Ted Mann Remembered

Most of us know Off-Broadway as a creative energetic theater movement of the Fifties. Some say it started as a reaction to the constraints of the commercial theater. Most acknowledge that Theodore Mann, founder and artistic director of the Circle in a Square Theatre, who passed away this week was a dominant force in this incredible artistic period. Mann had a cabaret and a dream. The dream was of course theater, unbridled by regulations, in small and informal spaces. The cabaret was in a Greenwich Village brownstone on Sheridan Square.  Since there were no regulations permitting small theaters, he could not call his space a theater. Thinking about theater-in-the-round in Sheridan Square, he came up with the name Circle in the Square. Later on, the powers that be found a way to permit small theaters accommodating between 100 and 499 seats. But that’s another story.

Circle in the Square was an apt name for both the theater and Ted Mann, a producer-director both on and off Broadway, who marched to the beat of his own drum.  At his father’s urging, he became a lawyer, but never practiced law due to the lure of the theater.  In 1951, along with José Quintero and others, he opened his cabaret-theater as a venue for fresh talent in demanding roles, in plays that fell outside the popular repertory of commercial theaters. As an NYU student, I loved going to the theater in it’s second home on Bleecker Street before it moved to Broadway and 50th in 1972, where the Circle in the Square Theater School now trains some 200 students annually.  Circle produced some 150 plays and Ted Mann’s playbill of playwrights, directors and actors reads like the Who’s Who of contemporary American theater.

Who can forget, certainly not I, Jason Robards in the Circle’s revival of “The Iceman Cometh.”  I remember Hickey announcing his new sobriety in the first act to which his bar buddy says, “Hickey, you took the kick out of the booze.” For many in the art community Ted’s passing took the kick out of the booze.  But I will especially cherish some of my own memories of Ted, his visit to my office with Paul Libin in the Seventies, meeting up with him again in Westchester in the Nineties and most especially getting to know his son Jonathan, a chip off the old block, who now manages Development and Arts Education at the Circle’s Theater School.

Photo: Ruby Dee and Ted Mann at ArtsWestchester’s Arts Exchange

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