Zelda Fichandler, who passed away last week at age 91, was a woman who knew a lot about infrastructure for the arts. She was a leader in the regional/resident theatre movement that built the institutional infrastructure of nonprofit theatres across the US; she led Arena Stage in Washington DC, creating the physical infrastructure for playwrights, directors, designers, and actors that lives on today. But here I share a personal story, a story about how Zelda helped me understand what was needed for my own creative infrastructure.
As many of you will know, Zelda Fichandler was one of the most influential theatre leaders of the 20th century. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we would not have a regional theatre without her. She had a profound effect on me personally – and not in the context one might think. In the summer of 1984, I took a job waiting tables at an Indonesian BBQ joint called “Chicken and Burger World,” (classy, right?) on Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street in New York City. Little did I know it was Zelda’s go-to lunch spot. When I took her order, I was surprised that she recognized me as an NYU Design student – but she did. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Paying my rent.” “You shouldn’t be here – you should be out designing somewhere!” She was right of course, and a couple of weeks into my Chicken and Burger World tenure, I got a call from Michael Kahn, who was running the Chautauqua Theatre Company at the time, to head up there and be the resident LD for the season. I never worked food service again. I don’t know if she had anything directly to do with getting me the job, but everything to do with helping me understand professional priorities; and understanding one’s professional priorities is a key component of our personal creative infrastructure. Thank you, Zelda! You were a force of nature.
(photo: Zelda Fichandler is welcomed to the Oval Office by President Gerald Ford, May 1975, upon receipt of her International Woman of the Year Award. Photo by White House Photographic Office, public domain.)