I interviewed Zelda Fichandler in New York on Halloween in a Thai restaurant and in her Washington Square apartment, and in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles in her childhood friend’s 1932 house one sunny afternoon a couple of weeks later. With a kind of amateurish thoroughness, I arrived on the first evening with an extra package of batteries, back-up tapes in my pocket and two sets of questions on separate legal pads. I felt something like the way you feel the first time you put on ice skates.
Why had we never talked before? The assignment from American Theatre came on the occasion of Zelda’s stepping down as leader of Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage after 40 years, and was clearly based not on my journalistic experience (which is nil) but on my relatively brief-by-comparison tenure of eight years as artistic director of California’s La Jolla Playhouse. It provided a perfect excuse to selfishly ask questions of someone I’m bound to be curious about, on a subject that is of the greatest personal concern—creating and sustaining a theatre.
What I should have realized is that a perfectly good excuse for a conversation with Zelda already existed, and I simply hadn’t pursued it. I should have realized that we must not let the sheer geography of the American theatre prevent us from communicating with people who have something to say to us about our work, and the history of our theatre, especially in these tumultuous times.
In reading about Zelda, I thought I had discovered a wonderful through-line that had to do with her Russian-ness. Prom her Russian-Jewish ancestry,’ to her Russian studies as an undergraduate at Cornell where she discovered Chekhov, to the influences of Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre on the Arena, to the Arena being the first American company to tour the Soviet Union in 1973, right up to Zelda’s historic invitation to Russian director Yuri Lyubimov—I was sure that I was on to some kind of “key.” After starting with 50 minutes worth of questions linked to the Russian theme, I realized the through-line was rapidly disintegrating; Zelda pointed out that the Arena company of actors was very different from the Russian companies, in that the core group was considerably smaller and many more individual actors were brought in on a show-by-show basis. I thought I was perhaps stretching the Russian point, and she said simply, “Yes, I think we should get off that.” I had, of course, come to realize that Zelda is not so easy to pigeonhole, and what had seemed like a glorious idea on my legal pad faded like the wind in real conversation—a crash course in primitive investigative interviewing.
Zelda resisted fitting into my formula, and none of the 35 pages of transcript from that part of the interview appear here. Altogether we talked for four-and-a-half hours, which translated to a manuscript of 150 pages. Most of what’s here comes from the California half, when we were both relaxed and had more or less forgotten about the tape recorder.
The history of Arena, as Zelda points out, parallels the unfolding events of history in postwarAmerica. (Postwar always seems like a somewhat myopic term, considering that as I write, we’re about to enter our third postwar war. Regardless, the Arena has been in Washington for all three.) One of the most striking themes of the company’s history has to do with mukiculturalism and the role that race relations have played from the time of its inception as the first theatre with an open-door policy to blacks in Washington. Zelda can describe with great accuracy the unconscious birth of the not-for-profit theatre scene. When going over this history, it’s impossible not to be struck by the clear simplicity of the original impulse, before subscription brochures, capital campaigns, marketing surveys and group sales—the idea of creating homes for actors and resident companies for communities away from New York.
My own theatre put down its roots in 1947, when Gregory Peck talked David O. Selznick out of $15,000 to start a theatre far enough away from Hollywood not to bother anybody, hut close enough to help the wave of New York actors pouring into Los Angeles after the war to keep their chops in shape. That original version of La Jolla Playhouse fulfilled that need for a whole generation of transplanted New York actors until 1964 when it shut down operations. But Zelda’s idea lived on. She has taken a pragmatic approach to the creation of theatre; she has emphasized education as a central component of the company’s work; she has been completely committed to the notion of practical relationships between training programs and professional theatres.
It was natural to look for similarities in our careers. If you meet someone who’s gone down a similar road, you’re bound to look for your own reflection. Both of us had directed Twelfth Night, for example, at the time of the birth of our first children—mine last year, Zelda’s in 1952, the year I was born—so we talked about revels and disguise and misrule. It even occurred to me that New York played a part in the creation of both the Arena and the new Playhouse, the Arena as a reaction to almost all professional theatre being centered on Broadway, the Playhouse because the New York institutional scene was shrinking, and new centers needed to be created.
