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Reagan's Legacy/Zelda's Children

The Explosion of DC Theater

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Here's a theory that might explain how we in the DC theater community got to this improbable moment; that of being a collective cultural force when, as late as a decade ago, none other than hometown Broadway Butcher turned partisan Op-Ed firebrand, Frank Rich, would've guffawed at the thought. It was President Ronald Wilson Reagan of all people, and his accidental gift to the city he so disliked—an unintended consequence of his war on The Great Society—which is to say, his attempt to dismantle the heart, soul, and apparatus of Big Government, clipping the wings of thousands of government workers and practical progressives who had come to DC committed to the betterment of society.

In addition to a spiraling homelessness crisis and an ever-widening income gap between rich and poor, Reagan's Decade saw the lighting of at first a few, then a dozen, and then dozens upon dozens of theatrical brushfires which would help transform the nation's capital from a "culturally-conservative backwater" (Rich in 2002, we'll hear more) to a sustaining generator of artistic heat and light, as part of a new wave of not-for-profit cultural institutions springing up to fill the social vision vacuum, much as NGOs would step into fill the governmental void on countless matters concerning domestic and international social welfare.

When Reagan fired over 11,000 striking Federal air traffic controllers in 1981, and labor unions suffered one of their worst defeats since the 1920s, those actions, (according to Conservapedia, because who can resist?) "dramatically energized corporations to resist union demands, speeding up the rapid decline in union membership and the political power of union bosses." The firing of PATCO workers was a shot across the bow to much of the federal workforce, saying, in effect, "what you do, and how you feel about what you do, isn't that important to the national project. Care less, because we care less." Okay, I paraphrase. Or to quote a futuristic Mike Daisey, "I invent, but in the service of truth." Washington, DC—a city which has, astonishingly, voted over 85% Democratic in each of the past six presidential elections—found itself in a crisis of both identity and function. What were all these politically engaged, well-educated civil servants to do, now that their impulse to serve government had been disrespected by the very government heads to which they'd pledged allegiance?

Well, people started going to theater, for starters, investing time in cultural conversations where previously the discourse has been directed toward a federal monolith. And brand new theaters started springing up that would, in time, become the cornerstones of the abundantly rich scene we have today; theaters like Woolly Mammoth (now thirty–three years old), and Studio (thirty–five years old), a renewed Folger Theatre (thirty–six years old), which would spin off another classical juggernaut, The Shakespeare Theatre Company (twenty–five years old), all joining our flagship pioneer, Arena Stage (sixty–two years old), to create the nucleus of a non-profit theater community balancing the commercial touring fare of the National and Warner Theatres and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

In the intervening decades, DC has become one of the fastest growing theater communities in the country—eighty–two theaters strong—singularly able to speak truth to power on a nightly basis. And the Power People come. Supreme Court justices hold multiple theater subscriptions. Cabinet members read the Style section, then have the Secret Service call for tickets when it's a good review. DC theater artists have been flexing more evident muscles, fusing classical reinventions, voicing global cries from war-zones and reports from the domestic frontlines, providing a platform for the nation's playwrights, composers, librettists—and increasingly, Locally-Grown writers and performance artists—to use this capital as a launch pad for national conversation, celebration, and soul-searching, ignited by theater.

Portrait of Zelda Finchandler.
Zelda Finchandler inside Arena Stage, 1990.
Photo by Lucian Perkins for The Washington Post.

