Auld Lang Zeisler

From the Executive Director

By Ben Cameron

Is it the Salvation Army bellringers that are making me sentimental this time of year? Or is it the relief and gratitude of seeing our TCG annual report hit the streets—a report highlighting a strong year? Whatever the cause, this month's editorial is one of thanks—a year-end tribute to the many people who have made the last year possible for us here at TCG. Our first thanks must go to the artists, managers and technicians who make the theatre work that so enriches all our lives, that compels our service and inspires us even from afar. Their work frequently astounds, amazes, touches and changes our lives. And their perseverance, often in the face of substandard wages, enormous fiscal organizational pressure and less than optimal social validation, is humbling.

Our thanks to our board of directors, led by the always radiant and ever-vigilant Paula Tomei of South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif.; to those trustees from around the country, including our great advocate and chair Judy Rubin, who comprise our National Council for the American Theatre; and, indeed, to the extended circle of trustees who serve on theatre boards throughout the nation. With so many demands on their time, energy and resources, their willingness to devote themselves to our field is truly inspiring.

Our thanks to the funders—individual, foundation, corporate and government—for their generosity, their faith and their confidence in us. We will work hard to warrant that trust as we move forward.

My own particular thanks goes to the staff here at TCG, a group of hard-working, deeply caring individuals who are truly the heart and soul of the organization—and none more than deputy director Joan Channick, the most thoughtful and astute observer of the field that I know. Each of them stands ready to serve the field, and I hope as many of you as possible in the membership will have an opportunity to meet and know them as I do.

But as our field grows and changes, I am increasingly thankful for that generation of pioneers who created and founded the organizations that have been handed to many of us in a succeeding generation. These are people who forged paths where there were none, who created great work, great theatres— Zelda Fichandler, Robert Brustein, Lloyd Richards, Peter Culman, Gordon Davidson, all of whom have touched my life personally; others are gone but stay in our hearts—Garland Wright, and my own mentor Tom Haas, for example. Their achievements live on in our field in every day.

At TCG, we are all especially conscious of the contributions of one man who really created the organization we run today. Although not technically the founder—being in fact the fourth executive director— Peter Zeisler, in his almost-25-year tenure, was the true architect of our organization. American Theatre, TCG Books, the American Arts Alliance—all fundamental components of TCG today—were created and forged under his leadership. It was Peter who was the tireless advocate for freedom of expression, even at the height of NEA controversy; Peter who challenged organizations to place the artist at the center; Peter who championed diversity to a membership where too few had even asked about our role in forging community connection and transforming our society into one of openness and inclusion; Peter who inaugurated our first efforts in international cooperation.

So many young leaders in our field today never have had the joy of knowing Peter as I have had—of sitting with him at National Council for the Arts meetings where he would berate conservatives in an all-too-audible voice, to the simultaneous consternation and delight of those of us who then worked on the NEA staff. As one of the founders of the Guthrie, he recalled Sir Tyrone, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Oliver Rea and those heady early days with his inevitably caustic wit and generous tribute. Who can forget that sipping-like intake of breath before a salacious punchline or that unmistakable laugh that followed? Who could forget an audience with Peter (for me, who was initially scared to death of him, it was akin to an audience with the pope or, perhaps, a grand rabbi) sitting at his large desk, where he would occasionally pull out one particularly infamous fertility totem that had come to him from Jerry Robbins (or was it Hal Prince)? Who could forget his stories from his Broadway stage-managing days—of working with Mary Martin on The Sound of Music, with Barbara Cook in Candide—and especially the stories of being court-martialed for daring to salute an African-American officer on a Southern military base during World War II, of the blacklist days of McCarthy, and more? Those experiences made him a tireless champion of honesty, even at the occasional cost of alienating TCG members or losing funding from those who took offense at his critique of their priorities or programs.

With his zealous and ardent deputy director Lindy Zesch as his professional partner in crime, Peter brought the energy and the deep organizational imprint to TCG that distinguishes the work of a real founder, technical chronology or order of succession notwithstanding. A fighter, a cheerleader, a tireless advocate, a vigilant taskmaster, a man of compassion and gruff affection, Peter was and continues to be one of the great treasures of our field. To him and his wife Helen, all of us at TCG—and in the field—send special holiday greetings and thanks, and hopes that our paths will come together soon in 2005.

Available from TCG Books:

Preserving the Legacy (DVD), TCG Oral History Project, interviews with Zelda Fichandler, Peter Zeisler, Arvin Brown, Lloyd Richards, Gordon Davidson, Tonen Sara O'Connor, Anne Bogart, Ricardo Khan and Kent Thompson

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