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Monday, July 23 2018 @ 01:19 PM EDT

Theodore Mann, Founder of Circle in the Square, Dies at 87

Theater & Fine Arts Editor's Comment: Did you know a Panamanian had a hand in the creation of "off Broadway" theater in New York? I sure didn't...

By Robert Simonson - Theodore Mann, who, as the co-founder of Circle in the Square Theatre, was one of the foremost figures in the birth of the Off-Broadway theatre movement, died Feb. 24 following a brief illness. He was 87.

In 1951, along with Panama-born director Jose Quintero and a few others, the young Mr. Mann created Circle in the Square in a small arena space just off Greenwich Village's Sheridan Square (hence the troupe's curious name). One year later, they staged a revival of Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke, intending it as a vehicle for their friend, actress Geraldine Page. The play had disappointed on Broadway. Quintero's heralded new interpretation caused critics to reappraise the work. Though it wasn't the first production below 14th Street to gain public interest after World War II, many theatre historians regard the show as a benchmark in the birth of Off-Broadway.

Brooks Atkinson, writing in The New York Times, said, "Nothing has happened for quite a long time as admirable as the new production at the Circle in the Square—in Sheridan Square, to be precise. Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke opened there last evening in a sensitive and highly personal performance."

Soon after, the theatre single-handedly resurrected the reputation of playwright Eugene O'Neill, which had been moldering since his death in 1953. With the approval of O'Neill's widow and agent, Quintero and Mr. Mann staged a revelatory rendition of The Iceman Cometh, starring an unknown named Jason Robards Jr. as Hickey, in 1956. "I saw the pictures of that first production and I have the feeling it was too stiff and distant," Mr. Mann said later. "Our audiences actually thought they were in a saloon with Hickey and his friends."

The success of this production convinced O'Neill's widow, Carlotta Monterney, to give the two men the American rights to Long Day's Journey Into Night, a searing autobiographical family play that the playwright has not wanted to be staged until 25 years following his death. "Carlotta was very much conscious of wanting to resurrect [O'Neill's] reputation," recalled Mr. Mann. "She thought he was a great playwright, and her whole life was dedicated to that -- to bringing her husband back to prominence. She was very angry about the Broadway producers who had ignored him for so many years."

Long Day's Journey bowed on Broadway in November 1956 with Robards, Fredric March and Florence Eldridge in the cast. It was hailed as a masterpiece, raising O'Neill's reputation to a height from which it has never since fallen, and permanently established Circle in the Square as a trailblazing creative force in the American theatre. Mr. Mann won a Tony Award as producer of the play. Decades later, in 1976, the theatre would receive a special Tony for its contributions to the theatre.

In 1959, the theatre moved to a larger space on Bleecker Street in the Village when the landlord of the Sheridan Square theatre decided to tear the building down to erect a high-rise apartment building. Soon after, Quintero and Mr. Mann had a falling out, and Quintero left the company. In 1963, Paul Libin, a former actor, joined as managing director. He stayed for the next 30 years. In 1961, Mr. Mann founded the Circle in the Square Theatre School to provide training for aspiring actors. It continues today.

By the mid-60s, the Off-Broadway scene had changed. Costs has risen and the actors that theatres like Circle had helped become successful were now too expensive to hire. "In the old days," Mr. Mann told the New York Times in 1966, "I would work in the box office, help paint scenery. We all worked on many things. As we developed professionalism we became more departmentalized. I became just a producer. The actors just acted."

Also, the nascent Off-Off-Broadway movement was beginning to nip at Off-Broadway's heels. "I go to the coffee houses in Greenwich Village two or three times a week," said Mr. Mann, "to see what Off-Off-Broadway is doing. When I go there, I feel I'm looking at myself 10 years ago." Mr. Mann toyed with the idea of retiring.

Then, in 1972, an invitation came from a New York real estate development company, the Uris Organization, to move into a theatre space that would be built into the base of a new office building on W. 50th Street in the theatre district. Mr. Mann jumped at the chance. Circle in the Square became a Broadway theatre.

Situated in the basement, below the 1,900-seat Uris Theatre (today's Gershwin Theatre), Mr. Mann and Libin re-created the in-the-round seating they had enjoyed downtown. Thereafter, the company was regularly nominated for Tony Awards, for productions such as The National Health, Tartuffe, Major Barbara, Present Laughter, Heartbreak House, A Streetcar Named Desire, Juno and the Paycock and The Miser. In an era when few commercial Broadway producers staged the classics, Circle regularly revived works by O'Neill, Chekhov, Miller, Williams, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg.

"Of all the revivals we've ever done, we've never seen the original Broadway productions," Mr. Mann once said. "We were never in a frame of mind that we would show them better. We just found a play that we liked, and that's the one we wanted to do."

Circle in the Square was a nurturer of stage talent from its early days, when it vaulted the reputations of Robards and Page as singular theatre artists. Over the years, it gave priceless opportunities to Dustin Hoffman, James Earl Jones, Maureen Stapleton and Rip Torn. George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, Philip Bosco and Al Pacino were regular guests at the theatre.

Mr. Mann also occasionally directed plays at his theatre, as well as elsewhere, though he never experienced as much success in that field as he did as a producer and behind-the-scenes force.

In 1990, Libin left Circle in the Square to join Jujamcyn Theaters. Circle struggled under a series of artistic directors and managing directors and eventually succumbed in 1997. The theatre became a rental space, though it was still called Circle in the Square.

Theodore Mann was born Theodore Goldman on May 13, 1924, in Brooklyn, to Martin Goldman and Gwen Artson Goldman. He attended Erasmus Hall High School, New York University and Brooklyn Law School, served in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a Sergeant in the Medical Corps from 1943 to 1945.

Mr. Mann's father had expected his son to enter the family law firm. But, while stationed in Carmel, CA, during the war, the young man began to read books, dabble in photography and got involved with a theatre group.

Mr. Mann met Jose Quintero in Woodstock, NY, in 1950. With their partners, they called themselves the Loft Players, and with a budget of $500 put on a series of shows.

Theodore Mann was predeceased by his wife Patricia A. Brook, whom he married in 1953. She died in 1993. Surviving him are sons Andrew and Jonathan (and wife Chandra) and grandchildren Jackson, Dakota, Samuel, Clementine and Benjamin Theodore.

Over the years, Circle was particularly successful in reviving the reputation of Shaw as a crowd-pleaser with New York audiences. Mr. Mann himself was very fond of the British playwright. "There's a lot of laughter in Shaw, a lot of wit. Audiences are starved for the language. We need drama. Musicals are wonderful, but they shouldn't dominate. You need drama to understand life."

Funeral services will be private, but a memorial service will be planned for a later date.

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