But ultimately it may be the differences between our theatres and our experiences that is significant. While both the Arena and the Playhouse were originally clean-slate projects, there is a very real difference. Zelda rallied the community behind her idea in Washington in 1951. I was invited by community leaders in San Diego to come up with an idea for the La Jolla Playhouse. Zelda sensed a need in the community of Washington and invited national theatre artists to join her. The community in La Jolla gave me a mandate to address the needs of national theatre artists. It felt as unusual in 1983 to start up a theatre organization from scratch as it did in 1951, but the criteria were profoundly different.
Take our experience with actors. Zelda talks about five distinguishable permanent companies over the years at Arena. Almost any notable production at the Playhouse conjures up the image of a company for me, but it is something instantaneous and temporary, like a brilliant flash fire. A permanent resident company has never been a realistic possibility for the Playhouse—in fact, it is often a monumental struggle getting our most accomplished actors to the theatre at all in these times. And who can blame them? How far we have fallen behind film and television in our ability to pay a working wage to our most important artists! The impulse behind the Playhouse had to do with providing bigger canvases for theatre artists, where they could do work on a larger scale with more freedom. That concept was challenging to achieve and has been difficult to maintain. The concept of a permanent company of actors seems to me during these times for most American theatres, quite simply another universe.
I found Zelda to be keenly self-aware and acutely self-critical, not numbed at all by her 40-year Arena Stage experience, but rather sensitized. Following her departure in June, her focus shifts to New York, where she will undertake the artistic directorship of the Acting Company, the touring classical troupe founded in 1972 by the late John Houseman and Margo Harley, and continue teaching as she has since 1984 at New York University. This season at the Arena she is staging a new drama about the Holocaust, Born Guilty—it runs through March 3—and plans over the long run to guest-direct at least one Arena play each season.
Zelda has a great deal of simple humanity. I expected to find her in a strong commitment to her institution, but I was moved and inspired by her passion and her dedication to the ideas that the Arena embodies—ideas about company, about community, about art and politics, about living and about life.
DES MCANUFF: The word that comes up constantly when people describe you is “vision.”
ZELDA FICHANDLER: What is a vision? I don’t know. A vision can be something that isn’t there. When you say a person has visions. Well, if they don’t do anything about them they are “visions,” and if they do something about them it’s vision. It’s a blueprint. A blueprint for action. I prefer to call it an idea for a theatre. Vision always strikes me as a comic strip character with spikes coming out of his head. Ah! I see it all!
Sort of a Svengali image.
Right. Or Zelda, the Fortune Teller. That’s a good name for fortunetellers.
How much effect has the city of Washington had on your vision for the Arena?
It’s hard for me to answer that because I haven’t lived in Detroit, Cincinnati, Miami or Boston. Washington was my city. I know no other city well enough to build an institution for it. The theatre that I imagined, or envisioned—I don’t mind that form of the word vision—the theatre that I envisioned was so much a part of the city that I don’t think I could have transplanted the idea at the time to someplace else. I began in a very small community way with a few friends that I could ask to put up a little bit of money. Some of them I didn’t even know. I would call up and say, “I’d like to talk to you about starting a theatre in Washington. Would you come talk to me?”Arena Stage was set up with Edward Mangum, my professor, and Tom Fichandler, my husband. It was such a modest and non-doctrinaire beginning and, in a way, such an unschooled beginning. I wrote up what I thought the theatre should be—a still-valid, understated manifesto of what the theatre is, in simple language and with ideas that are quite attainable—having to do with company, having to do with repertory, having to do with permanency, the artistic home, and the nature of community.
And this came out of a sense of the community needing such an institution?
Well, there was no theatre at all, and there was the issue of racial separation. The National Theatre [a commercial road house] was closed because of Actors’ Equity Association’s refusal to play in a segregated theatre. I was in a class EU Mangum was teaching at George Washington University, and heard him lecturing: “There’s no theatre outside of New York. Only 10 blocks of Broadway. Theatre should be a part of the fabric of everyday life like libraries, schools, museums.” This was all new information for me. Margo Jones had started her theatre some years earlier in Dallas, and Nina Vance had probably started hers in Houston a year or two before we did; Jules Irving and Herbert Blau had begun working in San Francisco right about that time. But we didn’t know each other. It wasn’t until W. MacNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation created Theatre Communications Group that we ever met each other.
You have to understand the humbleness of the thought. Starting Arena Stage was not a grandiose idea. That’s why I bristle a little bit at the word vision, because it’s too large a word. It was an idea. A modest, enthusiastic, improvisational, bumptious, ill-thought-out idea.
Precocious is a good word for it. I had no theatre background to speak of; but I did have some good administrative background. I knew how to put things together, organize, administer. I think looking back at this person who is hardly me anymore. I look at her like another person—I could persuade, and I could make people believe that my passion was justifiable, that this was a thrilling possibility, and that it could happen. But they couldn’t sit on the sidelines, because it couldn’t be done without them. And that’s proved true. It’s the community that ultimately deserves credit for building the institution.
Do you think being in Washington has had an influence on the theatre in terms of its international side, bringing directors like Liviu Ciulei and Yuri Lyubimov?
I think that’s my taste, which is international. My curiosity is about the ways in which the human psyche manifests itself culturally in an infinite variety of ways. I’m intrigued by the fact that we have one set of psychological and emotional structures and an infinite number of ways of shaping and molding them to fit our environment—and that man is the animal that produces culture. My regret is that I’ve spent so much time and energy on making an institution, that I haven’t explored the theatrical output of a hundred other cultures.
Was the concept of company important to you right from the very beginning?
Yes, I never thought of a theatre without a company. My central interest in the theatre is how the acting instrument, the company, can transform into various styles and bring before the audience, in a coherent and most expressive way, the experience of that succession of plays, My interest in company is deeper and stronger now than it’s ever been. The first company was amazing: Lester Rawlins, Pernell Roberts, Franny Sternhagen, Dick O’Neil, Henry Oliver, Dorothea Hammond, Anne Meecham a little later, and Alan Oppenheimer, George Grizzard, Gerry Hiken, Bob Dietz, Olive Dunbar.We never knew what play we were doing next, because there was just no time.
You had a subscription audience?
No subscription, and no time to plan.
Did you find that liberating?
I have never found any of this liberating. I don’t find it liberating not to have a subscription, and I don’t find it liberating to have a subscription. Because each has the opposite problem. When you don’t have a subscription, you have no idea how long to run anything, you don’t know when to put something into rehearsal and you have no control over your finances. When you do have a subscription, you don’t have enough subscribers to fill up the flops, too many when you have hits, and you can’t extend because you’ve already gotten the next one planned. I like the way they do it in England where they post the repertory for the next month. They know what they need eight performances of and what they only need one performance of. That way you can keep a production for eight years, as they do in Moscow, for example. They bring a beloved piece in once a month or twice a month that the actors want to play and the audience wants to see. But we don’t have the building space to keep 18 plays in the repertory.
I like company work for many reasons. A practical reason is that you have absolutely wonderful actors in smaller roles, which is where the consistency and texture of your work shows up. Bench strength, you know.
Right. Is that a sports image? Yeah, it’s a baseball image. That’s what I find—to have a favorite actor playing a smaller role distinguishes the work of the theatre. The other thing I love about company has to do with… I don’t like to say the teacher in me, but it has to do with my great pleasure in watching the evolution of talent. To score the work of an actor over the years is just a joy. It’s related, again, to my interest in the evolution of human material, how that happens, how you create an environment where people can thrive. That’s what’s kept me running and building an institution for four decades. The triumph of seeing Robert Prosky play Willy Loman after 20 years with the company—seeing him amass enough material, not only technical but human and perceptual, to play that role with everything that there is to reveal—was for me a peak of my life. I don’t think I could have had the same joy with an actor that dropped in. We wouldn’t have the investment in each other.
Of course, the downside—talk about downside!—is when you lose people. There is a great wrench when you lose somebody you’ve been working with for a long time.
Is it more difficult to maintain a company than it was 15 years ago?
I think it’s more difficult, and I think Doug Wager is going to have a looser company than I have had. I’m sure that’s more practical. But I’m moving to a situation as artistic director of the Acting Company, where I have a company.
