The Do-it-Yourself Queen
JUNE 01, 1991 by VINCENT CURCIO
Mr. Curcio has been the manager of The White Barn Theater since 1979. He is the author of Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame (William Morrow & Company, 1989).
In a comer of her living room at The Sherry-Netherland hotel in New York City, a glass case displays a portrait doll of Lucille Lortel, clothed in a billowing black skirt and simple white satin blouse ruffled at the neck. Generous folds of rich auburn hair frame a sympathetic face, whose most striking feature is the huge, liquid dark eyes, the sort that would disconcert if they did not instantly disarm. Adorning her head is a golden crown, its peaks surrounding a puff of royal purple velvet. Nearby, on a yellow damask Louis XVI settee, rests a small petit-point pillow. An old friend has patiently embroidered Gothic letters on the pillow, proclaiming the legend: “It’s Not Easy Being a Queen.”
In 1962 Lucille Lortel received the first Margo Jones Award for encouraging new American playwrights. On that occasion Richard Coe, drama critic of The Washington Post, dubbed her “The Queen of Off-Broadway,” an entirely appropriate appellation that has stuck to this day, making her instantly recognizable in theatrical circles throughout the world. For she, along with Joseph Papp and Ted Mann, consolidated off-Broadway, which was not just a location, but a name for the art theater movement consciously developed as an alternative to the Broadway commercial theater.
Though no one would ever speak of the decidedly proletarian Papp or Mann in aristocratic terms, somehow it has always seemed fitting to speak regally of Miss Lortel. It isn’t bemuse of her background, which is ordinary middle class, butmore her manner, which has something of an autonomous sweep about it. After making up her mind about projects yea or nay as quickly or as slowly as needs be, she then follows a suitable course of action without admitting any impediment. She does what she has decided is right to do; and time has shown that her judgment is uncannily perspicacious. Though she refuses to allow others to dissuade her from a firm decision, neither does she ask anyone else to be responsible for the consequences—as she calls the tune, she pays the piper. You might say that Lucille Lortel has always been the Do-It-Yourself Queen, and for that reason her little pillow speaks the truth.
“Mad About the Theater”
By her own admission, she has been “mad about the theater” from the start. After graduating from the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1921, she continued her studies abroad, accompanying her mother and brother, the concert violinist Waldo Mayo, to Berlin. While there, she acted for the first time, albeit as a pair of dancing feet in an Emil Jannings picture filmed at the giant UFA studios.
Upon returning to the United States, her theater acting career began in earnest. Initially playing in summer and winter stock productions in Maine and upstate New York, she managed to make her Broadway debut within a year. First came a bit part in the Theater Guild world premiere of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Helen Hayes and Cedric Hard-wicke.
“I played a whore on the wharf,” she recalls. “All I had to do was look sexy and run across the stage with a bunch of sailors in hot pursuit. Well, at the first rehearsal I got halfway across, turned around, and in my best melodramatic acting style, threw my hands up in front of my breasts and shouted, ‘No! No! I won’t let you lay a hand on me!’ Guthrie McClintic, the director, stopped everything and asked me where that bit of dialogue had come from. I told him it just ‘felt right’; sending a steely gaze in my direction, he told me to cut it out or else. It seems he felt Mr. Shaw was quite capable of writing dialogue without my assistance. So much for my star-is-born debut.”
After that Broadway saw her as the ingenue in One Man’s Woman and the nymphomaniac in The Virgin Man. “I didn’t really know what a nymphomaniac was, but I did my best to fake it. The critics were enthusiastic, so I must have done something right.” Later she played Poppy, yet another nymphomaniac (this time also a drug addict!), in The Shanghai Gesture, which starred Florence Reed. “At the end of the show when Miss Reed, who was acting the role of my mother, discovered my dissipation, she threw me to my death down four flights of steps in her brothel. My main memory of that tour was being black and blue all the way from Kansas City to San Francisco.”
