Joy Zinoman, Part 1, Transcript

Elizabeth: This week’s Theater in Community interview is with the founder of Studio Theatre and the Studio Acting Conservatory, Joy Zinoman. Joy is a legendary figure on the theatrical landscape of Washington, DC, and we are thrilled and grateful that she so generously shared her time and insights with us. We’ve divided the interview into two parts. In part one, Joy discusses the development of her theatrical vision, both in the United States and Asia, a vision rooted in a unique combination of theatrical aesthetics, intimacy, and style. Joy then talks about the circumstances that led her to establish the Conservatory and then, with scenic designer Russell Metheny, to create Studio Theatre. Part two will focus on the rise of Studio Theatre as one of DC’s most important theatrical institutions.

A quick note to listeners: on each episode’s post, we’ve included a glossary of theater terms and names referenced in the interview.

Elizabeth: Welcome to the Theater in Community interview series of Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.

Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.

Elizabeth: Our guest today is the incomparable Joy Zinoman. To quote from the Studio Acting Conservatory website, “Joy Zinoman is a master teacher and the founder of both Studio Theatre and the Studio Acting Conservatory. She has been teaching and directing for over 40 years in the US and abroad, and created the Conservatory’s core acting curriculum. Before retiring from Studio Theatre, she directed 70 productions and garnered over 225 Helen Hayes Award nominations for the theater. And she received numerous awards, including ‘Outstanding Direction’ and ‘Visionary Leadership in the Arts.’ Her training was at Northwestern University, Radcliffe College, and American University.” Welcome, Joy.

Joy: Thank you.

Michael: Before we get into the genesis of Studio Theatre and the Conservatory, let’s explore your early years and the creativity that shaped that decision. Now, you’re from Chicago.

Joy: Yes.

Michael: Could you talk about your early creative training and experiences as a child actor and beyond?

Joy: Yes. So, you know that I was a child actress in Chicago. That’s a terrible admission. There’s a story—again, is it true or is it memory?—that when I was about seven or eight, my mother, like all good mothers of the period, gave me piano lessons. And I played the piano very loudly and could not hit the right notes. And the neighbors said, “Maybe you should try something else. How about dramatic lessons?” And so, when I was about nine, I went downtown and started to study in a program called Jack and Jill Players. So I did. And they also had a casting agency and, after a while, they would send me out and I got cast in plays in places, actually, like the Studio Theatre—small, professional theaters—in children’s roles. And also commercials and other kinds of events—as a matter of fact, I was in a pageant that opened the Pan-American Games. So, a wide range of, kind of, events. And I played in some Broadway shows that were touring that came from New York to Chicago, and they wouldn’t bring the children or the animals with them, cast them along the way. I also did five years of radio as a child, WBEZ in Chicago.

Michael: And did you just discover you had a natural affinity to performing in front of a large audiences?

Joy: My husband often says that he had no idea what he wanted to do when he grew up, but I knew right away. And I never wavered. And that’s true. I think it’s like a lack of imagination or something, but it was true that I embraced the theater in a way which I can’t quite understand. But there was never a question for me that’s what I wanted to do. I just loved it. I just loved it in a deep way. And then when I was in high school, between junior and senior year in high school, I went to this program called the Cherub program at Northwestern University. It’s a very famous program for young people over the summer. And, and then I decided to go to Northwestern, which I went to on an acting scholarship.

Elizabeth: Speaking of Northwestern, as we understand it, you went to Northwestern as an undergraduate at the age of 16, which is very young, and then you left at age 18 after you met and married your husband Murray, speaking of your husband, who was at that time in the US Foreign Service, and you moved to Asia where he was assigned for 13 or 14 years. I think that’s right. It is such an adventurous life at age 18 I can’t even imagine, coming from my little Texas town.

Joy: I did go to college when I was very young. I had skipped three grades in grammar school. Having a good memory was very helpful. And I was only there for two and a half years. I’m probably not a college graduate. So I, and then my soon-to-be-husband Murray, who was at the University of Chicago, he took the Foreign Service exam. It was an adventure. He was taking to the Foreign Service, and we didn’t wanna be separated. And so I came to Washington.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Joy: And very luckily, I got to study the Thai language at the Foreign Service Institute. And so, there are a lot of, quote, unquote, “Foreign Service wives” who have lot bitterness about what happened with their careers. I’m not one of them. I had the opportunity to study three languages. Chinese for two whole years!

