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Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater

With a special focus on community engagement and innovation in the arts, Arena Stage, founded on August 16, 1950, by Zelda Fichandler, Tom Fichandler and Edward Mangum, has shaped the cultural landscape of the American capital and has become a leader in diversity and artistic excellence.

The theater is capable of showing us our own face, plumbing for us the human heart, leading us to the edge of our own mind.

Zelda Fichandler

Zelda Fichandler, née Zelda Diamond (September 18, 1924–July 29, 2016), was born in Boston, but she grew up in Washington, where her family relocated when she was 4 years old. Behind Zelda Fichandler, who became the matriarch of the American regional theater movement, there is a story of immigration. Her parents, Harry Diamond and Ida Epstein, emigrated as infants from Russia to the United States. Her grandparents lived a modest life in the suburbs of Boston, running a small dairy business.“My parents emigrated as infants from Russia. My grandfather, an Orthodox Jew, slept on a feather bed on the stove in a dilapidated house next to a dump in a suburb of Boston, ate large white turnips, thinly sliced and sprinkled with salt, and by the kitchen window read learnedly from the holy scriptures and so was exempted from labor. My grandmother, unhappily married in the Old Country by arrangement, rose with the sun and she and my four uncles (one of whom later committed suicide) ran their small dairy business, until it was wiped out by the milk trusts, milked the few cows, pasteurized and bottled and delivered the milk in a cart drawn by horses, all before school time.” Zelda Fichandler, “A Humanist View of Theatre,” Performing Arts Journal 7, no. 2 (1983): 90–91. Her father, an engineer and inventor, worked for the National Bureau of Standards and developed proximity fuzes during the Second World War. Ida Epstein worked in her husband’s laboratory as his secretary.“My father was a brilliant inventor and scientist, originated, among other things, blind instrument landing and flying devices still used in world aviation today, took the first blind flight in an open 2-man cockpit plane from Beltsville, Maryland to Newark, New Jersey and made history, read the newspaper at the dinner table and never had time for me. My mother was, my sister was, I felt so-and-so about this-and-this, and when that thing happened it made me want to do that-and-that and make people feel such-and-such about me and so I did thus-and-thus, but it didn't make me feel what- and what, I kept trying and hoping I would find this-and-that, and so on and so on and so on. We each have our personal events and wantings which are etched into our bodies and into our souls-no, which are our bodies and our souls. And eventually we die, usually from the disease which represents the sum total of the way we have lived and what has happened to us.” Fichandler, “Humanist View,” 91.

Although drawn to science from a very young age, Zelda did not feel pressured by her family to choose the same path. In college, she earned the highest mark in chemistry out of 500 students, but given the social context, the prize was awarded to a male student.Zelda Fichandler, personal narrative, Theatre Communications Group, July/August 2001, https://web.archive.org/web/20131101171314/http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/2001/zelda.cfm. Despite her aptitude for science at the time, Zelda Fichandler’s ambition and vocation for theater would not come as a surprise. She recalls that her father, who never had the chance to see Arena Stage, recognized the “dramatic flair” she had from a young age, and had a subscription to the Theatre Guild, which gave her access to numerous plays. When she was 8, she played Helga in Helga and the White Peacock at Rose Robison Cowen’s Studio for Children's Theatre. Three years later, she wrote an essay for the Washington Star in which she stated that her desire to do theater was not triggered by fame or wealth, but rather by diversity: “I wanted to ‘be different people.’ It wasn’t really to be famous or rich, I said, but it was to show people ‘what other people could be like.’” Her perspective on diversity became, a few years later, part of her mission.

From Hydrochloric Acid to Chekhov

Zelda Fichandler’s life seemed to have two phases: before Cornell and after Cornell. Zelda was initially planning on going to medical school and becoming a psychoanalyst, taking various courses in chemistry, physics, biology, and anatomy at George Washington University. However, during what she recalls as her “science period,” she had a laboratory accident: the hydrochloric acid did minor damage physically, but it alarmed her family.Fichandler, personal narrative. Apart from her interest in science, Zelda was also a proficient piano player, but she decided not to pursue a career in music.