The expansion of DC theater can be seen as a three-fold profusion of Artists, Audience, and Affluence. Let's break it down: the amount of art being created, between small, medium, and major institutions, as well as Fringe and other Festival offerings continues to rise, speaking to the re-leveraging of the balance of power in DC. In addition to the eighty-plus producing theaters offering over 2,900 performances this past season of at least sixteen performances or more, (according to Theatre Washington which runs the annual Helen Hayes Awards), there are another couple hundred festival and limited-run productions, leading to more artist involvement than ever, including the signing of more Actors Equity Association contracts in DC than in any other American city besides New York. Over the same twenty-year period, audiences for live theater exploded, and have since held steady during these Great Recession years, rising to highs of between 2.1 and 2.2 million ticket-buyers for each of the last four years. Extraordinary sums have been directed to the creation of lavish new spaces—over one billion dollars raised in capital campaigns over the past dozen years devoted to the building or major refurbishment of fifteen theatrical performance houses in the DC area. That speaks to basic demographic and economic shifts in this region. More population = more art = more affluence. But which came first? Don't ask me! I didn't write The Rise of the Creative Class, but I do know that the urban transformation of DC is a casebook study of Richard Florida's thesis; just walk down U Street, or 14th Street, H Street, or 7th Street to see how artistic bloom has spawned economic boom, where blight once ruled.

Theater in DC is serious business (not surprisingly, given its earnest origins), diverse in style, theme, ethnicity, and unique in its relatively fluid embrace of equal parts classical, contemporary, international, straight, gay, musical revival, festival retrospectives of American Masters (like Miller, Wilson, Albee, Williams, and now O'Neill where virtually the entire oeuvre of each has been exhumed, re-voiced, sometimes re-purposed), and increasingly, a hub for world premiere musicals and plays, as well as a host for visiting companies from all over the world. It's not generally a kick-ass, in-your-face theatrical jolt being foisted upon this still-buttoned-down town, although we do have plenty of gyrating, silent Shakespeare (an oxymoron? Not with Synetic Theatre). It's rarely radical or, dare we say, Avant-garde, or even terribly non-linear. We prefer fully drawn characters to opaque symbolic figures (though the occasional New Wave Puppet Festival seems to be gaining traction), and we'll take well-structured plot over story-theater most every time. There are way too many lawyers in the audience to ignite rebellious rallying-cries, much less raucous receptions of irreverent Union Square styled agit prop. We let Republicans in the building and feel obliged to be respectful. In short, we're dominated by subscription-based institutions—even though the bulk of our money comes from single ticket sales—and we tend to value our institutions inordinately; certainly more, it seems, than we invest in our artists—leading the late great Robert Prosky to wonder, during the midst of our billion dollar capital boom days, if we didn't have our priorities ass-backwards, where architectural facelifts came more readily than cost-of-living increases for actors. We're still trying to get the balance right.

For all our vibrantly middle-of-the-road assets and shortcomings, what we do have in DC as a kind of signature is an aptitude for staging Great Debates; well-argued dramas, whether they be historic or up-to-the-minute; be it Washington Stage Guild presenting the entirety of the works of George Bernard Shaw, or Ford's Theatre recreating the Lincoln-Douglass debates, (whether the Douglass be Stephen or Frederick in Lincoln's office), or to marvel at the appetite for theological trials in a town that turns obscure events like the banishment of Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman in 1263 Barcelona (in the Theodore Bikel-driven The Disputation) or the excommunication of a great philosopher in 1653 Amsterdam in Theater J's encore run of New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza by David Ives; both shows playing in other cities, including New York, but never with the kind of acclaim, audience fervor, or box office lucre as in DC. It's a town where what to do in The Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Palestine, Bosnia, can be debated center stage, both during and after the show, with the very best minds from think-tanks across the political spectrum. In all of this robust mix, something of a mature artistic expression becomes the dominant song being sung.

Another under-sung virtue of this nation's capital: We're used to welcoming new- comers. So the visiting, itinerant artist or the resettling thespian will make a happy home for him or herself much faster in DC than, say Chicago—trust me, I'm from there. It's hard going back there as an artist. Chicago invented local chauvinism. It's the blot on that great city's artistic calling card; an exaggerated, protectionist civic pride, while DC, fortunately, isn't quite so full of itself. It shouldn't be. Not that DC doesn't have a plenty of arrogant Ivy leaguers; they're just all in the Department of Justice. It's the DC theater artist who still appreciates what others have to bring, because we're still adding to our cultural composition. We absorb newcomers easily because we're still hungry to become even more the polyglot than we now are.