Elizabeth: Wow.

Joy: And Thai for six months. And French. And so that was an opportunity and an education that I never could have gotten, especially as a, sort of, actress, theater major, uneducated type. But more than that was the opportunity to work in other countries and cultures, which form the basis of half of my notions about art and creativity. There is an opening of the mind through language and also through cultural exploration. Again, I’d never been west of Chicago. I was not a person with a wide or varied type of background, but at 18, I was very open to experience and language.

Elizabeth: As I understand it, your keen interest in Asian theater, and particularly the Peking opera, emerged during your time in Asia and you did graduate studies, et cetera, et cetera. So, I’m really interested in both where your family lived in Asia and if you could talk some more about its influence on your creative imagination.

Joy: I have to say, though, that the first really important creative influence was my teacher at Northwestern, Alvina Krause, who was one of the great American acting teachers of Stanislavskian realism, along with Uta Hagan and Stella Adler and Bobby Lewis and those people, she is one of them. She came from the group theater, she trained many people in the Midwest who wound up running theaters and being major actors. And she was a horrifying bitch and terrified the life out of me but had a profound influence. Because when I went to Asia, of course I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t continue to do this thing that I had been doing all my life, acting, but Asian performers had been trained from a very young age and trained in a very different way. And although this is on the radio, I’ll say that, if you can’t—

Elizabeth: Oh, yes, all the gestures and the hand movements.

Joy: Move like that, yes. When you’re not trained from a very young age, you can’t participate. So that was a big blow to me. And I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do with myself. But it was at a time in the early ‘60s when there was a tremendous interest in Western realism in Asia. Stanislavski and his people actually went to China in the early ‘30s and to get to Southeast Asia, it took a while longer, but people who were trained in a traditional form, which is very different, were now interested in realism, in the burgeoning film industry, in the beginning of creating their own content for television, in lots of things. And so there I was with this extraordinary, albeit brief, education in realism that I had from this great teacher. I wanted to study what they knew and did, because of course I was just curious and fascinated by what it was. Even though I couldn’t do it, I wanted to study it. And people were interested in what I knew. This is a long story—14 years—briefly, I lived in Thailand in two cities, in Laos, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia twice, and in Taiwan in a city called Taichung. And after the beginning, when I couldn’t act and I started to teach what I knew, very gingerly and direct. And ultimately, I had a career in Asia that I probably never could have had as a very young woman in the United States. It was just a chance collocation of circumstances. So, I taught at universities, including the Universiti Malaya, which was like a sister school to Oxford. I directed the equivalent of the National Theater in Malaysia after 12 years or so. Eventually I got to put sound systems in theaters so there could be simultaneous translation, for example, in English and Malay. I redid old theaters. I flew to Indonesia and auditioned people to come back and do national shows for the Deputy Prime Minister. I had extraordinary experiences and directed a lot of Western classics, studied Indian and Chinese theater forms.

Michael: Well, it sounds like at the theoretical level you experienced the collision of the psychological style of acting of Stanislavski with the more physical traditions of the East.

Elizabeth: Formalistic.

Michael: Yes. So do you think your creative theatrical imagination comes out of that collision?

Joy: I do.

Michael: Excellent.

Joy: I think it has to do with my interest in style. And by looking at style, not in a kind of old-fashioned way, but as something about stripping away things to their unique and particular essences. Because although you described Asian theater in a certain way, the truth is Asian actors also have a strong realistic base. They just express it in a different way, fundamentally believing that realism alone is boring. It’s just like life. Why would you do that? What’s artful about that? Not that the psychological-emotional core of life is different. And that’s a shattering idea. That one can express emotional content or relationships or anything in a way other than a naturalistic way. That’s what I learned. Of course, that led me to understand some things about Shakespeare, some things about Greeks, and things about older Western forms that I didn’t understand before. It also made me look at how does one teach or understand this notion of realism, which underscores, as it turns out, almost all theater. Even if the expression of it doesn’t seem to be realistic at all, and indeed it isn’t realistic at all.

