Lucille Lortel, ca. 1920s by Achille Volpe
December 16, 1900|
New York, New York, U.S.
|Died||April 4, 1999
New York, New York, U.S.
|Occupation||Actress; theatrical producer/artistic director|
Lucille Lortel (December 16, 1900 – April 4, 1999) was an American actress, artistic director and producer. In the course of her career Lortel produced or co-produced nearly 500 plays, 5 of which were nominated for Tony Awards: As Is by William M. Hoffman, Angels Fall by Lanford Wilson, Blood Knot by Athol Fugard, Mbongeni Ngema's Sarafina! and A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing. She also produced Marc Blitzstein's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's, and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, a production which ran for seven years and according to The New York Times "caused such a sensation that it...put Off Broadway on the map."
Early life and acting career
Lortel was born Lucille Wadler on December 16, 1900 at 153 Attorney Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one of four siblings born to Anny and Harris Wadler, Jewish immigrants of Polish descent. Her father was a manufacturer of women's clothes and frequently traveled to Europe to buy designs that he would copy. She had two brothers, Mayo (a violinist) and Seymour, and a sister, Ruth. She was raised in both The Bronx and New York City. She was home schooled and after attended school at Adelphi University in Brooklyn, New York. She was remembered by her friends for being vivacious, outgoing, flirtatious and was known to be found dancing at parties well into her 80s.
In 1920, Lortel (her stage surname) began to study acting and theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1921 she briefly left the United States to further continue her training with Max Reinhardt in Berlin. 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 in New York. She also appeared in David Belasco's The Dove with Judith Anderson, and as Poppy in the touring company of The Shanghai Gesture with Florence Reed. In 1929 Lortel played the female lead in The Man Who Laughed Last with star Sessue Hayakawa. She performed the role both on stage and on film in what was one of the first talking pictures. 
White Barn Theatre
In 1947, "after spending over 15 years looking for a way to express herself in the Theatre that was acceptable to her husband" (and at the urging of actor Danny Kaye), Lortel founded the White Barn Theatre in an old horse barn on her and her husband's estate in Westport, Connecticut. According to Lortel's wishes the Theatre's mission was aimed at presenting works of an unusual and experimental nature, existing as a sanctuary from commercial pressures, a place where writers could take a chance with their plays and where actors could stretch their talents.
Under Lortel's guidance The White Barn premiered plays (many of which enjoyed successful transfers to commercial theatres) such as: George C. Wolfe and Lawrence Bearson's Ivory Tower with Eva Marie Saint (1947); Sean O'Casey's Red Roses for Me (1948); Eugène 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); 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 Lortel later co-produced at the Half Moon Theatre in London); and Margaret Sanger's Unfinished Business, starring Eileen Heckart (1989). Ireland's famed Dublin Players performed for several seasons at the White Barn with Milo O'Shea.
Among the successful 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 from the White Barn 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. On September 26, 1992, a small storage area near the theatre was expanded and renovated to become the White Barn Theatre Museum. The final production took place at the White Barn in 2002. In 2006, after a failed attempt to save it, the land on which the theatre stood was sold to a real estate developer for $48 million. The institution's legacy has been preserved by a Lucille Lortel Foundation grant to the Westport Country Playhouse, which, as of 2005 houses the Lucille Lortel White Barn Center.
Lucille Lortel Theatre
In 1955, eight years after Lortel started producing at the White Barn, Mr. Schweitzer presented his wife with the Theatre De Lys at 121 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village as a 24th wedding anniversary present. For her first production in her new theatre Lortel reopened her White Barn production of the Marc Blitzstein translation of The Threepenny Opera at the theatre. It ran for seven years. This production was a seminal moment in the history of Off-Broadway, winning the only Tony Awards ever awarded to an Off-Broadway production: a Special Tony Award for Best Off-Broadway show, as well as the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical to Lotte Lenya; Scott Merrill was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
As Threepenny Opera continued and eventually concluded its historic run, 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 (a production starring James Earl Jones which launched ), Christopher Fry's A Sleep of Prisoners, Sean O'Casey's plays 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, and Tom Cole's Medal of Honor Rag.
On November 16, 1981, during the run of Tommy Tune's production of Caryl Churchill's' Cloud Nine (for which Tune won the Drama Desk Award for best director), 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 Win Wells' Gertrude Stein and a Companion starring Jan Miner and Marian Seldes in the roles they had originated at the White Barn Theatre.
Gertrude Stein and a Companion was recorded and broadcast on both the Bravo US cable and Bravo Canadian television networks. It received the National Education Film and Video Award for historical biographies and an Emmy Award. Other plays presented at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the 1980s included Not About Heroes, Elisabeth Welch in Time To Start Living, The Acting Company's Orchards and Ten by Tennessee (which were presented by arrangement with Lucille Lortel) and the hit Groucho: A Life in Revue, which went on to play in London's West End. The decade ended with the hit production of Steel Magnolias which ran 1,126 performances.
In 1992, 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. Also that 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 housed her production of Jane Anderson's The Baby Dance, as well as Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart, and two plays starring Uta Hagen: Nicholas Wright's Mrs. Klein (also produced by Lortel) and Donald Margulies' Collected Stories.
