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There's No Cutting Corners In the Fichandler

Theater's In-the-Round Setup Forces Directors to Be Careful and Creative

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 23, 2007; Page M06

Come the long-awaited $125 million renovation at Arena Stage, a key element that won't be much changed is the fabled in-the-round Fichandler space. The theater is built like a boxing ring: no curtains, no walls and audience on four sides.

As longtime technical director Jim Glendinning says, "The actor is literally singled out from his environment."


Arena Stage's fabled Fichandler space offers 360 degrees of theatrics
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Arena Stage's fabled Fichandler space offers 360 degrees of theatrics
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Or as Sir Laurence Olivier remarked when the place was being built nearly a half-century ago: "Fascinating -- but there's no place to hide!"

As the recent boom in new stage complexes here and around the country proves, they don't build 'em like this anymore; the model seems too intimidating. Artistic Director Molly Smith says: "It's thought of as a place that eats up directors and actors. They have to exert more energy to make it work."

The Fich may be loaded with history, but it also has its traps. Like "vom suck," a queasy-sounding term that lighting designer Nancy Schertler invokes as she watches a technical rehearsal of Lisa Kron's newly arrived comedy, "Well."

"Voms" are short for the ancient Roman "vomitoria," the corridors leading offstage through the audience. And "vom suck" is the tendency of first-time Fichandler directors to listlessly cluster actors in the mouth of a vom -- on the theory that at least three-fourths of the audience will be getting a good view.

Schertler, who has lighted more than two dozen productions in the Fichandler dating to the 1980s, knows hazards like this inside and out. So does "Well" set designer Thomas Lynch, whose first job in the space came during the 1979-80 season. And for the eighth time in 11 years, former Arena artistic associate Kyle Donnelly is returning to lend her directing experience in the legendary but tricky Fich.

"This is my favorite stage," she declares. "But it will spit you out if you don't respect its parameters and powers."

The powers include an unusual combination of size and intimacy. Excluding the upper-level boxes, which will be sealed for good come the renovation, it seats 662 yet is only eight rows deep with a very steep rake -- what we now call "stadium seating."

Lynch says: "It's a very active, very strong space. It can feel intimate or it can be epic, huge."

Not surprisingly for a theater founded on a pioneering company-and-community aesthetic in the 1950s, the stage -- rechristened after Arena founders Zelda and Thomas C. Fichandler in 1992 -- is frequently described as an actor's space. Yet it's a notoriously daunting test for actors.

Donnelly says, "You have to think of yourself as acting all the way around your body, not just forward." And as a director, "You constantly have to shift the point of focus so no one in the audience feels like they're seeing it from backstage." She has watched confused actors yell to no avail; clean diction is more effective. (Acoustics will get more attention than anything else during the renovation, which is anticipated to start within the next 12 months.)


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