Lucille Lortel Foundation Lucille Lortel's Biography

December 18, 2014   

Lortel Archives
The Internet Off-Broadway Database
Search for
in the category
Click for Advanced Search>>
Grant Program
Lucille Lortel Awards
Lucille's Biography
Announcements
Lucille Lortel Theatre
& Playwrights' Sidewalk
White Barn Theatre
& Museum
Contact Us
Links
Site Map


Printer-Friendly version >>


Biography


The Beginning  |  White Barn Theatre  |  Lucille Lortel Theatre  |  ANTA Matinee Series  |  Other Projects  |  Awards and Honors  |  The End

The Beginning

Born Lucille Wadler in New York City on December 16, 1900, Lucille Lortel studied acting and theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and with Arnold Korff in Europe. She made her Broadway debut in 1925 in the Theatre Guild's production of Caesar and Cleopatra with Helen Hayes. In 1926 she appeared in Michael Kallesser's One Man's Woman at the 48th Street Theatre. She was also seen in Belasco's The Dove with Judith Anderson, and as Poppy in the touring company of The Shanghai Gesture with Florence Reed. She played the lead in The Man Who Laughed Last with Sessue Hayakawa, both on stage and in the screen version that was one of the first talking films. She also played leading roles in movie shorts and on the radio. Ms. Lortel married industrialist Louis Schweitzer in 1931, becoming a reluctant socialite wife.


White Barn Theatre

After spending over 15 years looking for a way to express herself in the Theatre that was acceptable to her husband, in 1947 Lucille Lortel founded the White Barn Theatre in an old horse barn on her and her husband's estate in Westport CT. In short order, Ms Lortel set the mission of the Theatre to presenting works of an unusual and experimental nature, developing the talents of new playwrights, composers, actors, directors and designers, and allowing established artists to open themselves up to new directions in pieces they might not have been able to do in commercial theatre. She premiered plays (many of which enjoyed successful transfers) such as: George Wolf and Lawrence Bearson's Ivory Tower with Eva Marie Saint (1947); Sean O'Casey's Red Roses for Me (1948); Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs (1957); Archibald MacLeish's This Music Crept by Me Upon the Waters (1959); Edward Albee's Fam and Yam (1960); Samuel Beckett's Embers (1960); Murray Schisgal's The Typists (1961); Adrienne Kennedy's The Owl Answers (1965); Norman Rosten's Come Slowly Eden (1966); Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1966); Terrence McNally's Next (1967); Nathan Teitel's The Initiation with Armand Assante and Lori March (1969); Paul Hunter's How Do You Live with Love (1975); Barbara Wersba's The Dream Watcher starring Eva Le Gallienne (1975); June Havoc's Nuts for the Underman (1977); David Allen's Cheapside starring Cherry Jones, which Ms. Lortel later co-produced at the Half Moon Theatre in London; Douglas Scott's Mountain (1988); and Margaret Sanger's Unfinished Business, starring Eileen Heckart (1989). Ireland's famed Dublin Players also performed for several seasons at the White Barn with Milo O'Shea.

On September 26, 1992, a small storage area off of the Theatre was expanded and renovated to become the White Barn Theatre Museum. The museum was installed to exhibit the 45 years of history at the Theatre. The inaugural opening was a celebration of the life and writings of the great Irish playwright Sean O'Casey, and an exhibition of theatrical memorabilia from Ms. Lortel's many productions of his works. The second year at the White Barn Theatre Museum saluted the career of Marc Blitzstein, translator of Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera, with which Ms. Lortel began her Off-Broadway reign at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theatre) in September 1955. Alvin Klein, in The New York Times, lauded the White Barn Theatre Museum's 1996 celebration of the lives and careers of Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and Lotte Lenya, stating in The New York Times that the gala August 25 museum exhibition opening, allied stage performances and reception was "the night of the year…memories are made of this!"

