Tough and Tender

Lessons from Zelda

vintage photo of a smiling woman
Arena Stage co-founder Zelda Fichandler in front of the company’s first theater venue The Hippodrome, the week before the theater’s opening on August 16, 1950. Photo courtesy Arena Stage.

"We need what we always needed and what every artistic leader needs in a country that doesn’t provide sufficient subsidy or have a genuine respect for culture: stamina to persist; capacity for a deep interiority on one hand and a practical manipulativeness on the other; concentration to hear one’s own voice and courage to listen to it in the midst of a cacophony of other voices; toughness in the service of something that is tender, while you try to remain tender yourself; imagination, taste, risk tolerance, a nose for the audience’s subconscious hopes and fears; colleagues who can share your despair and also lift you out of it—again and again and again, because it’s a long and winding road—and reassure you, as you do them, that what you are trying to do is good and life-affirming and the one who gives up last wins."­Zelda Fichandler, 2001.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC, to livestream the “Remembering Zelda” events at Arena Stage, which honored co-founder Zelda Fichandler, who passed away in July 2016. The first day was a five-hour marathon of her speeches read by a rotation of DC-area theatremakers. Between technical tasks, I let her words wash over me, and the quote above stuck out, particularly the line about needing “toughness in the service of something that is tender, while you try to remain tender yourself.” Zelda was describing a toolkit for artistic leaders struggling to work in an unsupportive national environment, and though that certainly rang true to me, it seemed to be that those words had resonance beyond that original intention—both in terms of making a life in the theatre, and making a life in general.

In addition to being on staff at HowlRound, I’m a dramaturg primarily focused on new work, and what is more tender, and in need of more toughness, than a new play? I think of all the playwrights I know and love—literally or just through their scripts. It’s so magical to me that they can sit alone and dream up worlds—dream up stage pictures and characters and perfect lines of dialogue that will be embodied and put under lights and in front of potentially cruel crowds. How much tenderness must be required to craft a play, when a word or a line can so easily tip the tone or balance of a scene, or the whole piece?

And how much toughness, then, is required to take that tender thing and send it into the world? Send it to be judged, marked up, misunderstood, or rejected. I think of Todd London’s words in his beautiful ode to his wife, playwright Karen Hartman, and all playwrights:

The playwriting life is ill-advised, maybe, but how else to find that full expression of self coupled with the communal effort that makes life in theatre a joy? Except when it’s not. To love a playwright is to revel in the courageous, clear-eyed engagement with the world, to writhe helpless on the sidelines when the world shows its hideous stripes, and to be astonished by one of the most Quixotic expressions of imaginative freedom we’ve got.

My work as a dramaturg often involves advocating for those playwrights and their work. There can be a toughness required in speaking for the tender play, whether that’s arguing for it not to be buried under unnecessary technical elements in production, or for it not to be marketed in a way that may sell tickets, but is overly simplistic or not representative of its heart. Sometimes it’s about having difficult conversations with a producer about what the play needs (or doesn’t need) in terms of engagement, or with an audience member who was offended or disturbed. In thinking about this work, Zelda’s words are a comfort and inspiration.

For anybody working in this field, it’s so important to go back to the well, which is what Zelda is for me and for so many of us: a reminder that theatre is about recouping 'some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement.'

One place where I often find myself struggling is wrapped up in the last part of Zelda’s phrase: “…while you try to remain tender yourself.” There’s so much that feels complicated in there, artistically and personally. I worry that I could become so accustomed to advocating for certain plays, by certain people, on certain subjects, that I lose touch with the possibility of surprising myself. I worry that my critical artistic lens could become so strong that I can’t see the beauty or the magic in a rough first draft, either of a play or an article submitted to this journal, where I feel my work as an editor is extremely related to my dramaturgy—helping a writer find the truest expression of their ideas in a way that will speak clearly to others.

This is all similar to the fear I sometimes have that the armor I put on in order to face the world—the headphones, the sunglasses, the emotional walls to keep out the objectifying stares, sexual comments, or grabbing hands—may also be hardening me to the well-intentioned smile of a stranger. How can I, in this world that can feel so hostile, be tough enough to fight while also tender enough to care?

I wrote the first draft of this piece before we learned who was going to be the next president of the United States. In the aftermath of what feels to me like the world turning upside down, that question is more potent than before. I’m hurting and I’m scared—for myself, for people I love, for people I don’t know, for people who aren’t born yet. But toughening up seems more urgent than ever.

How can I, in this world that can feel so hostile, be tough enough to fight while also tender enough to care? 

Perhaps “remaining tender yourself” and being tough enough to fight require a similar level of radical self-care, which is unfortunately not inherent in our current working models—the theatre is not exactly a bastion of work-life balance. We are still operating in, as Zelda said in 2001, “a country that doesn’t provide sufficient subsidy or have a genuine respect for culture”—and I can’t quite hope that it’s going to get better in the next four years. I worry about burning out; about getting so tired that I lose touch with what I love about making and advocating for this art form.

For me, and for anybody working in this field that is dependent on our perseverance and stamina, it’s so important to go back to the well, so to speak, which is what Zelda is for me and for so many of us: a reminder that theatre is about, in her words, recouping “some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement.”

From my corner of the universe to yours, let’s remind ourselves that our struggles, our triumphs and challenges are collective, and more than ever let’s stay tough enough to continue the fight for this special, tender art form, and for all the values of empathy, beauty, connection, and compassion it represents.

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Beautiful essay! (I'm now grateful that it is only 35 degrees out today, inspiring me to get caught up on Howlround!) In addition to the Zelda quotes you so eloquently elaborated upon, I also love "concentration to hear one’s own voice and courage to listen to it in the midst of a cacophony of other voices".

Thank you for reminding us we're not alone in the struggle to stay tender in a tough world. I've shared your sage words with friends and colleagues. We all need to support each other right now especially.

Beautifully worded essay! The beginning quote certainly bears much repetition. Thank you for giving an insider's view of the "Remembering Zelda" event, as well as your thought processes and soul searching as a dramaturg. I suspect that it took much toughness and tenderness to write this essay, one that's applicable to practitioners of all the arts.