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The Bouwerie Lane Theatre: Long-time Home of the Iconic Jean Cocteau Repertory

On January 11, 1967, one of the most beautiful buildings in all of New York was designated an individual landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  330 Bowery (54 Bond) was built in 1874 and designed by Henry Engelbert in the French Second Empire style.  Originally designed as a bank building for the Bond Street Bank, it was sold in 1879 to the German Exchange Bank, which served New York’s and especially the local area’s ever-growing German immigrant population. The stately and sophisticated cast-iron building went through many stages of mixed-use. In the 1940s, the building was converted to lofts for textile finishing. It was standing empty by 1963 when an actress and theater-lover, Honey Honey Waldman, and Bruce Becker converted the bank into a 183-seat theater called the Bouwerie Lane Theatre*, opening with Frank Langella in Andre Gide’s The Immortalist. Later productions included The Palm Casino Review, with members of the Cockettes, and Dames at Sea, which made Bernadette Peters a star. (*Bouwerie means farm, and employs the old Dutch spelling).

Dames At Sea, the musical parody of large, flashy 1930s Busby Berkeley-style movie musicals in which a chorus girl, newly arrived off the bus from the Midwest to New York City, steps into a role on Broadway and becomes a star, had a very successful run at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre from 1968-1969. Interestingly, it originally played Off-Off-Broadway in 1966 at Joe Cino’s Caffe Cino, also starring Bernadette Peters. The show subsequently enjoyed a London run, a television adaptation, and a number of revivals, before its Broadway premiere in October 2015.

Bernadette Peters in Dames At Sea at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre
Rehearsal for Dames At Sea at Caffe Cino in spring of 1966

In 1974, the Bouwerie Lane Theatre was leased by The Jean Cocteau Repertory, a company formed in 1971 by Eve Adamson, that staged productions of both classic and contemporary plays, with a core of permanent, resident actors.

The company was alternately known as “Cocteau,” “The Cocteau,” or “Cocteau Rep,” and was formed by Adamson after being disappointed by the roles offered to her as an actress. She named the company after Jean Cocteau, a French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist, and critic. He was one of the foremost creatives of the surrealist, avant-garde, and Dadaist movements, and arguably one of the most influential figures in early 20th-century art as a whole. The company was formed with Jean Cocteau’s philosophy in mind, aiming for a “poetry of the theatre” that creates a complete experience of theatergoing by melding each individual aspect of the performance.

The Winter’s Tale Jean Cocteau Repertory

The Cocteau’s first performance was staged in a storefront on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The first season included William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and Cocteau’s Orphee. In 1973, the fledgling company received positive reviews and critical acclaim for an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It was at the time noted that though the company lacked money and resources, they balanced these difficulties with artistic creativity. That same year, the company started its first season of rotating repertory, performing four to seven plays per season, a structure it would maintain for the next three decades. When Cocteau moved into the 140-seat Bouwerie Lane Theatre, it continued to receive positive critical reviews. The Cocteau established enough acclaim to be selected by Tennessee Williams to premiere his play Something Cloudy, Something Clear in 1981. Williams was in residence at the theater during the entirety of the rehearsal process, and it turned out to be his last play. The Cocteau also premiered works by Edvard Radzinsky, Seamus Heaney, and Barbara Lebow.

Tennessee Williams with Eve Adamson

Though she continued to direct plays at Cocteau, Adamson stepped down as artistic director in 1989. Her replacement was Robert Hupp, who held the position until 1999, when he was succeeded by David Fuller. Fuller sought to unionize the Cocteau, with health and pension benefits for the staff, and made the creative push to present musical theater productions in the hopes of increasing subscriptions. One of the first musicals staged under Fuller’s direction was The Cradle Will Rock during the 2000-2001 Season.

In addition to staging productions, the Cocteau sought to provide outreach to the greater community. In 1977, the theater developed a student matinee series for local high school students, as well as maintaining a complimentary ticket program for older New Yorkers. The Cocteau began its neighborhood outreach program in 1989, performing plays in underserved neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. In 1992, the Cocteau collaborated on a residency program that held workshops and performances at Baruch College of the City University of New York that lasted until 2001 and included LaGuardia Community College. The Cocteau extended its reach internationally with a trip to Brazil in 1999 to perform Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Teatro Alfa in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The Cocteau received many accolades including a 1990 Obie nomination, a 1989 Outer Critics’ Circle nomination for Special Achievement, two Drama Desk nominations, Six Villager Awards, and a Citation for Excellence from the sitting Manhattan Borough President, David Dinkens, in 1987.

In 2007, 330 Bowery was sold to a developer and The Jean Cocteau Repertory ceased to exist thereafter. The building is now a condominium with storefronts on the first floor.

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