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Mann Talk

Circle in the Square founder Theodore Mann discusses his new memoir. logo
During the Q&A following the recent talk Theodore "Ted" Mann gave at the New York Library of Performing Arts, a fan prefaced his query by calling the speaker "a divinity." Mann -- who was on hand to plug his new memoir, Journeys in the Night: Creating a New American Theater With Circle in the Square -- smiled but refrained from calling for a cup of ambrosia or flashing lightning from his fingertips. The reality, though, is that there are many people who'd assert that over the past 60 years the fellow has done utterly divine services for contemporary theater.

For example, few would dispute that when Mann opened Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke at the Circle in the Square on May 24, 1952, he revitalized Off-Broadway at a time when there was no "Off-Broadway" term in use. Few would deny that Eugene O'Neill's reputation was cemented with Mann's 1956's productions of The Iceman Cometh followed by the world premiere of Long Day's Journey Into Night, or that he resurrected the reputation of George Bernard Shaw on these shores with nine revivals, perhaps the most famous being the award-winning 1983 Heartbreak House starring Rex Harrison.

Indeed, Mann has an interesting secret to reveal about the many revivals -- Shaw and otherwise -- that he's produced. "Of all the revivals we've ever done, we've never seen the original Broadway productions," he tells TheaterMania in a special interview. "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."

In writing this book, Mann wants to spread his love of the theater by way of a volume that not only recounts in detail the mounting of numerous plays and musicals -- and the endless fund-raising required for them -- but also his association with such larger-than-life actors as Geraldine Page, Jason Robards Jr., Frederic March, George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, Kevin Kline, and Stanley Tucci. About the brilliance of Robards and his contemporaries, Mann speculates: "That generation came out of World War II. It's part of our life experience. I think we were all affected by the trauma and the change that happened in our society. It must have brought out some hidden merits in each one of them. They were of the people. They also all came out of family insecurities -- Jason, George, Colleen, Gerry."

Mann's frequent eye glints recur as he skips back and forth over his many decades-long career. Talking about his 1951 search for a Manhattan spot to anchor Circle in the Square, Mann recalls there'd been earlier attempts to establish downtown theater-going, but they had stalled because producers were offering classic plays that audiences didn't want to see. As to why he chose the original Sheridan Square location to promote his choices, he reveals that the theater's size was a prime factor. "This new space was 16 feet wide and about 30 feet deep. The first impression I had was that this is like a little Greek theater," he says. "Nobody else has a theater like this in New York. This would be nice, would be good, would be exciting. We made it so that [the stage and auditorium] were equal sizes."

Mann goes on to discuss the actor-audience relationship. "I'll tell you that when you rehearse a play and it's a wonderful time, the difference about how you feel about what you're doing in rehearsal as against the night you hit the audience is incredible," he says. "Whatever you learn is sublimated by what you learn from the audience. The audience teaches you the play. It teaches where the values of the play are."

Mann expected his first O'Neill outing to be something obscure, but Carlotta O'Neill, the playwright's widow, gave him access to whatever he wanted, including The Iceman Cometh, which he produced at Circle in 1956 with Robards as Hickey. "Carlotta adored Jose [Quintero, the director]. She always compared his hands to O'Neill's," he notes. "Carlotta was very much conscious of wanting to resurrect [O'Neill's] reputation. 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."

Later, Carlotta asked Mann to put on Long Day's Journey in direct contradiction of her late husband's 25-year delay request. "Everybody finds identification within it.," says Mann of the play. He goes on to talk passionately about a speech of Edmund's concerning the sea. "I just want to sit there and understand every single word of it, get the rhythm of it. It's poetry. It's very deep. It's wonderfully personal. He's telling us something he's feeling very deeply within his soul."

As for his fondness for Shaw, whose plays he's gussied up numerous times, he says, "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."

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