There was a gala at the White Barn on August 31, 1997, in celebration of a half century of The White Barn Theatre and Ms. Lortel's producing career. This also marked the mounting by White Barn Theatre Museum curator Dr. Mary C. Henderson of "Fifty Years at the White Barn Theatre." Covering the gala in The New York Times, Mr. Klein wrote, "…over the years, Ms. Lortel -- now in her 90's -- has often been quoted as saying she won't take on another White Barn season. After Sunday's celebration she could be overheard inviting two well-known performers to 'put something together and come up to The Barn next summer.'"

Among the transfers to Off-Broadway from the White Barn Theatre are Fatima Dike's Glasshouse, Casey Kurtti's Catholic School Girls, Diane Kagan's Marvelous Grey and Hugh Whitemore's The Best of Friends. Transfers to Broadway include Cy Coleman and A.E. Hotchner's Welcome to the Club, which premiered at the White Barn under the title Let 'Em Rot, and Lanford Wilson's Redwood Curtain, which was subsequently presented on television as a Hallmark Hall of Fame Presentation.

Click here for more information about the White Barn Theatre.  [back to top]


Lucille Lortel Theatre

In 1955, eight years after Ms. Lortel started producing at the White Barn, Mr. Schweitzer, growing tired of never seeing his wife in New York City because of her dedication to her Theatre in Connecticut, presented his wife with the Theatre De Lys on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village as an anniversary present. She reopened the Marc Blitzstein translation of The Threepenny Opera at the Theatre and it ran for seven years, regenerating post-war American interest in the Brecht-Weil musical. A seminal moment in the history of Off-Broadway, it also helped put Off-Broadway on the map, winning the only Tony® Awards ever awarded to an Off-Broadway production: a special Award for Best Off-Broadway show, as well as the Tony® Award for Best Supporting Actress to Lotte Lenya. Co-star Scott Merrill was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

After Threepenny Opera concluded its historic seven-year run, Ms. Lortel produced many other plays, including Jean Genet's The Balcony in 1960, which won the Village Voice's Obie Award for best foreign play, Athol Fugard's The Blood Knot, Christopher Fry's A Sleep of Prisoners, Sean O'Casey's I Knock at the Door, Pictures in the Hallway, and Cock-A-Doodle-Dandy, Charles Morgan's The River Line with Sada Thompson, Beatrice Straight and Peter Cookson, Tom Coles' Medal of Honor Rag, and Marsha Norman's award winning Getting Out.

On November 16, 1981, during the run of the award winning Tommy Tune production Cloud Nine, the Theatre de Lys was renamed the Lucille Lortel Theatre. During the 1983-84 season at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, she co-produced Michael Cristofer's The Lady and the Clarinet starring Stockard Channing, followed by Woza Albert!, which received an Obie Award. In 1985 she produced Gertrude Stein and a Companion starring Jan Miner and Marian Seldes in the roles they had originated at the White Barn Theatre. Videotaped and broadcast on The Bravo Cable and Canadian television networks, Gertrude Stein and a Companion received the National Education Film and Video Award for historical biographies. Other plays presented at the Lucille Lortel Theatre included Not About Heroes and Elisabeth Welch in Time To Start Living. The Acting Company's Orchards and Ten by Tennessee were presented by arrangement with Lucille Lortel as was the hit Groucho: A Life in Revue, which went on to play in London's West End. The 1980's ended with the long-running hit Steel Magnolias.

In 1992 Ms. Lortel produced Larry Kramer's The Destiny of Me which received the 1993 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play Off-Broadway from the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers. That same season the Lucille Lortel Theatre was home to the Circle Repertory Company's production of The Fiery Furnace starring Julie Harris in her Off-Broadway debut. The theatre was home to Jane Anderson's The Baby Dance, Terrence McNally's Lips Together Teeth Apart, and two plays starring Uta Hagen: Nicholas Wright's Mrs. Klein and Donald Margulies' Collected Stories.