None of these jobs came easily. “It took me years to get decent paying parts,” she recalls. “I was just one of hundreds of young actresses banging on producers’ doors, looking for work. On top of that, my family had some financial reverses then, and we had to move into very cramped quarters. I earned the family money, made our budget, and watched every penny. One day the great Luther Adler, then unknown and in the same financial straits as I, borrowed five dollars from me, a considerable sum at the time. He didn’t get around to returning it, and years later, when our circumstances were much improved, I jokingly asked him when he was going to pay back the money. ‘Never,’ he replied, ‘So you won’t forget how poor we all once were, and how hard we struggled.’”
She never did forget, and for this reason she has always lent a sympathetic ear to the needs of theater artists and companies. Most tend to be impe-cunious far more often than not, theater being what it is, and a bit of help at the right moment can make the world of difference to an important project or career.
Louis Schweitzer, the brilliant chemical engineer, industrialist, and philanthropist, met and instantly fell in love with Miss Lortel in 1930. After a whirlwind courtship, which included his transatlantic telephone proposal, a then almost unheard-of blandishment, the couple was wed aboard ship on the Leviathan in the spring of 1931. Unfortunately, Miss Lortel’s mother-in-law did not have a very high opinion of the acting profession, and threatened her son with dire financial conse quences if his bride did not renounce the stage. Since he was still under his mother’s thumb, he requested Miss Lortel’s “retirement,” and she agreed, for the sake of family peace.
“I didn’t quite give it up completely though,” she avers. “In 1930, Sessue Hayakawa and I made a Warner Brothers short of The Man Who Laughed Last, which we had played coast to coast in vaudeville. I liked the experience, and while my husband was working in Jersey during the day, I used to sneak away to Brooklyn in the afternoons to make more shorts for Warner’s. Lou was none the wiser, so I got bold enough to take a small part on Broadway in the Theater Guild’s production of The Man Who Reclaimed His Head, which starred Claude Rains. Lou caught up with me that time though, and made me quit. Except I didn’t. I just decided to be a little less visible after that, and started doing Advice to the Lovelorn, a sob sister show on the radio. Everything was going very well, until critic Ben Gross advised newspaper audiences to tune in to the program to hear my low pitched, ‘dramatic’ voice; most girls cultivated high pitched, squeaky voices then, and I guess listening to me was a relief. Anyway, Lou saw the column, and this time the jig was really up.
“We bought a house in Connecticut in 1938, and for the next few years I was reasonably happy as a socialite. But then Lou’s mother died, and suddenly he had a lot of money and none of his mother’s restraints for the first time in his life. It turned his head, and he went a little wild, spending much of his time with a new crowd in Europe that I didn’t like. I became depressed and sad; not only was my marriage foundering, but the stage career I loved and gave up for him once again began to weigh on my mind. I knew I had to do something, but I wasn’t sure exactly what that something should be.
“One day, after the end of the war, I decided to give a party for Children’s War Relief at my barn in Connecticut. Lily Ports and Danny Kaye entertained, and during the shindig Danny turned to me and said, ‘You know, Lucille, this barn would make a great little theater.’ It set me to thinking.” Out of those thoughts, and the interventions of fate, came her new career as an art theater producer of worldwide influence and fame.
Since 1947, Lucille Lortel has produced over 500 plays on Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and in regional and university theaters, both in the United States and abroad. To do it, she either spent her own money or, occasionally, that of a few individuals who shared her vision. But she has never used public funds to support her projects. “I feel that the benefits of government funding aren’t worth the bureaucratic red tape one must deal with to obtain it; besides, using private money means I never have to concern myself with what the government thinks about the politics of my artistic personnel or the controversial nature of the statements they sometimes make in their work.”
Since she looks to present the best in theater, no matter how conventional or outrageous it may be, ideological independence is of utmost importance to her. “If you are a serious producer, you cannot flinch where artists are concerned,” she says. “Even in the days of red channels 40 years ago, I gave all the blacklisted actors who couldn’t get work elsewhere a chance to perform in my theaters—Zero Mostel, Kim Hunter, Sam Jaffe, Anne Revere, all of them. People said, ‘Aren’t you afraid, Lucille?’ but I said, ‘No, I’m using my own money to hire them, so nobody has the right to tell me what do.’”