Despite her desire to become a psychoanalyst, a course at Cornell called "Contemporary Soviet Civilization" led her to explore the humanities and, indirectly, her origins. She decided to start learning Russian and later on she helped set up the first Russian library in the United States.

At first, she started working as a translator from Russian into English. As she was struggling financially, she was grateful that she was paid by the number of the words translated, considering that the complexity of Russian requires a greater number of words in English. Thanks to her excellent language skills, native speakers of Russian had a hard time identifying her origins, but more importantly than fluency in the language of her extended family, Russian opened the door to a whole literature for her as she now could read Chekhov in the original. She graduated from Cornell Phi Beta Kappa and earned a master’s degree at George Washington University in dramatic literature with a thesis on Shakespeare in the Soviet Union, doing research in Russian at the Library of Congress. During her graduate studies, she acted in several student productions, for instance Barbara Allen in Dark of the Moon and Giovanna in Goldoni's The Fan. After finishing college, she had various jobs: she worked with military intelligence in the Russian Division, organized the Public Workers Union, wrote for the Red Army. But most importantly, with her husband Thomas Fichandler, whom she married when she was 22, she became politically active and protested against segregation, which is an aspect that became part of her artistic credo.

Arena Stage: “As whimsical as falling in love”

Artistic excellence. Inclusiveness. Community. These are the fundamental aspects at the core of Arena Stage in Zelda Fichandler’s vision. Arena Stage would not be what it is today if Zelda Fichandler and Edward Mangum, who was running an amateur group called the Mount Vernon Players, had not decided that the professional theatrical production offered by the United States was not enough for their ambitious aspirations. Zelda Fichandler recalls this key moment “as whimsical as falling in love: a something that you can’t evade, you can’t avoid, you can’t dodge, you can’t go around. You don't listen to your parents. You think all obstacles are mythological and that you’re going to have this thing, love, this person you love, this idea, at whatever cost. Your life is made in those moments. It’s a moment of self-donation: ‘I give myself to this’. So in a very lighthearted but serious way, that’s how it happened.”Fichandler, personal narrative. Perhaps this moment of self-donation and commitment to a life in the arts was Zelda Fichandler’s fundamental philanthropic gesture.

Margo Jones’s theatre was a great influence on Zelda Fichandler. Her dreams took the shape of an arena, an intimate space that challenged the aesthetic tendencies of experimenting with open spaces at the time. As Zelda Fichandler says, “we needed a more open, more plastic, more democratic form.”Fichandler, personal narrative. What was initially an abandoned movie theater on the outskirts of Washington specializing in pornographic films became a 247-seat arena, and behind its design was the collective effort of a lawyer, a tennis professional, a police officer working at the White House, a scientist, a retired restaurateur, and the head of the Theatre Guild, who raised $15,000 to invest in this arts space.

Zelda Fichandler quotes the European theater models (the French, Scandinavian, English, German, and especially the Russian model designed by Nikolay Okhlopkov and Konstantin Stanislavski) as the main influences behind her idea of a resident company: “I never thought in any other way. . . . It was the way I thought theatre proceeded when it served the function that I thought it should serve. I’ve never, never questioned it, and don’t question it today. Production by means of the acting company is the organic way.”Fichandler, personal narrative. Financially, having a resident company meant hiring a relatively small number of actors (up to 20) who would act in all the productions of Arena Stage. That meant responsibility for the managers, stability for the actors and, once Arena Stage received international acclaim, their desire to gain validation from other directors, which destabilized the company.

In 1950, in the 247-seat Hippodrome Arena produced 17 plays during the first season, opening with Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, directed by Edward Mangum. Two years later, Zelda and Thomas Fichandler were in charge of the theater as Edward Mangum left Arena Stage.

This was not the only change. From New York Avenue, Arena Stage moved to a new 500-seat home dubbed “The Old Vat” (a joke on the English the Old Vic), formerly the Heurich Brewery, close to Foggy Bottom. They opened it in 1957 with the new version of A View from the Bridge. The main reason behind the relocation was the financial struggle; in Zelda Fichandler’s vision, Arena Stage had to be a nonprofit, a status it officially acquired in 1959. On this conversion, Finchandler remarked, “The art of the theater was never meant to exist for the purpose of making a profit—in the economic sense, of course; its profit is of another kind. . . . The theater is capable of showing us our own face, plumbing for us the human heart, leading us to the edge of our own mind. And this capacity so intrigued and compelled us that we wrenched ourselves away from the force that is Broadway (a force that is weaker but still exists today), became non-profit in structure, and set ourselves down in community after community after community all over the United States.”Laurence Maslon, The Arena Adventure: The First 40 Years (Washington, DC: Arena Stage/Applause Books, 1990.

