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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 Manhattan. She was homeschooled, after which she attended college at Adelphi University in Brooklyn, New York. She was remembered by her friends for being vivacious, outgoing, and flirtatious, and was known to be found dancing at parties well into her 80s.
In 1931 Lortel married paper industrialist and philanthropist Louis Schweitzer. In deference to her husband's concerns, she retired from acting in 1939.
White Barn Theatre
In 1947, "after spending over 15 years looking for a way to express herself in the theater 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/Norwalk, Connecticut. According to Lortel's wishes, the theater'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.
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 each year, one playwright is inducted to the sidewalk, having their name engraved into one of the solid bronze stars in front of the theater. She wanted the theater to continue after her death, and in 1999 granted the Lucille Lortel Theatre to the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation, establishing a new policy of only booking not-for-profit productions.
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 was committed to presenting a program free of commercial influence. Plays were chosen for the Matinee Series without regard for popular appeal, and no financial benefit was claimed if commercial interest did develop in the course of a production. The series was presented every Tuesday afternoon and ran for twenty years. Two productions that 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.
While producing at her own theater, Lortel continued to produce at other Off-Broadway theatres. Highlights include her productions of The Beckett Plays at the Harold Clurman Theatre and Rockaby starring Billie Whitelaw at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row during the 1983/84 season. These productions were given a special citation by the New York Drama Critics' Circle. In 1996, Lortel produced Back on the Boulevard with Liliane Montevecchi at the Martin Kaufman Theatre.
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 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 José 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.
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 Seán O'Casey, and Artistic Director of The O'Casey Theatre Company, presented the first Seán 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, Connecticut) 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.