Lucille Lortel, Eva La Gallienne Still Live

One of Westport’s best-kept secrets is the White Barn Theatre.

The White Barn Theatre.

Founded in 1947 by actress/producer Lucille Lortel on her Newtown Road property straddling the Norwalk line, the 148-seat White Barn has always played second fiddle to the bigger, better-known red barn Westport Country Playhouse.

But despite its low-key presence — it may be the last organization on earth without a website — the White Barn Theatre deserves its place in arts history.

Lucille Lortel

Lortel envisioned the former horse barn as a showcase for daring plays and new playwrights, composers, actors, directors and designers. It has been called “one of the greatest American experimental theaters of the 20th century.”

It presented works by Ionesco, Albee and Beckett, and premiered or staged early versions of plays that went on to successful Broadway and Off-Broadway runs, including Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” and Terrence McNally’s “Next.”

Among the actors who got their start there were Peter Falk and Geoffrey Holder.

The White Barn Theatre and Athol Fugard, featured in a 1964 1994 Norwalk Hour story.

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller were regular guests for plays by Athol Fugard, Bertold Brecht and Tennesse Williams.

It’s the real deal — even if you’ve never heard of it. And many Westporters have not.

This Saturday (May 12, 2 p.m.), you’ll get a chance to peek inside the White Barn Theatre. The Westport Historical Society is sponsoring a tour. Former general manager Mark Graham and British stage designer Peter Ling will show off the building and grounds (Lortel’s private residence still stands).

There will be a reading, and refreshments in the garden.

Eva La Gallienne

Plus, Ling says, through “the magic of theater” Lortel and Eva La Gallienne — the actress/producer/director long associated with the White Barn — will “live again.” I can’t say more than that, but it should be very cool.

Just like everything about the White Barn Theatre. Whether you’ve been a fan for 6 decades, or heard of it for the first time 6 seconds ago.

(Tickets are $10 each. For reservations, call 203-222-1424. The White Barn Theatre is located on Newtown Turnpike, near the corner of Cranbury Road.)

10 responses to “Lucille Lortel, Eva La Gallienne Still Live

  1. As you probably know, the “former horse barn” was moved onto the property after Ms Lortel purchased it for the purpose of raising horses. According to “Angels in the American Theater,” war-era restrictions on feed made it impossible to raise horses, so that Ms Lortel was open to the suggestion – from Danny Kaye! – that it would be an excellent venue for a theater.

  2. Richard Lawrence Stein

    Dan I thought the property was sold years back to a school? What has come of the property in regards of up keep?

    • According to Wikipedia: Lortel bequeathed the property to her theater foundation, which later proposed putting a housing development and possibly a school on the site, something opposed by members of the Save Cranbury Association.

      In 2005, the state granted $450,000 to the Norwalk Land Conservation Trust Inc. to help preserve the parcel, which contains a pond, open fields, extensive wetlands and woodland. Stony Brook, a Class A stream, runs directly through the property and feeds a nearby aquifer.

      The property was sold in 2006 for $4.8 million to 78 Cranberry Road LLC according to Westport Now Magazine.

      In 2008, the property was purchased by the Connecticut Friends School in nearby Wilton. The school plans to build an expanded school building campus on the property.[

  3. Gary Singer

    Once again you’ve managed to find and resurrect local history. I remember the White Barn so well. A jewel of a small theatre, I directed “Summertree”,
    an anti-war drama, in 1971 there, and “Jimmy Shine” in 1973. Lucille Lortel was a giant presence in the audience for those productions, and her life was 100% theatre. All your readers should try to attend the tour to see and sense the history of theatre in the mid-20th century.

  4. Dan: Looks like it’s 1994, not 1964.

  5. Scott Rose

    I wish I were in town to attend!

  6. David Heath

    My mother Liza Chapman played Regina in a production of Ibsen’s GHOSTS at the White Barn with her mentor and teacher Eva La Gallienne. Miss La Gallienne translated and adapted Ibsen’s script for that production. Lucille Lortel produced it of course. What a cast party that must have been! I wasn’t born yet. Luckily, I do have a great press clipping from one of the local papers promoting the show. It’s a photograph of Lucille Lortel and my mother sitting at a restaurant table being interviewed by someone named Victor Gilbert. It’s a JPEG and I would post it here but I can’t figure out how. Oddly enough, I’ve never been to the White Barn Theatre so I’m looking forward to seeing it for the first time on Saturday.