Of course Chicago can take the ribbing, big shoulders, parkas, and all. But the truth is, I'm still smarting, lo these ten years later, from the Frank Rich evisceration of DC in that 2002 NY Times Magazine piece of caustic comparison shopping between New York and DC—truly a curious post-9/11 drive-by meant to reposition New York as the true spiritual capital of the nation in a vying for the 2012 Olympic Games (sorry, Frank, we both lost). Rich needed to do his part at the time for the civic resuscitation project of blowing smoke up New York's skirt, which was fine—New York needs more hot air than the Hindenburg to stay afloat and its own anthem needed to be sung ad infinitum in those trauma-stained post-Twin Tower months, and it worked—the myth got rewritten—and Frank Rich helped, writing unforgettably, unforgivably in his piece, "The De Facto Capital":

Even at the literal level, New York is more representative of American political values than the official capital. Washington, where I grew up and where my family has lived since the Civil War, is still a colony where the voters are denied the full rights of self-determination. Its citizens and public officials alike remain in thrall to a federal government over which they have virtually no say, in the shadow of a president who serves as the de facto prince regent of the tourist precincts, the only part of the city most Americans see. Washington is less an exemplar of democracy than an agglomeration of marble facades paying unctuous tribute to that aspiration.

Jonathan Safran Foer… is only the latest in a long list of Washington-spawned talents (from Duke Ellington to Paul Taylor) who fled the capital's culturally parched environment to reach full bloom in the enriching concrete of New York.

In Washington, there is far more culture than there used to be, but spectacle, in keeping with the town's own bombastic aesthetics, tends to be the hottest ticket—blockbuster shows at the National Gallery, Disney musicals and the Bolshoi on tour. Cities as small as Minneapolis and Seattle have a more lively indigenous arts scene than Washington.

As great a partisan scribe as Rich turned into, he could still be quite the caustic critic, and sometimes, just flat-out incorrect.

The plight of culture in the capital is symbolized by the Kennedy Center, an afterthought not even deemed worthy of its own stop on the city's part-time Metro system. A world-class impresario, Michael Kaiser, has at last been imported to revive the place, and this summer he performed a Heimlich maneuver in the form of the well-received Sondheim Celebration. But half the weekend audience was New Yorkers, to whom Kaiser may have to continue to cater.

So belatedly, a decade later, let's ask of Frank: Is there a soul now in this allegedly soul-sapped city? Perhaps we might look to U Street, somewhere between The Lincoln Theatre, Ben's Chili Bowl, Busboys and Poets bistro and bookstore, and hovering above it all, the ghost of Langston Hughes, not tauntingly because he left DC, but because a community of slam poets and social-activist-artists have brought him back for open mics; a rolling party every night at a different stage in one of peace activist-entrepreneur Andy Shallal's latest restaurants? Or maybe our city's cultural soul is the multi-faith Peace Café, a post-performance dialogue forum bringing Muslims, Christians and Jews together to break bread, discuss art, and deal with the toughest issues at stake in the Middle East Conflict. What other city's had such a cultural/political discourse going, month in month out, for the past twelve years running?

Art's purpose in engaging the political," she told me last summer in my preparing for a council retreat "is to illuminate the underlying truism; not trade in, or succumb to, the partisan. You get to the politics through the human. Through story, experience and humanity. Again, Art doesn't deliver a point; it carries an argument. Because it is a dialogue."

But one doesn't have to look hard to find the real soul animating the activity at the heart of Washington Theater. It's been there all along, and it's a wonder we ever felt it to be in eclipse. The soul is Zelda Fichandler's enduring vision for what a resident theater movement might become and how it took root in her own house for forty–five years. Zelda believed in making a home for artists; she built a company of actors, put them on payroll, and enriched Washington with a diet of topical, classical, daring world theater. "Art's purpose in engaging the political," she told me last summer in my preparing for a council retreat "is to illuminate the underlying truism; not trade in, or succumb to, the partisan. You get to the politics through the human. Through story, experience and humanity. Again, Art doesn't deliver a point; it carries an argument. Because it is a dialogue." Zelda continued, on why the audience bothers to show up at all: "The audience comes in saying: Show me something. Lead me somewhere. Who has something to teach me? Show me who I am. Show me what's in me!"

