When I first arrived in Washington, D.C. many years ago as fresh-faced lad freshly graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, one of the first places I was able to feed myself was at Arena Stage reading scripts at $10 a pop for Lloyd Rose and Jerry Manning. Arena Stage is one of the best professional regional theatres in the world — they were one of the first theatres to employ an acting core on a full time basis — and Zelda Fichandler created Arena Stage out of nothing and ran it for 40 years from 1950 to 1990 until she moved to New York University in 1987 to run the graduate school acting program.
Before Zelda, there was no sense of a regional theatre in the USA that could sustain a subscriber base and also employ a full time acting staff. Community theatre, and its volunteer actors, were the economic model of the day. Zelda smashed that monetary totem by raising private funds, selling season ticket subscriptions and playing to the power elite in Washington, D.C. to keep Arena Stage alive and thriving as a thought machine created to influence minds and tempt hearts.
Zelda brought in Liviu Ciulei from Romania to direct shows for her and, in turn, Liviu brought over Lucian Pintilie to direct one of the best stagings of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” that I have ever witnessed.
While Arena Stage kept me fed, I was not really thriving — and when I received a Presidential Scholarship from Columbia University in the City of New York to study Playwriting at the graduate level, I was torn: Should I stay in Washington and continue to work and grow as a theatre professional, or should I go into student loan debt and move to NYC and study Playwriting with Howard Stein at Columbia?
When I showed Jerry Manning the tender letter of acceptance from Howard Stein, he read it and looked up at me and said, “David, this letter will warm the cockles of your heart for the rest of your life. You must go.”
I was surprised Jerry told me I needed to leave Washington — after loving it, but only living there for less than a year — and that I should to move to New York City. I was a little sick to my stomach to have to start all over again.
“Life is full of starting overs,” Jerry said.
In the end, I accepted Howard Stein’s kind offer, and Jerry Manning gave me as many scripts as he had to help me pay the way to Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus — and to this day, I know I never would’ve been brave enough, or smart enough, to make The Big Move to New York without Jerry Manning’s direct and prescient advice.