AMERICAN THEATER | This Month in Theater History

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The interior of the Indianapolis Athenaeum. (Photo provided by the Athenaeum Foundation)

March 1822 (200 years ago)

English-born actor George Horton Barrett, known as Gentleman George because of his elegance and grace on and off stage, performed at New York’s Park Theater for the first time at age adult. Barrett had grown up the son of actors who worked in William Dunlap’s company. In 1798, when Barrett was only four years old, he performed on stage at the Park Theater in the stranger, Dunlap’s translation of the work of the German playwright Kotzebue. As an adult, Barrett became a popular and beloved comedic actor. When not acting, he worked as a theater manager and stage manager in New York, Boston and New Orleans. But acting was Barrett’s first love and he toured the country with some of the most famous actors of the day, once playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek in a production of twelfth night with Charlotte Cushman as viola.

March 1867 (155 years ago)

New York’s original Winter Garden Theater was completely destroyed by fire on March 23. The cause of the fire that ultimately demolished the building is unknown. Built in 1850, the theater had hosted the most famous actors and theater managers of the 19th century during its 17 years of existence. More than $60,000 worth of costumes (equivalent to more than $1 million today) were destroyed in the fire, including the costume worn by Edwin Booth for his record-breaking 100 consecutive nights as Hamlet . One of the most important productions of this winter garden had been a one-night performance of Julius Caesar, featuring Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth’s three sons: Edwin, John Wilkes and Junius Brutus Jr., as Brutus, Marc Anthony and Cassius respectively. The show was a fundraiser for the purpose of establishing a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park. Ironically, during the performance, Confederate sympathizers set fire to LaFarge House, an adjacent building. Edwin Booth calmed the audience when he heard the sirens next door, preventing a potentially dangerous rush to the exits, and the performance continued. It was the first and only time that the three Booth brothers performed together on stage.

March 1907 (115 years ago)

San Francisco’s Van Ness Theater, built for $200,000, opened on the southwest corner of Van Ness and Grove on March 11. It had a capacity of 1,614 spectators. The opening show was the English Opera Company’s Lady Butterfly. The opening allowed members of San Francisco society to show up in full dress for the first time since the 1906 earthquake and the devastation that followed. But the structure was only demolished three years after it opened, as the building proved to be too flimsy and the location unsuitable. Now the Louise M. Davis Symphony Hall sits on the site.

March 1922 (100 years ago)

Vinnette Caroll.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the pioneering playwright, actress and director Vinnette Carroll. Among her many accomplishments, Carroll was the first black woman to lead a Broadway play, the Gospel Revue Don’t bother me, I can’t cope, a show she both conceived and directed. It opened at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, before moving to Broadway in 1972, where it earned four Tony nominations and ran for over a thousand performances. Carroll made her acting debut in 1948 when she left studying psychology to attend Erwin Piscator’s drama workshop at the New School of Social Research (now New School University). There she studied with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, and was influenced by Brecht and Piscator to create her own style of folk drama. Carroll founded the Urban Arts Corps in 1967, a nonprofit organization whose mission was to create repertoire theater that featured new work by underrepresented artists and to provide first-hand performing arts experiences. to black and brown communities. Carroll is quoted in a New York Times article from 1969 saying, “The deprivation imposed by the white community on the black artist is not only crippling to the have-not, but also to the dispossessed.” Carroll died at age 80 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she founded the Vinnette Carroll Repertory Company.

March 1972 (50 years ago)

This month the new Indiana Repertory Theater invited “all Indianapolis women interested in acting” to a meeting at the Anthenaeum. Artistic directors Ed Stern and Ben Mordecai addressed the women’s gathering and explained the importance of building a professional theater in Indianapolis. The IRT then opened in the fall of 1972 with a six-play season that performed at the Anthenaeum and then toured the state, visiting Indiana high schools and colleges. An estimated 30,000 Hoosier students saw an IRT production on its first statewide tour. In 1980, the IRT moved to its current home at the historic Indiana Theater on Washington Street in Indianapolis. The IRT continues to be a regional theater with a mission to provide “lifetime experiences that will engage, surprise, challenge and entertain people.” This month they open Charles Smith’s play The reconquest of Madison Hemingsa play about the son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, set in 1866.

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