Artistic Director Joy Zinoman to Retire From Studio Theatre

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

After 35 years at the helm of a theater and acting school she built from scratch in a once blighted, now thriving city neighborhood, Joy Zinoman is doing what many thought she never would: Leave as artistic director of Studio Theatre.

Her departure from Studio -- a venture that grew from a tiny acting conservatory into a powerhouse complex of theaters occupying much of a block of 14th Street NW -- augurs one of the most significant changes in years at the top of a Washington performing arts organization. In a city notable for the stability of the leadership at its major theaters, many of which are still run by their founders, Zinoman's decision to step down is at once a stunning development, and the first sign that turnover at other major companies is inevitable.

Zinoman announced her retirement Wednesday evening at a gathering at the theater, attended by friends, family and colleagues. Her resignation is effective next Sept. 1, and though she plans to continue teaching at the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory, she says she will not remain a member of Studio's board of trustees, or participate after that date in company decision-making. That responsibility is to fall to her successor, who will be recruited in a nationwide search conducted by an outside headhunting firm.

"I really do feel that 90 hours of work a week, although I love every moment of it, is not a rational life after 35 years," Zinoman, 66, said in an interview before the announcement. "The real truth is that I can't bear the thought that someone would think I stayed too long. I couldn't bear it."

Studio's impact on Washington goes beyond the menu of contemporary plays, by such favorites of the house as Tom Stoppard, August Wilson, Edward Albee and Caryl Churchill, that the company regularly presents. (The range, though, of work performed at Studio over the years has actually been broader, encompassing everything from Chekhov to "Jerry Springer, the Opera.") Its teaching branch has trained a generation or two of Washington actors and directors, some of whom left for successful careers elsewhere, and its professional stages have long been a vital outlet for the nurturing of local talent. The decision, too, to locate just west of Logan Circle, at a time when that part of Washington was still scarred by the economic devastation of the '68 riots, would prove pivotal to the revitalization of the 14th Street corridor. As is often the case with theaters looking for homes, Studio came in (to an old automobile showroom on 14th and P streets) and redevelopment followed.

"There was not even a 7-Eleven," said Zinoman, adding that she was warned not to open a theater in that run-down area because no one would ever come. Today, her playhouses -- cheekily nicknamed by some the "Zinoplex" -- look out over a neighborhood of million-dollar condos and upscale shops and restaurants.

Perhaps there never would have been a particularly propitious moment for the leave-taking of Zinoman, as fierce an advocate for her institution as any arts leader in the city. Her passionate style has earned her a devoted following -- the company finished last season with more than 7,000 subscribers and a $522,000 budget surplus, its largest ever -- and a reputation among some theater people for being intimidatingly hard to please. "I really value moderation; I'm not very good at it," she said.

However one views Zinoman's intensity, it has often paid off for audiences, in the form of the frequently high-quality, ambitious-yet-intimate productions the company mounts.

Other than Supreme Court justices and self-declared presidents-for-life, few people seem to hold on to jobs for as long as those who run theater companies. That might be a reason it is difficult to imagine the end of her reign at Studio, which she founded in 1978 with set designer Russell Metheny. The project grew out of an acting academy called the Joy Zinoman Studio that she established in 1975 in a space on Rhode Island Avenue that she shared with the Liz Lehrman Dance Exchange. (Before that, she had spent 13 years living in Asia with her husband, Murray Zinoman, then a foreign service officer.)

Zinoman was in the vanguard of a second generation of theater founders in Washington -- the first wave was spearheaded by Zelda Fichandler, Arena Stage's legendary co-founder. Along with other founding artistic directors such as Michael Kahn at Shakespeare Theatre, Howard Shalwitz at Woolly Mammoth Theatre and, later, Eric Schaeffer at Arlington's Signature Theatre, Zinoman helped usher in an era of increased theatrical depth and diversity in a city that had mostly lived on a diet of Arena offerings, touring plays and musicals and pre-Broadway tryouts.

Her idea was to stage plays in small spaces -- each about 200 seats -- and over the years, as audiences gravitated to the approach, Zinoman resisted the impulse to put on productions in spaces with more capacity. Instead, at her urging, the company bought adjacent buildings and in 2004 added, to the two existing theaters, the Mead and the Milton, a third 200-seat theater -- the Metheny -- as well as a new raw performance space.

"She has every step of the way managed this very, very careful growth of the theater," said Susan Butler, Studio's trustee chairwoman. "This 200-seat theater model was the essence of what we think theater should be, and we never changed."

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