Central to Zelda Fichandler’s mission and the relationship of Arena Stage with the community was the low ticket price, and its nonprofit status allowed Arena Stage to receive federal, foundation, and corporate funding. Among the early donors were the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Twentieth Century Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mayer Foundation, the Ford Motor Company, and the Mellon Foundation.

At this point, Arena Stage was stable and could expand. Designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, the expansion had 800 seats and was completed in 1961 as the first theater-in-the-round prepared for the existing resident acting company. It opened with the American premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, directed by Alan Schneider. Zelda Fichandler said, “I prefer the Arena. I think I can do anything in there and it invites a more expressionistic, a more poetic discovery of the play,”Fichandler, personal narrative. but despite her preference, in 1971 they extended the theater and added a second performance space, a thrust stage, the Kreeger Theater, designed by Harry Weese as well. It was a 514-seat fan-shaped auditorium, named in honor of Washington philanthropist David Lloyd Kreeger, who donated $250,000 to build it. It opened with the American premiere of Peter Barnes’s The Ruling Class, directed by David William.

Cultural Diplomacy

Two years later, in 1973, the State Department selected Arena Stage to be the first American theater to tour the Soviet Union. The company presented Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, directed by Alan Schneider, as well as Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, directed by Zelda Fichandler. Zelda was particularly sensitive to contemporary political and social issues and had an affinity for Russian, which shaped the trajectory of the mission of Arena Stage. Fascinated with the human psyche and creativity under repression, she collaborated with numerous Eastern European artists. In 1987, Russian director Yuri Lyubimov, exiled from the Soviet Union, made his American directorial debut with his adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which received great critical attention and popularity among the audience. The collaboration with Romanian Liviu Ciulei marked a moment of rich emulation and dynamic exchange of creativity and methodology on both sides. Arena Stage was the first American resident company to tour in Eastern Europe, a bold move in a period when contact with the West was prohibited behind the Iron Curtain and where artistic production was victim to censorship. Zelda included in the theater’s repertoire plays from the Soviet Union, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Austria, East and West Germany, France, Switzerland, England, Canada, and Australia. This cultural diversity was appreciated by the cosmopolitan audience of Washington, DC.

Leadership in Diversity

At this point, Arena Stage became the first in many areas. In 1980, Arena Stage was the first American theater company invited to attend the international Hong Kong Arts Festival, where they presented Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, directed by Zelda Fichandler, and George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take it with You, directed by Douglas C. Wager.

In 1981, with the Washington Ear, Arena Stage developed Audio Description, which made it the first theater to create audio-described performances for visually impaired members of the audience.

It was the first regional theater to have a production go on Broadway, with The Great White Hope in 1968. It was the first theater outside New York to win a Tony Award for artistic excellence (1976). It was also the first theater with an integrated acting company. Given Zelda Fichandler’s awareness of politics, Arena Stage was also the first racially integrated theater in Washington. After the success of The Great White Hope, Arena Stage received a grant of $250,000 from the Ford Foundation to integrate actors of color into the company. Arena Stage had 15 black actors, but Zelda’s aim was to have diversity at the core of the entire institution: “The effort was to make the institution part of the natural life of the city, which was 63 percent African American. And so the effort continued under Doug Wager, and now under Molly Smith, and it seems that's how it always was. Theatre must be of its times, of its audiences and their concerns as well as, of course, of pressing interest to its artists.”Fichandler, personal narrative.

In 1991, before Zelda left her position as producing director at Arena Stage to become artistic director of the Acting Company in New York City and chair of the graduate acting program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, her company raised about $4 million for a cultural diversity grant, which later became the Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship Program, still ongoing in 2019.