The White Barn Theater
Her new career began at The White Barn Theater in the summer of 1947. “Phillip Huston and Canada Lee, two actor friends of mine, had a play, The Painted Wagon, that nobody would produce commercially. They asked if they could read it for my theater friends to get their reactions; I said ‘sure,’ and arranged for the reading to take place in my barn at the country house in Connecticut.
“Afterwards I gave a supper for everyone who attended, to encourage discussion of the play. Nobody liked the show much, but everybody liked the experience of hearing it read. Audrey Wood, a famous play agent who was in the audience, encouraged me to do more of these readings; in fact, she gave me another script immediately. That was Some of the Sky, which Joseph Anthony directed. Things were beginning to snowball, and somebody came up with a musical about struggling young actors called No Casting Today, which brought me back to my youth. That one introduced both Jo Sullivan (later Mrs. Frank Loesser), who went on to star in The Threepenny Opera and The Most Happy Fella, and the comedienne Bibi Osterwald. Somebody else gave me The Ivory Tower, which gave an early job tO Eva Marie Saint; later she won an Oscar for On the Waterfront.
“By the end of the summer I had clone six of these events. There was great excitement in the air about it all, and people were vying for invitations to get in. Big articles started to appear, both in show business trade papers and the general press. My husband was astonished to read a newspaper headline in Paris proclaiming ‘A New Type of Theater’ right in his own backyard, and rushed back to find out what all the commotion was about. You see, there was no off-Broadway or experimental theater then it was all commercial. Having a theater situation removed from those pressures and problems gave people an exhilarating sense of freedom. Anything seemed possible in my theater precisely because everyone knew that nobody would go broke or ruin a career playing there. For the first time, theater artists knew they had the right to try and fail without risking censure, which is essential if something daring and new is to be attempted.
“I didn’t pre-plan anything I was doing when I started, and nobody paid to see the shows or got paid to work. It was just a service for playwrights and other theater artists who wanted a chance to do something new. It’s hard to imagine today how fresh the whole experience was, but we were pioneers.”
There was one extra-theatrical benefit Miss Lortel received from starting her new theater. “When Lou got back from Paris and saw that I had done something so successful completely On my own, he gained a respect for me as an individual that he had never had before. Suddenly I wasn’t just Mrs. Schweitzer but someone of importance in her own right, and that made him very proud. Also, though he wasn’t crazy about the theater, he loved having his country home swarming with theatrical people. Their humor and verve were a far cry from the sober-sided business types he dealt with at work, and that was a big lift to him. So as he became interested in the life I was making for myself, we were drawn closer together. You might say that my decision to start The White Barn Theater saved my marriage.”
Success, of course, breeds difficulty and expense. “I paid for it all out of my own pocket at first, but by the second year Actors’ Equity started making problems. As far as I was concerned, I was giving parties at which a play was read and discussed, but Actors’ Equity said no, the actors were working and should be paid a regular salary. They wouldn’t let the actors rehearse for my shows. On one memorable Sunday We premiered Sean O’Casey’s Red Roses for Me without rehearsals (it featured Kim Hunter, along with George Roy Hill, fresh off the boat from Ireland). The director read all the parts to the actors in the afternoon, and they performed at night. Though the show was successful, the experience was harrowing. After that, I agreed with Actors’ Equity to pay the actors $15 a performance, and from then on my expenses started to rise. In 19491 began charging $25 a couple to non-professionals to see the season’s shows; they made up about half the audience of 150. The rest were producers, agents, and backers whom I invited to further the careers of the artists.
“As the theater continued to boom and our program expanded, two important things happened. The first was that we created The White Barn Theater Foundation, because my husband was convinced by his advisers that this was the proper set up for a not-for-profit art theater. He began to solicit contributions from theater-minded business associates under the foundation set up. This got me some help with my burgeoning expenses, and allowed the contributors a tax write-off.
