Five years ago, Laura Pels was a corporate wife with a private passion for theatre. Today, as president of The Laura Pels Foundation, she has become one of New York's leading benefactors of classic theatre, underwriting productions and education programs at about 40 nonprofit companies each year. Now it's Mrs. Pels's turn to be honored: The Roundabout Theatre Company will christen its new performance space the Laura Pels Theatre on October 17, opening night of Harold Pinter's "Moonlight."
How did Laura Pels become the guardian angel of serious theatre in New York? Quite simply, she decided to use a sizable divorce settlement to support an art form she loved. "A charitable trust was part of my settlement," says Mrs. Pels, whose former husband owned a communications company, "and I decided that I was going to do exactly what I wanted with it--help the theatre. I really believe that the public is ready for the kind of theatre that provides food for the soul. The things that can be done if you have a little courage are amazing."
Case in point: "The Molière Comedies," a project championed by Mrs. Pels and one of Roundabout's biggest hits last season. "Todd Haimes was the only artistic director who did not pooh-pooh my desire and Brian Bedford's desire to put on the two Molière plays," she recalls. "People said, `Nobody's going to want to see it,' but Todd said, `I'll take the risk.' "
"Laura's interest in advancing classical theatre is a perfect match with what Roundabout does," notes Haimes. "As traditional sources of funding are drying up, a person like Laura who will sponsor productions makes a huge difference to nonprofit theatres like ours." He adds, "The fact that Laura is a creative person who can come up with her own projects and yet doesn't tell us how to run the company is the nicest combination one could ask for in a supporter."
Laura Pels became interested in the stage as a child in France. "Many of the people I grew up with were involved in the business," she says, "so I went off to Paris to study mime and acting. I discovered that acting was not for me, but I loved the theatre. If you're French, it is really a part of your culture." Working with her executive director Janet Dunham, Mrs. Pels goes to the theatre at least three nights a week and considers several criteria in choosing which companies to help: They must support classic theatre, advance the work of great playwrights and make theatre more accessible to the general public. Beneficiaries range from The National Actors Theatre to Signature Theatre to Thalia Spanish Theatre.
When Roundabout offered to name its new theatre after her, Mrs. Pels says, "I hesitated. I thought it was an honor I didn't deserve. But I realized that giving up a little anonymity could have a positive impact on the work I want to do. People should know that if you are willing to get your feet wet, you can do a lot of good."
-- By Kathy Henderson