It seems that the edge between directing a play and running a theatre is blurry in your experience.
I directed plays because someone had to, because one person couldn’t do them all. Alan Schneider would get called off to do something else and I’d have to direct. I learned watching directors I had hired at the theatre. Gradually over the years I evolved my own way of working. What astounded me as I watched myself learn was that at the beginning I was a very choreographic director—I had everything written down and choreographed. It was very programmed and movement-oriented. And then as I found the way I wanted to work, it became psychological and improvisational and very actor-oriented.
One of the things that’s been said about the rehearsal environment you create is that it’s an environment where people feel they can take psychological risks.
I put myself at risk along with them, in the exploration of what’s going on. I do it consciously because I know what I’m looking for, in general—I know what I think that moment or that scene contains. But I want the actors to find out how they want to embody it—what their bodies want to do—so that it seems to be occurring naturally. That’s what rivets an audience, when this form seems to be just happening spontaneously, the way a snowflake forms, or water spills on a sidewalk or a crowd takes shape around an accident. It seems to be there just spontaneously, but it’s programmed by serendipity, by random forces we don’t understand.
By technique, right.
Is your style and approach as a director similar to your approach as a producer and administrator?
As I’ve gotten older, there is more and more integration of the way I am everywhere. I used to be more formal as a producer, more structured. Now I seem to have the structure available as I need it. I’ll go to a board meeting—the millionth I’ve gone to—I still prepare the line of my thinking that I want to present, and often I write it out. I may not come in with the blocking of a scene, but I’m very prepared for the designers, for the people doing the logo of the art, the people doing the press release, the people doing the lobby display, the marketing, and all that. It’s all one vision of the production, as well as of the season.
I was struck by a particular quote I read where you talked about having been asked away to do other projects and never being able to or never really having the time to break away. Any regrets?
I think it would have been better for me to have gone to direct in another theatre—for me. And maybe better for the institution in the long run. But it always seemed to me that I needed to be there. I had this perception that I was needed to hold things together, to see that it would always be as perfectly nurtured, as perfectly maintained and perfectly expressed in its art as humanly possible. I was totally identified with it professionally. There was nothing else I wanted to do as much as sustain and cause to grow this creative organism. I didn’t feel it as burdensome. I would just say, “Oh, my goodness, I couldn’t do that. I have to do this.” I didn’t chafe under that restriction, there didn’t feel to me to be an alternative.
But I think, dimly, something was born about five years ago when I accepted this other role, as artistic director of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. I just got very interested in working more intimately with actors. It might be that the institution was using me in a way that was separating me from the company, that the center of the place and the reason it existed began to distance itself from me. I think my body of work is the place itself, and my work as a director is my private joy.
While you’ve been Leading Arena Stage for four decades, lam still struck by the fact that you found it impossible to get away to other projects.
For 20 years of my time at the Arena, I was raising a family, too. And it seemed very unimportant for me to go away for two months to do something. I’m really very domestic and I like my own objects around me. Before I had an apartment in New York, I used to carry my grandmother’s candlesticks with me to the hotel room so I could light them, so I didn’t feel I was in a strange place. I’m not a very good voyager.
I did always teach. I taught at the University of Texas, Boston University and at NYU. I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years. But at the core of my work was the sense that every production we did at Arena was for me the first and last production—that they were births, and I wanted to be at every birth. Now I do have a hunger to do other things. And it’s that hunger to follow my nose in a more personal way that leads me to this change in my life.
How involved were you in the appointment of your successor, Doug Wager, and how important is it to you that your vision for the theatre carry on under his leadership?
I don’t know how much of this vision Doug will maintain. He’s a different pair of eyes, although he’s been trained and has evolved at Arena. Maybe you can’t pass the torch—maybe you just pass the fire. He will stop hearing my voice, and he’ll find his own. It was my suggestion that Doug, who has been there 16 years, have a crack at the artistic directorship. We’re restructuring the theatre. It will essentially be run by three people: an artistic director, a general manager (who has been there 10 years, and whose job has been realigned), and a newly appointed executive director. Leading that troika will be the artistic director. Two of them—the executive director and the artistic director—will report to the board, and the general manger will relate to those two. It is an interesting structure for leadership. It comes out of my experience, and I think it has every chance of succeeding.