As one of her last projects, Lucille Lortel wanted to create a permanent tribute to international playwrights whose work has been performed Off-Broadway. On October 26, 1998 she unveiled the Playwrights' Sidewalk at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. As part of the Lucille Lortel Awards ceremony each year, one playwright will be inducted into the sidewalk, having their name engraved into one of the solid bronze stars imbedded in black concrete in front of the Theatre.

Ms Lortel's wish was that the Lucille Lortel Theatre would continue long after her death. To that end, in 1999 Ms. Lortel granted the Lucille Lortel Theatre to the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation, establishing a new booking policy of Not-For-Profit productions only. Since then, the theatre has been host to numerous productions, benefit performances, readings and meetings.

Visit the Lucille Lortel Theatre for more information or search the Lortel Archives.  [back to top]


ANTA Matinee Series

During the mid-1950's, the board of directors for the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA -- this organization was established in 1935 and aimed to present non-commercial theatre to the masses, eventually evolving into the National Endowment for the Arts) was interested in creating a repertory theater of national standing. Ms. Lortel, then a member of the ANTA board, proposed a more modest plan based on the model of the work she was already doing at the White Barn Theatre. With the board's encouragement, she opened the ANTA Matinee Series in the spring of 1956 at the Theatre de Lys. The Threepenny Opera had been running at the theatre for over a year at that point and always eager to try new things, she was happy to make the theatre available for this series. Ms. Lortel acted as Artistic Director of the series and was committed to presenting a program that was free of commercial influence. Plays were picked without regard for popular appeal and no monetary benefit was claimed in the event that commercial interest developed over a hit production. The series was presented every Tuesday afternoon and ran for twenty years. Ms. Lortel fostered many Off-Broadway successes that were presented on the Matinee Series including: Margaret Webster's The Brontes, Langston Hughes' Shakespeare in Harlem, Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and John Dos Passos' U.S.A. Brecht on Brecht was first presented on the Matinee Series, and then had a long run at the Theatre de Lys. Two productions that went to the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, were Tennessee Williams' I Rise In Flame Cried The Phoenix and Meade Roberts' Maidens and Mistresses at Home in the Zoo, the latter of which also played Off-Broadway.

Some of the other outstanding presentations of the ANTA Matinee Theatre Series include: Helen Hayes in Lovers, Villains and Fools; Eva Le Gallienne in Two Stories by Oscar Wilde: The Birthday of the Infanta and The Happy Prince; Siobhan McKenna in an experimental version of Hamlet; Peggy Wood in Shaw's Candida, Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir Lewis Casson in their world-famous dramatic recitals; Richard Burton, Walter Abel and Cathleen Nesbitt in An Afternoon of Poetry; and Orson Bean in A Round with Ring.  [back to top]


Other Projects

Library of Congress
Beginning in 1960, Ms. Lortel began a series of presentations at the Library of Congress which included: O'Casey's Time To Go; Paul Vincent Carroll's The Coggerers; Conrad Aiken's The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones and The Kid; Ionesco's The Shepherd's Chameleon; Albee's Fam and Yam; Anouilh's Medea; Margaret Webster's The Brontes; Mark Van Doren's The Last Days of Lincoln; Donald Hall's An Evening's Frost; Norman Rosten's Come Slowly Eden; Ring Lardner's A Round with Ring; P.J. Barry's Heritage; Sam Dann's Sally, George and Martha, Fire and Ice based on the poems of Robert Frost; Robert Glenn's adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Long Valley; Tom Rothfield's Chekov in Love; and in 1984, her highly acclaimed production of Samuel Beckett's new plays Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe, and What Where, directed by Alan Schneider, which later she presented at The 1985 Edinburgh Festival and in London. In 1985 she presented Sprechen Sie Brecht, a cabaret evening of songs, poetry, and dialogue derived from the works of Bertolt Brecht, with music by Kurt Weill.

