An American theatre career like Peter Zeisler's—from stage managing landmark Broadway shows to co-founding a major regional theatre to becoming a nationally recognized arts advocate—is not likely to come our way again. Zeisler died Sun., Jan. 16, at the age of 81 at his home in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
Born in New York City, Zeisler became an assistant stage manager on Broadway—the production was "The Shrike"—after leaving the Army following World War II and famously, but unhappily, serving under Gen. George S. Patton. His Main Stem credits as a production stage manager included the original mounting of the musical "Candide" (1956) and the final Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration, "The Sound of Music" (1959).
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Zeisler worked as a production manager on more than 20 Broadway shows before setting his sights still higher. In the late 1950s, he worked under Sir Tyrone Guthrie as the master director aimed to create one of the first regional nonprofit theatres in the United States. Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater—named in Guthrie's honor—opened its doors in 1963, with Zeisler serving as its managing director and producer from its inception until 1970.
The experience of helping to create the Guthrie—and thereby helping to set in motion the decentralized and far-reaching regional theatre movement as we know it today—encouraged Zeisler to set his sights even more ambitiously. In 1972, he became executive director of Theatre Communications Group (TCG), a position he held until 1995. From his perch overlooking the nonprofit theatre world, Zeisler was an unfailingly eloquent flag-waver for regional theatre, playing a vital role in its growth and development.
Ben Cameron, TCG's current executive director, told Back Stage via e-mail that Zeisler's contributions to the American theatre were incalculable: "No one who met Peter Zeisler will ever forget him—and all of us who work in the not-for-profit professional theatre field owe him an immense debt of gratitude. He was a guide, a mentor, a taskmaster, and a provocateur for us; he was a visionary who helped co-found the Guthrie Theater and who created the programs at Theatre Communications Group that continue to be critical for our field; he was a passionate arts activist and one of the most ardent defenders of freedom of expression that our field has ever known. He will be deeply, deeply missed."
He is survived by his wife, the actress Helen Harrelson, and two sons, Mark and Eric.