Bill Ziskin, the former longtime director of Schenectady High School’s Blue Roses Theater Company, treated his students like professionals – professionals he trusted with controversial and challenging material.
“It was my first foray into the theater at all, and he just always treated us as equals, treated us as professionals,” said Erin Long, a 2002 Schenectady High School graduate now working as a TV producer and writer in Los Angeles.
Long recalled how Ziskin allowed students to experiment in all the different aspects of production – from acting to writing to set and light design – and challenged them to always strive to be better.
After high school, Long studied film at NYU and eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where she works primarily in live TV production; she will soon be working on the E! Channel’s Golden Globes red carpet production.
“It’s all because of him,” Long said of Ziskin.
Ziskin, whose legacy as an educator, director and artist lives on in the countless students he inspired, died Monday at age 58. As word of his death spread among former students, they shared an outpouring of memories about his passion for theater, his fearlessness in choosing challenging shows and his ability to build a community of support inside Schenectady High School’s Black Box Theater.
“The kind of drive and constant push to be better and do better work and smarter work is very much in me because of Mr. Ziskin,” said Raya Malcolm, a 2012 Schenectady graduate still working as an actress. “He absolutely impacted the way I show up in a room for a first read. I show up with an eagerness and earnestness to learn from my peers, from those around me.”
Malcolm, who has been living in Schenectady during the pandemic and organizing a virtual production at the Troy Foundry Theater, said her high school experience exposed her to roles and scripts that she only realized in hindsight were not common for most high schoolers.
She said Ziskin had a common refrain he would deliver after a student recited lines or the cast ran through a scene: “That was great, now do it better.”
“It instantly instilled that attitude, ‘That was great, but we can be sharper, we can be faster, we can be bigger and more aware and more present with each other,’” Malcolm said.
Ziskin challenged his students to always find a deeper level, to explore their characters’ true self. During one of his last shows in charge of the theater company, the 2016 production of To Kill a Mockingbird, Ziskin gave notes to senior Willa Pisarksi, who was playing Mayella Ewell in a scene where she nears the verge of tears. He wanted Pisarski to push even further to the edge of crying, without going over.
“I want you to fight like hell not to cry, but if he says the wrong word, you will burst into tears,” Ziskin told her during a rehearsal. “I’m taking an ocean.”
Ziskin actually played Pisarski’s father in that production – one of his few appearances alongside his students. Pisarksi, now working as a filmmaker in Brooklyn, said Ziskin also fostered opportunities for her and other students to participate in writing and directing plays. He regularly organized short student-written, student-directed plays. She said he instilled the value of teamwork in creative productions, emphasizing that every person plays a critical role in staging a show. He also told her to always show up 15 minutes ahead of a call time – “You have to be 15 minutes early and that is on time,” she said of a Ziskinism she still tries to live by.
“I would not be where I am without him showing me how to be a creative,” Pisarski said. “There was endless possibilities for anyone working (in Blue Roses), not just the person with the lead or in the background, every single person was key.”
Ziskin was born in Amsterdam on Dec. 5, 1962, and graduated as the valedictorian of the Amsterdam High School class of 1981. He later earned both his bachelors and masters degrees at the University at Albany. Ziskin has suffered underlying health conditions for years and was hospitalized with COVID-19 around Thanksgiving, eventually recovering enough to spend the December holidays at home, his brother said. He was again hospitalized earlier this month and died Monday. Ziskin is survived by his wife, Jennifer, three step-daughters, four grandchildren, his father, five brothers and two sisters.
“Our entire family is simply heartbroken about my brother’s passing,” said David Ziskin, Bill’s brother and superintendent of the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES. “Bill made an indelible imprint on all of us and certainly on many associated with the Schenectady schools. As his brother I will love and miss him every day for the rest of my life. As an educator, I can confidently say that I have not encountered anyone who did more to improve and enrich the lives of students.”
Tom Della Sala was co-director of the Schenectady theater department from 1973-1983, joining the search committee that ultimately hired Ziskin.
“He did exactly what we were hoping he would do: he turned the theater back into something wonderful,” Della Sala said.
Della Sala said Ziskin’s devotion to the position went beyond the standard hours of teaching and helped build a regional reputation for the high school theater troupe. Like others interviewed for this story, Della Sala highlighted that Ziskin never shied away from challenging material. He said a local theater buff once told him the high school theater company often put on more thrilling productions than more professional outfits in the region.
“If you are going to direct a show, work a theater, it’s time consuming and you have to be willing to put in the time and effort and energy,” he said. “They were doing more daring productions at the high school than most local community theater groups, which tells you everything you need to know about Bill. He was fearless and he wanted to challenge the kids.”
A man of multiple passions, Ziskin long taught English at the high school and also coached the junior varsity football team, at one point throwing his hat in the ring for a shot at the head varsity position. He even worked as the primary photographer for the UAlbany athletics department for the past decade, capturing countless images of games and students athletes.
“He was meticulous and had such a clear idea of what would make for the best shots to capture the moment,” Mark Benson, the UAlbany athletic director said of Ziskin.”He cared so much about our teams and took a lot of pride in his partnership with us.”
In 2015, a group of former students organized to nominate Ziskin for the first-ever Tony Award for Excellence in Theater Education, emphasizing the impact he had on so many students.
“Mr. Ziskin gave me (and countless other students before and after me) the courage to explore their full potential in the arts,” Becky Daniels, a 2003 Schenectady graduate, wrote in the letter she submitted as part of the nomination process. “He mentored, coached, directed and taught all of us.”
Speaking on Tuesday, Daniels said she will never forget the intensity that Ziskin brought to the job, an intensity that demonstrated to students the seriousness of the theater and raised everyone’s expectations of themselves and each other.
“He definitely helped to bring me and a lot of others out of our shells,” she said.
“When he was directing or teaching or giving feedback, it was never like a throwaway, he was so intense, he treated us like we were professionals, like we were mature and like we could handle it…. Being around him was intense, but in that great way that brought magic out of everybody.”