And when she passed the baton at Arena and the company of actors could no longer be sustained, the assets didn't disappear. Even as new regimes at Arena continued to flourish, rebuild, redefine, and sing anew, the company ethic and all that talent got passed onto the larger community. Halo Wines crossed the county and started performing and then directing at Olney. Tana Hicken traveled to Everyman in Baltimore, and Round House in Bethesda, and down 16th Street to Theater J. The Shakespeare Theatre's had its own thriving company, but they too share the wealth, as Ed Gero ventures from Shakespeare to Studio to Round House to Arena and, once again, Theater J, spreading the wealth. Mitchell Hebert, a company member at Woolly, takes a lead at Forum Theatre, performing in the Round House Silver Spring second stage site, then moves over to Bethesda to direct next season for RHT. Company membership isn't an exclusive club anymore, and our best actors are sharing of themselves and lifting the field in the process. All the town's a repertory company now, and the artists have determined that the rising tide lifts all our boats. We are all Zelda's Children.


It's good to have a mentor; to form you; to launch you, and then to flee from, as all of us must and do. I'm running long, but I do have a Zelda story to close us out. I think it's relevant even though it's personal, as it's about running away from the gift that's in front of you, only to discover your strength has always been at your core.

I want to tell of working with Zelda when I was a much younger playwright—Zelda, in her fabled career, hadn't worked with many playwrights on brand new work—much less twenty–nine year old writers awaiting their first LORT production—only one other time, I was told, had she herself directed a brand new play at Arena—a Hungarian work entitled Screenplay. Then decades later came my piece, which started as a script that she and Larry Maslon commissioned based on a book of interviews. It was a six-day courtship, a six-month writing process, then a six-week workshop in the Arena scene shop, and then finally a mainstage production in the 800-seat Arena (now called the Fichandler Stage), one of three glorious theaters at Arena. Back then, Arena's acting company was a brilliant and flexible bunch, but probably the most over-employed actors in the American theater. By the time they met me in late spring of 1990, they were an exhausted troupe, the rep season practically over. Endless rewrites of a work in progress was probably the last thing this troupe wanted to be assigned to, but assigned they were by their fearless, frequently humorless leader. Humorless, because the subject was "Children of Nazis." Springtime on the Potomac with Descendants of the Third Reich. Oh, the glories for a playwright to be in auditions, where actors actually want to be in your play. Zelda assigned her eight company members and two guest artists to workshop a play whose title they despised: Born Guilty. Never have you seen such a group of disgruntlement. "Why Born Guilty? Why condemn!? I lived in Germany and my landlord was nice to me." Sensing rebellion in the ranks early on, Zelda posited that we turn the title into a question. Born Guilty? Let the audience decide! We rehearsed; we broke fourteen-page monologue chapters open; we created dialogue and invented movement springing from deep exploration, bringing life to painful history. The process reflected a polyglot of styles, all born out of actors' own explorations of individual chapters and an eager playwright insisting that nothing ever be boring; tedium would be the equivalent of granting a posthumous victory to Hitler. So it was both a playwright-driven and ensemble-devised process with a somewhat skeptical company coming to appreciate, then push-back, then accept again the ever-changing material. Zelda had everyone read Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller's The Drama of The Gifted Child, For Your Own Good, and Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. I had an entirely different reading list of war crimes and perpetrator searches. But Zelda was interested in the greyer matter of psychological disquiet. "I want us to touch 'The Grassy Bottom,'" she said, quoting Ibsen, and then added, "I should have been a psychoanalyst. That's where my real interest lies." And so we read different books. And as it turned out, we wanted different journeys for the play as well. I wanted more of a well-made trajectory for the protagonist, the book author, the Austrian Jewish journalist who was reconciling his anger with his countrymen with his desire to bridge the gulf and find a kindred spirit who might be equally wrestling with questions of legacy and responsibility. Zelda didn't need a protagonist for the play. She was interested in a group study. We agreed to disagree. The full production some seven or so months later was a mixed success, overshadowed by a far more urgent, cohesive play about AIDS in the black community, Cheryl West's debut drama, Before It Hits Home. We ran in an alternating two-play repertory and her play won the sweepstakes. Playing that favorite New York game of "Compare Despair," I fled the DC experience vowing to revise the play with even more focus on the protagonist's journey. The play found an embracing ensemble in New York. And a better script. And personal redemption came. Zelda was happy for the play's success.

