A Tribute to Arena Stage Founder Zelda Fichandler

Zelda Fichandler and another woman standing in front of an audience in the Hippodrome, probably in 1950. Arena Stage records, #C0017, Box 633, Folder 1, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

“The miracle of theater is that it ever happens at all.”
– Zelda Fichandler, in Laurence Maslon’s The Arena Adventure: The First 40 Years

Zelda Fichandler, a powerhouse of the performing arts, passed away Friday, July 29 at the age of 91.  Fichandler was a founder of the Arena Stage which remains, because of her vision, Washington, DC’s preeminent regional theater, a space of imagination and innovation.  Fichandler’s artistic achievements span the length of her storied career, from the founding of Arena in 1950, to pushing for diversity on the stage with her thesis entitled “Towards a Deepening Aesthetic”, to educating future performers at NYU.  Zelda, supported by her husband Thomas Fichandler, gave opportunities to actors, performers, and visionaries who were willing to push the boundaries of theater, who were “trailblazers”, and who were unafraid of to challenge prevailing notions of race, identity, and class.

With her support, programs such as the Living Stage (an Arena venture) brought the theater to less privileged members of society and encouraged them to find deeper meaning in their lives through art.  Fichandler herself broke traditional ideas of gender roles as not only a founder of the largest regional theater on the East Coast, but also as its first Artistic Director, and a director of dozens of productions.  Zelda proved that theater is not the sole property of Broadway, or the ultra-wealthy, but instead belongs to us all.

Please visit our small photo tribute to Zelda at:


This post was written by SCRC Archives Assistant Nick Welsh.

Arena Stage reprocessing project completed by SCRC staff!

After years of work and a combined effort by many archivists and student assistants, we have finished the Arena Stage reprocessing project.   The project culminated in the creation of a brand-new finding aid, including a 739-box inventory, to help researchers access the riches of the collection.  The scope of the collection covers both the administrative and artistic sides of Arena’s work, documenting over 60 years of the life of a ground-breaking theatre institution.

Arena Stage ’s impact on American theatre is hard to overstate.  Since its founding by the indomitable Zelda Fichandler and her drama professor Edward Mangum in 1950, Arena has challenged the racial and political status quo, while pushing artistic boundaries and presenting high-caliber theatre.  One of my favorite discoveries in the collection, one that I posted on Facebook a few months ago, was a simple brochure advertising the 1967 premier of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope.  The ad features a photo of James Earl Jones (pre-Darth Vader!) and Jane Alexander, with Alexander’s head resting on Jones’s shoulder (pictured below).   In the context of the time, this image is deeply significant – interracial marriage was illegal in the state of Virginia until the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967, just months before The Great White Hope’s world premiere at Arena.  An advertising image depicting an interracial couple – married or not – was a brave choice in 1967 Washington, DC, just across the Potomac River from Virginia.  Such courage and principle was typical of Arena, however, particularly in those years.


James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander.  Arena Stage Records, Box 143, Folder 27.  Collection #C0017, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University Libraries.

Aside from documenting Arena’s incredible contributions, the collection is a treasure trove of information on actors, including a number who went on to major careers in film and television.  The collection’s personnel sub-subseries includes  headshots, CVs, and/or correspondence from James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, Sigourney Weaver,  Annette Bening, Ron Perlman, Henry Winkler, Edward Hermann, and many others.  Particularly entertaining is a series of letters, headshots, and a CV from John Lithgow (also posted on Facebook), who very much wanted to act and possibly direct at Arena Stage as a young man in the early 1970s, decades before he was on Third Rock from the Sun and voicing Lord Farquaad in Shrek.

Reprocessing the Arena Stage collection has been an adventure – the sheer scale of the task was monumental, but it was also a source of constant discovery and surprises.   We hope that the reprocessed collection and the finding aid that accompanies it allow researchers to experience the incredible history of Arena Stage and make discoveries of their own.

Rare books moving today and other important dates

Special Collections Research Center’s rare and antiquarian books have started to move over to the new addition today. They are now nearly finished being moved and remain accessible. Our reading room will remain open from 10:00 AM to 4:30 PM on Mondays through Fridays. Wednesday evening hours (until 8:00) will continue until December 9.

Before you plan your research and visit to SCRC, please make note of the following dates:

  • Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) materials unavailable – with the exception of rare books – due to collections moving over to new Fenwick Library addition: November 19, 2015 – December 2, 2015.
  • Wednesday evening hours end after December 9 and begin again on January 20. After December 9, SCRC will be open Mon – Fri from 10:00 AM – 4:30 PM.
  • Closed for winter break: December 21, 2015 – January 1, 2016.
  • Closed to public: January 4, 2016 – January 18, 2016.
  • Open for business at new location: January 19, 2016.

For more information about SCRC: http://sca.gmu.edu/
For more information about Fenwick Library’s move: http://fenwickfocus.gmu.edu/

Our collections are moving!

Our stuff is moving!

Altered production photo of three actors from Revolt of the Beavers in New York City from the Federal Theatre Project Photograph collection, Collection #C0205, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University Libraries.

Special Collections & Archives (SC&A) materials will be moving to the new Fenwick Library addition from November 19 to December 2, 2015. So that we may hold out any collections you need to use during those dates, please request them either before November 19 or after December 2. Please note that the SC&A reading room will be open during those dates.

For more information about SC&A and the new addition, please visit http://fenwickfocus.gmu.edu/ or contact speccoll@gmu.edu