TCG National Conference 2001

ZELDA FICHANDLER
TCG National Conference
June 23, 2001


Photo by Mark Garvin


Thank you. I must admit it feels good to get your flowers while you live. My son and his family live in Philadelphia, so I said I’d be seeing them some time between the 20th and the 23rd, that I was coming to TCG’s 40th Anniversary Conference and was to receive some kind of an honor. "What’s that for, Mom?" Hal asked, in that slightly put-down way he joshes me. You know, the way all theatre parents are non-prophets in their own land. I said I wasn’t sure, but guessed it had something to do with my having started early and yet I can still stand up on my own. "Well," he said, "Enjoy it. Pre-‘humous’ is better than post." So, yes, it is. And again I thank you.
And, no, it doesn’t seem just like yesterday that W. McNeil Lowry, the prescient and powerful Ford Foundation Arts and Humanities Vice-President, gathered some few of us — maybe 15 or 16 — around his imposing mahogany table and asked if any of us felt the need to be in touch with each other for purposes of communication and mutual support. You know what we said, for here we are some 40 years later and Theatre Communications Group has 415 member theatres and 17,000 individual members and joins us together, and all of us to the world, in numberless creative ways that we can’t even imagine doing without.


The theory of relativity tells us that time passes more slowly for an object in motion than for one at rest. To those — now few — of us who were there on that day with Mac and are still here, puffing along in what is no longer the "fledgling movement" of not-for-profit theatre — no, better to say in a theatre movement for profit of a different kind — to us, it seems like a geological age ago that TCG was founded. Looking all the way back — all the way — it seems to have been a miracle of ingenuity, passion, and hope that got us to this place.


Those of you who didn’t live through the earliest years — say 1950 to 1965 — the year the Ford Foundation finally gave in to the notion that our theatres would never, ever balance the books on box office alone — those of you often say that "it was easier in the olden days," that the problems facing American theatre today are infinitely more resistant to solution. I take a different view. I think the problems in creating a theatre institution and maintaining its development have always been insurmountable, then we find a way to surmount them, then new problems take their place. That’s just the way of it. It was never any easier and won’t be.


As theatre practitioners, we know that dramatic action consists of a yearning towards an outcome that faces hazards all along the way. Why should life, which theatre imitates, offer us any better? In a way, we should celebrate each problem that presents itself — because the solution is precisely within it. If we look elsewhere for it, we’ll never find it. Isn’t creativity itself the overcoming of resistances: the blank page, the two-dimensional canvas, the child’s anarchic nature, the elusiveness of words, the obstinacy of the material world, the psyche’s fragility?


Yes, the government has now articulated and elaborated upon its fundamentally anti-art position, come out of hiding so to speak, but in the olden days, the government didn’t even know we were there so it had nothing against us, gave us nothing, not even an identity. In 2001, there are strong social and economic forces pulling our audiences away, but then there were no audiences for what we were doing, they had to be invented one member at a time. In Washington, audiences were still segregated, and it was Big News that Arena Stage was to be open to all. The Civil Rights Movement has enriched our country in every way, including culturally. And the wave of immigration in the past twenty years has given our theatres a potential for unbounded diversity in style and content. New theatre buildings, now in their second flowering, are bigger and better than ever and cost more to run. And budgets are bigger — inflation, yes, but more significantly, out of our ascending creative desires. Of course the bigger the budgets, the further they have to fall, and that’s threatening. Back then at the beginning, having no space was the barrier — where to put ourselves? Nobody wanted the gypsies with their strange ways. And the tyranny of the bottom line — if you wanted to kneel before it — was every bit as imperial. More so, as I experienced it, because box office was the only — the singular — source of revenue. We were strictly on our own, spending only what we took in.


Getting actors to come out of New York and L.A. is difficult? I recall an actor asking me if you could get fresh tomatoes in Washington. Each contract represented hours and hours of personal persuasion. Subscriptions? Three hundred was a bunch! Single tickets? Don’t ask! Boards? How to work with them smoothly and in all-around happiness was already a mystery: The model was wrong to start with and still is — a theatre isn’t a corporation for profit-making purposes, and artists should have a strong voice in its governance. Sleep, recreation, time for personal relationships? How to get some of these? At twenty-five, raising two children, no money, no staff, no models to look to, I was far more exhausted than I was decades later.


