History

Once a Radical Notion: Behind the Curtain of the Theatre Of Living Arts

August 12, 2022 | by James Schlatter

The Theatre of Living Arts at 334 South Street is a legendary local venue. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Theatre of Living Arts has been known by Philadelphians as the place to go to have a rich, and sometimes wild, arts experience for decades. In 1971, the venue began screening American classic, foreign, independent, and avant-garde films. The theatre helped launch The Rocky Horror Picture Show in its rise to becoming a cult classic. It also aided legendary filmmaker John Waters’ career by showing his controversial and gleefully trashy Pink Flamingos. A showing of Jean Luc Godard’s Hail Mary, a modern retelling of the story of Mary’s virgin birth, ignited an outcry from the local Catholic community. Today, the Theatre of Living Arts is a popular, nationally-known music venue. In 2014 it was named one of the 50 top small concert venues in the country by Complex Magazine. The Theatre of Living Arts has gone through several incarnations in its history, but the celebrated arts institution was originally founded in 1959 by a company that produced live theatrical performances and was modeled on the off-Broadway theatre movement in New York City.

By the 1960s off-Broadway had already begun to transform New York theatre and was helping give birth to America’s rising national theatre culture. Companies were being founded in cities across the county with the goal of becoming independent, permanent residents of those cities. In Philadelphia, Jean Goldman and Celia Silverman dreamed of starting their own off-Broadway-inspired company. They planned to launch their theatre with a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, to be directed by either Elia Kazan or Harold Clurman. (Neither director was available.) Still, the theatre was launched in 1959 and was co-directed by Anne Ramsey and her husband, Gordon Ramsey, who would go on to become notable film, television, and theatre actors.

The Theatre of Living Arts circa 1960s. | Photo courtesy of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

In 1964, the Theatre of Living Arts underwent a major transition. Andre Gregory was named artistic director. For the next three years he would try to make the theatre a place of bold vision, radical political engagement, and community gathering. During his tenure, the work of the company would generate great enthusiasm, ignite controversy, and earn critical recognition. Gregory was a very smart, but also risky, choice to serve as artistic director. In the early 1960s he had established himself off-Broadway as a director of radical vision and unorthodox methods. He worked with newly-founded independent companies around the country such as the American Conservatory Theatre. After he left Philadelphia in 1967, Gregory embarked on a long artistic and spiritual odyssey that would take him around the world.

The Theatre of Living Arts aspired to become a participant in the regional theatre movement, whose mission was to provide audiences in cities across the country the opportunity to see serious, sophisticated, and artistically accomplished work. Theatres would offer a season of productions selected from a range of great modern European (and some American) plays, radically reimagined classics, in particular Shakespeare and the Greeks, and, on occasion, new American plays. The goal was not to provide popular entertainment or achieve commercial success. These theatre companies intended to become integral institutions in a city’s vibrant cultural and civic life.

Andre Gregory, artistic director of the Theatre of Living Arts, overseeing a rehearsal of Galileo in 1965. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

In his book, Beyond Broadway: The Quest for Permanent Theatres, author Julius Novick provides an expansive, vivid, and detailed history of this expanding national theatre culture. He discusses theatre companies like the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the Actors’ Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Today these and many other theatres, founded or lead by visionary artistic directors, have become renowned American institutions. Novick includes a very informative chapter on the Theatre of Living Arts during Gregory’s tenure from 1964 to 1967. The operative word in the subtitle of Novick’s book is “permanent,” because these theatre companies fully intended to establish a home in the cities in which they were founded. For this reason they were also called resident theatres.

Gregory wanted to build such a resident company in Philadelphia. All members of the company—artistic, technical, literary, managerial—would have to perform work at a high professional level. They would also have to be fairly compensated for their dedicated work. Many of these theatres began as or would become unionized Actors’ Equity companies. It is difficult to determine to what extent the Theatre of Living Arts was such a company, but many soon-to-be prominent American actors, such Judd Hirsch, Sally Strickland, Ron Liebman, and Morgan Freeman worked with the company. Committed to making art and not money, these companies were classified as nonprofit. To sustain themselves they had to build a strong and loyal audience base and partner with funding organizations at the city, state, and federal level. Most important, to become permanent, a theatre would have to build an enduring partnership with the city it called home. Gregory fully intended to create a Philadelphia theatre, and Philadelphia was ready for it. In fact, the city built a new home for the company to reside in.

Architect Frank Weise in his home and office at 307 S. Chadwick Street. Date unknown. | Photo courtesy of Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Modern architect Frank Weise was commissioned as the designer of the new theatre space, which was a radical renovation of an old concert hall, and later a movie house named The New Palace Theatre, at 334 South Street. Weise, who passed away in 2003, has gained some recognition in recent years through the sale of homes he designed in and around Philadelphia. He was a brilliantly creative residential architect who gave serious thought to the human scale and livability of his stunning midcentury homes. Yet, he deserves much wider recognition for his dedicated work with local theatre companies and his leadership related to city planning in Philadelphia in the 1970s and 1980s. Weise’s papers, held in the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania, provide a stunning historical record of the launching of the Theatre of Living Arts. It includes hundreds of documents that detail Philadelphia’s commitment to establish a permanent theatre in the city. That effort demanded careful strategic and financial planning and the cultivation of wide civic support.

