“Since it was my decision and my timing and my will, it was easy, on that level,” Joy Zinoman said when I asked her if it had been easy to stop leading The Studio Theatre, the company she founded and then ran for thirty-five eventful, memorable years.
“It was what I wanted to do. Yeah, I think it was [easy.] It was for me.”
We spoke in advance of the opening of her latest project, and the first half of our talk had focused on The Blood Knot, then in rehearsal at Mosaic Theatre Company.
The Blood Knot has since opened to glowing notices. On DCTS.com, Tim Treanor said that Zinoman and cast are “playing the hell out of it.” In The Washington Post, Nelson Pressley praised “the intensely watchful eye that Zinoman applies to this precise, full-blooded show.”
But back to the “easy-to-let-go” question: “I was happy that I could keep teaching and I’m happy that I’ve been able to still work. I directed those Beckett one-acts in New York.” Titled Sounding Beckett, that bill featured DC favorites Philip Goodwin, Ted van Griethuysen, and Holly Twyford, and ran at Off Broadway’s prestigious Classic Stage Company in 2012.
“You know, last year I did that crazy…I acted for the first time in forty years (that was insane) in Uncle Vanya at Round House.
“I did things that I couldn’t do when I had to run a theatre. So, yeah, there were things I wanted to do and there was also…I have a very intense family.” Her description triggered a chuckle.
“I have three children who are all doing very wonderful, exciting things that I want to participate in, and I have five grandchildren, similarly engaging. If you run a theatre, you just can’t be with them as much as you want to.”
Back to her turn treading the boards (she played Maria, Vanya’s Mom, in that 2015 production); did it leave her hankering for more opportunities as a Thespian? Zinoman’s answer was emphatic: No!
“I was actually offered an acting role just recently, a big role, at a regular, serious theatre in Washington, and I said no. I mean, I loved doing it, because — oouuph— it’s good to do that. If you’ve been teaching and directing for as long as I have, it’s really good to be on the other side.”
After a brief pause, she concluded, quietly, “But I just don’t like to have to wash my hair that often.” (And with that, she firmly put the final nail in the coffin of any dreams for “Joy Zinoman as Nellie Forbush.”)
Quote unquote retirement notwithstanding, Zinoman is still very involved with Studio’s storied Acting Conservatory. “Yeah, I still do that.” And just how involved is she with it? “Totally, in terms of teacher training, curriculum development. I mean, I actually still run the Conservatory, which is twenty teachers and upwards of five hundred class places a year. It’s a big deal.
“I am very engaged during registration, I’m in daily contact, I’m at meetings there once a week, I’m completely engaged with all the teachers. I still am very interested in teaching, and so I’m very grateful that I get to do that. And I teach one semester a year out of the three, so I’m free the rest of the time to do a project, if there is something that interests me. Or play with my grandchildren.”
Those who go through the Conservatory speak with awe about the experience of Zinoman the teacher. Her directing course has been a particular draw. “I only teach directing every two or three years. Aside from that, I teach classes in style; a Shaw-Ibsen-Chekhov; Beckett-Mamet-Albee-Pinter; Greek; or Shakespeare. So I teach a series of advanced acting classes.”
All of the Conservatory classes generally lead up to a night of final scenes, and often, if not always, Zinoman is auditing those and offering feedback. The feedback sessions for her classes are famous for going late. And by late, we’re not talking about a quarter to twelve. If you’re counting on Metro to get you home after one of those, think again.
The feedback sessions have pushed toward dawn, and recent postings on Facebook lead me to think that, if perhaps they don’t go quite so late as they used to, they still are strikingly thorough, are not particularly concerned with curfews, and don’t sound like the typical occupation for your typical retiree.
I mentioned that I presumed Zinoman must never have missed seeing a production at Studio over her thirty-five years at its helm. “No, no, no, never. Although there are some very, very few exceptions, when I was in Asia. I was commuting for three years, back and forth, five months here, five months there, so I missed a few productions in the 80s.” Husband Murray is a diplomat whose career was focused on Asia and involved several postings there.