Elizabeth: Forgive me, I’m not schooled in Asian theater, but it sounds like the gestures, the movements, the physicality bring with them a whole cultural foundation, a kind of embeddedness of meaning that isn’t necessarily limited to the individual. In Western culture, we’re so individualistic and I’m wondering if there’s just even more resonance?

Joy: That is true, that is true, but it is not the whole story. For example, when you study in these gestural forms where the gesture itself has meaning—crying, for example, there’s a gesture actors have to do with their costume. They have meaning. So people study them in this different way, of course this rigorous, repetitive, very rigorous way of learning the gesture. But among the greatest performers, the stars let’s say, the famous Chinese actors, they change the gesture slightly, the gesture that everyone knows, just enough to become individual also. The greats can. It’s like saying you need to start with realism in painting, first you need to paint realistically and then you can deviate from the paint to express yourself. It’s the same notion. Also, there’s certain improvisational aspect in Asian theater, which you probably don’t compute, but that relationship between a movement and music. For example, the gamelan in Indonesia or various kinds of drumming orchestras in Chinese theater where the drummer creates a rhythm and the actor’s movement is improvised with that rhythm. So maybe one will go faster, one will go slower, one will become more intense. So, you see it as something which is set and rigid, but it’s not at all.

Elizabeth: Okay. Okay.

Joy: There’s enormous creativity. Peking opera, for example, is not just singing, but a combination of singing, movement, improvisation, and acrobatics, to start out, and the discovery of that is astounding.

Elizabeth: That is so fascinating. To digress for a moment, or to progress for a moment, you and your family were there for 14 years and then you came back to the US, to Washington, DC as I understand it?

Joy: My husband was at the State Department on and off. We were here on and off.

Elizabeth: Oh, okay.

Joy: But over a period of time, basically 14 years in Asia.

Elizabeth: But you come back to DC, which is the center of this, quote, “American empire” or this sort of locus of American political power, and as we mentioned before. Living abroad is an experience that very few Americans have had, even today, but even fewer back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. So, did you bring back, as you mentioned before, this objectivity about US culture and politics that you’d gained while living abroad and being the, quote, “cultural other” in Asia and being immersed in cultures that were profoundly different from American and Western culture?

Joy: Yes.

Elizabeth: And did that objectivity influence your theatrical vision and can you talk about that?

Joy: Yes. But of course, I was also just selfish. My motivations were not those lofty things that you described. They were about work. And my peers from let’s say 15 years before were, they had established careers or were establishing them or were my classmates, for example. And I had nothing. I had no college degree. I had nobody here. But when I was in Asia, I had written this curriculum, as I said, to teach Asian actors about Western realism. But I, I linked that—my husband went to the Asian Institute, the Yenching Institute at Harvard, when we came back. So there I was in Boston, and because there were not many people who spoke Chinese and were theater professionals, I had a little something to contribute, and I started to study there and wrote this thesis on Peking opera. Trying to understand it and translate it. So, after a year there, we came back to the Washington. And American University had this program where you could get a master’s degree without a bachelor’s degree—perfect for me—if you could do something, blah, blah, blah. So I entered this program and indeed I wrote, continued this thesis, and I did a Peking opera as my thesis production, which had all kinds of people soon to be known in DC in it—Molly Smith, Bart Whiteman, a lot of people—

Elizabeth: Oh my gosh, Bart Whiteman in a Peking opera. I would really pay good money to see that!

Joy: He trained. I taught them all these Asian theater techniques.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Joy: And then from that experience, people who were there—‘cause I had already been teaching for a long time—said, “Why don’t you teach?” Why don’t you? ‘Cause there’s another little event here which changed my trajectory. I became pregnant with my third child. My other two children, Amanda and Peter, were teenagers. So that child is Jason and he spent his whole life in the theater as it were. So I thought at that time, I thought I’d get a job teaching Asian theater and university. That’s what I thought my trajectory needed to be. But in those days, nobody would give you a job, even if you had this bogus degree, if you were pregnant. So I was really bereft again, like when I went to Asia and found out that I couldn’t perform. But people said, “We’ll help you teach.” And as a matter of fact, I just met someone who was in that first class 48 years ago!

Elizabeth: Oh my gosh.

Michael: Really?

