When Joy Zinoman—the doyenne of DC theater and founder of Studio Acting Conservatory—describes the training center’s new home as a “sacred place,” she’s not exaggerating.
“Theater is my religion,” she said, when we met inside the building, a former church located in Columbia Heights, during the demolition a few months ago. The structure, now undergoing renovation in the middle of a pandemic, is set to open this fall to 500 student actors and directors.
“Theater and religion have a lot in common,” she explained, pointing out that both share the same roots. In Greek drama, the two are intertwined, offering both education and spiritual uplift.
Having taught Greek Tragedy for most of her career, Zinoman, who also teaches Shakespeare and the Modern Masters, found the church a perfect setting for a world-class training school.
The discovery of the “Black Last Supper”—a 22-foot-wide painted frieze embedded in the rear wall of the building—added to the sense of providence. “It’s a miracle,” she told me at the time, “and a reminder of the building’s sanctity.”
Today, it serves as a good omen for both the Conservatory and the theater at large in a world that’s dominated by risk.
Zinoman is no stranger to risk. When she decided, 45 years ago, to open an acting school on a patch of 14th Street that resembled a war zone, nobody expected the place to survive.
But survive it did. It was so successful, in fact, that within just three years, the Conservatory had spawned a theater of its own.
Intended as a showplace for students, the offshoot, Studio Theatre, eventually outgrew its parent. Last year, the two organizations split, forcing Zinoman, her board of directors, her faculty of 22, and its 500 students to search for a new home.
They found it in an abandoned church in Columbia Heights, where a developer—unable to tear it down and erect condominium apartments—had lowered the price. Suddenly the structure was within the reach of the Conservatory.
Dan and Gloria Logan, leading DC philanthropists, donated a total of $2.3 million. That was followed by another $1.5 million from alumni and friends. Altogether, $3.8 million was raised.
Demolition began in the fall. When the “Black Last Supper” was found—intact, under layers of paint—the school rejoiced, anticipating a windfall from the sale.
Then came COVID-19, a once-in-a-century scourge that threatened to put a stop to all plans. Museums were shuttered. Removing the wall was no longer feasible.
The Conservatory decided to keep the frieze as a symbol of hope, and to preserve it as part of the legacy of the church that had commissioned it long before. (See “The Story of the ‘Black Last Supper,'” below.)
It was in that spirit that Zinoman and nine other leaders of the Conservatory gathered to hold a kick-off ceremony earlier this month. Spread out six feet apart on the steps of the church, everyone wore hard hats and masks and held shiny new spades.
The props were provided by the construction company, which had met all state and federal guidelines, including heated handwashing stations, daily disinfecting, and small-size crews.
Although billed as a groundbreaking event, no ground was broken. Instead, Serge Seiden, a graduate of the school and a co-director, broke a bottle of champagne. Bubbles of cheer floated onto home screens as viewers, forbidden by law to attend, watched the event on Facebook.
The champagne launch, Zinoman explained to me later, was a tribute to Jaylee Mead, a major supporter of the DC stage, who broke a similar bottle of champagne when she christened the original Studio building 42 years ago.
I caught up with Seiden, the champagne basher, over the phone in between rehearsals for final scenes. Having originally moved to Washington to work in politics, he began ushering at Studio Theatre, and was so smitten with the stage that he soon became a full-time Studio acting student. Following graduation from the conservatory, he became an actor and director, working with Zinoman at Studio for 25 years before joining Mosaic Theatre as its managing director.
A member of the school’s faculty since 1998, Seiden is now a co-director, working side by side with Zinoman and Kate Debelack, associate director of The Klunch.
Several new courses have been developed this year. One of Seiden’s favorites is Character and Emotion, in which students learn how to use language as a technique. “I teach them how to use pitch and intensity, how to ‘color’ their words and create clarity,” he explained.
“Nearly all the students are young actors,” he added, “and 50 percent—roughly 250—receive some sort of scholarship aid.”
The Conservatory offers a three-year curriculum, with three semesters a year. The first year is Realism, based on the Stanislavsky technique; the second is Classics, featuring Greek Drama and Shakespeare, and the final year is Styles, ranging from comedy to Chekhov, Beckett, and beyond.
Summer Intensives—free for high school–age students and 25 percent off for everyone else—begin next month. Enrollment is now underway for both the online summer and in-class fall semesters.