“The second thing we did was to renovate the barn, putting in a real stage and real theater seats; previous to 1954, it was just a big room with a platform and drapes at one end, and folding chairs for the audience at the other. Ralph Alswang, the famous theater designer, worked with actress Eva Le Gallienne on the architectural plans for the renovation. Neither of them charged me for their considerable help.”
Miss Lortel also began to expand her program in the direction of education. “We began having classes in 1951, first for older students and later for young children. In 1955, Miss Le Gallienne started teaching master classes. I guaranteed her $5,000 a season, and agreed that she would take only students she deemed worthy of her tutelage. Of course, professional friends and talented young people who couldn’t afford it did not pay, and I made up the difference between what the classes took in and her guarantee. At this time also, great choreographers like Valerie Bettis and Jean Erdman began to teach at The White Barn, and we had classes going from early morning until show time. Mariette Hartley, Peter Falk, and Linda Hunt were among scores of students who attended.
“On stage at night, the shows were bigger than ever, some with elaborate sets and casts of 15 or more; in 1955 alone we did 11 shows in a season stretching from July 9th to October 30th. Many famous people, like Peggy Wood, Ruth Chatterton, and Margaret Webster, were now clamoring to work at The White Barn bemuse they could perform there in shows they wouldn’t have an opportunity to do commercially. A lot of future stars got a start at The White Barn too, from Rod Steiger and Geoffrey Holder to Flip Wilson, Mary Steen-burgen, and Peter Bogdanovich, the film director.
“My audiences saw new plays, like Beckett’s Embers and Ionesco’s The Chairs, that I brought back from Europe every year; I produced Yukio Mishima’s plays there for the first time anywhere in the States. Both established American playwrights like Tennessee Williams and beginners like Edward Albee premiered their works on my stage. It became the place to go every summer for whatever and whoever was fresh and exciting in theater.
“In fact, things got so hectic that I interviewed prospective audience members before I agreed to let them attend. We had a limited seating capacity, and although extra performances were added to meet the demand for tickets, there was only a certain number of people we could accommodate. If I didn’t feel potential ticket buyers were genuinely interested in new theater, I didn’t take them. It sounds snobbish, but it wasn’t. You didn’t have to be rich or social to get in, you just had to love new theater. Otherwise you were taking a seat away from someone who really cared.
“By 1962, it was costing $30,000 a year to run The Barn, despite all my efforts to hold down expenses. My husband, who saw how hard I was struggling to get by, wanted me to quit. But I felt I couldn’t. There was a need for expression in the theater unconnected to financial considerations, and I knew I had a responsibility to see that this need was met. So I kept on.”
In 1955 Mr. Schweitzer bought his wife the Theater De Lys on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village as a silver wedding anniversary present. The idea was that she would be able to continue her work in New York during the winters. Who could have known that the first show she produced there, The Threepenny Opera, would turn into a monster hit that would run for seven years?
The show was so successful that Mr. Schweitzer asked his wife to pay him back what he had laid out to buy the building. “My husband was a great philanthropist, who supported any number of charities, but he always kept business and charity separate. He worked to help me with my theater projects, but he was not disposed to give me money for them. When the De Lys turned out to be a hit from the word go, he didn’t see why he should be out the money it cost to buy it, so I reimbursed him. Actually, he taught me a great deal about how to be frugal and not waste money in the arts. He thought it was a disservice to say something was nonprofit art theater and then throw money around. If it truly was altruistic art theater, then he felt resources should be husbanded so more art could be created. Furthermore, since these theaters represented my taste, he believed it was my responsibility to pay for them. The only way I could do that was to be very, very careful.”
