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The American theater has gone through this kind of mammoth industry shift before

Read this excerpt from Zelda Fichandler’s newly released collection of essays, which outlines another time in history when the theatrical economic model, audience makeup and more came into question.

Arena Stage co-founder Zelda Fichandler in front of the company’s first theater venue, the Hippodrome, the week before the theater’s opening on August 16, 1950 (Credit: Courtesy of Arena Stage)

Zelda Fichandler was a pioneer of the American theater. Having founded and led Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage for 41 years, she made a deep impact in the regional theater movement, which affected the entire landscape of the art form. When Fichandler passed away in 2016, the New York Times wrote: “And though she never became a household name, she was a titan in the theater world, a visionary producer and teacher who was instrumental in seeding the American continent with the work of playwrights, directors, actors and designers.” 

But Fichandler was also more than an artist, educator and leader — she was an essayist. On March 12, 2024, Theatre Communications Group published a collection of Fichandler’s essays, speeches and more, titled “The Long Revolution: 60 Years on the Frontlines of a New American Theater.” The book holds many lessons for theatermakers today, particularly in section five, “A Hard Time for the High Arts.” 

Originally delivered in 1993, this speech recognizes the sudden and widespread economic challenges of nonprofit theatrical institutions and the struggle for all theaters to attract audiences. It sounds like it could have been written today:

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