I don’t think there’s a recipe for leadership. There are advantages in having someone groomed within a particular institution and preparing them for what we both know is a tremendously taxing job, and a role of genuine responsibility. I think there are also strong arguments for a search being conducted.
Yes, and I’ve been talking about that for I don’t know how many years—whether institutions that are mature enough can groom their own leaders, or whether there can be such a thing as apprenticing for leadership. We are wasting our resources if we don’t always keep it in mind that institutions will live on, and that there are ways to lead that can be taught and inherited. And I know that our board felt positive about the values of the institution—they wanted it to evolve rather than a new one to be born. Other boards may have other ideas. Perhaps they want another crop, want the land rotated.
One of the chief tasks that I’ve felt I’ve always had, and one that I’ve enjoyed very much because it’s an incentive to formulate my thoughts clearly, has been to educate the board and to keep them very closely tied to an understanding of what we were doing—why we were doing it, what the future held. I’m talking aesthetically as well as economically, administratively, structurally. Because the theatre belongs to the community, and the representatives of that community are the board members, they perpetuate themselves and the theatre.
Giving money is an act of commitment. It’s not just writing a check. The connection between money and feelings is very intimate. Just as the connection between feeling and thinking is very intimate. Informing the thought processes of a board member, I think, is one of the chief responsibilities of an artistic director.
Have you had any frustrations with the rotating board process, with the constant education of new board members?
Yes, I have. I find it just endless. You have to find different ways of presenting the material, because some of the people have heard it before. You can’t keep saying the same things, or it becomes repetitive. But it’s always interesting, because a theatre depends on an educated, informed, passionate board. Particularly today, when altother sources of money and psychological and moral support are waning, the symbiosis becomes even more apparent.
How do you expect the company to change under Doug, or do you expect it to change?
You ask a key question, and I can answer you with limited foresight. What defines the Arena for me is the centrality of the actor. I have enjoyed a series of companies—probably in the 40 years there have been five of them, consisting of about 12 to 20 actors each. They’ve been made up of very individual, idiosyncratic people, and together when they’ve come to the peak of their power, they’ve been extraordinary. I think Doug is going to expand the company, and to ask of its members a lesser commitment than I have asked. I’ve asked permanence. And in exchange for permanence I’ve tried to give a commitment to the growth of the individuals and the opportunity for them to extend their reach. This is always difficult because you have to negotiate their use with the varying directors who come in and who see people in a different way from the way you do. So this is a constant preoccupation, how “Joe” is going to be cast throughout the season when you are dealing with four different directors.
With Doug, company membership will be defined in a much more practical way for today’s world. If you’re an associate artist, if you do two plays a year or three plays in two years, or you come for half a year, half a season, that will be defined as company. That’s more practical, although it isn’t as interesting to me. It doesn’t fit with my fascination with the evolution of a human personality, in terms of art.
I’m curious about Arena’s cultural diversity program. You had an interracial company of 35 actors in 1967, which was sponsored by the Ford Foundation, and I read that you felt it had not been successful. Why?
Its lack of success was a great blow to me. I suffered for many years over that failure, and over my inability to understand it. It had been predicted by Mac Lowry of the Ford Foundation, who had given us a quarter of a million dollars to expand the company to 32 actors, and to integrate it. He said it was the wrong time for it, and that he didn’t think it would work.
This was a substantial gift in 1967.
An enormous gift and an enormous vote of confidence. But the program, first of all, didn’t include the vertical transformation of the institution into a multicultural one. So while the company was racially and ethnically mixed, almost to a 50—50 proportion, the staff was not; the playwrights were not; and the institution did not really understand what cultural diversity meant. We thought it meant inclusion. But it doesn’t really. We thought it meant melting pot. But it doesn’t really mean that. As we understand better now, there are culturally diverse ways of seeing the world, and an institution has to see diversity as positive, beneficial and creative. I think today we have a much better chance of achieving what we were after.
In those days there was also a strong movement for cultural isolationism.