Broadway
On Broadway, Ms. Lortel produced Sean O'Casey's I Knock at the Door at the Belasco Theatre (1957), was associate producer of the acclaimed revival of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire at the St. James Theatre in 1973, and, after its premiere at the White Barn Theatre, produced Lanford Wilson's Angels Fall at the Longacre Theatre where it was nominated for a Tony® Award as Best Play (1983). Ms. Lortel co-produced the Broadway production of As Is, which won the Drama Desk Award for Best Play. As Is was also nominated for the Tony® Award for Best Play. In 1986 Ms. Lortel received her third Tony® Award nomination for Best Play for Athol Fugard's Blood Knot. Ms. Lortel had introduced Fugard's work to this country two decades earlier when she produced the U.S. premiere of Blood Knot Off-Broadway.

In 1988 Ms. Lortel garnered Tony® Award nominations as producer in both the Best Musical and Best Play categories: with Lincoln Center Theatre she co-produced Best Musical nominee Sarafina!,the South African hit about apartheid by Mbongeni Ngema; her production of A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing, which starred Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky, was the Best Play nominee and was honored during its Broadway run to do a special performance at The Library of Congress for an audience that included members of the Senate and House of Representatives, Secretary of State George P. Schultz, Russian Ambassador Yuri Dubynin and members of the foreign diplomatic corps while the Senate was in session debating ratification of the INF Treaty prior to the Moscow Summit. In November 1988 Ms. Lortel co-produced the London opening of A Walk in the Woods starring Sir Alec Guinness and Edward Herrmann. The international journey of A Walk in the Woods continued when Ms. Lortel took the Broadway company of the play to the Soviet Union where it opened in Moscow at the Pushkin Drama Theatre on May 19, 1989 and then went on to play at the Drama Theatre of Vilnius in Lithuania.

Off-Broadway
While constantly producing at her own Theatre, she still found time to produce at other Theatres Off-Broadway. Highlights include Ms. Lortel's co-productions of The Beckett Plays at the Harold Clurman Theatre, and Rockaby starring Billie Whitelaw at the new Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row during the 1983-1984 season. These productions were given a special citation by the New York Drama Critics' Circle. In 1996 Ms. Lortel produced Liliane Montevecchi in Back on the Boulevard at the Martin Kaufman Theatre.

Florida
During the 1960s Ms. Lortel also made her theatrical presence felt in Florida, mounting dramatic readings and intimate productions in the enormous living room aboard her two-story houseboat anchored off Miami Beach.  [back to top]


Awards and Honors

1950-1979
Ms. Lortel received the Greater New York Chapter of ANTA Award and the National ANTA Award in 1950, 1961, and 1962 for "pioneering work fostering playwrights, directors, and actors." Her productions of The Threepenny Opera (1956), Guests of the Nation (1958), and The Balcony (1960) received the Village Voice's Obie Awards. She received a special citation from the Obie Awards "for fostering and furthering the spirit of the theatrical experiment" (1958) and the first Margo Jones Award (1962) for "significant contribution to the dramatic art with hitherto unproduced plays."

In 1975, the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers presented her with a plaque citing her distinguished achievement. On the same occasion, the Hon. Abraham Beame, Mayor of the City of New York, presented Ms. Lortel with a certificate of appreciation, and New York City Council President Paul O'Dwyer signed a city proclamation citing Lucille Lortel for her cultural contributions to New York City. In January 1976, Ms. Lortel was honored by Connecticut's Governor Ella Grasso for her efforts to promote the work of women playwrights on behalf of the United Nations' International Women's Year. In 1979, Ms. Lortel received the Villager Award for pioneering spirit in Off-Broadway.

