Temple University in Philadelphia. “I came to do 10-week internship and stayed 25 years. Multiply that story 100,000 times and you see the impact Zelda had on the careers of people working in theaters across this country. It’s crazy the amount of creative potential Zelda unleashed – a tsunami of creativity from one simple idea.”

Arena’s Executive Director, Edgar Dobie, who came to D.C. from Providence, Rhode Island’s resident professional theater, Trinity Repertory Company, says it was Arena’s founding principles that drew him here. “The word ‘resident’ was important to Zelda,” he says. “She cared that theaters be residents of their community and that community would grow up around them.”

In addition, he said, “we talk a lot about disparities and inclusiveness – something Zelda was talking about 50 years ago, long before anyone else. It was important then, and it’s important today.” In reminiscing about his conversations with Arena’s founder, Edgar says one discussion stands out. “I was focused on these two notions: that a theater should be a place where all residents are welcome (not the case in Washington, D.C. in 1950) and that to be vital, a theater needs to be resident in its community and engage with the artists of the community. My question was: were there times when the two were at war and, if so, which was more important?”

“Without missing a beat, she answered: ‘the centrality of the resident artist was paramount, as it never occurred to me that every member of the community would not be welcome.’”

Ahead of her time. Edgy. Political. Inclusive. A role model and mentor to the many who have followed in her very large footsteps.

Today, Arena is alive as a center for American theater in our nation’s capital with a focus on American artists. Under the leadership of Molly Smith and Edgar Dobie, the theater produces and presents all that is passionate, exuberant, profound, deep and dangerous in the American spirit, reflecting America’s diversity and challenges. That mission is expressed through the productions it creates, the work it develops, the presentations that move beyond its stages, and community and education programs that engage artists, students and audiences.

In a public radio interview on Zelda’s legacy, Molly was asked to describe her mentor. “Zelda was fearless as an artist and an artistic director, provocative in her choices. There was often social commentary in what she was doing. But she also cared about who was sitting in the seats, who was in the house.”

That, in a nutshell, was Zelda. It’s an equally perfect description of Molly.

Zelda said something to Molly during the job interview process that has stayed with her. “She told me, ‘you have to follow your own star.’ When I took over, I felt like I had been given a glittery cape,” says Molly. “A very heavy glittery cape. My job was to celebrate our past and to drive us into the future. That conversation with Zelda gave wings to that cape. It’s what has allowed me to focus on American theater and create new programs and follow through on new ideas.”

The legacy continues. “There’s a commitment to excellence here that is quite unique,” says Seema Sueko, Arena’s new Deputy Artistic Director who arrived this summer from The Pasadena Playhouse. “Everybody is on top of their game. That’s something Zelda poured into the foundation and Molly lives in the day-to-day. It’s something that inspires and motivates us all – administrators, volunteers, the board, the folks building the sets, making the costumes, hanging the lights, not to mention the directors, the playwrights and the actors.”

Upon learning of Zelda’s death, theater director and playwright Tazewell Thompson, who worked with Zelda at Arena in the 1980s, wrote to Molly: “You’ve taken Arena by storm to an incredible artistic level, and transformed the space into an astonishing welcoming storytelling workspace for artists and audiences. You’ve picked up and raised the torch of diversity deeper and wider than any American theater, perhaps more than any in the world.

“You honor Zelda’s legacy and all of us,” he continued, “by your exemplary example of how to charge ahead into this still young century by keeping Arena Stage brave, bold, brilliant and diverse.”

That is Zelda’s legacy.

Janice L. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C. writer and communications consultant.