Since the death of Zelda Fichandler on July 29th, there have been numerous tributes to the woman, her accomplishments, and her great and important legacy. All are well-earned and thoroughly deserved. In the pantheon of Washington, D.C. theatre-makers, the zenith position belongs to Zelda.
I didn’t know Zelda Fichandler. I saw her several times at various events around town; things like openings at Arena Stage and Helen Hayes Awards ceremonies. But I never met her.
Therefore, I can’t make testimonial to Zelda, can’t recount anecdotes and memories of her. It is, perhaps, even presumptuous of me to refer to her as Zelda, although all of us in town did so, whether we actually knew her or not.
I would like, however, to pay tribute to one of her signature accomplishments. It is one with which I did have personal involvement, as a member of her audience. An important component of Zelda’s Arena Stage, and one which I came to know well, as a young (and, I admit, obsessive) theatregoer, was its acting company.
As my tribute to Zelda Fichandler, I want to write about my memories of the acting company at a time when it was a defining characteristic of Arena, and at a time when Arena pretty much defined indigenous theatre in Washington, D.C.
The quotes from Zelda Fichandler, in bold italics, come from a 2001 interview given to Theatre Communications Group.
“The company idea was seminal.”
And what a company it was in the mid 70s through the early 80s, when I was going to Arena most frequently. I know that the acting company must have also been wonderful in the 50s and 60s, when talents such as Jane Alexander and Philip Bosco acted at Arena; I wish I could have seen work from those early decades. I did see wonderful work in the mid/late 80s, when the core company I came to know would include additions such as Tana Hicken and Henry Strozier.
Memory is strange. As my Grandmother, toward the end of her life, seemed to remember her youth more vividly than the rest of her hundred years, so I recall some of the earliest theatre I ever saw much more distinctly than things I have seen in recent years or even months.
I had been to Arena a few times as a child with my family. I remember a Treasure Island adaptation, with its Jim Hawkins singing a song called “We’re in a Pickle”; The Wind and the Willows, during the finale of which the cast went up the aisles, and one of them (her name was Delores Wilson, I think) cupped my cheek in her hand as she sang; and the stirring pre-Broadway run of the musical Raison.
But when I got my license to drive, I was able to go on my own, and I did. The first thing I saw by myself was Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. It changed my perception of what theatre could be. And it introduced me to actors I’d come to know very well over the next few years.
“If you believe, as I do, that the actor is the center of the theatre (because it’s the behavior of the actor, the experience of the actor that reveals to the audience who they are), then this natural relationship is best expressed in terms of a company.”
What was the value of a company such as Arena had? Let me illustrate with an example from those years.
Zelda’s father had come from Russia; she read Russian; and she was drawn to the work of theatre artists from behind the Iron Curtain.
She famously took the company on a tour to the U.S.S.R, a rare Cold War occurrence. She brought over directors such as Liviu Ciulei from Romania and Yuri Lyubimov from Russia. And she introduced to her audiences — and premiered for U.S. audiences — plays from Russia and Eastern Europe.
One was called The Ascent of Mount Fuji, a riveting drama concerning four couples on a camping trip who face an ethical dilemma. Toward the play’s end, someone new enters with catalytic news.
Earlier that season, Stanley Anderson had played Biff Loman and Mark Antony. On this night, he was doing a much shorter role, much the shortest in the play. I still remember his entrance. There was something important to the experience that this tiny part was being played by so recognizable and admired a member of the company.
It spoke to the ethic of the theatre and to the function of the company. It was a palpable demonstration of the old adage, “There are no small roles, only small actors.” It gave the scene weight. It certainly burned itself into my memory — this was some forty years ago.
“I question myself about everything…But I have never, ever questioned, and do not today question, that the way to create the most developed, important actors is the acting company.”
We felt we knew the actors almost as friends, as they weaved in and out of various casts. I now look back on some who were to become nationally famous as they did supporting roles in plays such as The Front Page, in which the renowned Robert Prosky offered support in the role of a Sheriff and eventual two-time Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest played the leading man’s long-suffering (and long-sitting-offstage) fiancé.
“…that’s where the great talents have been formed. If you want to find great French actors, look to the Comedie Francaise or Vilar. The great actors of England came out of the early Old Vic and the repertory system. Then came the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare, and now the new Globe is developing a company. A lot of the important actors in America came out of companies — the Group Theatre, Eva Le Gallienne’s theatre, and later Arena Stage.”
The company members all, of course, had their time in the spotlight. Prosky was Willy Loman in the earlier-referenced production of Death of a Salesman, and had led the tour to the Soviet Union playing Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind and the Stage Manager in Our Town.
