Zelda Fichandler died this past week at the age of ninety-one. Her contribution to the arts was a profound one, as she was one of the pioneers of the regional theatre movement in this country. As co-founder and artistic director of the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., she produced more than 400 plays and directed more than 50. Her tenure there ran from the early 1950s to the late 1980s.
It was Fichandler who first hit upon the idea of bringing theatre to Washington, D.C. back when there was no template to provide any sort of guidance or map. Yes, the great Margo Jones had started up the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas prior to Fichandler, but Jones's volatile personality led her to walk away within a few short years. Fichandler, on the other hand, was a steady firm leader of the Arena Stage, serving as its head from its inception to her retirement in the early nineties.
The productions she nurtured there would become powerful testaments to her desire to bring new playwrights to the fore as well as her exceptional taste. Under her leadership, the Arena won the first regional Tony award in 1976, became the first American theatre to tour the USSR in 1973, and most importantly, in 1968 was responsible for bringing a show out of regional theatre with basically it's entire creative team and cast intact to Broadway. The show was Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope.
In a 2006 article in Theatre Communications Magazine, Fichandler said of The Great White Hope that it had a "horrendous" impact on Washington. "I mean, when the lights came up in December 1967 on a black man and a white woman in bed in Washington, D.C., you could hear, audibly, the intake of breath. That intake of breath is what rode northward."
It's hard to describe what The Great White Hope offered Broadway audiences nearly 50 years ago. The play won what was once referred to as the Triple Crown: The New York Drama Critics Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for Best Play. It made an overnight star of James Earl Jones, after more than a decade in the business, as well as his co-star Jane Alexander and the director, Edwin Sherin (who would later marry Alexander). It was the first straight play I ever saw on Broadway (I had just turned twelve) and with no hyperbole, it changed my life.
The cast numbered sixty. Sixty! There has never been a play produced in a commercial production on Broadway since then that has boasted a company of that size. I don't know how they managed it, but despite the odds against its success, it took the town by storm. It was revolutionary, powerful, audacious and about as well acted as any show I have seen in the fifty years since.
But the road to success was a rocky one. As Fichandler recalled: “The whole theatre was against doing it. It was fragmented. You couldn't tell what it was—it was literary.” And when Edwin Sherin gave it to Jane Alexander to read early on, she was surprised by how thick it was and how long it took for her to read. “It ends so peculiarly,” she told Sherin. His response: “Jane, that was only the first act.”
The three-hour drama was an event that made not only critics take note, but had audiences (some who had rarely if ever been to the theatre before) lining up to see what it was all about. Loosely based on the life of Jack Johnson (Jefferson in the play), The Great White Hope told the story of the first black heavyweight champion of the world and of the devastating and overt prejudice that prevented his rightful place in the pantheon, not only because of the color of his skin, but because he dared take on a white mistress. The play stunned audiences more accustomed to less in-your-face fare, at a new top ticket price of $9.50 for a straight play. A relentless depiction of American racism, when it premiered at the Arena Stage Theatre in Washington, D.C. it had only been five months before the assassination of Martin Luther King. If ever a play was a bellwether, this was it.
Fund raising on a grand scale was the only way Arena's Great White Hope production was made possible, and it was Fichandler's arduous task to strong arm grants out of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation, in order to make the massive show producible on the D.C. stage. And what did Fichandler and the Arena Stage get for their efforts? Nothing. When the play became a smash hit produced the world over and sold to 20th Century Fox as a major motion picture, there was nothing in the contract that granted Arena a percentage. Not even the Playbill for the original Broadway production gives Arena Stage a single credit, acknowledging the place of its birth.
All that has changed now. No show can ever be workshopped, let alone fully produced prior to a commercial run, without due credit as well as financial compensation. The Public Theatre's cut of the phenomena that is Hamilton
insures that a non-profit company such as they will have its coffers full for many years to come.
Fichandler's contributions to the theatre didn't end with Arena Stage. She went on to the Julliard School and produced and directed for the Acting Company, which takes its graduate students on tours of the country with plays and musicals. She also served for twenty years as chair of the graduate acting and directing program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
An appreciation such as this can only touch on some of the highlights of a life in the theatre like Fichandler's, especially one that endured for more than sixty years. It would take a far longer piece to write about the hundreds of individuals in the arts whose lives she affected. And as she never wrote an autobiography, we are fortunate that her extraordinary career can be traced in her own words via an oral history project of the regional theatre movement in America, produced for DVD a dozen years ago. Designed to get the founders' stories preserved, its first volume features Fichandler along with Arvin Brown (the longtime artistic director of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven) and Peter Zeisner (co-founder of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis). It is essential viewing for anyone who either worked at these theatres, or intends to in the future, since due to the vision of people like Zelda Fichandler, regional theatre
in this country and theatres like Arena Stage, shall remain the essential institutions they are for years to come.
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