When Round House Theatre artistic director Ryan Rilette approached Joy Zinoman about a role in a new production of Uncle Vanya, she laughed and dismissed the idea. After all, Zinoman hadn’t been on that side of the footlights for 40 years.
Zinoman, who left Studio Theatre in 2010 after 35 years as its founding artistic director, admits that she scoped out director John Vreeke and read the script, a contemporary adaptation of Chekov’s play by Annie Baker. Adding to lure of the offer: Zinoman’s close friend, actress Nancy Robinette, who appeared in all four of Studio’s Chekov productions, had already been cast.
But Zinoman still had doubts about her ability to pull off the role of Vanya’s mother, Maria Vasilyevna Voynitskaya, despite her family’s encouragement. She has been teaching acting for four decades–she still leads the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory, which is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary–but the 72-year-old’s last acting gig was a star turn in the New Playwright’s Theater production of Penelope, directed by Molly Smith, then her classmate in grad school at American University.
Finally, what motivated Zinoman was her own advice: “I’ve told thousands of students, ‘You have to put yourself out there,'” she says.
As a child in Chicago, Zinoman got a suggestion from a neighbor subjected to her repeated over-enthusiastic, off-key piano practices: Maybe she should pursue a different artistic endeavor. She started acting at 9, and as soon as she found roles in industrial films, commercials, and local productions, Zinoman “knew immediately” that she had found her true calling. “I felt at home. It made me,” she says.
The budding actress won an acting scholarship to Northwestern University at 16 and left to get married two years later. Her husband Murray was a China scholar in the Foreign Service. The Zinomans spent 13 years in Asia. Joy Zinoman had opportunities to teach acting and direct theater in Thailand, Laos, Taiwan, and Malaysia.
These experiences, alas, didn’t help her land a job in Washington. “I took my résumé to every theater and they laughed,” she recalls. American University accepted her into their graduate theater program, despite the fact that she didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. From there she started to teach, started her acting school, and three years later, co-founded the Studio Theatre on 14th and P streets, Northwest. (The curriculum she developed in Asia would become the basis for the conservatory.)
There went the neighborhood–in reverse. Zinoman is widely credited with sparking the rebirth of the 14th Street corridor. The once trash-strewn streets are now home to million-dollar condos, upscale restaurants, and boutiques. Today Studio Theatre is a three-theater complex with a multimillion-dollar annual budget.
Will Uncle Vanya be the start of a new acting career? “I just want to get through this run,” she says. Acting again has given her renewed respect for her students, Zinoman says. “I knew, but I forgot, how hard it is to be an actor. The low pay. Being on call all of the time. But I also rediscovered how wonderful it is to be in a rehearsal room as a community of artists.”
Round House Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya opens April 8.