In order to relieve her frustration at not being able to do new shows at the De Lys because of the long run of The Threepenny Opera, Miss Lortel began the Matinee Series in conjunction with the American National Theater and Academy, or ANTA. These were White Barn-style premieres performed on Tuesday afternoons at the De Lys, when the theater was “dark.” The actors, usually playing in long-running Broadway hits, were dying to do something different to keep their creative juices flowing, and this was their chance. Eileen Heckart, then in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, played O’Neill’s Before Breakfast;, Richard Burton from Camelot joined Cathleen Nesbit to read Dylan Thomas, and so on. Begun in 1955 and lasting for 20 years, the Matinee Series was the true beginning of off-off-Broadway; Miss Lortel only gave it up when that type of theater was firmly established, and the need for this series was obviated.
Her enthusiasm and capacity for work have never abated. In the 1950s she produced Genet’s The Balcony, a shocking work comparing society’s leaders to perverts in a brothel. She brought the South African playwright Athol Fugard to the U.S. in the 1960s. Persona non grata in his own country and a failure in London, he was set on the path to international recognition by her 1964 New York production of The Blood Knot. At this time Miss Lortel also began a 30-year tradition of taking productions of some of her distinguished plays to the Library of Congress in Washington.
A Walk in the Woods
More recently, she was nominated five times for Broadway’s Tony Award as producer of the best play or musical of the year. These productions included Lanford Wilson’s Angels Fall, which premiered at The White Barn; As Is, the first play about AIDS; a revival of The Blood Knot; the South African musical Sarafina; and A Walk in the Woods, a landmark drama about Soviet-American arms reduction. The last was of special importance to her.
“The humanity of this play touched me deeply, and I was sure it would have the same effect on thousands of others. It was written in 1987, just as the issue of nuclear disarmament was becoming a subject of crucial importance to people throughout the world. A Walk in the Woods put a human face on the situation, dealing as it did with a wily old Communist and a fresh-faced, uptight American, both arms negotiators in Switzerland trying to represent their governments’ policies and at the same time achieve genuine nuclear arms reductions. Its downbeat conclusion proved to be very affecting, and more than that, a cautionary tale. Never more so than when I was invited by three Senators to present the piece before an audience of both houses of Congress at the Library of Congress the week they were to vote on the nuclear arms reduction treaty. The treaty was stalled, and had to be ratified very quickly for Reagan to be able to sign it with Gorbachev at the summit. Rarely have I seen an audience as deeply moved as this one was. At the conclusion of the performance Congressmen and Senators stood around in groups speaking of the absolute necessity of ratifying the agreement, and three days later it was approved. That performance was in many ways the high point of my career.”
Financially, putting the play together was very difficult. Miss Lortel thought this simple, two-character play should be done off-Broadway, but the author, director, and Yale University, who had done the first production of it, wanted Broadway, and without big star names. Since they controlled the rights, that was how it had to be done, with Yale as a non-financial producing partner.
The big money meeting on the show took place at a luncheon in Miss Lortel’s apartment on October 19, 1987. It was Black Monday, the day of the biggest stock market crash in 60 years. As she passed around deviled eggs and crab meat salad, the world was falling apart. Every few minutes her secretary would rush in with the latest bad news: “Down 100 points”; “Down another 150.” People around the table were visibly shaken; sweat poured down over their pasted-on smiles. But
Lucille Lortel remained calm, taking care of her guests and discussing the business at hand. She reassured everyone that she intended to continue with the project, no matter what financial difficulties ensued, She had made a commitment, and was going to honor it. All were relieved, thanked her profusely and left.
When asked why she didn’t use this crisis as an opportunity to back out of the project, now that its costs were ballooning since the principals were insisting on a Broadway production, she replied that she had given her word and, besides, she felt the play’s statement was too important to abandon. “If worst comes to worst, I can always sell my jewelry from the vault. This play just has to be seen.”
The worst didn’t happen, and public television’s American Playhouse eventually came in for half the budget. But that didn’t end the problems. On opening night, the all-important New York Times, which had liked the show at Yale, gave it a bad review. Despite the fact that most of the other reviews were quite favorable, her partners and managers advised her to close the show.
