SCHENECTADY – The Black Box Theater at Schenectady High School’s John Sayles School of Fine Arts is being renamed in honor of the late William Ziskin, the longtime director and co-founder of the school’s Blue Roses Theater Company, who has inspired hundreds of theater students over a decades-long career .
The School Board of the Schenectady City School District on Wednesday unanimously passed a resolution to rename the theater the William W. Ziskin Black Box Theater effective December 24 – to thunderous applause from those in attendance.
“We’re thrilled that the resolution has moved forward and we really, really appreciate all the work that went into making this happen,” said Leia Depeche, the Blue Roses’ current theater director and Ziskin’s successor after the decision was passed. “He had such a big impact on the students here and the larger Schenectady community.”
Efforts to rename the theater in Ziskin’s honor date back to last year, when a group of close friends and theater alumni petitioned the school district shortly after Ziskin’s death last February. He was 58.
Ziskin, who helped design the Black Box Theater when the School of Fine Arts was built, touched hundreds during his 30-year career at Schenectady High School, where he taught English and drama and directed more than 70 plays and musicals of life.
Ziskin, himself an actor, co-founded the school’s Blue Roses Theater Company with close friend and colleague Tim Dugan in 1998 with the aim of educating and inspiring students to step outside of their comfort zones.
“He would treat students like professional theater artists,” Dugan said. “He just met them where they were — they’re intelligent, compassionate, insightful individuals — and he brought that with him.”
Dugan, who now teaches theater at Bates College in Maine, said Black Box Theater was Ziskin’s “soul” and received his undivided attention. He sometimes directed three performances a year, which Dugan says is equivalent to coaching three different sports in the same college year.
But Ziskin would always take a backseat to students and give them the space to make the production their own, Dugan said.
“He really trusted the students,” he said. “He really gave the students the ownership and duty to really make it their own.”
In 2015, a group of alumni organized to nominate Ziskin for the first-ever Tony Award for Excellence in Theater Education, emphasizing the impact he had on so many students.
But his wife, Jennifer Ziskin, said she had to lie to him to get him to the awards show.
“I don’t know how to say it because he was an actor and a drama teacher, but he didn’t like being the center of attention,” she said.
Still, Jennifer Ziskin said her late husband would be “deeply honored” if the Black Box Theater were named in his honor, but noted that he would be quick to point out the role of the students in making the theater what it is today is.
“If he knew his Black Box Theater would be renamed after him, he would be very happy. He would be proud, he would be honored, but he would say, “It wasn’t me. I didn’t do that, the kids did that,'” she said. “He always said that.”
Hundreds are expected to attend a celebration of Ziskin’s life in the Schenectady High School auditorium on Saturday. An annual stipend for a student who excels in theater is also announced
The ceremony, which has been postponed for more than a year because of the pandemic, will feature nearly two dozen speakers, including family members, friends and alumni who will read selected monologues from the plays Ziskin has directed throughout his career .
The Black Box Theater, meanwhile, will host a photo exhibit made up of the many photographs Ziskin has taken of each performance throughout his career. There will also be cast photos and a selection of shots Ziskin took at sporting events in the area, all carefully curated by Tom Sarnacki, a high school fine arts teacher and a close friend and colleague of Ziskin’s for 27 years .
“I’ve always admired his ability to capture a moment with just the right light and composition to tell a story,” said Sarnacki.
On Wednesday, several school board members were seen wiping tears from their eyes as board chairwoman Cathy Lewis read out the resolution to rename the theater in Ziskin’s honor, including Jamaica Miles.
Recalling the impact Ziskin had on one of her own children, Miles said he was an inspiration to all who crossed his path — who never shied away from tackling difficult subjects in his work.
“What Bill Ziskin did for our kids was bigger than lessons in a book, words in a play, props, lighting, film, even though they learned all of those things,” Miles said. “He applied and lived diversity and inclusion. He saw our disciples and he saw them fully. There aren’t enough people like Bill Ziskin.”
Saturday’s celebration of life in honor of Ziskin will be held at 3:00 p.m. in the Schenectady High School auditorium. Doors are expected to open at 2:30 p.m. Participation in the event is free.
Contact Reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.
Categories: News, Schenectady, Schenectady County