Grace Under Fire: Isabelle Stevenson

Tony Awards   Grace Under Fire: Isabelle Stevenson
 
FROM THE SPECIAL TONY PLAYBILL

FROM THE SPECIAL TONY PLAYBILL

The President of the American Theatre Wing, Isabelle Stevenson, has fought hard to maintain the quality Antoinette Perry and the Wing founders brought to programs

Isabelle Stevenson is the sixth and longest sitting president in the 57-year history of the American Theatre Wing, co-presenters of the Tony Awards. She's become a familiar face on the annual telecasts and the bi-annual Working in the Theatre seminars, telecast by City University of New York (CUNY) and seen on cable. While more and more people are becoming aware of her efforts to broaden awareness of Broadway and regional theatre, few know her past or what makes her tick.

A former dancer in vaudeville around the world, Philadelphia's Isabelle Lebow, "The Blonde Bombshell," was part of a comedy trio. A critic in Paris termed her a rival to Josephine Baker. She later studied design and became an editor at her husband's publishing house.

"I was always an avid theatregoer. A friend who was an American Theatre Wing board member suggested I join. In 1957 I was elected to the board. I was secretary under actress and Wing co-founder Helen Menken. When she died in 1966, I was elected president."

It was a time of transition for the Wing and theatre in general. "Many wondered if we could or would continue in the direction plotted by Helen and, before her, Rachel Crothers, Antoinette Perry, Helen Hayes, Vera Allen and Louise Beck (Mrs. Martin)."

She pointed out that long before women's lib, these women "used their skill to do what they did best, which was theatre craft. Antoinette Perry, in particular, was unique as an independent producer/director in a male-dominated era and field. She spoke their language, and knew not only box office but every aspect of theatre. She believed strongly in artistic integrity and training. That was the criteria in naming the awards in her honor."

Miss Perry and the other women created the Wing to raise funds and build morale during World War II. The latter was done at the Stage Door Canteen in New York, six others nationwide, plus canteens in London and Paris; and, in conjunction with the USO, by sending live theatre with major stars overseas.

"After the war," Mrs. Stevenson noted, "the Wing's focus changed. In 1946, under the GI Bill, the Wing founded a drama school, with theatre luminaries as 'visiting professors' (among them: Rodgers, Hammerstein, Lunt, Fontanne, LeGallienne, Miller, Ferrer, Stapleton and Prince). When they needed an audience, they performed in high schools."

The bill ran out of funding, and the school closed in 1965. "But theatre education has continued," noted Mrs. Stevenson, "by coming full circle back to the high schools." She refers to the Wing's Saturday Theatre for Children and Introduction to Broadway programs, co-sponsored by The League of American Theatres and Producers and the New York City Board of Education.

"We buy heavily discounted tickets, and students pay $2.50," said Mrs. Stevenson. "Since 1992, 54,000 students have seen shows and learned what goes on behind the scenes."

The programs are Mrs. Stevenson's proudest accomplishments "because not only will these students return as ticket buyers, but many of them will also look to theatre for career opportunities."

In December 1995 it was announced the Wing was establishing an annual scholarship in Mrs. Stevenson's name at Fiorello LaGuardia High School of the
Performing Arts.

Other programs include the seminars; bringing theatre to regional hospitals, AIDS units and nursing homes; and grants for non-profit theatre. Recent government cuts of funding to
the arts haven't affected the Wing.
"We're fortunate," Mrs. Stevenson said, "because so many wonderful people give of their time and talent."
Ken Lewis, executive director of the Wing, administers the programs with Mrs. Stevenson, who serves in an unsalaried position.

Recalling "the days before we became big business (beginning with the network telecasts in 1967)," Mrs. Stevenson said she wished the Tonys could return to the "warm, homey family affairs they once were. You had producers, directors, casts sitting at tables. Tickets were under five dollars."

She particularly remembers 1958 when Anne Bancroft, who won for Two for the Seesaw, "ran to the podium through the tables receiving congratulations. Arriving breathlessly to the podium, she exclaimed to Laurence Olivier, as he handed her the Tony, in her most giggly voice, 'I wish you went with it.' And you have never seen a more befuddled Englishman.

"That's a wonderful part of theatre. With network time restrictions much has changed. I wish they'd allow more time for acceptance speeches. Who can forget the emotional impact of Michael Jeter's remarks about the change in his personal fortunes when he won for Grand Hotel (1990)?"

Mrs. Stevenson said she believes that due to its efforts to promote theatre, the Wing "has reemerged as a force by helping it economically. But we haven't become so commercialized that the quality of our work has suffered. I fight vehemently to make sure of that. And fight to assure the quality of the Tony Awards and that for which they stand."

In the most intense situations Mrs. Stevenson displays grace under fire. In broadening the Wing's scope to promote theatre, she doesn't easily reveal her personal side. Those who know her know she possesses a quick intellect and quick wit. Rarely does anyone call this as she once jokingly put it, "Mother Teresa of the Theatre" anything other than Mrs. Stevenson.

"I want to be Isabelle," she admits, "but I guess I have that kind of . . ." Could it be, Mrs. Stevenson, that you're very imperial? She breaks out in guffaws of laughter, replying "I've thought I must be." Then adds, "But I should say not!"

-- By Ellis Nassour

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