Joy: And he recalls what happened. I was just reminded of it. You said, I’ve been teaching for 40 years, but I’ve been teaching for over 50 years, well over 50 years. So at that time, some people got together in Bart Whiteman’s aunt’s attic in Georgetown. And Molly came with students from AU and some students from Georgetown, which didn’t have an established student theater in those days. I still have a list of those first 12 people. And I started to teach this curriculum that I had written before and expanded it to include the classics, and style, and directing. And I did that for three years and started to train other teachers. And after three years, I loved teaching and I always did, but I wanted to do my own work. So then I met a man, another man that changed my life, and that is Russell Metheny.

Elizabeth: Oh, sure. Of course.

Joy: Set designer.

Michael: So, you start the Conservatory in ‘75, I guess it comes out of these classes you’re teaching in a Georgetown attic, but then ultimately when ’78, you found the Studio.

Joy: Correct.

Michael: Could you talk us through the factors that played into that decision and how those factors played out?

Joy: By then I had a lot of students. I had three years’ worth of training people and teachers, so there were a lot of people around with a similar vocabulary and values. And I decided that I needed to direct. And I went around from theater to theater first with my resume and my hand and I couldn’t get a job. No one had ever seen my production of Oedipus Rex at the Universiti Malaya, it didn’t mean anything. So I decided to do a pilot production and, of course, having an excess of ambition, I decided that this pilot play shouldn’t be some little, small two-person play, but it should be Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss with a cast of 30.

Elizabeth: Oh, my gosh.

Joy: And I went upstairs at the Circle, the old Circle Theater where the Pedas brothers had their office and I said that Washington Theater Club had just left that theater on 23rd Street, which had been Washington Theater Club, and I wanted it. I didn’t have any money. I wanted to do this little run of Marat/Sade. It was insane. But they said yes! And then I went to the Meyer Foundation and it was like that. People, I got some thousands of dollars, I got some space, I had auditions. And I did this, forgive me, truly extraordinary production of Marat/Sade.

I hired some set designer who I didn’t know and he was horrible. And at about that time, I went to see a play at New Playwrights’ Theater—or, no, some other place—anyway, Russell had done it. It was a—ah, too much detail—it was a production of In the Jungle of Cities. Brecht’s. And there was a Chinese character on the set, and it was upside down.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Joy: So I went to find Russell and told him that! That that thing was upside down! And we immediately were furious at each other. How dare I insult him. But later on, I went to find him and I told him that I lost my set designer and would he come there—

Elizabeth: Wow.

Joy: —to the 23rd Street theater. And he came and he painted and built the set as I rehearsed this very complex, difficult play. So we were side by side for the rehearsal period. Molly was actually the stage manager.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Joy: And at the end of it, at the end of that experience, he said—although we have a different opinion of exactly what happened—he said, “Why don’t we, you, found a theater?”

Elizabeth: Wow.

Joy: So I obviously had a lot of experience in Asia and so I wasn’t like just some 34-year-old or whatever coming out of nothing. And he had a lot of experience also. And so at that point, the school was on Rhode Island Avenue between 14th and 15th—1443 Rhode Island. I shared a space—the school was in a lot of places—but at that time I shared a space with the great Liz Lerman and Margery Goldberg of the art gallery. So the three of us had come downtown at some point and rented that space together. For two years we were there. And after, I did this production on 23rd Street and got like a big review in the Post, Russell and I and some of our students walked up and down 14th Street, which was right around the corner right from where the school was, looking for space. No notion of the end result. It was really just the next thing. We were just proud and went outside and wanted to do more plays.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Joy: We did a pilot season next there on 14th Street—actually, on Rhode Island Avenue, where we had to take the sets down every night. Liz had her class was in the morning, I had classes at night. And indeed, we found a space on the corner of 14th and Church. And I suppose your audience needs to understand what 14th Street was subsequent to the assassination of Martin Luther King when the whole street had been burned down—

Elizabeth: Yeah, in 1968. Yeah.