Thomas Fichandler retired at the end of the 1985–1986 season. Thirty years later, Arena Stage was one of seven theaters promoting the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, but if we think of Zelda Fichandler’s leadership in theater in an industry dominated by men, the activity of Arena Stage is even more impressive, as it overcame numerous obstacles. In her own words, “I had to overcome a lot of things, like fear of leadership. I had to value my own opinion, trust my instincts, and to overcome the fear of being silly and making mistakes. I had to overcome the fear of being aggressive in the traditional sense of a woman being ‘overly-aggressive.’”Murray List, “An Interview With Zelda Fichandler,” Group 3, no. 4 (1979): 237.

Another obstacle she faced in the mid-1990s was censorship. As she recalls, “When I presided over the transition from Peter Zeisler’s directorship in the mid-1990s, we were facing censorship of the work we were doing. We had to sign loyalty oaths as a condition of accepting money from the government, and restrictions, now in place, were on the horizon of giving money to individual artists; even channeling money through receiving organizations to individual artists is now prohibited. It was a time of increasing conservatism all around the country, with the strengthening of the Religious Right, the censorship of textbooks that reminded one of Inherit the Wind and of the Stokes trial of 1925. Censorship was looming very large, as was a diminution in funding.”Fichandler, personal narrative. Her collaboration with Nina Vance, founder and artistic director of Alley Theatre, was the modest beginning of what soon became the regional theater movement.

“The other thing that was on our plate was how to maintain an artistic flowering despite economic pressures; how not to yield to the bottom line, as expressed in dollars, because there was another bottom line below that bottom line, which was the bottom line of artistic achievement. What were theatres worth if they weren’t continuing in a nonprofit spirit? That is, a spirit that saw profit psychically, emotionally, intellectually, and not monetarily.”Fichandler, personal narrative. In 1988–1989, Arena Stage was awarded a grant of $350,000 by the Ford Motor Company, a grant of $1 million by the National Endowment for the Arts to support an innovative cultural diversity program, and $3 million donated by major foundations and corporations.

Arena Stage’s New Mission

Artistic excellence, inclusiveness, and community were the key notions of Zelda’s vision and Arena Stage’s initial mission. In 1998, Molly Smith, founder and artistic director of Perseverance Theatre, was named artistic director of Arena Stage. “American focus, leader in diversity and summer programming” are what makes Arena Stage unique in the view of Anne Paine West, director of board and donor relations.

In 2006, Arena Stage managed to raise over $100 million to renovate its facilities. Gilbert and Jaylee Mead donated close to $35 million toward the project, and the new building, situated close to the Waterfront, took their name: Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. The Meads’ philanthropic gesture is the largest donation made to an American regional theater and at the time ranked in top 10 largest donations to a nonprofit arts organization in the United States.

On October 23, 2010, a new Arena Stage designed by Bing Thom Architects opened to the public (with Oklahoma!, directed by Molly Smith), becoming a national center dedicated entirely to the production and development of American Theater. Although it may seem like a shift from Zelda’s vision that encouraged international collaboration and incorporated international productions into their repertory, the new Arena Stage engages with contemporary social issues and looks at diversity as well, but within the United States.

Under Molly Smith’s leadership, a wide range of programs committed to diversity, inclusiveness, and artistic excellence have been launched: readings and workshops of new plays (1998); the Community Engagement program (2002) focusing on young people in the metropolitan area; the Writer’s Council (2005), a group of playwrights such as Paula Vogel, Nilo Cruz, and Sarah Ruhl; and Camp Arena Stage (2005) for people ages 8–15. The American Voices New Play Institute (2009) received a $1.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, providing resident playwrights resources to write and develop new plays. As part of this Institute, Arena Stage launched the Kogod Cradle Series (2012) in the very intimate 200-seat Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, supporting the development of innovative work.

Conclusion

From an abandoned movie theater to a pioneer of the Regional Theater Movement, Tony Awards, international tours, three main stages, all departments under one unifying roof, Arena Stage has become one of the largest performing arts centers in Washington, DC. Its institution honors the vision of its cofounder Zelda Fichandler and the mission of its current artistic director Molly Smith by continuing to be a leader in diversity and community engagement.

Profile by Felicia Cucuta, 2019 Wintersession student.