Schenectady High School’s Black Box Theatre to be renamed in honor of later theater director

The late Bill Ziskin at an event in his honor at Proctors Theatre, April 7, 2015.

The late Bill Ziskin at an event in his honor at Proctors Theatre, April 7, 2015.

SCHENECTADY — The Black Box Theatre in Schenectady High School’s John Sayles School of Fine Arts will be renamed in honor of the late William Ziskin, the longtime director and co-founder of the school’s Blue Roses Theatre Company, who inspired hundreds of theater students over a decadeslong career.   

The Schenectady City School District’s Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution on Wednesday renaming the theater The William W. Ziskin Black Box Theatre effective Dec. 24 — to a thunderous ovation from those in attendance.  

“We’re thrilled that the resolution has moved forward and we really, really appreciate all the work that was done to make this happen,” Leia Depeche, the current Blue Roses theater director and Ziskin’s successor, said after the resolution passed. “He had such a huge impact on the students here and the larger Schenectady community.”

Efforts to rename the theater in honor of Ziskin date back to last year, when a group of close friends and theater alumni began petitioning the school district shortly after Ziskin’s death last February. He was 58. 

Ziskin, who helped design the Black Box Theatre when the fine arts school was constructed, touched hundreds of lives during his 30-year career at Schenectady High School, where he taught English and theater, and directed more than 70 plays and musicals. 

An actor himself, Ziskin co-founded the school’s Blue Roses Theatre Company in 1998 alongside his close friend and colleague, Tim Dugan, with the goal of educating and inspiring students to move beyond their comfort zone.

“He would treat students like professional theater artists,” Dugan said. “He just met them where they were — they’re intelligent, compassionate, insightful selves — and that’s what he brought.”

Dugan, who has since moved on to a career teaching theater at Bates College in Maine, said the Black Box Theatre was Ziskin’s “soul” and received his undivided attention. He would sometimes direct three performances a year, which Dugan said is the equivalent of coaching three different sports in the same academic year.

But Ziskin would always take a back seat to students, providing them the space to make the production their own, Dugan said. 

“He really trusted students,” he said. “He really gave ownership and the onus for the students to really make it their own.” 

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.

But his wife, Jennifer Ziskin, said she had to lie to him to get him to the award show. 

“I don’t know how to say this because he was an actor and he was a theater teacher, but he did not like to be the center of attention,” she said. 

Still, Jennifer Ziskin said her late husband would be “deeply honored” to have the Black Box Theatre named in his honor, but noted he would be quick to point out the role of students in making the theater what it is today.  

“If he knew his Black Box Theatre was going to be renamed after him, he would be extremely happy. He would be proud, he would be honored, but he would say, ‘This wasn’t me. I didn’t do this, the kids did this,’” she said. “He always said that.”

On Saturday, hundreds are expected to gather for a celebration of Ziskin’s life in the auditorium of Schenectady High School. An annual scholarship for a student that excels in theater will also be announced 

The ceremony, delayed more than a year because of the pandemic, will feature nearly two dozen speakers, including family, friends and former students, who will read selected monologues from the plays Ziskin directed over the course of his career.  

The Black Box Theatre, meanwhile, will feature a photograph display made up of the numerous photos Ziskin took of each performance over the course of his career. There will also be cast photos and a selection of shots Ziskin took at area sporting events, all carefully curated by Tom Sarnacki, a visual arts teacher at the high school and a close friend and colleague of Ziskin for 27 years. 

“I’ve always marveled at his ability to capture a moment at just the right light and composition to tell a story,” Sarnacki said.

On Wednesday, several school board members were spotted wiping tears from their eyes while board president Cathy Lewis read aloud the resolution to rename the theater in Ziskin’s honor, including Jamaica Miles.

Miles recalled the impact Ziskin had on one of her own children, and said he was an inspiration for all who crossed his path — that never shied away from tackling difficult topics in his work. 

“What Bill Ziskin did for our children was greater than lessons in a book, words in a play, props, lighting, film, although they did learn all of those things,” Miles said. “He applied and lived diversity and inclusion. He saw our students, and he saw them fully. There are not enough people like Bill Ziskin.”

Saturday’s celebration of life ceremony in honor of Ziskin will take place at the Schenectady High School auditorium at 3 p.m. Doors are expected to open at 2:30 p.m. The event is free to attend. 

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.  

Categories: -News-, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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