Co-Founder and the First Artistic Director of Arena Stage Zelda Fichandler Passes Away at Age 91

We received this sad news from Arena Stage. A pillar of our theater community has passed away. We send our condolences to the Arena Stage family and to Zelda’s family. And thank you Zelda for being our theater ambassador.

Zelda Fichandler. Photo courtesy of The Fountain Theatre.
Zelda Fichandler. Photo courtesy of The Fountain Theatre.

“Arena Stage is deeply saddened to announce that visionary leader and pioneer of the regional theater movement Zelda Fichandler has died today, July 29, 2016, at the age of 91. She was co-founder and the first Artistic Director of Arena Stage. A public memorial service at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater will be announced at a later time.


Producing Director 1950-1991

Arena Stage was founded August 16, 1950 in Washington, D.C. by Zelda Fichandler, Tom Fichandler, and Edward Mangum. More than 65 later, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, under the leadership of Artistic Director Molly Smith and Executive Producer Edgar Dobie, is a national center dedicated to American voices and artists, serving a diverse annual audience of more than 300,000.

 Groundbreaking Beginnings

Zelda Fichandler dedicated her early career to the establishment of America’s resident theater movement. When she co-founded Arena Stage, there were few non-commercial theaters in the United States and fewer theaters committed to providing a full range of world-class drama to its community with a resident company of professional actors. It took time for the idea of regional theater to take root, but the Fichandlers, together with the support of audiences and donors in the nation’s capital, worked patiently to build the fledgling theater into a diverse, multifaceted, internationally renowned institution. When Arena opened its doors in 1950, both of Washington’s commercial theaters were segregated and Actors’ Equity did not permit its members to perform in segregated houses; from its inception, Arena Stage welcomed anyone who wished to buy a ticket, becoming the first integrated theater in this city.


Arena Stage was a pioneer in cultivating an evolving resident repertory company, a concept quickly embraced by multiple regional theaters across America. Zelda introduced scores of important actors to local and national audiences, including Robert Prosky, Frances Sternhagen, George Grizzard, Philip Bosco, Ned Beatty, Roy Scheider, Richard Bauer, Halo Wines, Stanley Anderson, Dianne Wiest, Max Wright, Harriet Harris, Casey Biggs, and Tom Hewitt.

The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones and future NEA Chairman Jane Alexander. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.
‘The Great White Hope’, starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.

 With Zelda as its champion, Arena Stage debuted Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope, which went on to become the first major regional production to transfer to Broadway in 1968, winning the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize and launching the careers of James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in the process.

At the height of the Cold War, Arena Stage was the first American resident company sponsored by the State Department to tour the Soviet Union, featuring Zelda’s own production of Inherit the Wind. This trip highlighted Zelda’s deep passion for Eastern European and Russian writers, directors, and designers, many of whom were given seminal international showcases at Arena. In 1976, Arena Stage was recognized by the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League with the first-ever Regional Theatre Tony Award for outstanding achievement, and in 1981 became the first theater to create audio-described performances for visually impaired patrons. Continuing Zelda’s personal and artistic passion for cultural diversity, the Allen Lee Hughes Fellowships were introduced in 1989 to foster a new generation of artists, managers, and technicians of color. In addition to presiding over the ground-breaking permanent Arena space (opened in 1961), the Fichandlers added the Kreeger proscenium theater and the Old Vat developmental space in the 1970s.

Zelda’s Visionary Leadership

In 1990, Zelda celebrated her 40th and final season as producing artistic director at Arena Stage. When she retired, she had achieved the longest tenure of any non-commercial producer in the annals of the American theater. In 1992, Arena Stage’s 816-seat arena space was renamed the Fichandler Stage in honor of Zelda and her husband Tom. Zelda returned in 2006 to direct her final production, Awake and Sing!, after having directed more than 50 productions at Arena Stage since its inception.

Mentoring Others and Zelda’s Awards and Honors

Zelda served as Chair and Artistic Director of NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ acclaimed Graduate Acting Program, from 1983 – 2008. During this time, she personally taught, guided and inspired more than 500 acting students, including Marcia Gay Harden, Rainn Wilson, Billy Crudup, Debra Messing, Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll, Sterling K. Brown, and Danai Gurira, and she continued her relationships with alumni of the program by hiring many of them for innumerable mainstage productions at Arena. She also served as Artistic Director of The Acting Company from 1990-1993. She has received the George Abbott Award, The Acting Company’s John Houseman Award, the Margo Jones Award and the National Medal of Arts, and in 1999 she became the first artistic leader outside of New York to be inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. In 2009, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation created The Zelda Fichandler Award to recognize directors and choreographers who have made significant contributions to the field.


Zelda Fischandler in 1950 right before Arena Stage officially opened. Photo courtesy of Tisch.
Zelda Fischandler in 1950 right before Arena Stage officially opened on August 16, 1950.. Photo courtesy of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“Zelda Fichandler is the mother of us all in the American theater. It was her thinking as a seminal artist and architect of the not-for-profit resident theater that imagined resident theaters creating brilliant theater in our own communities.

Artistic Director Molly Smith. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.
Artistic Director Molly Smith. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.

A revolutionary idea. Her thinking and her writing have forged the way we were created and the resident nature of our movement. She is irreplaceable but lives on in every single not-for-profit theater in America—now over 1,500 strong. Her legacy stretches from coast to coast.

Arthur Miller wrote in the preface to Arena’s 40th anniversary keepsake book (The Arena Adventure) that Arena was the makings of a national theater for the U.S. Without Zelda and Margo Jones and Nina Vance there would not be this robust American theater landscape. So, it was a vision like Zelda’s that could lead to a time where my vision at Arena for American work can thrive. She had a remarkable openness to new ideas and most of all, to always, always support the artist.”

—Molly Smith, Arena Stage Artistic Director

 “Early in my tenure with Arena, Zelda corrected me on the term “regional theater” versus “resident theater.” Arena was and is envisioned as a “resident” theater—of the community, for the community, with the community.

Edgar Dobie. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.
Executive Director Edgar Dobie. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.

am honored to have Tom Fichandler’s chair in my office (a talisman), and honored to have known Zelda and learned from her. She taught without trying. She voiced confidence in the young. She extended her welcoming intelligence to everyone. 

Zelda was not alone in founding Arena—she had her husband Tom, professor Ed Mangum and a small supportive board—but Zelda’s artistic voice created not only an institution for Washington, D.C., but also encouraged a national theater movement. Because she was successful in both of these areas, Zelda Fichandler will be part of Washington theater and American theater always.”

—Edgar Dobie, Arena Stage Executive Director.

The resident theatre panelists – Randall Arney, Artistic Director of Steppenwolf Theatre; Zelda Fichandler, Artistic Director of the Acting Company; Emily Mann, Artistic Director of McCarter Theater; Mac Pirkle, Artistic Director of Tennessee Repertory Theatre; Michael P. Price, Executive Director of Goodspeed Opera House; and Lloyd Richards, Artistic Director of Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center – discuss the beginnings of regional theatre as a place to develop new plays and playwrights, relationships with commercial theatre, marketing and building a subscriber base, and diversity in playwrights and audiences.

This press release is by Kirstin M. Franko, Director of Media Relations for Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.



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