1980's
On September 29, 1980, at a gala Actors' Fund Benefit celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Theatre de Lys, Ms. Lortel was presented with a Certificate of Merit from the City of New York, and the theatre was renamed Lucille Lortel's Theatre de Lys. On April 6, 1981, the Museum of the City of New York honored her with an exhibition proclaiming her "The Queen of Off-Broadway" (a title first given to her in 1962 by Richard Coe of The Washington Post). The exhibit inaugurated the Lucille Lortel Theatre Gallery in permanent recognition of Ms. Lortel's contribution to the theatre world.

Ms. Lortel received the Double Image Theatre Award in December 1981, and in March 1982 she was given the Theatre Hall of Fame's Arnold Weissberger Award.

The 38th volume of Theatre World is dedicated "To Lucille Lortel whose vibrant spirit and untiring efforts have made immeasurable contributions to all components of the theatre by discovering and encouraging new talents, and whose devotion to Off-Broadway provided the impetus for its proliferation." In 1983, Ms. Lortel was presented with a special scroll signed by all the members of the American Theatre Wing, and her caricature was placed among other theatrical luminaries on the wall at Sardi's.

In the spring of 1985 Ms. Lortel received the first annual Lee Strasberg Lifetime Achievement in Theatre Award during the 30th Anniversary celebration of the Lucille Lortel Theatre. At Yale University, Ms. Lortel established "The Lucille Lortel Fund For New Drama," an endowment that supports the production of new theatre works. In honor of her support of new playwrights and drama, Yale Repertory Theatre's Artistic Director Lloyd Richards presented Ms. Lortel with the framed, autographed artwork for the program of August Wilson's Fences, which was the first play to be nurtured by her fund for new drama. Fences, at this time, became the most honored Broadway play in history, winning the Pulitzer Prize, four Tony® Awards, as well as Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics Circle and Theatre World Awards. Also in May, Ms. Lortel received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Bridgeport, and in June critic Clive Barnes presented Ms. Lortel with the 1985 Special Theatre World Award for her continuing discovery and encouragement of new talent.

In 1986 the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers established the Lucille Lortel Awards in her name to honor outstanding productions and individual achievements in each current Off-Broadway season. (For a complete listing of recipients please go to www.lortelawards.com.) In November 1986, The Players Club saluted Ms. Lortel as "The First Lady of Off-Broadway" in a special evening presided over by Jose Ferrer with Joseph Papp acting as Master of Ceremonies. Ms. Lortel (along with Colleen Dewhurst and others) was honored by The Women's Project with an Exceptional Achievement Award and by the Catholic Actors Guild with the George M. Cohan Award.

In May 1987, Fairfield University bestowed an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters upon Ms. Lortel in recognition of her pioneering the cause of new drama and its artists. She became the first resident of Westport to be honored by the Connecticut Commission on the Arts when she was presented with the 1987 Connecticut Arts Award recognizing her distinguished career as an actress, producer and artistic director.

The Lucille Lortel Theatre Collection, an archive of theatrical history and personal memorabilia, donated by Ms. Lortel, is on permanent exhibition at the Westport Public Library. This exhibition includes the 1988 Emmy Award presented to Ms. Lortel as Executive Producer of the teleplay Gertrude Stein and a Companion.

On April 10, 1989, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York inaugurated The Lucille Lortel Distinguished Professorial Chair in Theatre, the first theatre chair to be named for a woman, and later in the spring she was honored by The New York Public Library as a Lion of the Performing Arts, a distinctive group of people whose work is well represented in the vast collections on dance, music, and theatre in The Performing Arts Research Center at Lincoln Center. Honors continued to come Ms. Lortel's way with receipt of a plaque from The New England Theatre Conference in November 1989.

1990's
In 1990, Ms. Lortel was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame along with Joseph Papp and Lloyd Richards; and was given the rarely presented Actors' Fund Medal during ceremonies at "The Lucille Lortel Off-Off-Broadway" Theatre located in the Actors' Fund Extended Care Facility in Englewood, New Jersey.

Ms. Lortel was honored on May 20, 1991 with a reception in Governor Lowell P. Weicker's residence in Hartford, Connecticut, on the occasion of the establishment of the White Barn Theatre Museum.

