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News > Context Winter 2021 > Big Ideas & Little Theatres

Big Ideas & Little Theatres

Most of what Americans understand today about the worth and place of theatre in the national cultural landscape came into focus during the Little Theatre Movement between 1912 and 1929.
The 1913 façade of the Little Theatre of Philadelphia (now Plays and Players). Photo:Jeffery Totaro
The 1913 façade of the Little Theatre of Philadelphia (now Plays and Players). Photo:Jeffery Totaro

By Dorothy Chansky and Tim Kerner

Most of what Americans understand today about the worth and place of theatre in the national cultural landscape came into focus during the Little Theatre Movement between 1912 and 1929. Two built manifestations of this movement are the Plays and Players Theatre in Center City and the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, both of which, to some degree, continue to serve their original missions. Despite their shared intentions, the stories and surroundings of these two theatres provide a compelling study of contrasts.

The Little Theatre Movement comprised a web of amateur and semi-professional theatrical activities that arose in opposition to the dominant commercialism of Broadway productions. Nineteenth-century railroad expansion had enabled New York producers to transport their stars and tours across the country, contributing to the demise of locally based, resident companies. The proponents of Little Theatre opposed these overly commercial spectacles and aspired towards theatre as a form of artistic expression and a means to improve American society. 

Little Theatre founders and participants — typically but not always accurately regarded as “bohemians” — included playwrights, professors, political activists, civic boosters, socialites, poets, actors, journalists, housewives, and students. The Progressive Era (1890-1920) that provided the soil in which they planted their seeds, saw an influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and rapid economic expansion driven by heavy industrialization. Mass production, consumerism, and the newly arrived non-English speakers created a perfect storm of anxiety and opportunity.

Little Theatre drew artistic inspiration from the best-known production models of the European Independent Theatre Movement and from the design aesthetics of Adolphe Appia, Edward Gordon Craig, and Max Reinhardt — pioneers known for treating space on both sides of the footlights as plastic. Theatrical experimentation was a defining element of the movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

Playwrights whose work defined the Little Theatre Movement include Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Frank Wedekind, and Eugene O’Neill. Well-known American Little Theatres include the Provincetown Players, the Washington Square Players, and the Chicago Little Theatre. In 1915, sixty-three organizations called themselves Little Theatres and by 1926 a writer for Vanity claimed a total of 5,000.1

The Provincetown Players got their start in 1915, when a group of New York-based writers and activists assembled at their summer beach haunt on Cape Cod to present short, original plays. The group is perhaps best known for giving Eugene O’Neill his start as a produced playwright. The Washington Square Players (1914-1918) was also founded by a group of iconoclastic New Yorkers. The group’s mission was not the production of member-written plays, but rather the production of a variety of plays from many sources. 

The “Little” in “Little Theatre” referred not only to budgets, but also to the size of the venues, which were meant to bring audiences and actors in close proximity at a time when large theatres and extravagant scenery were the norm. Little Theatres ranged in size from seventy to three hundred seats, and the intimacy allowed a direct, visceral connection with the performance.

In Philadelphia, the Movement got a jump start in 1913 when Beulah E. Jay, a native of Boston and sometime student of acting and opera, opened the doors of her Little Theatre. The year prior, she founded the Metropolitan Dramatic School at 15th and Chestnut and purchased three residential lots on the 1700 block of Delancey Street with her husband, Edward G. Jay, and her husband’s business partner, Frederick H. Shelton.

Architect Amos Warren Barnes was hired to draw up the plans and F. A. Havens and Company was awarded the construction contract. Barnes was a versatile engineer/architect who had previously designed industrial, commercial, and residential buildings as well as one earlier Philadelphia theatre, the now-demolished Forrest Theatre of 1906.

