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“I didn’t want anyone to think that I had stayed too long — I was just too proud for that,” says Joy Zinoman, an note of wistfulness filling her deep, deliberate voice. “You have to leave sometime, and I wanted the choice to be mine.”
Zinoman’s decision was made back in September 2009, and a replacement for the legendary artistic director and visionary behind The Studio Theatre has since been named (it’s David Muse, a stunning choice for leading the Washington theater into its next phase), but Zinoman, who founded Studio in 1978 with designer (and friend) Russell Metheny, will long be remembered for her pioneering spirit, for putting a theater company in the heart of 14th Street, in effect planting a seed that later helped an entire neighborhood blossom into a vibrant commercial and residential urban-topia. Before all others, Zinoman saw promise in the area, which, in the ’70s, was hardly what one might call a safe place to take a stroll.
“Victor Shargai was on our board,” says Zinoman, recalling the gay arts philanthropist’s initial reaction to Studio’s initial home just off 14th on Church Street NW. “He was like, ‘You have to move! No one is going to come to that place!’ And I just said, ‘I want to stay downtown. I believe in this neighborhood.'”
Thirty-two years later, Zinoman found herself presiding over a 1,000-seat, four-theater complex. During her tenure, the company has produced everything from Ionesco to Pinter, McNally to Mamet, LaBute to Wilson. Zinoman’s seasons are rich, varied and rooted in a strong sense of plays that explore the intricacies and moral complexities of character. She has taken enormous risks that have paid off brilliantly — those lucky enough to have seen 1986’s magnificent “Slab Boys Trilogy” witnessed a singular, spectacular moment in Washington theater. There were many such moments over the years, far too many to list here. Suffice to say, Zinoman ensured audiences were delivered unforgettable theatrical experiences, the kind that can only come from an artistic director who prizes, with equal weight, the craft of acting and the intricacies of design. Zinoman is, however, decidedly frank in assessing what motivates her artistically.
“I’m an actor-driven director,” says Zinoman. “I think what the theater does best is character. It does it better than the novel, better than film, better than anything. It puts a real live person right in front of you. No other form can do that…. And I love the idea that this is the place where you can see really great acting.”
Zinoman has worked with some of the best the city has to offer — Sarah Marshall, Nancy Robinette, Philip Goodwin, Floyd King, Ted van Griethuysen, Holly Twyford, Michael Chabon, S. Epatha Merkerson, Edward Gero, Jon Tindle, Thomas W. Jones II and J. Fred Schiffman.
“I’ve worked with many great actors and actresses over and over again,” she says, adding, “I don’t believe in company. I have a community of actors that I’ve worked with for 32 years.”
She’s also nourished directing talents like Serge Seiden and Keith Alan Baker, both of whom have expanded the scope of Studio with their own creative visions.
One of the endemic things about Studio has been its exploration of cultural and social works — and showcasing plays with LGBT themes have always been part of its core values. Zinoman, who grew up in Chicago in the performing world — she was a child actor — notes that gays have “always been a part of my life.” Of course, anyone in theater could make that claim. But one senses an honest and strong connection to the community in Zinoman. Just ask, for instance, how she feels about the recent move by the District to recognize gay marriage and her voice booms, “I think it’s remarkable!” Then, without missing a beat and a sense of a dramatic flourish, she loudly whispers, “But for me it’s like, what the fuck took so long?”
Zinoman’s final directing stint, David Mamet’s American Buffalo, is playing to sold-out houses. It’s already seen two extensions and may have a few more in store.
“People thought I was going to do something like Chekhov or something very autumnal and old,” says Zinoman of her swansong production. “But I wanted something gritty and masculine and rough.”
Asked whether or not she’ll direct at Studio in seasons to come, she pauses for a moment. But only a moment.
“Only if the play is right,” she says, adding with a laugh, “and they offer me enough money.”
American Buffalo plays through June 27 at The Studio Theatre, 14th & P Streets NW. Tickets are $35 to $63. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.
Joy Zinoman photographed by Todd Franson on the set of American Buffalo, May 3, 2010.