Joy: Burned up. And there were just condoms and hypodermic needles on the street. It was very unsavory. But there were industrial buildings on 14th Street. Going way back in time, when I grew up in Chicago in this small theater movement, as I mentioned, I had played in those kinds of theaters as a child and a young teenager. So my spirit was attracted to industrial space, which could be adjusted, could be renovated, into theaters. And Russell shared that. We didn’t love new buildings or soulless architecture that was often promulgated there. There’s a famous story, we found this hotdog warehouse with rats running around, and again, I went to the Meyer Foundation and went to see Jim Gibson and said, “Come right down here right now, look at this place!” And he wrote me a check for $5,000 of his discretionary funds and we rented that space and renovated it. It was with our own hands, 1401 Church Street, with students, with other people. And Russell designed the first of many theaters.

Elizabeth: Wow. So, Joy, what did your family, your husband, your kids, your parents, if they were still with us, how did your intimate others respond to your starting in theater? What was their response like?

Joy: My parents were in Chicago working and they, I don’t know, they were, I’d been away for a long time, and they knew I was insane, but were always intensely supportive.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Joy: I think my family, my nuclear family, sacrificed, quite honestly. I’m like, a smart person. I could have made money in any one of many jobs, so I believe it was a sacrifice for my family that I chose to do this thing where there was no money at all. And I don’t believe I could have done it unless I had that support. I know I couldn’t have.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Joy: So that’s unusual. My children are all, they’re all—my daughter is a film editor, my son is a theater critic and author, another son is a professor who also writes books, ancient history. If you ask them, they would say, I think, that they grew up in this atmosphere which was exciting and thrilling and difficult and constantly changing. And they were at final scenes sitting in the back watching Shakespeare scenes and they were shlepped around here and there. But there was no question that they knew and understood what passion was.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Sure. So, your three adult children are incredibly accomplished professionals in their own right.

Joy: Yes.

Elizabeth: And you’ve talked about them being really immersed in the theatrical environment. As a woman producer back in the day, as a mom, do you think that influenced your commitment to training young actors to having this generational awareness that not everybody has?

Joy: I don’t know about that part, but always felt that being a woman in those days was unbelievably helpful. Even though when I went to raise money and sat at the desks of bankers with a male board member, the banker would only have eye contact with the male board member who was with me. And talking about money is very concrete. But it was helpful to me. I felt could use being a woman. I felt that being able to trick people into believing you were an idiot was very helpful.

Elizabeth: It’s like Colombo, the Peter Falk character.

Joy: So I was never one who felt, oh, it was so difficult being a woman. I thought you could use both, you could both use your mind and your strengths as a manager, and you could get away with being an artist. Creative woman. Actually, the steel-trapped business person in a way that men often didn’t or couldn’t have that malleability, didn’t have the dichotomy, if you believe in that left brain, right brain business, which I don’t. But I didn’t feel it was a hindrance to me at all. I felt it was helpful. I would never be a person that says it’s easy to raise children and have a career, no matter what that career is. I think there’s a special burden on women, especially ones that want to get an A.

Michael: Now, you’ve talked a little bit about the founding of Studio on 14th Street and the conditions of 14th Street at the time. And then the whole theater community in DC, that was at the beginning of what I would say was the birth of DC as a theater town. And you very much participated in that birth. Can you talk a little bit about your vision for Studio Theatre and how it fit into the theatrical geography in 1978? And then maybe how it contributed to what it ultimately became over the succeeding decade?

Joy: First of all, I did not have great plans. Didn’t have grand plans. I don’t think that people start out with visions. I think they start out with some very practical, small thing. And for me, the practical, small thing was directing plays and teaching classes. At the highest, most rigorous level that was possible, even if you’re in some shit hole, the notion of rigor, the notion of moving people in the audience—my interests were not about theater as, what’s the word, as essay. I believe that we needed to move people first and maybe they could think afterwards. But there was—and the early seasons were not very commercial at all. I did a Peking opera, an Indian epic. There were theater, the seasons of style, ‘cause I was still working this out, this issue of the relationship of these different cultural forms. So, there was a season we did a Greek play, and a Shakespeare, and a commedia dell’arte and Chekhov and modern realism. Those early seasons were these seasons of style. There was, however, definitely an evolution in the kind of work.