The theatre on Delancey follows the Arts and Crafts tradition advocated in the nineteenth century by William Morris and John Ruskin to counter the forces of the industrial revolution. The exterior walls are of earthen, handcrafted materials; beige, brick laid in an English bond and accentuated with terra cotta tiles from the Moravian Tile Works. The dominant decorative feature is a terra cotta band of robed dancers modeled after a Florentine frieze of the 1400s. The natural hued exterior materials continue into the lobby to create a subdued atmosphere that was atypical for the time.

Once through the theatre doors, the ornate Classical Revival auditorium offers a contrast with the exterior to create an atmosphere of refined cultural expectation. The 238 seats on the gently raked floor and 86 more in the balcony provide excellent site lines. Paired columns adorn the walls, and a decorative cornice wraps the ornamented ceiling. On the walls between the columns are murals based on the myth of Dionysus and Ariadne, which were painted by Edith Emerson in 1918 and revealed to the public with grand fanfare.

Beulah Jay’s mission was to produce “plays of ideas”2 and she initially produced and directed everything herself. The first season included works by Oscar Wilde, Henrik Ibsen and Bernard Shaw.  Her approach was different from that of most Little Theatres in that she hired professional actors. As she stated in a 1913 interview with The New York Times, she did not expect to make any “big profits…just meet her expenses.”3Unfortunately, her lack of financial experience, the cost of running a professional theatre, and an overly ambitious schedule proved a daunting combination. 

Beulah ran afoul of Bernard Shaw when she produced Misalliance without securing the production rights, which he had sold to another producer. When Shaw inquired of her theatre’s circumstances, she wrote back that the theatre was “simple and dignified in design.” He angrily replied that neither this nor the seat count was useful information. “The number of people a theatre holds is of no consequence compared to the quantity of money it holds.  What are the prices of the seats; and how many are there of each denomination?”4 he shot back.

Perhaps in response to such issues, Beulah’s business partner, F. H. Shelton, bought out her ownership of the building eight months after the first production. She continued to manage the theatre until 1918, but in 1920 Shelton turned the management over to the Shubert organization, who controlled half of Broadway and managed over a thousand theatres across the country. The Little Theatre of Philadelphia had fallen into the hands it had meant to oppose. 

Meanwhile, Plays and Players was separately founded in 1911 as an upper-class social club devoted to expanding and developing the theatrical experience for its members. They performed what they considered significant plays in a 100-seat private theatre on 18th Street, and occasionally rented Beulah’s theatre on Delancey. Members considered themselves part of the cultural elite and many of them also belonged to the Philadelphia Art Alliance.

In 1922, Shelton broke free from the Shuberts and sold the Little Theatre to the Plays and Players organization, of which he was a founding member. Experimental theatre returned to Delancey Street, but for members only. This operating model continued until the 1960s, when Plays and Players transformed itself into a professional theatre and opened its doors to the city.

Although, Plays and Players’ resident company has since disbanded, the building has hosted a variety of theatrical groups. The longest residing tenant was the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which performed in the theatre for 25 years until moving to their current home on Broad Street. The ongoing mission of Plays and Players, “to provide intelligent, inclusive and diverse plays that engage and entertain audiences”5 is a direct extension of Beulah Jay’s founding intentions.

Within the range of what could be considered “Little Theatres,” it would be difficult to find a greater contrast with Plays and Players than the Hedgerow Theatre. While Beulah built her theatre in Philadelphia’s wealthiest neighborhood, the Hedgerow was founded in an outlying mill building, which passed third-hand through a failed attempt at an Arts and Crafts utopia to become the longest running repertory theatre in the country.

One feature shared by the two theatres is the connection to the Arts and Crafts movement. The mill was built in 1840 and converted into a meeting hall in 1901 by Architect William Lightfoot Price as part of an attempt to establish a utopian community of craftspeople. He also renovated the adjacent abandoned buildings to serve as a residential hall and a workshop where handcrafted furniture was fabricated to be sold at his office on Walnut Street in Philadelphia.