A major exhibition of her theatrical memorabilia entitled "The Theatres of Lucille Lortel" was shown in the Vincent Astor Gallery of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center from October 21, 1991, through January 4, 1992.

Honorary Lifetime Membership in the New England Theatre Conference was conferred upon Ms. Lortel on November 9, 1991, "in recognition of her outstanding contribution to theatre in New England, the country, and the world."

On February 27 and 29, 1992, Ms. Lortel received back-to-back honors -- she was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Christophers in New York and the Kennedy Center Medallion from the American College Theatre Festival in a ceremony at Fairfield University.

Shivaun O'Casey, daughter of Sean O'Casey and Artistic Director of The O'Casey Theatre Company, presented the first Sean O'Casey Award to Ms. Lortel on June 22, 1992 "in honor of all her work for the theatre, for the writers and the artists, and for her many productions (15) in this country of Sean's early as well as later works."

On May 6, 1993, Ms. Lortel received the Drama League's annual "Unique Contribution to Theatre" Award, and later that month, in the company of Ralph Ellison and Andrew Heiskell, was the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the City University of New York during the annual commencement of the Graduate School and University Center at Town Hall.

The September 1993 Greenwood Press (Westport, CT) publication of Lucille Lortel: A Bio-Bibliography by Sam McCready was celebrated with book parties at the Westport Public Library and at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center where a permanent tribute to her career is on display in The Lucille Lortel Room of the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (since November 1990, the home and viewing facility for TOFT's collection of more than 2,000 tapes of Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theatre productions).

On April 27, 1996, she journeyed to Providence, Rhode Island where ceremonies marked the inauguration of the Lucille Lortel Playwriting Fellowship at Brown University, and the opening of an exhibition on her career on campus which remained open to students, faculty, and parents through Commencement in May.

On Saturday, October 5, 1996, Ms. Lortel was a member of the first group of individuals (including Bella Abzug, Ed Koch and Leontyne Price) to be inducted into the Greenwich Village Hall of Fame. The 14th Annual Helen Hayes Award was presented to Miss Lortel by Miss Hayes' son, James MacArthur, on Monday, November 26, 1996. The exhibition on her career, "The Queen of Off-Broadway" (displayed in the White Barn Theatre Museum in 1996), was mounted in the lobby of the Miller Theatre on the Columbia University campus during February 1997, at the Westport Historical Society's Wheeler House in conjunction with the June 28th cabaret evening that honored Ms. Lortel and the 50th Anniversary of the White Barn Theatre.

On November 17, 1997, Arthur Miller delivered the first Lucille Lortel Lecture on Playwriting at Columbia University School of the Arts. The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute honored Ms. Lortel in December with plaques installed in the New York and Los Angeles schools commemorating "her vision and generosity in making possible the preservation of The Lee Strasberg Lecture Archives." She received the League of Professional Theatre Women/NY's Lifetime Achievement Award at Sardi's on December 16th.

On April 17, 1998, His Eminence John Cardinal O'Connor presided over the dedication and unveiling of a plaque naming The Lucille Lortel Lobby of St. Clare's Hospital and Health Center at 415 West 51st Street in New York's Theatre District.  [back to top]


The End

On Easter Sunday, April 4, 1999, Lucille Lortel, the "Queen of Off-Broadway" died at age 98, after a short hospitalization at New York Hospital. She was laid to rest in Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hasting On Hudson, NY among her friends and fellow theatre luminaries. Her legacy can best be summed up by the epitaph on her tombstone:

LUCILLE LORTEL

Theatrical pioneer, patron of the arts,
Loving mentor to all who
worked with her

HER THEATRES WERE HER CHILDREN


  [back to top]

322 Eighth Avenue, 21st Floor · New York, NY 10001 · Tel (212) 924-2817 · Fax (212) 989-0036