Zelda Fichandler, Leading Figure in Regional Theatre Movement, Dies at 91

Obituaries   Zelda Fichandler, Leading Figure in Regional Theatre Movement, Dies at 91
Her founding of Arena Stage in D.C. helped spark a revolution.
Architect Harry Weese with Arena Stage co-founder Zelda Fichandler and a model of the original Arena Stage
Architect Harry Weese with Arena Stage co-founder Zelda Fichandler and a model of the original Arena Stage Photo by Arena Stage

Zelda Fichandler, who, by founding Arena Stage in 1950 in theatre-starved Washington, D.C., helped sparked a national movement toward regional theatres, died July 29, at her home in D.C. She was 91. The cause was complications from congestive heart failure.

In the 1940s, most of the theatre that reached American cities west of New York came in the form of touring Broadway productions. There was little or no locally-grown productions. Fichandler, a graduate of George Washington University, sought to change that.

Inspired by the example of Margo Jones, the visionary founder of Theatre ’47 in Dallas, the first professional theatre company outside of New York, Fichandler launched Arena Stage inside a former movie theatre with the help of her husband, Thomas C. Fichandler, an economist who worked for the Treasury Department, and Edward Mangum, a director and teacher. (Mangum left in 1951.)

“There wasn’t a theatre world,” she said in 2011. “There was nothing here. There was absolutely nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. You don’t know what a wasteland it was. There wasn’t the Shubert, wasn’t the National, there wasn’t the Kennedy Center yet.”

Fichandler and her colleagues held open auditions and reaped unexpected riches. Some of the early recruits included George Grizzard, Tom Bosley, Frances Sternhagen and Pernell Roberts, all of whom would go on to make a name for themselves.

The work wasn’t glamorous at first. “She bought a junky place in a bad section of Washington,” remembers actress Dorothea Hammond, an early performer at Arena. There were rats in the dressing room. Entrances had to be made via a dirty outside alley. But Fichandler was an inspiring leader. “Her idea was to have a limited group of professionals, filled in with local people. She had a knack for speaking about her dream for the theatre," said Hammond.

“No one would be a star, you’d do the part that was right for you,” Hammond added. “No one was any higher than anyone else.”

Arena presented an astounding 17 productions during its first season. Critics noticed immediately and became champions of the enterprise.

Other cities soon followed Arena’s example. In the years to come, Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco all opened their doors. Today, every major American city has at least one major resident regional theatre. Washington itself, today, has several acclaimed resident theaters.

Arena achieved a national profile in 1967 when its production of Howard Sackler’s boxing drama The Great White Hope transferred to Broadway. It won a Tony Award for Best Play and made a star of James Earl Jones. (Arena did not, however, share in the profits of the Broadway production—a mistake she would not make again.)

Other new plays that were first produced at Arena Stage and then found fame in New York and elsewhere included Moonchildren and Loose Ends by Michael Weller, K2 by Patrick Meyers, The History of American Film by David Chambers and the musical revue Tintypes. Some of these were directed by Alan Schneider, whose career took off at Arena. Schneider went on to be Edward Albee’s first director of choice.

In 1961 Arena moved to a custom-made, theatre-in-the-round space in southwest Washington, which it still its home. In 1973 Arena Stage was selected by the State Department to present U.S. plays in the Soviet Union. In 1976 Arena Stage became the first troupe outside New York to receive a Tony Award for general excellence.

Fichandler retired from Arena Stage in 1990 after four decades at the helm. She occasionally continued to direct there. In 1984 she became chair of the graduate acting program and Master Teacher of Acting and Directing at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. From 1991 to 1994, she was artistic director of The Acting Company.

Zelda Diamond was born in Boston on September 18, 1924, and raised in Washington, D.C. Her father was a government scientist, and her mother was a housewife. She attended Cornell University.

She is survived by her two sons, Hal Fichandler and Mark Fichandler. Zelda and Thomas Fichandler separated in 1975. He died in 1997.

Fichandler saw regional theatre as a civilizing force. “Theatre is the most human of all the arts. That's why we do it. Without it, we're lacking a great avenue through the nature of the human condition.“

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