The Rose Valley community was dedicated to individual artistic expression and a sense of self-worth. Unfortunately, the cost of the handcrafted furniture was higher than what people were willing to pay and by 1910 the economics proved unsustainable. The workshop closed and the utopian community dispersed. Rose Valley was subsequently developed into a commuter suburb with a collection of fine homes designed by Will Price.

A second commonality between the two theatres was the force of conviction of the founding individuals to realize their idealistic theatrical aspirations. At the Hedgerow, this individual was Jasper Deeter, who arrived at Swarthmore College in 1923 to take part in a Chautauqua event and, instead, walked three miles to watch his sister rehearse a play in the converted mill building. Somehow, Jasper recognized the potential for cultural exploration in Rose Valley and dedicated his life to producing challenging theatre in this unlikely location.

Jasper previously worked with the Provincetown Players, attracted by the commitment to produce new American plays in a noncommercial repertory system. This was his starting point for the Hedgerow, which he believed could provide the theatrical foundation for a meaningful life. As Henry Miller described his quest, “It is not the theater which interests him but life manifesting itself as drama. To convert thought into action, to make each and every act eloquent, that is the essence and function of drama.”6

A small corps of actors initially followed Jasper from New York, but he encouraged community participation and the Rose Valley residents came to embrace the Hedgerow and its charismatic leader. The theatre functioned as a cooperative — the actors received room and board but no salary. They cooked, washed, and worked on the building and grounds. The spirit of Price’s artistic utopia was rekindled and money was not a driving concern, as there was never much around.

Through Jasper’s determination and with the dedication of artists who shared his dream, the Hedgerow became a recognized proving ground for modern theatre. One such artist was Wharton Esherick, the modernist woodworker whose furniture is on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His efforts sustained the theatre building; he repaired cracks in the walls, reinforced aging beams, built scenery, props, furniture, a staircase, and freestanding sculptures.

Plays were performed five nights a week, sometimes with just a few audience members and sometimes to a full house of 144. The theatrical repertory was expanded each year by a half dozen new productions. In 1933, they performed Misalliance (yes, the same play that got Beulah in trouble) for eight people at fifty cents a seat, and twenty cents of royalty was dutifully sent to Bernard Shaw.7 

Jasper led the Hedgerow until 1956, by which time the repertory included 199 plays by writers such as Eugene O’Neill, Susan Glaspell, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser and, of course, Shaw. The Hedgerow continues operation today with a resident company of actors and is a nationally recognized progenitor of theatres such as the People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern and Freedom Theatre in North Philadelphia.

The task of the Little Theatre Movement writ large was to carve out a recognized place for independent theatre within a cultural landscape dominated by Broadway and Hollywood entertainment. The improbable intentions of Beulah Jay and Jasper Deeter introduced audiences to modern, intellectually challenging plays and contributed to the growth of American drama as an art form. Little Theatre inspired the evolution of theatrical studies as a legitimate academic pursuit and laid the groundwork for the Regional Theatre Movement that continues to engage and challenge audiences throughout Philadelphia and across the country.

Citations:

1.          Dorothy Chansky, Composing Ourselves; The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience, Southern Illinois University Press, 2004, p. 5.

2.          “This Woman Built a Theatre to Prove Her Theories”, New York Times, June 22, 1913, p. 13.

3.          Ibid.

4.          Chansky, p. 48.

5.     http://playsandplayers.org/about/, accessed September 8, 2021

6.          Henry Miller, Remember to Remember, New Directions Books, 1947, p. 116.

7.          Barry B. Witham, A Sustainable Theatre: Jasper Deeter at Hedgrow, Pallgrove Macmillan, 2013, p. 21.

Dorothy Chansky is Professor of Theatre in the Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts at Texas Tech University and author of Composing Ourselves; The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience.

Timothy Kerner, AIA is Principal of Terra Studio, LLC; Adjunct Professor of Architecture, Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University and Member of the Context Editorial Board.

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