Wiest was the ingenue, generally, to Halo Wines’ sadder-but-wiser girl. (Wines was The Lady in Red, for instance, in The Front Page.) The male ingenue of the troupe was Gary Bayer. When I saw Our Town, Wiest was Emily and Bayer was George. When they did Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the two were Nick and Honey. (Both shows were directed by the legendary Alan Schneider, who introduced New York audiences to the work of Beckett, Pinter, and Albee, and who Zelda brought down as part of her leadership team at Arena.)
I’ll never forget Bayer as George in the scene when his father chastises him for shirking his chores. Schneider and Bayer perfectly — and surprisingly — captured the raw and eruptive emotion that is such a hallmark of adolescence.
And I’ll never forget Wiest’s Honey realizing that her husband had drunkenly shared an intimate secret with Virginia Woolf’s George. Her humiliation and hurt was so raw, so deep, so real (and, again, surprisingly so) that we all felt a little dirty ourselves for having participated, even vicariously, in her betrayal.
And moments earlier — during the male-bonding scene that occasioned the indiscretion — Schneider and Bayer and Richard Bauer (as George) had created so perfectly the feel of a late-night confessional conversation that, when Nick makes his silly “church-mouse” joke, the audience roared for, like, a minute and a half, as if we were all at the same party as they were, as drunk and as tired and as punchy — and it was a matinee. I heard the house manager say that, so involved was the audience, there were several instances of people pulling out and lighting up cigarettes, momentarily having forgotten that they were in a theatre.
There was never a sense of dutifully sitting through high culture, difficult material, because these shows were funny! Even that Brecht production was hilarious, though it ended with Bauer (as Ui) wiping off his made-up mustache and chillingly warning us that “the bitch who bore him is in heat again.” (The play is an allegory about the rise of Hitler.) It featured one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen, during which Bauer is coached by a Shakespearean actor, played by Max Wright (who went on to star in the TV series Alf; a gifted clown, Wright could make a line-less role a comic highlight of an evening.)
“In a company, you play parts that you might not be cast for if you were auditioning for a theatre that’s going to ‘job’ you in.”
Bauer, immediately on my viewing of Arturo Ui, became my idea of what an actor could be, should be, is. That season, he played three title roles in a row. (After Arturo Ui, he was in Zalman, or the Madness of God and Horatio, an irreverent life of Horatio Alger.) But he provided support, too, often to hilarious effect (as when he was the fastidious Bensinger in The Front Page) or demonstrating impressive range (as when he was a world-weary soldier in Idiot’s Delight).
Although the memory of the Arena acting company is indelible in the memories of many who frequented the company during the Fichandler years, it was disbanded under successor artistic leadership. Therefore it sadly is not a continuing legacy.
Of course, it’s a different world now than it was then. It’s funny to think that the openings of the movies Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Casablanca were closer in time to my introduction to Arena than that introduction is to now. Virginia Woolf was a newer play when I saw it at Arena than Angels in America or Wit are now.
Nostalgia can be dangerous, I know. Things change for all sorts of reasons, some good, some bad, many inevitable, and those of us who wax nostalgic about the good old days, particularly as the theatre scene in DC has become so much more vibrant, might risk being accused of the William Buckley definition of a conservative, “someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop,’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so.”
Perhaps it was easier to sustain a company in the economy of 1974 than it would be in the economy of 2016. Most companies in town have de facto, if not official, acting companies, in that favorite actors often return. A company commitment may have been more necessary to keep actors in a market with only two Equity theaters than it is in the current scene with almost 100 companies, many of which use union talent. Therefore, some actors may want to move more freely among the many companies, preferring not to be stuck at only one.
That said, it is clear from what she wrote the importance Zelda conferred upon the company concept, and her devotion to it.
“I love my Arena company, I’m in mourning for leaving the company. (I was for a while.)”
For me, experiencing Arena under Zelda, and its company during that great heyday, was an essential, formative experience. Arena Stage, in those years, was quite a special place. And it was the house that Zelda built.
I think we’re going to go back to it in America, it’s in the air again.
A public celebration of Zelda Fichandler’s life will be held at Arena Stage on Monday, October 24, at 2pm.
Note: Back in the 1970s, as the Regional Theatre movement was in its prime, PBS would tape and broadcast productions from many of the most prominent companies. It taped Arena’s production of Zalman, or The Madness of God, a play by the late Elie Wiesel. That cast features many of the above-mentioned members of Arena’s acting company.