But again, Russell and I, and a woman named Virginia Crawford, who joined us as an administrator, who was someone whose husband was also in the Foreign Service, someone I had known overseas. Tremendously bright woman who for some reason decided to come to 14th Street and run the finances. And just was extraordinary. She stayed there for years and years. I have a picture of her in this 30th anniversary book that I brought with me. She was, quote, “a senior wife” to me, but she came and really, I don’t know, stayed for 15 years.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Joy: And we started with this, the three of us, but there was also more people because there were students who took roles in production management and company management. And we cared a lot about design. Obviously, the theater was founded by a designer and a director, so there was always an extremely high design level and very high acting. That’s what we cared about. It wasn’t a vision of the kind of work we wanted to do, or a vision of Washington theater or even the meaning of the plays. It was none of that. It was aesthetic. It was about each project, the rigor with which we could make something. There was a purity about that, which to this day, Russell and I weep over. Because it was true.

Michael: It also sounds, again, you had built a theater community of practitioners through your classes.

Joy: Exactly.

Michael: And, as you said, you were teaching about style, this collision of the Eastern and the Stanislavski method and then really led you to thoroughly contemplate style and what it means. So all these early productions were different styles of theater. At some level it sounds like you really built on your conservatory community, is that true?

Joy: Yeah, absolutely.

Michael: And so the vision of the theater was just organic to that community. In a sense, you were showing them the stuff that they were studying, and I guess they were probably some of the actors in these productions and—

Joy: And that’s true, but there is another level there that must be told. Because I was ambitious, and I didn’t want people to think that our theater was students in their final projects, I was afraid of that amateur. So here was a wall also created between the school and the theater at the same time. The same time as this theater came out of the school, there was also a wall, which said there were auditions for every production throughout the city. I was instrumental in the unionization of small theaters in Washington, so I could have access to every actor in Washington. So there’s, that’s what you say, what you say is romantic and nice, but it’s not the whole story.

Michael: No, I didn’t mean to portray it as the whole story.

Joy: No, I know you didn’t. There was also this—and Russell also, because he worked at other places, so he, like me, wanted audience. We didn’t believe that the theater existed with just masturbating on the stage. It was about relation to the audience. We used to come down and watch the curtain call. We both really got off on the relationship between the audience and the artist. So that was not something that had to do with classes. It was not something that had to do with my time in Asia or the philosophical artistic notions.

There was another thing also and that was this desire to have people see the work. And I think that drove a lot of decisions and that had more relation to what else was going on in the city. Because other—14th Street had about five theaters at one point. And there were people who were coming and doing things, I remember Howard Shalwitz called me up and said, “I’m coming to Washington. Is that a place to make theater?” I remember answering his phone call on the payphone, which was the box office. “I’m thinking coming to Washington.”

So there were people, there was—I forgot, what was the name of the theater company that preceded mine, that did The Snow Queen? Because remember, also, the Washington Theater Club and Arena were the two theaters that were, in the early and mid-‘70s, the same size. Arena grew. Washington Theater Club ended. And most interesting is what that period was about. We observed that. I was committed to this small theater movement. I thought scale was everything. I thought if it was too big, it was no good. There could not be more than 200 seats. And that had something to do with the intimacy between the actor and the audience. That was very important. The space was very important to me and to Russell.

So there were other notions aside from acting and directing notions, which were in my core, and which I developed during that time. This notion of intimacy, this notion of relationship of the actor to the audience, and other stuff. So there was a community there of other small and mid-size theaters coming and going. We didn’t interact. It was very competitive, but there was synergy.

Elizabeth: Sure. I wanna talk a little bit more about who your audience was and how you got them to come to 14th and Church Street. Michael got to DC and started doing theater in about ‘82. I got here in ‘83 and did shows at Source and this thing called The Resource that doesn’t exist anymore.

Joy: Yes.

Elizabeth: But truly, listeners will not remember what 14th Street was like 40 plus years ago in terms of just the street life—we used to run lines with the hookers and pimps who were waiting outside.

Joy: Absolutely!

Elizabeth: So, can you talk about who your audiences were and how you got them to 14th and Church Street?

Joy: An unbelievable people. Brave people. I had some contacts, friends, Foreign Service people from a bigger world, I have to say, that helped. I had an unknown talent to raise money, which I don’t, I have no antecedents, I don’t know where it came from, but I knew I needed that money in order to make the work. So I had to do it. And among the people I associated with at that time and asked money from, they said, “No one’s gonna come to that place. You have to go to the suburbs.” You have to do this, you have to do that. “People are not gonna come.” So it was, god damn it! In Chicago there were theater in rough downtown spaces—

Elizabeth: New York, Lower East Side. All that.

