Lucille Lortel -- `Queen of Off Broadway'. A new-play reading in her barn launched her 37-year career as a producer

She's called ``the Queen of Off Broadway.'' But her kingdom is intellectual as well as territorial. Its knights are the plays of Bertolt Brecht, Jean Giraudoux, Athol Fugard, Paul Zindel, Langston Hughes, Eugene Ionesco, and Tennessee Williams, which she has produced since 1947. Lucille Lortel, who some say is one of the most prolific and imaginative producers in the history of American theater, simply has a genius for producing plays of quality. But then, commercial success, as often as it has come to her, hasn't been her primary goal.

She enjoys some of the trappings of success and wealth. She lives on Fifth Avenue in a palatial apartment right out of the pages of Architectural Digest or a 1930s Cary Grant movie. But she spends the overwhelming share of her time helping artistic anarchists.

``The thing that I happen to be interested in, the thing that makes me go, is a talent in the theater,'' she confides to a reporter. ``But I can't say that's the general public's taste. Me, I want something to think about when I leave the theater. With comedy, you sometimes forget it as soon as you see it. So that's why I put on plays of a more serious nature.''

New York playwrights, actors, and directors have not forgotten Lucille Lortel's commitment to drama. In April she was honored by a benefit to mark the 30th anniversary of her producing plays at her own theater, the Lucille Lortel, formerly the Theatre de Lys, here in Greenwich Village. The benefit was for the Actors Fund of America, and at it Lortel received the First Annual Lee Strasberg Lifetime Achievement Award.

Lortel herself had given up a promising career as a stage and screen actress when she married wealthy industrialist Louis Schweitzer in 1931. But 16 years later she found herself back in show business, wearing an entirely different hat. In 1947 friends asked her if she knew any place for a reading of a new play. She suggested her white barn, nestled on her 18-acre estate in Westport, Conn. Thirty-seven seasons later, the White Barn Theatre, as it soon became known, remains one of the nation's most highly regarded experimental theaters. Over the years it has produced such plays as Sean O'Casey's ``Red Roses for Me,'' Paul Zindel's ``The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon-Marigolds,'' and ``U.S.A.,'' by John Dos Passos.

In 1955, five years after Lortel had produced her first play in New York City, Louis Schweitzer gave his wife the Theatre de Lys as a 24th wedding anniversary present. He would subsequently joke that perhaps he should never have made his wife give up acting. ``He used to say that instead of having to spend his money buying me a theater, I could have brought in money!'' Lortel says with a big laugh.

But her first play at the de Lys was a mixed success -- an unexpected smash hit that lasted for seven years. ``The Threepenny Opera,'' by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, opened in September 1955 and had a longer run than either ``Oklahoma!'' or ``My Fair Lady.'' Most producers would jump for joy, and naturally Lortel was happy about ``Threepenny'' being a hit. But her theater, the one she wanted as a showcase for noncommercial theater, was booked solid!

So the following year, partly out of frustration and partly out of vision, she started something called ``The Matinee Series,'' which lasted 20 years. This was a Tuesday -- not a Wednesday -- matinee series of plays, readings, and scenes. The idea was to give writers, actors, and directors the time and space to do things that Broadway had little or no time or space for. Some critics contend this was the beginning of the Off Off Broadway movement, which didn't come to full blossom until the middle 1960s.

On Jan. 17, 1961, for example, Lortel's Matinee Series presented ``An Afternoon of Poetry'' with Richard Burton reading selections from Shakespeare. In the evening, Burton starred in ``Camelot'' on Broadway.

Perhaps Lortel's greatest find as a producer was prizewinning South African playwright Athol Fugard (``Master Harold . . . and the Boys''). In 1964 she took a chance producing Fugard's ``The Blood Knot'' Off Broadway. It was a critical success and renewed Fugard's faith in himself just when things seemed their blackest. Lortel remembers that ``he carried around a little cardboard box with one suit in it,'' and he slept in her office until he found a place of his own. Nearly 20 years later, Lortel presented the playwright with a check for $1,000 on behalf of the New York Drama Critics Circle, which had singled out his play ``A Lesson From Aloes'' as the best new play of the 1980-81 season.

What she did for Fugard has, in essence, been repeated in some way, shape, or form, dozens of times. The thanks she asks is in the progress the playwrights, actors, and directors make in succeeding years. Other playwrights she's helped launch include Edward Albee, Terrance McNally, and Paul Zindel. Actresses Anne Jackson, Sada Thompson, and Marion Seldes say Lortel gave them at least one of their big breaks on the way to stardom.

``I think I've gotten as much a kick out of producing plays as I did acting, because I got just as nervous,'' Lortel says. But I don't have to look pretty when I'm backstage as a producer. So I can be nervous and look the way I look!''

Perhaps theatrical agent Audry Wood, who represented Tennessee Williams, summed up Lortel's gifts best when she said, ``The American theater needs more Lucille Lortels. All it takes to duplicate what Miss Lortel brings to her ventures is concentration, drive, energy, imagination, unmitigated spunk, and a never failing love of the theater itself.''

``I was going to retire two years ago,'' Lortel says.

``What happened?'' this interviewer asks.

``They wouldn't let me! More and more people need theaters.''

So, after producing more than 300 plays since 1947, ``the Queen of Off Broadway'' is not about to step down.

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