Yes. That’s when the Negro Ensemble Company was formed, when Robert Macbeth’s New Lafayette company was formed, when Ed Bullins’s writing appeared. It was a period of black separatism. It wasn’t a time when most black actors were interested in performing the Western repertory in a conventional all-white institution. I think it was the wrong time, and that we had the wrong view of it. Now we are three years into another concentration of this policy, and it’s taking off. It’s really singing. And the reality inside the theatre is wonderful.
What are the differences?
First of all, we have made an effort to draw into the theatre at the staff level representatives of diverse cultures—the term “minority cultures” is a misnomer in Washington, where 70 percent of the central city is black. But we’ve drawn upon ethnically diverse populations. We’ve added a community outreach person. We have a fellows program which recruits ethnically diverse people from around the country in all phases of the theatre and through a mentoring program, aims to send them out into the world or into other positions at Arena Stage—in directing, dramaturgy, fundraising, development, public relations, scene painting, scene design,lighting, playwriting. We have 12 fellows this year. We also have different expectations: We’re not expecting to remain the same and just to have representation of different cultures; we’re expecting to change. Cultural diversity means that there are diverse ways that cultures express themselves, conduct business, handle personal feelings, engage in one-on-one or one-to-group relationships. And we have had to have help in figuring out how to do this. We brought in a sociologist, Dr. Mitchell Hammer, to work with us to help us through some of these problems.
I’ve been very much more alive within the institution since this policy has started three years ago, because it feels so real to me. But it was not totally welcomed, not totally understood, by everyone in the institution. Yet we are a teaching institution. We have always been one. There were all the usual questions like: Are there quotas? No. Is this an affirmative action program? No. It’s an affirming action program. Are people going to be hired and kept just because they’re of a certain color? No, they are not. Isn’t it condescending to hire somebody just because they’re of a certain color if they’re not skilled? Of course it is. Are you going to give people jobs that they can’t do just to meet an implicit quota? No, we’re not. We had to work through all of these questions. Minority people on the staff would say I don’t want to be here just because I’m black. I want to be here because I’m an artist. I want you to hire me because I’m an artist. Tazewell Thompson, a black director who works at Arena as an associate artist, and I find ourselves on unexpectedly opposite sides of a number of casting questions. I say, This part can be cast as a black, and he thinks, Well, that should be Caucasian. This reinforces the idea that there is no stereotypical response according to color or ethnicity—that the role of taste and artistic perception is probably the dominant role in the arts institution.
Before you began this new effort, was lack of cultural diversity a constant frustration for you?
I didn’t know how to go at it exactly. I would make forays into the question. I always cast some things nontraditionally. The perception of the community was that I was not handling this properly, that I was not speaking to the diversity in the community, that this was a white institution where the other populations of Washington were not really welcome. I think they saw my sporadic attempts to deal with it as a kind of high-blown tokenism. It wasn’t until it became clear to me that I had to deal with it in a total way, in an institutional, global way—that I couldn’t solve it by patchwork, and I had to take it on as a central thrust of the institution—that it became clear.
Has this transformation in the institution affected the audience? Has it affected subscriptions? Has it affected the single-ticket buyers?
When we do work of interest to minority audiences, they come. When we do Chekhov, Brecht, Shakespeare, despite the fact that we cast nontraditionally, it doesn’t draw in the Washington communities that are not white, at least not to a large degree. This has been my experience throughout the decades, and it hasn’t changed. There is a slight increase in the number of black people in our audiences, but not what we would hope. They come when the material onstage seems urgent, just like white audiences do. I think the growth will be gradual.
You came to the theatre in an unusual way—from studying Russian literature, and you were a political activist. You said, “I didn’t go near the drama department when I was at Cornell.” How do you feel about the abundance of theatre programs in the country today? Do you believe in students studying the theatre formally?
I do believe that a liberal arts background, whatever that means, is the right background for theatre. If you have no information about the universe—no point of view about it, no value system—then what do you do in the theatre that is based on all those things? It becomes merely self-referential. It becomes about form. It refers to itself as theatre, and I’m very against that. You need to have certain questions that you want to answer by going into the theatre as a practitioner. And your life will consist of searching for answers—not necessarily finding them. Answers actually are not there to be found; there is onlythe question. There are only temporary meditations on a resolution.
