Zelda Fichandler, larger than life in memorial celebration

You know the boss is inspiring — and maybe intimidating — when her hat blows into the Chesapeake Bay, she fixes you with a look, and you chirp, “I’ll get it!”

Lively tales were told Monday afternoon about Zelda Fichandler, the formidable founder and longtime leader of Arena Stage who died in July at age 91. The uproarious story of jumping off a sailboat for her hat was shared by Douglas C. Wager, who arrived in the 1970s as an intern and became Fichandler’s successor for several seasons in the 1990s. After the laughter subsided, Wager choked up as he recalled how she motivated and molded his career.

“You only have to multiply my story a hundred thousand times,” Wager said, reckoning the ripple effect of Fichandler’s legacy in creating one of the earliest and most influential of the country’s resident companies and running it for 40 years.

Fichandler established herself as a particularly galvanizing figure during the decades when new locally based troupes followed Arena’s model and took root in cities across the country. On Sunday afternoon Arena hosted five hours of Fichandler’s trademark rallying speeches, titled “The Words of a Visionary” and featuring heads of local theaters such as Woolly Mammoth’s Howard Shalwitz and Signature Theatre’s Eric Schaeffer. (The speech texts are posted on Arena’s website; the Sunday and Monday events were both livestreamed by HowlRound TV.)

Fichandler created Arena in 1950 with her husband Thomas Fichandler – for years the company’s executive director, even after the couple separated in 1975 – and teacher-director Edward Mangum, who departed soon after the founding. Under her leadership Arena racked up a number of significant “firsts”: the first resident company to send a play to Broadway (“The Great White Hope,” debuting here in 1967 and featuring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander with a now mind-boggling cast of 63), the first to tour the Soviet Union (1973, with “Our Town” and Fichandler’s staging of “Inherit the Wind”), the first to win a Tony Award (1976).

Her vision included early championing of non-traditional casting and working with a resident acting company, which over the years included Robert Prosky, George Grizzard, Halo Wines, Richard Bauer, Tana Hicken and Stanley Anderson; the company tradition was abandoned after her retirement at the end of the 1990-91 season. Fichandler continued to head the graduate acting program at New York University until 2009.

Monday’s speakers attested to all of this, and more. Longtime lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes spoke of the artists’ internship he created with her (still going strong at Arena), and that she named after him. Writer-performer Danai Gurira (“In the Continuum,” “The Walking Dead”) supplied a video tribute about studying with Fichandler at NYU. Stephen Wade, whose solo show “Banjo Dancing” was a fixture in Arena’s small downstairs Old Vat Room for most of the 1980s, knitted together a story about now owning her marked-up collection of Shakespeare, and played two songs.

Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director since 1998, noted Fichandler’s disdain for surveys asking audiences what they’d like to see. Smith quoted Fichandler’s response: “How do they know until they see it?”

“Art is not a democracy,” Fichandler also said, according to Wade. At the same time, Wade noted that the celebration’s venue — the famed in-the-round stage that opened in 1961, re-christened the Fichandler in 1992 after she retired — was “the most democratic of spaces.”

The most entertaining tribute of the afternoon recalled a titanic fight. Writer-director Tazewell Thompson had worked his way up to being an artistic associate at Arena, but he felt he was ready to move on. Fichandler wanted him to stay. Monday’s audience gasped and then laughed when Thompson relayed how fiercely he resisted.

“I want to be free from the Arena Stage plantation!” he roared over the phone to Fichandler. (“I know,” he said, joining the audience’s aghast response.) Among her replies was a tirade of curses that Thompson said came from Shakespeare and Chaucer, then Yiddish and Russian.

“I stayed on at Arena Stage,” Thompson said, adding one more laugh line: “It was the best decision Zelda ever made for me.”

The upbeat ceremony opened with the anthem “Make Our Garden Grow” from the musical “Candide” (sung by the cast of Arena’s upcoming “Carousel”) and concluded with memories from the family and a prayer, as the audience rose for the Kaddish.

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