While the pandemic has dealt a harsh blow to the school, classes have not stopped. Like schools everywhere, the Conservatory has adopted distance learning for the duration of the lockdown.
“We had to reinvent the curriculum,” Zinoman said.
Interestingly, she added, while the technique of online instruction is different, the results are similar. “Online learning is more intimate than classroom learning. The proximity of the computer adds a certain passion and purpose to the training, which makes it very effective.”
Luckily, the school qualified for a Payroll Protection loan from the government, which allowed them to pay their teachers and staff.
The students have had a tougher time. “Most of them work as waiters and bartenders,” Zinoman said. “With restaurants and bars all closed, they’ve lost their jobs, and can’t pay their rent, let alone tuition.” As a result, scholarships are more important than ever. Much of the school’s support has come from its alumni, many of whom are in the top tier of the entertainment world.
Asked about the future of theater once the crisis is past, Zinoman turned thoughtful.
“Theater will always be with us,” she said. “The largest and smallest companies will survive—the largest because they have reserves, and the smallest because they have nothing to lose. The most vulnerable are the midsize theaters, the ones with mortgages and loans but little in the way of cash. Those are the ones who are most at risk.”
Repurposing the church was a dream assignment for Debra Booth, the set designer who created the concept for the school. Having worked with Zinoman for many years at Studio, she was familiar with the school and its vision.
“The building had a number of things going for it,” she wrote in an e-mail sent from her house in Rhode Island. Its features include an iconic shape, solid construction, and a great location, near the Columbia Heights Metro and inside a booming entertainment district.
As a designer, what interested Booth most was the traditional shape of the building, conveying a powerful symbol of faith. Unfortunately, it was hidden by a steep concrete stairway leading up to the entrance.
Working with architect Jon Hensley, she and the rest of the design team got rid of the original stairway and replaced it with an open set of steps, revealing more of the building
“We reworked the front and side yards and created an accessible open plaza, providing a better entrance to the building.” The size of the structure—6,000 square feet—allowed for studios, student and teacher lounges, and a courtyard for gatherings and performances.
Most important, she added, the exterior will be painted a bright red, moving the structure out of the ’80s and into the present. “For me,” Booth wrote, “that celebrates the building.”
As for the “Black Last Supper,” the giant three-dimensional work will remain exactly where it is, covering the rear wall of one of the larger studios. It will be safely protected by a velour curtain, which can be opened or closed depending upon the occasion.
“I think of the frieze as a kind of blessing for the building,” Booth concluded. “We didn’t know it was there at first, but now that we know, we have a responsibility to it.”
Summer adult classes begin online on June 8 and are 25 percent off. Summer School program is free for high school-aged students (13 to 17), with classes beginning June 22 and July 13; placement auditions are June 13. Fall semester classes begin September 8, 2020.
Free streaming online—students in 14 classes perform final scenes, now through June 3. (Click here for a complete schedule.)
The story of the “Black Last Supper”
Forty years ago, the building at 3423 Holmead Place NW, which would one day house the newly independent Studio Acting Conservatory, was owned by the New Home Baptist Church.
At the time, one of the deacons, named William Morris, happened to be a superintendant at the Duke Ellington School, where he met a young art teacher named Akili Ron Anderson.
The deacon also happened to know Anderson’s mother, who lived a block from the church. Together, they persuaded Anderson to create a mural, to be called the “Black Last Supper,” on the rear wall of the building. It took the artist a year to complete.
Twenty years later, the church moved to another location. Although its leaders tried to take the “Last Supper” along, they found that it could not be separated from the wall. The frieze was left behind, with the assumption that it would ultimately be destroyed.
Luckily, the new owners—the Church of Latter Day Saints—chose to bury it instead. They covered it withs layers of plaster and wood so smooth that no one could have guessed it was there. Soon the monumental frieze was forgotten.
When the Mormons left, the church was sold to a developer, who wanted to turn the structure into luxury apartments. Once again, luck—or fate—intervened. The local zoning commission turned down the project, and the developer, faced with defeat, lowered the price.
That’s when Joy Zinoman, passing by, realized that the church was now within reach. Donors were found, the building was bought, and construction is underway.
The artist, of course, is delighted. Akili Ron Anderson is now on the faculty of Howard University and a highly respected member of the African American art world. His work can be seen at various galleries as well as the Columbia Heights Metro Station and inside the John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church. —Ravelle Brickman