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For the Queen of Arena Stage, intellectual profit is the bottom line

Money doesn't upstage art at the Arena Stage, and that's the way the Queen of Arena wants it. She is Zelda Fichandler, the Tony Award-winning force behind Arena with her husband, retiring executive director Tom Fichandler. Together they founded the innovative regional theater that celebrates its 35th season this month.

Here is Zelda Fichandler talking about the businessmen, the bottom-line guys who think only in terms of profit: ``They live in another world. I think we live in the real world. Because I think the world of the imagination is the real world.''

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We are sitting in her Arena Stage office overlooking the steely blue Washington waterfront. Zelda is dramatic-looking, her hair a shiny brunet curtain she pushes back frequently, her brown eyes snappy in a vivacious, angular face. Her voice is low, sometimes veering into the Bacall range, and authoritative. The words are carefully enunciated, clipped as neatly as topiary trees:

``When we say the business of art is art, not business, we don't mean there's not business in art,'' says this producer-director of Arena, which has just raised nearly $4 million toward its current $6 million endowment goal. ``We just mean the business isn't business for itself; the business is there for another reason.''

It's there for the new plays Arena has developed, like ``The Great White Hope,'' ``Indians,'' and ``K2,'' which went on to become Broadway hits, as well as for fresh productions of classics by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, and Moli`ere and major American plays by Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. Arena is also there for the business of yeasting the theater with the work of contemporary European playwrights like Eugene Ionesco, Dario Fo, and Bertolt Brecht. In fact, Brecht's ``The Go od Woman of Setzuan'' has just opened Arena Stage's new fall season. As a tribute to her vision of the theater, Mrs. Fichandler will receive the sixth annual Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service in Dramatic Arts on Dec. 2 at a dinner in Washington.

Arena has the rousing support of its community; last year's ticket sales amounted to $4.2 million. This year's budget is more than $1 million, a far cry from the $15,000 it started with in 1950 in an old 245-seat movie theater, the Hippodrome, in a slum section of town at Ninth and New York Avenue. A year and a half later it moved to a former ice storage plant and brewery to set up the new nonprofit Arena Stage, a then-controversial theater-in-the-round. Today Arena also includes the fan-shaped Kr eeger Theater and an intimate Old Vat room.

``At the end of five years [there] we had $40,000, and, of course, we were all making $65 a week and doing our own work,'' Mrs. Fichandler recounts. ``It was a very improvisational, hand-to-mouth existence. In five years we did 55 productions, but there were times when we had a balance of only $100 in the bank.''

There is a classic Zelda quotation that appears in much of Arena's printed material and is the core of her philosophy: ``Once we made the choice to produce our plays, not to recoup an investment, but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered into the same world as the university, the library, the museum, the church, and became, like them, an instrument of civilization.'' That was the philosophy that launched Arena in 1947 as a financially nonprofit organizat ion.

When the profit is intellectual, she suggests, it is invisible to the money men. ``So we're not nonprofit, we're just economically nonprofit. But in all the other riches of civilization and all the other endeavors that fulfill people's needs, we show immeasurable profit, because we help people to see themselves and the world they live in. . . .''

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Over the years, Washington economist Thomas Fichandler, retiring now in Arena's 35th year, brought his money smarts and bureaucratic expertise to the business of Arena. He is Arena's star fund-raiser, responsible for the swelling $6 million endowment fund that allows Arena, a repertory theater, to employ its resident acting company on a year-round basis and use summers as a research-and-development period.

Last summer the Arena company traveled with playwrights John Guare and Emily Mann to Colorado College to teach master acting classes for three weeks.

The Arena menu for this season reflects the mix of classic and innovative theater that has become its hallmark: Guare's new play, ``Women and Water,'' the latest in his Civil War series, Brecht's ``The Good Woman of Setzuan,'' Marsha Norman's `` 'Night, Mother,'' Edward Bond's new play, ``Restoration,'' Ibsen's ``The Wild Duck,'' Philip Barry's ``The Philadelphia Story,'' Harold Pinter's ``Old Times,'' and Shakespeare's ``The Taming of the Shrew.''

The phenomenal success of Arena Stage can be traced back to the nine-year-old girl named Zelda who won a $10 prize for her essay on how she wanted to be an actress when she grew up. It was printed in the Washington Star. As a girl, she went to drama school in Washington, starred as Helga in ``Helga and the White Peacock,'' and graduated from high school at 15. She was a freshman at Cornell at 16, majored in Russian literature, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and later earned her master's degree in theater art s from George Washington University. In between, she was a premed student, tried a little journalism, dabbled in anthropology, and worked in military intelligence.

She met Tom Fichandler on a blind date (a play called ``Kiss and Tell.'' A mutual friend had described her to him as ``very strange and very interesting.'' Six months after ``Kill and Tell'' they were married; they are now separated. The Fichandlers have two sons: Hal, a public-service lawyer who works in Philadelphia for the Committee of 70, a watchdog commission on the political process in that city; and Mark, who works as a production associate for Broadway producer Alex Cohen.

Zelda Fichandler, asked if Broadway is dying, says, ``Its pulse is a little weak. It subsists mainly on musicals, and right now they don't have enough of what they call `product.' ''

On producer Joseph Papp: ``Take Joe Papp away from the last 25-30 years, and what would there be in terms of theatrical output and its inventiveness?''

On Peter Sellars, director of the American National Theater at Kennedy Center: ``I think Peter Sellars is an extravagant and extraordinary young man, and I think that anyone who says he's going to reinvent the world deserves enormous credit.'' But she cautions, ``He won't have the luxury that we had, of slow evolution and growth from within. He's going to have to come up with it pretty fast. But there's nothing in the world that makes it impossible.''

As if running a theatrical powerhouse were not enough, Zelda Fichandler also serves as chairwoman of the Acting and Directing Department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She has directed many of Arena's successes, including ``An Enemy of the People,'' ``The Three Sisters,'' ``Screenplay,'' and ``Death of a Salesman.''

As a director, she has a special insight into the role of the actor. ``The actor represents us by his deeds, by his presence, by his actions, and by trying to strip away the life mask. It's actors who stand in for us, who take all the risks and engage in speech for people who have no lines, for people who do no dangerous deeds between 9 and 5. Actors take all the risks.''

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