One critical document among Weise’s papers is the record of a town meeting held at the Barclay Hotel on March 19, 1964. A committee of 350 civic leaders, headed by then-Mayor James H. J. Tate, met to discuss the vital importance of establishing a resident theatre company in Philadelphia. One of the committee members, Mr. Samuel R. Rosenbaum, presented a knowledgeable and impassioned argument about the critical need for such a theatre. 41 cities across the country had already established their own resident companies. Attending professional theatre in Philadelphia usually meant going to out-of-town try-outs of Broadway-bound productions or national tours of successful Broadway shows which were often extravagant American musicals. Rosenbaum argued that a resident theatre “will be an exciting focus of cultural life in this cosmopolitan city.” This was the great hope.

Actors on stage at the Theatre of Living Arts during a production of The Last Analysis in 1966. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

Weise was a perfect, perhaps an inevitable, choice to design the new theatre. At the time he was widely respected as an architect. He was also a member of the theatre’s Founders Committee. The space he created included a thrust stage, state-of-the-art lighting, and a sound system. The purpose of the thrust stage, a central feature of many new regional theatres around the country, was to bring the actors and their audience into a shared space. Proximity is a fundamental principle here. No audience member should have to sit at too great a distance from the actors. Weise’s floor plan of the theatre indicates the thrust stage with seating on three sides, but most of the seats are arranged in a traditional proscenium configuration. The most significant difference here is in the total number of seats, around 500, which is a fraction of the audience size in a typical Broadway theatre or the Walnut Street and Forrest Theatres here in the city. But if actor-audience intimacy was critical to these new theatres, it also presented a daunting challenge to financial sustainability. The Theatre of Living Arts would have to build a strong subscription base, with audiences committing to a full season of productions, and then renewing their subscriptions year after year. Patrons would have to feel that this was their theatre, as indeed it was.

Of course, everything depends on the plays chosen for each season and on the methods of design and staging used to present them. This requires a careful balancing act. Audiences for the new resident theatre movement did not want easy entertainment or safe commercial fare. They wanted, and expected, to have a powerful “living art” experience, to be intellectually and politically challenging. It was the 1960s, and the country was being torn by political assassinations, racial injustice, and growing opposition to the war in Vietnam. But audiences also wanted moving human stories with characters who, although trapped in a world gone mad, were immediately recognizable for the humanity they shared with their audience and the mortal struggles they faced. The Theatre of Living Arts certainly gave them that.

Barney Epstein from the Theatre of Living Arts discusses five points of acting with high school students in 1967. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

Looking at the three seasons under Gregory’s leadership, many of the plays produced would have been recognizable to audiences at resident theatres around the country. Modern European plays by Bertolt Brecht, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and August Strindberg were matched with classics such as Twelfth Night, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Eugene O’Neil’s Desire Under the Elms. It was a wild ride, and it is impossible to summarize or assess adequately all that happened on stage there. But a brief accounting of a few productions will illustrate how far Gregory was prepared to take his company, and his audience, in their shared experience.

Poor Bitos, by Ionesco, produced in the first season, The Last Analysis, by Saul Bellow in the second season, and Bechlch, by Rochelle Owens in the third, epitomize the theatrical potential, and the risks, of presenting very challenging, untraditional works. Poor Bitos centers on a Communist Party functionary (assistant state prosecutor) who is invited to the mansion of a wealthy businessman to attend a costume party. The businessman and his elite bourgeois friends play historical figures who participated in the French Revolution, while Bitos is invited to play Robespierre. Bitos/Robespierre is condemned for his rigid servitude to a totalitarian ideology, but also ridiculed for his clumsy ignorance of how to behave “properly” in fashionable society. (His mother was a washerwoman.) The action veers from improvised scenes, sometimes using verbatim language from the historical record, to scenes of vicious, personal condemnation and ridicule.

A scene from a 1969 production of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

The power of Anouilh’s play lies in its language–its ability to mix high-minded public debate with vicious, personal debasement. The political and the personal are inextricably linked. Poor Bitos takes place in a mansion during a costume party. It’s a question of how lavish or decadent a party Gregory wanted to invite his audience to. In Beyond Broadway Novick describes the production as less a party than an orgy–something out of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. A female character appeared in one scene with her left breast exposed. But the real problem was not that the production violated proprietary boundaries, but that the theatrical extravagance obscured what was, at its core, a very moving human story. Bitos is “poor” because he has sold his soul to a false god and is now lost in a nightmare of bourgeois appetite and decadent pleasure. What will become of him and the world he lives in? Nineteen Eighty-Four or La Dolce Vita? The play does not provide an answer to that question. Only the audience can.

