Arena Stage Cofounder Zelda Fichandler Dies at 91

The regional theater pioneer helped earn Arena Stage the first-ever Regional Theater Tony Award.

Arena Stage cofounder Zelda Fichandler has died at 91.
Arena Stage cofounder Zelda Fichandler has died at 91.
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Zelda Fichandler, cofounder of Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, died today at the age of 91 due to complications from congestive heart failure.

In addition to cofounding the successful D.C. theater in 1950, Fichandler was also its first artistic director and served as producing director from 1950-91. A pioneer in cultivating an evolving resident repertory company, she introduced audiences to actors such as 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.

Under her leadership, 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. The production won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play and launched the careers of James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander.

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 Fichandler’s own production of Inherit the Wind.

In 1976, Arena Stage was recognized by the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League with the first-ever Regional Theater Tony Award for outstanding achievement, and in 1981 became the first theater to create audio-described performances for visually impaired patrons.

Fichandler also served as chair and artistic director of NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Graduate Acting Program from 1983-2008, teaching acclaimed actors such as Marcia Gay Harden, Rainn Wilson, Billy Crudup, Debra Messing, Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll, Sterling K. Brown, and Danai Gurira. She went on to serve as artistic director of the Acting Company from 1990-93 and received the George Abbott Award, the Acting Company’s John Houseman Award, the Margo Jones Award, and the National Medal of Arts. In 1999 she became the first artistic leader outside of New York to be inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame and 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.

A public memorial service at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater will be announced at a later time to be announced.