Today we turn our attention to the South Village where GVSHP has been fighting for landmark protections and appropriate zoning for decades.
The Circle in the Square Theater, which operated at 159 Bleecker Street in the heart of the South Village for decades, was an epicenter of off-Broadway theatre.
Originally founded by Theodore Mann, José Quintero, Jason Wingreen, Eileen Cramer, and Emily Stevens in 1950, the company was first located at 5 Sheridan Square (an abandoned nightclub) in Greenwich Village. The performance space was “in the round,” thus giving rise to the company’s famous name.
Circle’s first production was Howard Richardson and Richard Berney’s Dark of the Moon. Tickets were $1.50 each. City officials determined that the Sheridan Square space had been zoned as a cabaret, so tables were built around the stage, and the audience was served cookies and punch by production staff and off-duty actors in order to meet the requirements of the cabaret laws. Other shows staged during Circle’s inaugural season included Jean Anouihl’s Antigone and Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma.
Jose Quintero directed several landmark productions for the company including perhaps his best known, Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and Summer and Smoke, starring the great Geraldine Page.
In 1960 the company moved to a new performance space at 159 Bleecker Street, the original home of the Amato Opera Company, which had been built by and operated by Italian-Americans; typical of the South Village in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Many of these theaters in the South Village were, like the Circle in the Square, built or altered from other types of existing structures.
The Bleecker Street theater’s three-sided stage allowed for democratic seating, use of a minimal amount of scenery, and for the audience to be close to the action. This style, pioneered by Circle in the Square, later became a mainstay of regional theater.
Throughout the 1960s, Circle continued to develop as a home for both revivals of classic works, such as Othello and Iphigenia in Aulis, and for new and experimental works such as the American premiers of Jean Genet’s The Balcony and Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow.
In its long history, Circle in the Square launched or reinvigorated the careers of many playwrights, actors, and directors. Among the notable figures who worked on Circle productions were Alan Arkin, Philip Bosco, Zak Brown, Michael Cocoyannis, David Carradine, Richard Chamberlain, Liviu Ciulei, Mildred Dunnock, Marsha Eck, Jules Feiffer, Jules Fisher, Hallie and Horton Foote, Lillian Gish, George Grizzard, Rex Harrison, Rosemary Harris, Dana Ivey, Anne Jackson, Salome Jens, James Earl Jones, Frances McDormand, Leonard Melfi, Eve Merriam, Joe Namath, Geraldine Page, Mary Louise Parker, Stephen Porter, Ellis Raab, Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, George C. Scott, Vitali Solomon, Eli Wallach, Tennessee Williams, and Thornton Wilder.
Unfortunately, about 10 years ago, 159 Bleecker Street was virtually demolished to accommodate a residential building on the site. Again, GVSHP fought to preserve the space as a part of our effort to designate the South Village Historic District.