Lortel, Lucille (1902–1999)
Lortel, Lucille (1902–1999)
American theatrical producer . Name variations: Lucille Schweitzer. Born in New York City in 1902 (sometimes seen as 1906 or 1910); died in New York City on April 4, 1999; daughter of Harry (a garment industry executive) and Anna (Mayo) Lortel; briefly attended Adelphi College (now Adelphi University), Garden City, New York; attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, 1920; studied in Germany with Arnold Korf and Max Reinhardt; married Louis Schweitzer (a chemical engineer and cigarette-paper manufacturer), on March 23, 1931 (died 1971); no children.
Affectionately dubbed the "Queen of Off-Broadway," producer and theater proprietor Lucille Lortel produced over 500 plays in her remarkable career, including several nominated for Tony Awards. As founder of the White Barn Theater in Westport, Connecticut, and the owner of the Theater de Lys in New York's Greenwich Village (rechristened the Lucille Lortel Theater in 1981), she provided countless playwrights and actors with an opportunity to showcase their talent away from the pressures of Broadway. "You must try new ideas and new faces," she said in an interview for Fifty Plus magazine in June 1980, "You can't do it on Broadway because it costs too much. The costs are lower Off Broadway, so you can afford to take a chance, and you must take a chance."
The daughter of a garment industry executive, Lortel was born in 1902 and raised in New York City. She attended Adelphi College briefly before beginning her theater education, which took her to the American Academy of Dramatic Art and to Berlin, Germany, where she studied with the expatriate American actor and teacher Arnold Korf and the director and producer Max Reinhardt. In 1924, she made her stage debut with a stock company in Albany, New York, and a year later made her first Broadway appearance, playing a small role in the ill-fated Two by Two. She continued in a series of supporting roles and even made a few short films for Warner Bros. before her marriage in 1931 to millionaire businessman Louis Schweitzer. Her new husband did not approve of her performing career, so Lortel gave up the stage until 1947, when her restlessness got the better of her. "Just going from party to party watching people outdo each other didn't mean much to me," she told Haskel Frankel of The New York Times (August 5, 1979). "It can't compare to the thrill of seeing a play or performance come to life."
Serendipitously, Lortel was approached by her friends, actor Canada Lee and playwright Philip Huston, who wanted to try out Huston's new play The Painted Wagon, written with Elizabeth Goodyear , in front of an audience. Grasping the opportunity, Lortel offered them the empty stable on her 18-acre Westport, Connecticut, estate. On July 27, 1947, outfitted with a platform and folding chairs and decorated with Japanese lanterns, the White Barn Theater became a reality. "I told my husband that I needed this," she told Frankel, "and he backed me up."
At first, Lortel presented only weekend dramatic readings, but in 1949, she had the barn remodeled to accommodate more elaborate stage productions. To initiate the new facility, Lortel presented a translation of Federico Garcia Lorca's Amor de Don Perlimplin con Belisa en su jardin, directed by the then unknown Sidney Lumet. The theater soon earned a reputation as the showcase for diverse performing groups, ranging from the Lemonade Opera Company and the Oxford University Players to Geoffrey Holder's Trinidad Dance Troupe. In 1951, Lortel hosted the Dublin Players Company in a series of productions. including the American premiere of The Rising of the Moon, a comedy by Lady Augusta Gregory . In 1951, when the White Barn Theater was chartered as a non-profit foundation, Lortel expanded the theater's physical plant again and established the White Barn Theater Apprentice School, which offered seminars for advanced students and professional actors. To house the actors, she built a residence hall, Derwent House, named for playwright Clarence Derwent, then the president of Actors' Equity.
In 1954, Lortel expanded her scope with the acquisition of the Theater de Lys, a facility on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village that was a 24th wedding anniversary gift from her husband. Although Lortel had intended to use the theater as a New York venue for worthy White Barn productions, her first show, a revival of Marc Blitzstein's adaptation of the musical The Threepenny Opera, starring Lotte Lenya , turned into a runaway hit that ran for a record seven years. In order to remain true to her goal of presenting experimental works, Lortel instituted her Matinee Series, which continued for 20 years and included experimental productions like Anna Sokolow 's dance drama Metamorphosis, and Siobhan McKenna' s Hamlet. The Matinee Series' production of Frank O'Connor's Guests of the Nations was awarded an Obie as the Best One-Act Play of 1958. In 1961, the series' production Brecht on Brecht, a "living anthology" of the playwright's work compiled by actor George Tabori and again starring Lenya, was such a success that Lortel finally closed Threepenny Opera in order to give the new play a wider audience.
The list of actors and playwrights who benefited from Lortel's largesse over the years reads like a who's who of theater. Actors Peter Falk, Vincent Gardenia, Sada Thompson , George Peppard, and Lois Nettleton all got their first break at the White Barn Theater, which also hosted more established performers like Mildred Dunnock , Zero Mostel, Eva Le Gallienne , James Coco, Kim Hunter , and Peggy Wood . In a 1981 interview with Avenue magazine, Dunnock described the White Barn Theater as "a wonderful opportunity, a place to try out new things, with great freedom to live and work. And yet," she added, "as progressive as it was, no actor who ever worked there ever felt he was taking a chance with his career because he knew no production would be shoddy."
In addition to providing a venue for the early noncommercial works of American playwrights Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and William Inge, Lortel also produced the works of such contemporary writers as Adrienne Kennedy , Norman Rosten, and Anna Marie Barlow . A variety of new works were given their initial performances at the White Barn, including Murray Schisgal's The Typist, Paul Zindel's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and Terrence McNally's Next.
Although Lortel ended her Matinee Series in 1975, the Theater de Lys continued to stage worthy new plays. Lortel also produced shows in other off-Broadway theaters, notably the world premiere of Samuel Beckett's trilogy of one-act plays, Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe, and What Where, at the Harold Clurman Theater in 1983, and another Beckett trio, Enough, Footfalls, and Rockaby, at the newly opened Samuel Beckett Theater in 1984. Lortel occasionally produced shows on Broadway, such as a production of O'Casey's I Knock at the Door, at the Belasco Theater in 1957, and a revival of Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, at the St. James Theater in 1973. She also served on the board of directors of the national and New York chapters of ANTA, and of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and was a cofounder of the American Shakespeare Festival Theater and Academy in Stratford, Connecticut, which opened its doors in 1955.
In 1958, Lortel received a special citation from the Village Voice "for fostering and furthering the spirit of the theatrical experience." Through the years, awards followed one upon another. They included the State of Connecticut's Distinguished Award in the Arts, the Double Image Theater Award, and the Theater Hall of Fame Arnold Weissberger Award. Lortel was the first recipient of the Margo Jones Award (1952), for her dedication to producing new plays, and the Lee Strasberg Lifetime Achievement Award (1984), for furthering the theater in America, and she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1990. Lortel was also generous in supporting projects outside her purview. In 1980, for example, she bailed out the debt-ridden New York Senior Concert Orchestra with a generous donation. "That's what money is for," she explained. She also established theater funds and fellowships at Yale and Brown universities.
A petite, elegant woman, with heavy-lidded dark eyes and dark hair, which she wore in a sophisticated chignon, Lortel was widowed in 1971 and had no family. "My theatres are my children," she once told The New York Times. Following her husband's death, Lortel resided in an elegant New York apartment until her own death on April 4, 1999, at the age of 98.
Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1985. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1985.
"Obituary," in The Boston Globe, April 7, 1999.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts