Crawford, Cheryl (1902–1986)

views updated

Crawford, Cheryl (1902–1986)

American producer-director. Born in Akron, Ohio, on September 24, 1902; died in New York City on October 7, 1986; daughter of Robert K. Crawford and Luella Elizabeth (Parker) Crawford; attended Butchel College and Smith College; never married; no children.


Doctor of Fine Arts, Smith College (1962); Brandeis University Medal of Achievement for Distinguished Contribution to American Theater Arts (1964); Lawrence Langner Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater (1977).

Theatrical credits include: (as director) The House of Connelly (1931), Night Over Taos (1932), Success Story (1932), Big Night (1933), Till the Day I Die (1935), Weep for the Virgins (1935); (as producer) The School for Scandal, Ah, Wilderness, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, Biography, The Royal Family, The Emperor Jones, The Male Animal, Elmer the Great, The Time of Your Life (1940); Twelfth Night, Charlie's Aunt, Native Son, Johnny Belinda, Golden Boy, Anna Christie (1941); Porgy and Bess, The Flowers of Virtue, A Kiss for Cinderella, The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, Pal Joey (1942); One Touch of Venus (1943); The Perfect Marriage (1944); The Tempest (1945); Henry VIII, What Every Woman Knows, John Gabriel Borkman, Androcles and the Lion (1946); Brigadoon, Galileo (1947); Love Life, Ballet Ballads (1948); Regina (1949); Tower Beyond Tragedy (1950); The Rose Tattoo, Paint Your Wagon, Peer Gynt (1951); Camino Real (1953); The Thirteen Clocks (1954); The Honeys, Reuben Reuben (1955); Mister Johnson, Girls of Summer (1956); Good as Gold (1957); Comes a Day, The Shadow of a Gunman (1958); The Rivalry, Sweet Bird of Youth (1959); Period of Adjustment (1960); Brecht on Brecht (1961); Mother Courage and Her Children, Jennie, Strange Interlude (1963); Blues for Mister Charlie, The Three Sisters, Doubletalk (1964); The Freaking out of Stephanie Blake (1967); Celebration (1969); Colette (two productions, 1970); The Web and the Rock (1972); Yentl (1975); Do You Turn Somersaults (1978). Published memoirs in 1977 entitled One Naked Individual: My Fifty Years in the Theatre.

While in grammar school, Cheryl Crawford skipped a grade; consequently, she never learned the Pledge of Allegiance. The following year, when she stood with her new classmates proudly reciting, "and to the republic for which it stands," Crawford went on loudly with, "one naked individual with liberty and justice for all." Traumatic? Probably. Her memoirs bear that title. "One naked individual," she claimed, was an accurate description of her 50 years as a woman producer in the American theater.

Born into a well-to-do, midwestern family in 1902, Crawford knew early on she wanted a career in the theater. In June of 1924, following her junior at Smith College, she headed for Cape Cod, intent on spending the summer in Provincetown, where Eugene O'Neill worked with the famous Provincetown Players. On arrival, she was met with the news that the theater had burned down. Fortunately, a wealthy patron agreed to fund a new theater that was to be housed on a wharf, and the group was to meet that night. With the help of her playwright friend Harry Kemp, Crawford found herself at the first meeting of the new theater company. By the end of summer, she was hooked.

After graduating cum laude from Smith in 1925, Crawford talked her way into a job as an assistant stage manager for producer Theresa Helburn at the prestigious Theatre Guild. With Helburn as a mentor, Crawford worked on several Guild productions, including George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, starring Lynn Fontanne , and Eugene O'Neill's Marco's Millions and Strange Interlude.

In 1926, Crawford met Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg. The threesome were soon close and spent hours discussing not only the future of the American theater but their proposed contributions. "Naturalism" had come to America. Actors of bygone days had been theatrical if not grandiose in their stage personas, but the trend in the late 1920s leaned decidedly towards what Russian auteur Constantin Stanislavski dubbed "The Method."

Crawford, Clurman and Strasberg were converts, at one point traveling to Moscow to study under the master. In 1930, with the imminent demise of the Theatre Guild, the troika decided to form their own company, called The Group Theatre, composed of 28 actors and several playwrights. Wrote Clurman: "If the theater is to be an art one must have a permanent company trained in a unified method of work to which all elements, sets, costumes, music contribute. And the plays one does should reflect our social and cultural life." Though The Group only existed for five years (1931–36), it produced several landmark plays, including Sidney Kingsley's Pulitzer prize-winning, Men In White, Maxwell Anderson's Winterset, and four plays by Clifford Odets, one of which was the ground-breaking Waiting for Lefty.