The Last Analysis faced similar challenges, but also added several. The theatre took a significant risk by staging a play written by a novelist. The play was by Saul Bellow, the celebrated American author of the Adventures of Augie March and Herzog, both of which won the National Book Award. The play was part of the all-American season, 1965-1966. The work, the only one he wrote, was not directed by Gregory but by his colleague George Sherman. The play centers on a former star television comedian, Bummidge, who is now washed up and living in obscurity. His great dream is to produce and star in a closed-circuit television show that chronicles the last years of his life. He wants to present his show to the psychiatrists who have judged him to be psychologically broken and to an audience who now dismiss him as a sad has-been. The play is a send-up of Freudian psychoanalysis and is peopled with Absurdist fools and Marx Brothers slapstick clowns, all madly improvising to prepare the show for viewing. The challenge for the actors was to render this world as inhabited by human beings, not cartoon or comic strip characters.

Actors during a performance of La Turist in 1969. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

The central character of Bummidge, known as Bummy, is, as Bellow describes him, “a serious buffoon.” Like Bitos, as well as many characters in the Theatre of the Absurd, Bummidge is a modern, existential everyman, a nobody at the end, and the bottom, of everything. Bitos and Bummy are sad and broken souls still fighting to matter, or at least mean something, in the world. Unless actors can bring these characters fully to life for an audience, or if they get lost in the theatrical spectacle swirling around them, these plays cannot fulfill their daunting potential. Perhaps it was just too much for a young company to take on.

The production that caused the irreparable, perhaps the inevitable, breach between Gregory and the theatre company’s board of directors was the world premiere of Beclch, by Rochelle Owens, a widely-respected poet and a major contributor to the off-Broadway–and off-off-Broadway–theatre in the 1960s. The play is set in a so-called “Africa of the Mind” in which every human relationship—personal, political, class, race—is violated in the most sadistic and humiliating ways. In Gregory’s production, the moment spectators entered the theatre they were inside the “Africa of the Mind.” Huge, shadowy images of dense jungle were projected on the walls surrounding the auditorium. Deafening electronic music played and blinding lights were flashed in the audience’s eyes. This was a version of what became known in the 1960s as environmental theatre. Given the state of the world during this era, there was no safe place to stand nor any exit to take. There can be no innocent bystanders or sympathetic witnesses. Gregory had the action spill off the stage and into the aisles of the theatre where, apparently, actors performed realistic acts of copulation.

A scene from a 1969 production of Harry, Noon and Night. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

It is difficult to know how audiences experienced Gregory’s production. Perhaps the nightmarish phantasmagoria represented an eruption of American’s deeply repressed unconscious in which the evil secrets of racial, class, and sexual tyranny erupt into group consciousness. Less a nightmare than a collective hallucination. Is it going too far to assault your audience from all sides, indict them for the lies perpetrated by the society in which they live, and in which they are complicit? That question is nearly impossible to answer. For the theatre company on South Street it was. Shortly after Beclch closed, Gregory resigned, or was fired from, his position as artistic director.

It might look as though the Theatre of Living Arts was destined to live a short life. The theatre closed its doors in 1969. Perhaps Philadelphia just wasn’t ready for independent performance art in the 1960s. But as Weise’s papers make quite clear, the city was ready and committed to establishing a permanent resident theatre in the city. It is fair to say that much of the responsibility for the brief life of the theatre lay with Gregory. Perhaps less radical choices of a few plays might have made the difference. Regardless, founding a new theatre company means flirting with the unconventional. It must be mentioned that in the 1960s another resident theatre was launched in the city, the Philadelphia Drama Guild, but its first home was the Broadway-scale Walnut Street Theatre, and its repertoire more in line with other large regional theatre companies around the country. It lasted for 30 years.

Moviegoers gather to see Night of the Living Dead at the Theatre of Living Arts in 1981. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

The founders of the Theatre of Living Arts wanted their company to provide a shared, daring experience, one that was not afraid to push boundaries and ask uncomfortable questions. It was what this new national theatre movement was founded to do. Whether or not the Theatre of Living Arts was destined to fail or might have persevered under different artistic leadership is hard to judge. A lot of people wanted it to succeed. This was an important historical moment for the theatre in Philadelphia, that this company was a precursor to what is, today, a thriving resident theatre culture in the city. The seed was planted. It just took some time to grow.



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About the Author

James Schlatter Retired in 2019, Dr. James Schlatter was a 30-year member of the Theatre Arts faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. He taught a wide range of practical and academic courses which included European theatre history and 20th century American theatre and drama. He also directed numerous productions for Penn’s Theatre Arts Program. Schlatter has long had a deep interest in the dynamic relationship between theatre and urban life. He recently co-edited with architect Tim Kerner an issue of CONTEXT magazine, published by the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The issue was devoted to the recent history of theatre architecture in the city. Schlatter and his wife Dr. Amy Hodgdon, are proud residents of Center City Philadelphia.

One Comment:

  1. Terry Guerin says:

    Wonderful read…i saw Laura Nyro there, miss it. Thanks for this!

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