Joy: This kind of theater is not gonna be compromised by those kinds of notions. It’s important to be downtown. It’s important that it be near the center. It was important that it exist in this neighborhood, because there was also DC Black Rep at the time.  

Elizabeth: Oh, Robert Hooks.

Joy: I was very interested in that neighborhood. Those things all came together to say that the first people who came were friends of friends, were artists and their friends. The first season there were 17 subscribers.

Elizabeth: Wow. So, if you have a 50-person house, 17 subscribers is not bad.

Joy: Well, that’s right, but it was a 100-person house.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Well, that’s like a third or something, I don’t know.

Joy: And so there was a lot of—and as I say, I was both the artistic and managing director. So, it was tightly controlled in terms of using the resources to get the people to do the thing. I don’t know how it happened, but the second season there were 300 subscribers.

Michael: Wow.

Elizabeth: You must had a good relationship with the Washington Post, ‘cause, was The Washington Star still around?

Michael: Yes, the Star was still around.

Elizabeth: No, no I think it was just still the Post. Is that right? I don’t know. Anyway, the Star was still around.

Joy: I had a terrible relationship with all of them.

Elizabeth: So, at the Post, was that Richard Coe?

Joy: First there was Richard Coe and—

Elizabeth: And then what about David Richards, the infamous and now late David Richards?

Joy: Yes, he just sadly passed away. The infamous David Richards. My son, who’s a critic, never stops teasing me about all the terrible things I wanted to do like writing letters and not sending them to critics, complaining, all the things you’re not supposed to do, which my son is very happy to remind me about.

Elizabeth: So, your son is a comedy critic, is that right?

Joy: Yes, he is now a critic at large at The New York Times.

Elizabeth: A critic at large.

Joy: But, yes, his old beat was comedy. Still is.

Elizabeth: And this is your son Jason.

Joy: Yes. He’s a fun critic, but he’s also written a book about horror and a book about David Letterman. But they, my children, they were there with those bad reviews one after the other. They know the Washington Post was not my friend.

Elizabeth: It’s hard for people today to wrap their heads around the pre-internet days and the, how DC was just a one newspaper or two newspaper town, and without that endorsement, you were really sunk.

Joy: Yeah. It was very hard. I don’t know. I really must have some mental block about how we built that even with the many bad reviews. Although, my son has recently reminded me that they seem particularly bad to me.

Michael: Clearly there must have been a hunger for what you were doing and then the word spread somehow. Were there any, like, motifs or techniques that you used in your productions? Were there some kind of relationship between the production and the community, the audience that you developed or enhanced in any way? Was there any of that?

Joy: No, none of that. There were no talk backs. I didn’t believe in them. There were no curtain speeches. I didn’t believe in them. I thought the art had to stay pure and by itself and—none of that. There was never talk of community engagement in that contemporary sense, none of that. I was opposed to that notion. We were interested in a very pure experience in which people laughed a lot, they hopefully cried a lot, they would come and really and truly be moved.

Michael: Sure.

Joy: And then hopefully they would go and tell other people. People, and we would raise money, in those days, you could advertise in the Post. There were those little adverts.

Elizabeth: Oh, yes, the Guide to the Lively Arts!

Joy: Each day there were flyers we took, people took flyers out to libraries. It was hands on.

Elizabeth: So maybe it all had to do with you were showing them. Worlds that were so unlike their own, the Peking opera or a Greek play here. I think you did the, what, the The Rimers of Eldritch?

Joy: It was the very first play on 14th Street, yes.

Michael: You were showing them worlds that were not Washington, DC. They may be international in some sense, but different worlds and maybe that’s what they were hungering for. So was there any of this identification? The wonderful worlds that they were gonna see at the Studio?

Joy: I hope so. Yes, thank you. There was a combination of classic plays and new plays. There were plays, when we—after the first few years, when we started to get more audience, that I became interested in plays that had been in New York and needed to have a second production. And then I got into the world of getting those plays and fighting for rights and that seemed very exciting. Fighting against the behemoth theaters of Arena and Center Stage and trying to be clever and crafty and there are many wonderful, horrible stories about doing that. We did the first production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom after Broadway.

