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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3 Responses to “Ted Mann Remembered”

  1. March 1, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    Lovely tribute, Janet. Thank you for this. The only thing missing is that we are still carrying on his legacy, presenting wonderful productions here at the Circle. He will be sorely missed.
    Susan Frankel
    General Manager
    Circle in the Square Theatre

  2. March 1, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

    you are so right!

  3. November 1, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    I worked at the Circle in the Square for about three years starting in 1952. I sewed costumes and when the play was on, I collected tickets at the door, then sold coffee and brownies during intermission, and was also the dresser for the actors. I loved Geraldine Paige and was fascinated by her ability to joke as I dressed her and then totally change as she moved into her character and went on stage. I also washed and ironed the clothes for the actors. Jason Robards used to tease me a lot. I was about sixteen and was very shocked at seeing Mr Robards in his underwear as he was dressing. I used to deliver his shirt with my hand over my eyes. He would always say, “You can come in now, I’ve got my pants on.

    Most of the actors lived in the building at that time and I had so much fun interacting with them as I sewed costumes in the costume room. I was always in awe of Mr. Mann and have to admit that I was a bit scared of him as he was very exacting and serious about every aspect of running the theatre. Jose Quintero was a most wonderful director and I often brought my hand sewing intro the theatre so I could watch him preparing a new play. He would get into a role’s moment and act out what he was looking for so the actors would understand.

    I was very interested in theatre and my dream was to become a costume designer. I saw the first play put on in the Sheridan Square location and thought theatre in the round was the ultimate form of theatre because it put the audience into the play and made it a wholistic magical experience.

    The very next day I went to the theatre and told Mr. Mann that I would like to volunteer in the costume area. He acceped me and eventually I was paid as I took on more assignments. I was attending Central Needle Trades High School (now Fashion Industries H.S.) at the time. I eventually left the Circle in the Square to design costumes for the Suzuki Puppet Company and after doing Allaudin and his Lamp for them, I began to design costume for Indian dancers who were performing in the city.

    In 1957, I left New York to study Indian Classical Music in Calcutta. But the Circle in the Square has always been with me throughout my life. I don’t think I am still afraid of Mr. Mann. He was a most wonderful individual as was everyone else I met through my years at the Circle In The Square.