Now that she’s Emeritus, does Zinoman try to see everything Studio does? “I do try, but I also travel — you know, my husband and I have wanderlust — so I have missed some productions because of not being here. I’m trying to go see Three Sisters tonight. Today’s my day off.” She chuckled at the irony that her day off from rehearsal won’t be a day away from the theatre.
Since Zinoman mentioned her family, I took the opportunity to ask about her son Jason. I have enjoyed reading his theatre reviews for The New York Times and noticed that, over the last few years, those have appeared less frequently as he has created his own distinct beat at the paper, covering comedy.
“He is the first comedy critic of The New York Times. It’s a formal — they created that job. He created that job.”
Did this career turn by Jason Z. surprise Joy Z.? “He was a journalist, and he has a wide range of interests. He got the job as assistant theatre editor at Time Out magazine, and then he became the editor for a number of years, and he wrote theatre reviews.
“In a way, it’s horribly embarrassing to have a child who’s a theatre critic. I mean, how much of our time do we spend disdaining them? So, can you imagine having one as a child?
“But, of course, the truth is, it’s a great, great pleasure for me, and for us, and we have a special relationship about the theatre, because he grew up — he was born the year that The Studio Theatre started.
“So he grew up in that theatre, and with that theatre — you know, hanging out in the back of rehearsal rooms, and learned his Shakespeare at final scenes. My other children did, too, but his life is exactly synonymous — I was pregnant when I founded the theatre, basically, and part of it had to do with that pregnancy, which was, like, ten years after my last other child.
“Anyway, comedy was something that he also wrote about, and he started to get interested in. He does like to do some theatre reviews, he still goes to opening nights, we still talk endlessly about the theatre and shows, but it [the comedy review gig] was a wide open field that hadn’t had a consistent critical voice, and he really felt he had a chance to expose a lot of people to a lotta work, so why not take that chance?
“And while he’s doing that, he’s also started to write books and, I think, if he was a theatre critic, he might not have been able to do that. He wrote a book on horror, called Shock Value. He has a huge book which is coming out in three weeks, which is on David Letterman. It’s coming out April 11th.” A quick visit to amazon.com found Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night flagged as “#1 New Release in TV History & Criticism.”
I detected a small note of anticipation that a future book could involve his continued devotion to theatre as she ended this part of the talk by saying, “And, you know…he’s still got time ahead of him.”
Jason isn’t the only accomplished Zinoman child. “I also have a daughter, who’s a film editor, who is working right now at Spike TV.” Her current project there is Time: The Kaleif Browder Story, the just-broadcast Spike series “about this kid who stole a backpack and went to Rikers Island and was innocent and then committed suicide.
“She’s, like, a big documentary film editor, and she has an adopted African-American son who is now eight years old, and they’re utterly fabulous people.
“And I have a son who’s a professor at Berkeley.” Peter Zinoman is a member of both the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies and the History Department, Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Vietnamese Studies. “He has a Vietnamese wife. I have Asian-American grandchildren, too.” Noting that Jason’s wife is French, she concluded, “So I have a very, you know, complicated, racially-diverse group of grandchildren, ranging in age from three to nineteen, and so there are a whole lot of people to play with.”
(Our conversation had begun by Zinoman asking after my children. Following my report, she observed, “Heaven! There’re not many things better than little kids.”)
Back in Studio’s early days, the local theatre scene was unrecognizable as compared to now. There were only two year-round Equity theaters, Arena and Folger, joined for a few months by Olney, which was a summer stock company back then. The non-Equity troupes numbered a mere handful, and paid artists a small stipend, if anything.
A few of the long-time company members at, say, Arena lived in town; otherwise, all three companies cast out of New York. DC actors would be lucky to get an understudy gig or a spear-carrier role, and those who wished for a professional career were biding time until a move to New York or, for some, LA.