When she saw it ten years later in a revival at Theater J, Zelda recognized all the changes and appreciated the staging by one of our many brilliant local directors, John Vreeke, but more penetratingly, she recognized the deep psychological bones of probing inquiry that had been embedded in our work from the first weeks' exploration in the scene shop. "I remember that work. We accomplished a lot."

Zelda's taught me—a playwright turned producer with a hankering for structure—that there are many different kinds of structure, and that scaffolding for a play isn't just a function of plot, conflict, complication, and other signposts of dramatic structure. There is organic psychological scaffolding. And there are layers of an onion. And the act of peeling away is quite dramatic indeed.

The biggest advice Zelda gave me when I consulted with her about taking the job of artistic director of Theater J back in 1997 was three simple words: "Repertory is Destiny." Remember that, friends. It's Zelda's greatest hit out of a true cavalcade of wise writings. We are what we write. We are what we program. Our character is manifest in those critical choices we make. What better expression of drama is there?

We are all Zelda's Children here, indeed.

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There's an important typo in my piece -- in the following sentence "in addition to the eighty-plus producing theaters offering over 2,900 productions this past season" -- I meant to say "2900 performances" -- not productions..... According to the Helen Hayes Awards, there were around 220 "productions of at least sixteen performances or more" which qualified for the the annual HH Awards... Please forgive the somewhat over-enthusiastic misnomer.

Fascinating! It's interesting to know what a vibrant theater town owes its origins to. In Seattle, the arts started flourishing after the 1962 World's Fair.

Thanks for this terrific piece, Ari--thoughtful, incisive and provocative. The stats on the number of theatres and productions in DC are staggering and their genesis, fascinating. I intend to quote your felicitous "enriching concrete of NY," from which I write, at every opportunity.

I'd love to know where you get the idea that political types go to the theatre. I haven't seen that, and I'm from DC.

Nor have I met well-educated federal workers "committed to the betterment of society." Most of the federal workers I know have degrees in policy or government and aren't very well educated.

This is just another article that bashes DC in order to build up our out-of-town saviors.

This is wise and beautiful at so any levels, Ari. Makes me proud to call DC my theatrical home, and inspired by the thought of all that's to come...

I totally agree, Stefanie. And Ari--a beautiful piece. If only people felt as passionate about their home cities and theater communities as you do. It's that passion that allows a theater scene like DC to thrive. In NY we take things for granted and it makes for complacency; there is too much theater and so we groan about it instead of appreciating the wealth that's out there. DC strikes just the right balance.

I feel like a child of Zelda myself, growing up on DC theater and now contributing to it, happily, as a playwright.

I remember being so pleased (and astounded) when we did a reading of Honey Brown Eyes for the Theater J's board and subscribers, and not a one of them needed the least tutorial on the Bosnian conflict. It was the first of many inspired talkbacks on war, genocide and rebuilding.

DC's audience is really the ideal audience for powerful theater. They like to be challenged, and they are the kind of people who in their own work believe in change and progress.

DC theater makers are fiercely talented, committed and daring.