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Women Bisnow
December 19, 2007


by Karin Tanabe, for Bisnow on Business

Lipstick-clad women wielding lorgnettes may be the theatergoers we often envisage, but they were not the ones seeking artistic enlightenment around 14th Street in the 70s. An area already teeming with prostitutes and drug dealers went from bad to worse after the assassination of Martin Luther King and turned the neighborhood into the flashpoint of rioting.

“We rented a horrible space on Church Street, complete with rats, used to store hot dog carts,” says Joy Zinoman, Founding Artistic Director of The Studio Theatre. “There were condoms and needles on the street, storefronts were boarded up – it was hell. Everyone said I was crazy to stay, that no one was going to come to 14th street…but I stayed.”

Sitting in the glass atrium in the Studio Theatre’s current location at 14th and P, one can see times have changed. With a vibe that’s more Andy Warhol’s Factory than rodent rumpus room, the Studio Theatre, which opened its doors in 1978, is Washington’s third largest theater devoted to contemporary works. Home to some of the most talented playwrights working today – Carol Churchill, Tom Stoppard, Tony Kushner – it is not the place to see men in tights. But it is a place to photograph and be photographed in, as Washingtonian Magazine’s best-dressed men recently were. “We designed every inch of it ourselves,” says Zinoman of the industrial chic space that houses four theaters and an acting conservatory. Joy’s founding partner, set designer Russell Metheny, has been in charge of the theater’s design for the last 30 years.


“Everything I have learned has been in the sense of making plays. I’m proud of being an artist-manager. I have been a director for 40 years. And we are an artist-driven, artist-run theater,” says Joy, running her hands through her Anna Wintour-like bob. Zinoman, who was a child actress and attended Northwestern on an acting scholarship, switched to directing when she moved to Asia with her diplomat husband. The couple spent 13 years there, with Joy working in the theater directing western classics. “I got a master’s degree in Peking opera figuring I would teach, as I was so far behind in my professional career,” says Joy. For her thesis, she directed students in Peking opera techniques, which was the making of her studio.  When Zinoman’s husband worked in the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Joy commuted from Washington to Malaysia for three years. “I had one kid here, one kid there, and one going back and forth. It was a nightmare, but we survived it.”

While in Washington, Joy founded the Joy Zinoman Studio, a precursor of the Studio Theatre. The studio still exists, having been transformed into an acting conservatory admitting 600 students a year. Molly Smith, head of Arena Stage, was one of Joy’s students and the first teacher Joy trained in-house. Zinoman says during her first years the plays were “insane. We were very focused on style–plays in Sanskrit, Beijing Operas–then we settled down.”  Those days were 30 years ago, still a shock to Zinoman who says it feels like 30 minutes ago. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Studio Theatre will throw a big bash entitled “Let them eat cake.” Powdered wigs are not required.

“We went from a budget of nothing to six million dollars a year. And we have had budget surpluses for the last four years–extraordinary for a non-profit theater,” says Joy who directs two to three of the theater’s plays a season. Zinoman’s newest endeavor is the program “Opening Our Doors,” bringing in young theater companies to create work in-house and have their world premiers on Studio’s stages. “Who knows what will happen,” she says, noting that one troop coming in is “very vaudeville,” and another focuses on evangelicals in Colorado.

“People say that the renovation of the theater district happened quickly. It didn’t, it was really, really slow,” says Joy as actors and students begin to come into the common space. A man auditioning for the role of Jerry Springer gives Joy a kiss on the cheek, the sound of another condo going up comes in from the street, and the theater-going hour approaches.  Zinoman seems awfully glad she stayed.
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