Back in 1949 Washington D.C. theatre was not the pride of the country it is today. There was no Kennedy Center, no Folger and no Arena Stage. Segregation was still part of the D. C. culture. Equity members were not permitted to perform in segregated venues, and The National Theater rather than deal with the pressure from many leading actors, like Helen Hayes, ended performances in 1948 until it opened again as an integrated theatre in 1952. There was a big void in theatrical arts that needed to be filled. That’s when Zelda and Thomas Fichandler and Edward Mangum decided to open an integrated theatre in the heart of Jim Crow Washington, D.C. They founded Arena Stage, making its first home in the converted Hippodrome movie house on New York Avenue in 1950. The opening play was Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” directed by Magnum. They would do a whopping 17 plays that opening season.
Magnum would leave Arena in 1952, and the Fichandlers become the sole leaders of the group. Arena moved to “The Old Vat,” formerly a brewery in Foggy Bottom. The capacity doubled to 500 seats. Then, in 1959 the theatre became not-for-profit which allowed them to concentrate on the art of theatre rather than box office.
In 1961 the new Arena Stage that held an 800 plus audience, designed by Harry Weese, opened on October 30 with Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” directed by Alan Schneider.
1966 was a pivotal year. Robert Alexander joined with a social outreach improvisational theatre, Living Stage. It was also the premiere of Howard Sackler’s “The Great White Hope” which would go on to Broadway helping to launch the careers of Jane Alexander and James Earl Jones. The play won several Tony Awards and a Pulitzer. However, Arena saw none of the profit from the Broadway production. This would make Tom and Zelda take steps to prevent that from happening again, not just to Arena, but other regional theatres. Later when Arena’s production of “Indians” went to Broadway, they were protected.
The Kreeger Theater, a 514-seat fan-shaped proscenium shaped auditorium opened in 1971 with Peter Barnes’ “The Ruling Class,” directed by David William.
In 1975 brought Elie Wiesel’s “Zalmen, or the Madness of God,” directed by Schneider to the television screen on PBS.
Arena Stage got national recognition when it won a Tony Award in 1976 for artistic excellence, the first theater not in New York to win one.
That year would also mark the opening of “The Old Vat Room” a cabaret beneath the Kreeger Theater.
1981 Arena Stage in conjunction with The Washington Ear devoted audio description for visually impaired individuals.
In 1984 they premiered Patrick Meyers’ “K2” which would also go on to Broadway.
A resident acting company with the help of a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts began in 1985. The next year Thomas Fichandler would retire.
In 1990 for their 40th Anniversary the theatre would present again “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” Zelda Fichandler would retire in 1991, going to New York to be the artistic director of The Acting Company and chair the graduate acting program of the highly regarded Tisch School at New York University. Douglas C. Wager, a 17-year veteran of Arena Stage, was named the new artistic director and Stephen Richard was named Executive Director.
The Fichandlers would be honored in 1992 when the 816-arena stage was renamed the Fichandler Stage.
On stage “The Price” by Arthur Miller and featuring Stanley Anderson and Bob Prosky broke existing box office records in 1994.
In 1996 Douglas C. Wager resigned as artistic director, and in 1998 Molly Smith was named artistic director. However, on a sad note in 1997 Founding Executive Director, Thomas C. Fichandler died.
Smith would launch Downstairs at the Old Vat Room focused on readings and workshops of new plays.
In 2000 Arena Stage would revive “The Great White Hope” directed by Smith. This was followed by another great record-breaking season with “Guys and Dolls” and a new play by Charles Randolph Wright, “Blue.” This would also be the year that steps were formally taken to design major renovations and expansion to the historic Southwest campus.
As their fame increased during the latter part of the 20th century, the theater would travel aboard taking Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” to the Soviet Union after being selected by the State Department. They went to Hong Kong, the first American Theater company invited to the prestigious Hong Kong Arts Festival. In 1987 they attended the Israel Festival in Jerusalem, presenting Miller’s “The Crucible.”
In their efforts to reach out to young people and community they began Stage Four to foster development by young authors and established playwrights. With another grant from the National Endowment for the Arts they began a cultural diversity program. The Old Vat was used to present PlayQuest a vehicle to present commissioned and submitted plays. They began an Arts-in-Education program targeting D. C. public schools.
Arena Stage during the first 50 years was given several awards including “Theatre Week in Washington” which was designated to coincide with the opening of the new Arena Stage in Southwest. Also included in this list is aforementioned Tony Award for Excellence, the American Express Award for Outstanding Leadership in Professional Theatre, The Mayor’s Committee on Persons with Disabilities, The Brand Design Association Award consumer branding category for new logo and design and countless Helen Hayes awards. These were just some of the awards they would receive during that era.
Of the of the many great actors that appeared at Arena Stage during the first 50 years some very recognizable ones include James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Bob Prosky, Joe Morton, Shirley Knight, Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, and Marhershala Ali.
The decade ended with Arena Stage looking forward to expanding and to creating a venue that would concentrate on American plays.
What would the new decade bring? Be sure to catch the second part of this series coming soon.
To find out more about Arena Stage and to see what they are planning in the future (if anyone can plan these days) go to their website.
Arena Stage, like many other performing arts groups, has been greatly affected by COVID-19. They need your help financially to help them through this hard time. If you regularly attend plays at Arena Stage, think of your donation as the price of a ticket. Please go to this link to make a donation to their Roaring Back Fund.
I would like to thank Samantha Schneider, Lauren McMillen, Caroline Austin and Renee Littleton for their help with this article. To demonstrate the effect of this strange time, both Samantha and Lauren are furloughed, hopefully for not too long, and Renee is working from home. I know we all wish them well and look forward to the day we can watch a theatrical performance in person at Arena Stage and all our other favorite theatres.