Elizabeth: Oh, yes, I remember that.

Joy: Extraordinary things. In that second period. Because there are only so many theaters and there were plenty of good plays. And so, getting them, I had the hugest fight in the world with Larry Kramer over The Normal Heart because he wanted control over who the director would be. He wanted it to be Jim Nicola who was working at Arena and then became the famous director of New York Theatre Workshop. And I was sure no one would dictate who the director was going be. Foolish. And who the actors were gonna be. There was gonna be some process, some fair process. I was very idealistic in those days about process. And he pulled the rights!

Elizabeth: Wow.

Joy: To The Normal Heart. But because of what happened I went to William Hoffman and asked can we do the play As Is because people were dying, and we needed—

Elizabeth: Sure, yeah, this was the AIDS crisis.

Joy: Yeah. And we did. So there were things that we cared about and which we lead, then, to get the rights to great contemporary plays. And so that was, like, a change. Also, there were three years in the ‘80s when my husband went back to Malaysia and I commuted five months in Kuala Lumpur and five months here.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Joy: And that was seminal because it was so hard. Talk about your marriage, your children, that was the hardest part of my life. Because, as I said, I did not plan to start a theater and then the day came when my husband had to go overseas and the board said, “What do you mean?”

Michael: “You have a theater! Don’t we?”

Joy: And truly, I can prove that I wasn’t an empire builder because I was totally shocked.

Michael: Right.

Joy: Jason was about eight years old, maybe even six. And I just, it was the end of the world. And my husband and I really had a rough time. And ultimately, he didn’t wanna not be with the children, and neither did I. So he took one child went with him, one child stayed with me, and one went back and forth.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Joy: Which was just three years of—if we could survive that, we spent all our money traveling back and forth. But the theater went on.

Elizabeth: Again, this is in pre-internet days, so there’s no instant communication.

Joy: Oh, I had staff meetings at two o’clock in the morning in my beautiful diplomatic house called The Gilded Cage. It was extraordinary. But during that period, when I came back, there was another period. It started with, what’s with the money? The taxes hadn’t been paid for people. There are all sorts of financial complications.

Elizabeth: Oh, jeez.

Joy: Hells going on. But also, other people had stepped up and done things which strengthened our productions, our organization.

Michael: Sure, secondary leadership developed.

Joy: Exactly. Yes.

Michael:  So you couldn’t do it all.

Elizabeth: Yeah, yeah. Especially, you have to have other people, especially as you grow.

Joy: In a way that was helpful, because it made me let go of certain things and other people emerged in leadership roles and Virginia was there through it.

Elizabeth: Yeah. She sounds like an amazing woman.

Joy: Yes. So then after that, Murray decided to stay in the State Department here and not travel anymore. And after that, the theater went into this third period, maybe its large growth period.

Elizabeth: Before you move on to the growth, quick question, if you had to write a love song to Studio Theatre’s communities, both its practitioners and your team and your audience, what would some of the lyrics be? Not to put you on the spot, but—

Joy: I don’t know. I don’t know. I, that would mean artists can be very hyperbolic and dramatic when talking about each other. But certainly, the intensity of the community of artists, the love that they feel for each other is very gracious, very fulsome, especially when they don’t have anything. And as I say, the audience, that they dared to come not only from DC, but from the suburbs and find, park their car, and afterwards ask somebody, “Do I have someone to walk to me to my car?”

Michael: Yes.

Elizabeth: Tremendous thanks to all our listeners. To those of you who are free subscribers, please consider becoming paid subscribers so that Creativists in Dialogue can continue bringing you insightful conversations about creativity from Washington, DC and beyond. Thanks.

Special shout out to Creativists in Dialogue’s production team: Audio engineer Elliot Lanes, social media manager Erin Dumas of Dumas83, and transcription editor Morgan Musselman. Thank you all.

For more information about Creativists in Dialogue, please visit or our Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn pages. To learn more about our other projects, please visit or

The Creativists in Dialogue podcast is supported in part by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and subscribers like you. The Theatre in Community podcast series is supported in part by Humanities DC. Thanks.