We need what we always needed and what every artistic leader needs in a country that doesn’t provide sufficient subsidy or have a genuine respect for culture: stamina to persist; capacity for a deep interiority on one hand and a practical manipulativeness on the other; concentration to hear one’s own voice and courage to listen to it in the midst of a cacophony of other voices; toughness in the service of something that is tender, while you try to remain tender yourself; imagination, taste, risk tolerance, a nose for the audience’s subconscious hopes and fears; colleagues who can share your despair and also lift you out of it — again and again and again, because it’s a long and winding road — and reassure you, as you do them, that what you are trying to do is good and life-affirming and the one who gives up last wins.


My father was Head of Research and Development at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington; under him were developed many new scientific advances, one of them being the navigational aids — the radio sonde, the weather balloon, blind instrument landing and blind instrument flying devices — that created modern aviation. He took the first blind flight and landing from Beltsville, Maryland, to Newark, New Jersey, in the mid-thirties, with a close colleague as his co-pilot, in an open, two-man cockpit plane.


All things were at risk. Dad had told us he’d be late for dinner and not to wait for him. We heard the moment-to-moment flight details on one of those large box radios that are now collector’s items. I’ve always been attracted to the metaphor of flying, I think, because of this personal history.


Dad wasn’t without his back-up, without a deep and important scientific past. Nearly 3,000 years earlier, the first kite was invented, probably in China, where silk fabric for sail material, fine, tensile-strength silk for flying line, and resilient bamboo for a strong, lightweight fabric were readily available. Over the millennia, kites were used all over the world to ward off evil, deliver messages, represent the gods, raise banners, discover natural phenomena, propel craft, drop propaganda leaflets, catch fish, spy on enemies, send radio signals, measure the weather, photograph the Earth, and lift passengers skyward. The kite was the ancestral aircraft that launched manned flight.


Wilbur and Orville Wright, who were fascinated by flight, dreamt of using kites to do more than they had ever done before. Their first experiments were made with a small biplane kite in the summer of 1899 and covered 400 feet. After gaining practical experience in designing and building lightweight precision machines of wood, wire and metal tubing, the brothers chose an isolated village on the outer banks of North Carolina, Kitty Hawk, for their next major advance — flight made possible with a powered machine.


At about 10:35 on the morning of December 17, 1903 Orville made the first successful flight, covering 120 feet through the air in 12 seconds. In the last flight of the day, Wilbur flew 852 feet over the sand in 59 seconds. For the first time in history, on that day a heavier-than-air machine had demonstrated powered and sustained flight under the complete control of the pilot. And in 1908 the brothers contracted with the U.S. Army for an airplane costing $25,000 that would fly for one hour with a passenger and a pilot at an average speed of 40 miles an hour, and commercial aviation had begun. As Brecht puts into the mouth of Galileo: "We crawl by inches. As much of the truth gets through as we push through." I know we will push and push until the thing flies and is safe.


The underlying principles of aviation remain the same as they were on that first flight, as the Wright brothers predicted them, and they hold good today. (Though who could have predicted the Boeing 747 or La Guardia Airport!?)


A successful airplane would require wings to generate lift, a propulsion system to move it through the air, and a system to control the craft in flight. Which is to say, what was there at the beginning will be there at the end: For lift: repertory and artists to fulfill it. For propulsion: all the means to make reciprocal connections with our community and, through them, the world. And for control: artistic and management leadership that is attentive to all the forces operating, committed to the task, and prepared to undertake the challenge. And so, in his time to live, my father tuned in to this climb up to the top of the skies. Unfortunately, he died very young, the same year as Orville Wright, 1948. But others have taken up where he left off.


Everyone in this room — every single one of us — is connected to the other in ways both ancient and of the moment. We are friends in the deepest sense of the word. Thank you for allowing me this time to speak to you.



© - 2001 by Theatre Communications Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.

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