Things have changed so much that a significant cohort of actor now make the opposite trek, choosing to base themselves here and make a career with roles at the burgeoning number of Equity theatres, and at smaller companies, who often will contract union actors in otherwise non-Equity casts. I mentioned Tom Story, currently in Zinoman’s Blood Knot, as an example of a New York actor who became a DC actor. Zinoman countered by mentioning Nancy Robinette and Holly Twyford as examples of local talent who have made careers (mostly) in Washington.
Joy Zinoman directed
by Athol Fugard
closes April 30, 2017
Details and tickets
My memory is that it was Zinoman at Studio who first breached the firewall separating the two distinct categories of theatre when, in 1980, she cast the title role of Medea with Mikel Lambert. “That’s right!”
At the time, we were used to seeing Lambert at the Folger, where she played any number of classical leads. I asked Zinoman to talk about how her casting of Lambert had played an important part in spurring the development of the indigenous theatre movement in DC.
“Well, in my young days, I just didn’t like any kind of separation. I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe in the union as an arbiter of taste. I didn’t believe that quality had to do with labels — you know, all that. I just thought that, if you were a person of taste, you could recognize ability, and it didn’t have to do with labels or pedigrees or where you went to school; that that was one of the freeing elements of being an artist, as opposed to the usual kind of societal, bourgeois…whatever.
“So I came from that kind of place, and if I was going to do Medea, I needed to have a major actress who could play Medea. And I don’t know how I knew Mikel, or where I had seen her, or whatever, but here she was: she was the right age, she was classically trained, she had a great voice, she was emotionally deep, she had just got a divorce and had two little boys — I mean, she had everything that she needed to play that role.
“And, you know, I wanted to direct it at the highest level, so I just was going to do whatever it took to do that, and there was no conscious political act. And that was the case all the time: in the early seasons, maybe after the first season, I was always scrappin’ around, trying to figure out how to use anybody I wanted. And did! And fighting with people about rights and plays, all the time.
“And then, when the union came and said, ‘We want to unionize this city,’ I said, ‘I want it; I want it, but only if I can give Equity cards.’” In other words, Zinoman wanted to unionize local talent; not to turn Studio Equity and then cast out of New York. “That’s right. That’s right. Exactly.
“And they were, like, ‘Weeeell, de-de-de-de.’ And that was a holdout thing for me. The small professional theatre contract was just starting in the country. I was, like, ‘Yeah, I’ll buy into that, but we have to be able to…’ So I gave Equity cards to people like Jennifer Mendenhall and Sarah Marshall, in those days, if they wanted them. I didn’t want to. It didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to, as I say, do — it was all aggressive.” The rest, as they say, is history.
As a final question, I asked Zinoman if she is at all nostalgic for those days of yore, when the scene was smaller and less institutionalized.
“I’m only nostalgic for my own youth, [she chuckled] as I think anyone would be. Nostalgic about Russell and I sleeping in the theatre; you know, that kind of stuff.” (Russell Metheny is the celebrated Set Designer who helped Zinoman found Studio and, later, design its current home, in which one of the performance spaces bears his name.)
“Building things with your own hands, not having to conform to any kind of rules and regulations — you know, if you’re going to be an Equity theatre, you have to take a break, and that was hard for me to adjust to; things like that. I tend to be a much, sort of, freer, fiercer spirit. Yeah. It was good to have the freedom and fierceness with friends in those days.
“On the other hand, I also like producing. I’m not a person who looks down on the producers, the great old Broadway producers, and the great people who make theatre in its totality. Certainly, I’m not a person who’s about playwrights. I am a person who’s about actors, and the kind of intimacy between actors and audience. And I had a lot of ideas about how to run these middle-size theatres. I had a lot of ideas about how to do that. And so that was [wistful pause] fun.”
And, again, she chuckled.
A couple of PS’s:
-In 2004, Zinoman brought Lambert (then acting under the name “Mikel Sarah Lambert”) back to Studio in Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, directed by Zinoman with a cast led by Twyford.
-Surfing the web to check some details for this article, I found a a powerful, poignant interview with Amanda Zinoman, that showed to me that the apple didn’t fall far from the free, fierce tree — and it references Chekhov!: