The Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History was founded in 2013 by Mari Lyn Henry, educator and theatre historian. She realized that most of the young actors in training programs as well as the general, theatre-going public have limited knowledge about the great actresses of the past. Today there are three Broadway theatres named for legendary actresses:
Helen Hayes (1900-1993), built in 1912 as the Little Theatre, renamed for the first lady of the American Theatre in 1983.
Ethel Barrymore (1879-1959), designed by Herbert J. Krapp, opened on December 20, 1928 when she starred in G. Martinez Sierra’s The Kingdom of God. Brooks Atkinson praised the ‘curtain raiser as a splendid new theatre that fittingly bears her name.’
When the (Alfred) Lunt (Lynn) Fontanne (1887-1983) Theatre opened in 1958, they appeared in The Visit and opening night tickets were printed in gold.
The first American actress for whom a theatre was named is Laura Keene (1824-1873). A New York Sun reviewer (January 12, 1862) wrote: “Of all the theaters, both for managers and plays, commend me to Laura Keene’s.” It was active until 1865 when Ms. Keene left New York to tour in Our American Cousin.
Additional research reveals that leading lady Maxine Elliott (1868-1940) had her name on a theatre at 109 W. 39th St. (the only Broadway house below 41st St.) in 1908. She owned a 50% partnership with the Shubert Organization. Alla Nazimova’s (1879-1945) name was on the 39th St. Theatre at 119 W. 39th St. in 1910, courtesy of the Shuberts until she switched managers in 1911. All of these women and hundreds more were pioneers and left their indelible footprints in the theatrical community of New York. Consequently it is essential to establish a living archive to educate and restore their legacy lest it be forgotten.
STAGE STRUCK: LIVING HISTORY IN PERFORMANCE
“Whether a woman should go on the stage depends entirely on her motive. If she wishes to go on for amusement or to gratify her vanity, I emphatically answer ‘No!’ but if she wishes to earn a living or adopt the stage because she has love and real talent for it, I say ‘YES!’”
Joseph Jefferson, actor, creator, Rip Van Winkle
An essential part of the SPTH heritage program is to develop, research and present a series of programs which celebrate the lives of famous actresses who were active in the 19th and 20th centuries.
When the idea of Stage Struck was born, it took over six months of preparation to bring the show to life. Stage Struck was developed through solo pieces written from the words of five historical actresses—gleaned from biographies, autobiographies, journals, letters, scrapbooks, and diaries. A connecting narration was created to weave the pieces together, and the show ended with an audience Q and A with these historical ladies.
Stage Struck: From Kemble to Kate debuted on December 12, 2013 at the Snapple Theater Center (W. 50th St. and Broadway). Over the course of two hours audiences were introduced to Fanny Kemble, Clara Morris, Mrs. Fiske, Alla Nazimova and Katharine Hepburn. To view an edited excerpt, click here.
Since that inaugural production, SPTH has continued to offer a variety of Stage Struck performances, with one or more members of the ensemble with Eartha Kitt joining the cast. Venues have included the Metropolitan Playhouse (excerpt on video), New Perspectives Studio, and the Players at Gramercy Park. We have conducted performance workshops for Women’s Herstory Month at BMCC/CUNY and the New England Theatre Conference, and presented solo appearances at the 12th Night Club, All Souls Church and the Cosmopolitan Club.
STAGE STRUCK: Reclaiming the History of Women in Theatre is made possible in part with public funds from Creative Engagement, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Lower Manhattan Cultural Council empowers artists by providing them with networks, resources, and support, to create vibrant, sustainable communities in Lower Manhattan and beyond.
SPTH has also published a companion Study Guide for Stage Struck, which includes a brief chronicle of the heritage of actresses in the 19th and 20th centuries, a timeline which highlights major 19th century inventions affecting communication, living and working conditions, travel, and theatre publications. It has been sponsored, in part, by the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW), a non-profit organization which promotes visibility and increases opportunities for women in theatre since 1982.
For more information about the LPTW, please visit: http://theatrewomen.org.
IN THE WINGS
Currently SPTH members are researching Bertha Kalich (the”Jewish Bernhardt”), Pearl Bailey, Helen Hayes and Kim Stanley to add to the ensemble. There is a long list of great actresses who need to be rediscovered which includes Eva Le Gallienne, Julia Marlowe, Billie Burke, Lillian Russell, Lily Langtry, Dame Ellen Terry, Charlotte Cushman, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters, Katharine Cornell, Lena Horne, Maude Adams, Laurette Taylor, Mary Martin, Ruth Gordon, Ada Rehan and Ruby Dee.