An important principle to come to accept in the theatre is being satisfied with asking the question “Why?”, while knowing full well that you’ll never fully find the answer.
I love that. But I do believe in hard knowledge—what I call information. I believe it is the basis upon which the imagination is released. The more you know, the wider the arc of your imagination and the longer its trajectory. I like to train actors who come from political science, anthropology, engineering—actors who have some purchase on the world, some way to grab hold of it. Some can opener. Whatever you know, whether it’s music, architecture, anthropology, cell biology, Arabic languages, stone carving, jewelry-making, is useful in the theatre.
Are we training young actors and directors successfully in the graduate programs across the country? Do we have enough opportunities for these young artists?
There’s a way to train an artist. He has to meet up with minds that are interested in releasing his own—her own—mind, to have the opportunity to exercise the muscle of his or her own talent. To expose a young person with talent and hunger to talent and imagination and hard work—and provide the great good fortune for him or her to meet up with creative people who care about sharing—is psychologically and pedagogically correct. And out of programs for which we don’t have enough faculty and, in a way, for which we have too many physical resources, may emerge a couple of worthy talents. The trick is to find them. There are too many programs in the United States for the training of artists. We do it too liberally, in a sense, without enough scrutiny, because we don’t have standards of what a real professional is.
Do you bring a new vision to the Acting Company?
What I bring to the Acting Company are maybe some new ways of realizing their vision. I think their vision is wonderful. Maybe I can re-articulate it, with a slightly new angle. I think I can help improve the development of the talent that comes to the company by making it a training and performing company, so that the rehearsal period is also a training period, which will unify the ensemble. And then, of course, I want to build a multicultural ensemble with multicultural supporting artists and administrators. It’s very hard to get minority students to see themselves as actors, so I see this as a way of arousing young people to the thought that there is a place for them as working actors in a company.
Talk about the disadvantages and perhaps some of the opportunities of being a woman in your position over the last few decades. You were leading an institution at a time when society’s attitude about women was changing profoundly.
I had no ambivalence, ever, about any of this. I knew from the time I was eight that I wasn’t going to be a nun, that I was going to have a role to play in the world. I didn’t know what that was, but I knew that that was like breath to me, to be part of the life of my times. I didn’t know whether I had the ability, I had no sense of my own importance or intelligence or imagination or talent. I was quite a shy and self-doubting young person. I didn’t think of myself as a pioneer in starting the theatre. I started it with my teacher, and he was the senior person that I looked up to. Then he left. I was there with this little struggling institution, and I didn’t know what else to do but carry on with it. Alan Schneider came in 1952 and I watched him work. He said he thought I was talented and encouraged my work.
I didn’t think of myself as a feminist, but I have always been free. I got married in the late ’40s and I had children. Tom and I shared the work. We were from the left-wing radical movement. There were no formal divisions of labor. I couldn’t have had a family without a husband who pitched in that way. And I thought of myself as free, as I think every human being should feel free, which also means free to respond, which also means responsible. Freedom and responsibility, to me, are aspects of the same phenomenon. And in that cycle I evolved as a person—and the institution evolved as I evolved.
I never thought of myself as in opposition to men. I loved to cause creativity in people. To watch somebody unfold. That gives me a great big kick. I’m interested in the web of human relationships, in how people relate to each other, in the interdependency of nations and the interdependency of a couple. I try to create webs among people so that their energies rise and unite—which they tell me is feminine. Is it? I don’t know if it’s feminine or if it’s merely the creative principle. If nurturing is feminine, I guess my femininity has helped.
There are people who say I involve myself in every detail and I am bossy. But who knows if that has gender? All in all, I do think that being a woman—which suggests that you speak in a softer voice, that you speak for the needs of other people, that you gain pleasure out of nurturing talent—I think that’s been very helpful. However, I watch Liviu Ciulei work that way. I watch Doug Wager work that way. And this gentility of spirit that’s supposed to belong to women I see operate very strongly in the men that I admire. I wouldn’t want to say there aren’t biological differences that affect our emotional ways of dealing with the world, but I do think that we are allowed latitudes of behavior in our sexual differences that need to be explored and not pinned down.
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