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Who Was Lucille Lortel and Why Is There An Award Named For Her?

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As previously reported by BroadwayWorld, nominations for the 31st Annual Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Achievement Off-Broadway were announced yesterday. They will be presented on Sunday, May 1, 2016 at NYU Skirball Center beginning at 7:00 PM EST.

But who was Lucille Lortel? Why is there an award named after her? And what about that theatre named for her on Christopher Street.

Her name may not be as familiar to playgoers now as it was when she passed on in 1999, but as a theatre producer and a nurturer of emerging talent, Lucille Lortel's seventy-year theatre career made an indelible mark on the Off-Broadway community.

''If you love the theater you must be innovative,'' was her creed. ''You must try new ideas and new faces. That's the only way theater can develop. 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.''

Born in 1900 on New York's Lower East Side as Lucille Wadler, she developed a love for acting early and trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts before experiencing the decadence of Weimar Berlin while studying with director Max Reinhardt.

Changing her name for the stage, Lucille Lortel first felt the glow of Broadway's footlights in 1925, in the large cast of The Theatre Guild's production of George Bernard Shaw's CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, starring Lionel Atwill and Helen Hayes.

More small roles followed in Broadway offerings like THE DOVE, starring Judith Anderson and staged by David Belasco. Heck, she even played the maid in THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD, with Claude Rains and Jean Arthur.

But her acting career soon came to an end after she married wealthy industrialist Louis Schweitzer in 1931. He preferred that his wife live the life of a socialite and philanthropist. But the theatre bug kept biting, so after fifteen years of doing it his way, the couple decided to convert a horse barn on their Connecticut estate into the 148-seat White Barn Theater, where Lortel invited playwrights like Eugène Ionesco, Edward Albee, Sean O'Casey, Samuel Beckett, Murray Schisgal and Terrence McNally to try out new works with the freedom to experiment.

For their 24th wedding anniversary, Schweitzer gave his wife the Theater de Lys on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Her first production there was Marc Blitzstein's translation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's, THE THREEPENNY OPERA, starring Lotte Lenya. The show ran for seven years and drew unprecedented attention to Off-Broadway, increasing the Village's reputation as a hotbed of creativity.

But the success of THE THREEPENNY OPERA frustrated Lortel because her theatre was no longer available for new plays. So with the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA), she created a matinee series at the Theater de Lys to encourage the development of new work.

Subsequent productions at the Christopher Street home included the premieres of David Mamet's A LIFE IN THE THEATER, Sam Shepard's BURIED CHILD and Marsha Norman's GETTING OUT.

In 1981, during the run of Caryl Churchill's CLOUD NINE, directed by Tommy Tune, the Theater de Lys was renamed in her honor and in 1986 the Lucille Lortel Awards were established by the League of Off-Broadway Theaters and Producers to honor outstanding achievements in the Off-Broadway theater.

By that time she had finally branched out into producing on Broadway, bringing in new plays like Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL, William M. Hoffman's AS IS, Athol Fugard's BLOOD KNOT, Lee Blessing's A WALK IN THE WOODS and Mbongeni Ngema's musical SARAFINA!

Months before her passing, in October of 1998, Lortel dedicated the Playwright's Sidewalk on the pavement outside her theatre, with golden stars honoring the great writers of Off-Broadway. The first honorees, which she selected herself, were Edward Albee, John Arden, Douglas Carter Beane, Samuel Beckett, Lee Blessing, Marc Blitzstein, Bertolt Brecht, Caryl Churchill, Michael Cristofer, Mart Crowley, Horton Foote, Athol Fugard, Jean Genet, A.R. Gurney, William M. Hoffman, Langston Hughes, William Inge, Eugene Ionesco, Adrienne Kennedy, Arthur Kopit, Larry Kramer, Ring Lardner, Archibald MacLeish, Norman Mailer, David Mamet, Terrence McNally, Arthur Miller, Yukio Mishima, Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, Marsha Norman, Sean O'Casey, Eugene O'Neill, Norman Rosten, Murray Schisgal, Sam Shepard, Paula Vogel, Derek Walcott, Wendy Wasserstein, Michael Weller, Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson and Paul Zindel.

Visit lortel.org

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From This Author Michael Dale