She refused, and put up another $200,000 (along with $100,000 from American Playhouse) to give the show a big publicity push. Furthermore, she rolled up her sleeves and got a number of full page ads in the Times at deep discounts, arranged for signs on the sides of buses all over town at cheap rates, and put together all the theater parties she could muster. The results: the show ran over four months on Broadway; it was nominated for two Tony Awards; American Playhouse televised it throughout the U.S.; Alec Guinness and Edward Hermann starred in a London production; it was shown to members of both the House and Senate at the Library of Congress; and it became one of the most produced plays at regional theaters throughout the country. “Getting to opening night is just half the battle. Then you have to roll up your sleeves and pull out all the stops to keep the audiences coming. Many fine shows have died on the vine because producers didn’t do their jobs,” she reminds us.
To top it off, the Soviet government invited her to bring the show to the U.S.S.R., truly amazing at that time, considering that the piece dispenses criticism evenhandedly to both the Soviets and the Americans. Just a year earlier, A Walk in the Woods would never have been seen in the Soviet Union under any circumstances.
Once again, financing this venture wasn’t easy. “The Russians paid for living expenses in their country, but I had to come up with the rest, some $120,000. You’d think people like Armand Hammer or companies like American Express would have been happy to write big checks to be a part of this, but no. I put up a third, and raised the rest from concerned individuals, which was tough. The biggest contribution was $5,000. It took the better part of a year to complete the financing. But when I saw how grateful the Soviet people were to have the show, I felt it was well worth the struggle to bring it to them.”
A Working Monarch
Today, at an advanced stage of life, Miss Lortel is as busy as ever. The White Barn had four shows last summer, and the De Lys, renamed the Lucille Lortel at her friends’ insistence in 1981, currently houses the hit musical Falsettoland. Her next planned project is Stevie Wants to Play the Blues, which she found in California. “It’s a musical play about sexual identity set in the world of seedy nightclubs and dope addiction. Some of it is raw and shocking, so it’s not for everyone. But it’s also very touching, and I feel it should be done.”
Since Miss Lortel continues to be so active, she is well aware of how much things have changed since she started. “In 1954, Threepenny only cost $18,000. Today it would cost way over $1,000,000 off-Broadway, and with a cast of 18 and an orchestra of nine, you would barely break even if you sold every seat. They did a flop production of the show on Broadway last year that lost over $5,000,000. If he were alive today, my late husband would be shocked to know that The White Barn, which used to cost $30,000 a year, now costs $150,000. The economics of producing has complicated the whole situation far more than it should have. People are afraid to take chances on anything new and untried, and that is very bad for the art of theater.
“When I started out I almost never had partners, preferring to produce on my own because I hated to ask people to invest in my taste. But with costs as they are, I’ve been forced to go in with others for the last 10 years or so. If I were beginning now, I suppose I couldn’t even think of being as independent as I was. I would have to have lots of partners for the commercial ventures and learn all about corporate fund raising for the not-for-profit work. It still would go against my grain to look for government grants though, because of the financial and, potentially, the ideological public accountability. In the arts, one’s time and money should properly be spent on artistic matters, not on governmental bureaucracy. To be a great producer, one must understand finance and administration well, but one must understand art even better. That does not happen if you and your staff have your heads buried in government rule books all day.
“However, art does not happen in a financial vacuum. The money has to come from somewhere. People who believe in private support for the arts have to do more than talk about it. They have to spend money on it. Otherwise the most serious art our culture has to offer will be subject to the dictates of the commercial marketplace or government policy, a situation which is at best uncomfortable and at worst dangerous. I lived my life independently, believing that art should be independent. Only the active support of other like-minded individuals will make it possible for people like me to exist in the future.”
Asked to sum up her career, she lowers her gaze and thinks for a moment; then she raises her head to fix your eyes with her own. “Basically, despite its complexities, producing is simple. You have to use good judgement to choose a worthwhile property, and believe in it completely. Then you have to use all your resources, both internal and material, to get it on and keep it on. That’s simple enough, isn’t it?”
As the Queen of Off-Broadway laughs, her great liquid eyes sparkle like deep brown diamonds in the afternoon sun. Her mind is her true crown; the eyes are diadems of the spirit, shining from within.