The importance of The Group in the history of the American theater can not be underestimated. Wrote Crawford: "The Group Theatre became the seed which supplied the inspiration for many theater projects that followed. Various groups sprang up all over the country.…I did n't know…that there would be an Actor's Studio but I do know it would never have been born had not the Group preceded it."

In the fall of 1937, Crawford set out on her own as an independent producer and had five failures in a row. Finally, in 1942, she had her first hit, a revival of George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. When she produced two more dramas that same year and neither were successful, Crawford was convinced that her forte was the musical theater. She went to work with German expatriate Kurt Weill on a musical called One Touch of Venus. Directed by Elia Kazan, the production, starring Mary Martin , opened in October 1943 and became, bannered Variety, "Broadway's first musical smash of the season." Having two successful musicals allowed Crawford the financial means to experiment. With director Margaret Webster and producer-actor Eva Le Gallienne , Crawford produced Shakespeare's daunting The Tempest. The production opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theater on January 25, 1945, and had a longer run than any other American production of the play to date.

On the heels of their success, Webster, Le Gallienne, and Crawford founded The American Repertory Theater. Webster had grown up in England where repertory companies were the norm. In fact, England's Old Vic had just played New York, and the trio had the opportunity to see Laurence Olivier in four different classical roles. The threesome believed a company modelled after the Old Vic would be welcomed by audience and critics, and even more so by writers and actors. "With plays rotating," wrote Crawford, "the actors could stay fresh and develop their talents in a variety of roles."

On November 6, 1946, the American Rep opened its season with Henry VIII starring Victor Jory and Le Gallienne. What Every Woman Knows, John Gabriel Borkman, and Androcles and the Lion followed. Unfortunately, only Androcles was a critical success. Though the company managed to hang on for one more season, by the end of 1947 the American Rep was over. Crawford hooked up with the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA), a not-for-profit company partially funded by Congress, much like the National Endowment for the Arts and PBS. She continued her association with ANTA until 1951 when it too lost funding. Once again, she was on her own. "Ever since the Group days I had truly wanted to be involved in theater that had a core and continuity," she wrote. "When ART and ANTA died…I became again that naked individual I had tried to avoid."

Once again musical theater saved her. In 1946, she joined hands with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederich Lowe to present Brigadoon. When the show opened in New York, it was enormously successful. From then on, though she had her share of flops, Crawford became one of the most highly regarded producers on the Broadway stage. She followed the success of Brigadoon with another Lerner and Lowe collaboration, Paint Your Wagon. And though her earlier attempts at producing drama were less than successful, Crawford produced four of playwright Tennessee Williams' works, including The Rose Tattoo and Sweet Bird of Youth.

Though Crawford would always remain an independent producer, she never fully relinquished her dream of having an American repertory company. In 1947, Crawford, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg and director Robert Lewis formed the famous Actor's Studio. The idea, wrote Crawford, was "to offer a sort of artistic home to the many young actors and actresses who wanted to stretch their capabilities, a sympathetic atmosphere in which they could tackle their limitations." Set up as a non-profit organization, the group was, and is, a school for actors. It became Hollywood's premiere training facility, producing such stars as Marilyn Monroe , Paul Newman, and Marlon Brando, as well as the next generation of actors like Sally Fields and Sean Penn. Though the original goal of the Actor's Studio was to nurture new talent, the board of directors branched out with the Actor's Studio Theater. Unfortunately, the experiment ended with a disastrous New York production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, which essentially ended Crawford's association with the group.

Though Crawford was never to be a part of a successful repertory company, her attempts and those of her colleagues certainly laid the foundation for the dozens of theater companies that now exist coast to coast. Crawford continued to produce successful Broadway shows well into the 1970s. Her last production was Yentl starring Tovah Feldshuh. Based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, it was eventually made into a movie by Barbra Streisand.

Crawford never married, but during the Group Theatre years she was linked romantically to actress Dorothy Patten . Born into a wealthy Southern family, Patten had a reasonably successful Broadway career before she joined the Group. Historian Wendy Smith claims that the liaison with Patten was an established and accepted fact to other members of the Group. In her autobiography, Crawford is circumspect about her private life, and it may be, as she claims, that her work was her first and all consuming passion. Crawford died in New York City at the age of 84.


Crawford, Cheryl. One Naked Individual: My Fifty Years in the Theatre. NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977.

Herbert, Ian, ed. Who's Who in the Theatre: A Biographical Record of the Contemporary Stage, Volume 1. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1981.

Obituary. The New York Times. October 8, 1986.

Smith, Wendy. Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940. NY: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Deborah Jones , Studio City, California

About this article

Crawford, Cheryl (1902–1986)

Updated About content Print Article