On October 26, 1998, Lortel unveiled the Playwrights' Sidewalk at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in order to create a permanent tribute to playwrights whose work has been performed Off-Broadway. 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 concrete in front of the Theatre. She wanted the Theatre named for her to continue after her death. To that end, in 1999, she 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 hosted numerous productions, benefit performances, readings and meetings.
ANTA Matinee Series
During the mid-1950s, the board of directors for the American National Theater and Academy (this organization eventually evolved into the National Endowment for the Arts) was interested in creating a repertory theater of national standing. Lortel, then a member of the ANTA board, and feeling somewhat frustrated by the success of the Threepenny Opera (because she wanted to bring more plays into her theater) persuaded ANTA to instead support a matinee series as a "laboratory for innovation" based on the model of the work she was doing at the White Barn Theatre.
With the board's approval, Lortel opened the ANTA Matinee Series in the spring of 1956 at the Theatre de Lys. She served as the artistic director of the series and committed the series to presenting a program that was free of commercial influence. Plays were picked for the Matinee Series without regard for popular appeal and no monetary benefit was claimed in the event that commercial interest developed over a production. The series was presented every Tuesday afternoon and ran for twenty years. Two productions began in the Matinee series went on to the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy: 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.
Other significant presentations of the ANTA Matinee Theatre Series included 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 G.B. Shaw's Candida; a dramatic recital by Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson (married in real life); Walter Abel, Richard Burton and Cathleen Nesbitt in An Afternoon of Poetry; and Orson Bean in A Round with Ring.
- Beginning in 1960, Lortel began a presenting a series of presentations and seminars at the Library of Congress which included: Sean O'Casey's Time To Go; Conrad Aiken's The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones and The Kid; Ionesco's The Shepherd's Chameleon; Edward 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; 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.
- On Broadway, 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). She 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, she received her third Tony Award nomination for Best Play for Athol Fugard's Blood Knot.
- In 1988, Lortel garnered Tony Award nominations as producer in both the Best Musical and Best Play categories: with Lincoln Center Theater 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 US 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, 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 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, Lithuania.
- While constantly producing at her own Theatre, Lortel continued to produce at other theatres Off-Broadway. Highlights include her 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 Lortel produced Liliane Montevecchi in Back on the Boulevard at the Martin Kaufman Theatre.
- Lortel established the Lucille Lortel Fund for New Drama at Yale University to support the production of new plays at the Yale Repertory Theater (the fund's premiere production was August Wilson's Fences). The Lucille Lortel Fellowship in Playwriting was started at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 1996.
Awards and honors
- 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 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 ever 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 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, Lortel was honored by the state of 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, Lortel received the Villager Award for pioneering spirit in Off-Broadway.
- On September 29, 1980, at an Actors' Fund benefit gala celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Theatre de Lys, 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 her contribution to the theatre.
- Lortel received the Double Image Theatre Award in December 1981, and in March 1982 she was given the American 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, 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 1985, she received the first annual Lee Strasberg Lifetime Achievement in Theatre Award during the 30th Anniversary celebration of the Lucille Lortel Theatre. At Yale University, 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 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 became the most honored Broadway play in history (at that point), winning the Pulitzer Prize, four Tony Awards, as well as Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics Circle and Theatre World Awards. Also in May 1985, Lortel received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Bridgeport. In June 1985, critic Clive Barnes presented 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 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. 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 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 Lortel, is on permanent exhibition at the Westport Public Library. This exhibition includes the 1988 Emmy Award presented to her 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 Lortel's way with receipt of a plaque from The New England Theatre Conference in November 1989.
- In 1990 Lortel was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame along with Joseph Papp and Lloyd Richards; and was given the rarely presented Actors Fund Medal of Honor during ceremonies at "The Lucille Lortel Off-Off-Broadway" Theatre located in the Actors' Fund Extended Care Facility in Englewood, New Jersey.
- Lortel was honored on May 20, 1991 with a reception in Governor Lowell 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 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, 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 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, 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 2000 tapes of Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theatre productions).
- On Saturday, October 5, 1996, 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 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 28 cabaret evening that honored Lortel and the 50th Anniversary of the White Barn Theatre.
- On November 17, 1997, playwright Arthur Miller delivered the first Lucille Lortel Lecture on Playwriting at Columbia University School of the Arts. The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute honored 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 16, which was Lortel's 97th birthday.
- On April 17, 1998, 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.
On Easter Sunday, April 4, 1999, Lortel died at age 98, after a short hospitalization at New York hospital, and is interred in Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hasting on Hudson, New York.
- Nemy, Enid (April 6, 1999). "Lucille Lortel, Patron Who Made Innovative Off Broadway a Star, Is Dead at 98". The New York Times.
- Greene, Alexis (2004). Lucille Lortel: the queen of Off Broadway (1st Limelight ed.). ISBN 0-87910-302-7.
- Lucille Lortel at the Internet Broadway Database
- Lucille Lortel at the Internet Movie Database
- Lucille Lortel Papers, 1902–2000 held by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; accessed May 24, 2014.
- Lortel profile, lortel.org; accessed May 24, 2014
- "White Barn property sold for $48 million", westportnow.com; accessed May 24, 2014.
- "White Barn Legacy", westportnow.com; accessed May 24, 2014.
- Athol Fugard's American career
- Margo Jones Award recipients, library.osu.edu; accessed May 24, 2014.