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Lortel, Lucille


LORTEL, LUCILLE (1900–1999), U.S. theatrical producer. Born in New York, the daughter of Harry and Anna Wadler, she was tutored at home. She attended Adelphi College briefly and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She took the name Lortel, an alliterative concoction, for the stage. She made her Broadway debut in 1925 in a bit part in the Theatre Guild production of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. She appeared in several plays over the years, but after her marriage in 1931 to Louis Schweitzer, a chemical engineer who made a fortune manufacturing cigarette paper, her acting career became sporadic. Instead, in 1947, she started the White Barn Theater, an experimental outpost free from commercial pressures, in Westport, Conn., on the family summer estate, and Lortel provided room and board for the actors. She built a permanent stage, brought in new and innovative troupes, established an apprentice school, and offered playwrights, actors, designers, composers, and directors a chance to spread their wings. Lortel mothered performers like Eva Marie Saint, Geoffrey Holder, and Zero Mostel, and presented plays by Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Eugene Ionesco, and Sean O'Casey. In 1955 her husband gave her a Manhattan theater, now known as the Lucille Lortel Theater, as a wedding anniversary gift. The first production at the house, then called the Theater de Lys, was Marc *Blitzstein's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera. It caused such a sensation that the production ran for seven years and put Off Broadway theater on the map. As an indication of her cutting-edge career, she brought Jean Genet to the attention of American audiences with a production of The Balcony, which she coproduced in 1960. She also oversaw the first American production of a play by Athol Fugard, the South African playwright. She earned the unofficial title Queen of Off Broadway by producing or coproducing some 500 plays. Several were moved to larger houses on Broadway. Lortel received virtually every theatrical award and honor. In addition, the first theater chair to be named for a woman bears her name, the Lucille Lortel Distinguished Professorial Chair in Theater at the City University of New York. She established the Lucille Lortel Fund for New Drama at Yale University to support the production of new plays at the Yale Repertory Theater and the Lucille Lortel Fellowship in Playwriting at Brown University. She also donated money for the annual Drama Circle awards and made sizable contributions to dance and music groups.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

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