Remembering Zelda Fichandler, Matriarch Of American Regional Theater When the co-founder of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., made her theater a nonprofit, hundreds of small regional stages followed suit. Fichandler died July 29 at the age of 91.
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Remembering Zelda Fichandler, Matriarch Of American Regional Theater

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Remembering Zelda Fichandler, Matriarch Of American Regional Theater

Remembering Zelda Fichandler, Matriarch Of American Regional Theater

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America's regional theaters have lost a matriarch - Zelda Fichandler, the co-founder of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Fichandler died last week of congestive heart failure. She was 91. Bob Mondello has this appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In 1950, when Americans wanted to see professional theater, they pretty much had to go to Broadway or wait for Broadway to come to them. Ten blocks of Midtown Manhattan was where stage shows were born and from where they sometimes went on tour. Zelda Fichandler, then in her early 20s and living in Washington, D.C., thought that seemed limiting.

She told me in 2005 that she had wondered why in places outside New York theater couldn't be an everyday thing.

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ZELDA FICHANDLER: Like a library, like picking up the garbage, like schools, like churches. Why shouldn't what theater has to give be integrated into community life?

MONDELLO: The nation's capital had no professional theater at all in 1950. Its one touring house had closed to avoid desegregating. So Fichandler, with her husband, Tom, and professor Edward Mangum, founded Arena Stage as the city's first integrated theater. She was its artistic director, a position she held for four decades and a position that was something of an anomaly for a woman at the time.

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FICHANDLER: I can remember when Broadway started noticing us and would come down to see possible hits. They would come into my office because I was the one that served the coffee and washed the dishes. And they would say, well, who runs this place? I said, well, my name is on the program. I don't know. You know, I think I do.

And they said, no, but I mean really make the hard decisions like what plays you're going to do and how much money you're going to spend. And I said, well, I think I do.

MONDELLO: The plays that Fichandler chose, by Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams, Shaw and Moliere, were rarely what anyone would consider commercial. And because she kept ticket prices low, Arena lost money. But Fichandler turned that to her advantage by declaring the theater nonprofit by design, like symphonies, which could accept tax-exempt donations because they were educational.

The plays that Fichandler chose, by Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams, Shaw and Moliere, were rarely what anyone would consider commercial. And because she kept ticket prices low, Arena lost money. But Fichandler turned that to her advantage by declaring the theater nonprofit by design, like symphonies, which could accept tax-exempt donations because they were educational.

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FICHANDLER: I remember writing that document that said we were a form of education that led people to the edge of their own minds. I remember that phrase. I still like it. The difficulty was that theaters had a profit-making arm. So how do you distinguish between profit-making theatres and non-profit-making theaters?

MONDELLO: Fichandler's answer, which was adopted by hundreds of small regional stages that followed her example, lay in establishing that theater could be driven by art rather than cash and by companies of actors doing repertory, not just actors for hire. She often said that if theater was a temple, actors were its high priests.

The high priests she nurtured in Arena's repertory company included such young talents as Robert Prosky, Dianne Wiest and a then-unknown James Earl Jones who starred in Arena's premiere of a politically charged boxing melodrama called "The Great White Hope."

SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE GREAT WHITE HOPE"

JAMES EARL JONES: (As Jack Jefferson) I ain't fighting for no race. I ain't redeeming nobody. My mama told me Mr. Lincoln done that. Ain't that why you shot him?

MONDELLO: "The Great White Hope" went on to play The Great White Way, winning Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize and even becoming a film, all of which taught Fichandler an expensive lesson - that her non-profit theater should insist on a share of the profits when it developed a mainstream success. But she was helping to birth a movement, not just a theater.

And that movement is now mature - more than a thousand non-profit stages in every corner of the nation playing annually to an audience of more than 30 million patrons. Zelda Fichandler's dream that theater could be integrated into community life has been realized. I'm Bob Mondello.

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