Little Theatre Movement

As the new medium of cinema was beginning to replace theatre as a source of large-scale spectacle, the Little Theatre Movement developed in the United States around 1912. The Little Theatre Movement served to provide experimental centers for the dramatic arts, free from the standard production mechanisms used in prominent commercial theatres.[1] In several large cities, beginning with Chicago, Boston, Seattle, and Detroit, companies formed to produce more intimate, non-commercial, non-profit-centered,[2] and reform-minded entertainments.[3]


Conventional theater in 19th-century America

Sensational melodramas had entertained theatre audiences since the mid-19th century, drawing larger and larger audiences.[4] These types of formulaic works could be produced over and over again in splendid halls in big cities and by touring companies in smaller ones.[4] During the last decades of the century, producers and playwrights began to create narratives dealing with social problems, albeit usually on a sensational level.[5] While not yet totally free of melodramatic elements, plays reflecting a style more associated with realism gradually emerged.[6] During a secret meeting in 1895, the owners of most of the theatres across America organized into a Theatrical Syndicate "to control competition and prices." This group, which included all major producers, "effectively stifled dramatic experimentation for many years" in search of greater profits.[7] Nevertheless, by the second decade of the 20th century, pure melodrama, with its typed characters and exaggerated plots, had become the province of motion pictures.

Little Theatres of Chicago

Chicago philanthropists and arts patrons Arthur T. Aldis and Mary Aldis established an artists' colony called The Compound in Lake Forest, Illinois, and in 1910, Mary founded there the Aldis Playhouse, "a predecessor to the 'little theater' movement."[8] The Hull House settlement theatre group, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, was the first to perform several plays by Galsworthy, Ibsen, and Shaw in Chicago.[9] Maurice Browne, director and co-founder of the Chicago Little Theatre with Ellen Van Volkenburg, responding to often having been called the founder of the Little Theatre Movement, instead credited Hull House director Laura Dainty Pelham with being the "true founder of the 'American Little Theatre Movement'."[10][11] Nevertheless, Browne and Van Volkenburg's company had, as the first little theatre to use the term, provided the movement with its name and inspired the creation in 1914 of Margaret Anderson's influential Chicago periodical The Little Review.[12]

Alice Gerstenberg, an original member of the Chicago Little Theatre, expanded the movement to include children, founding the Chicago Junior League Theatre for Children in 1921. Gerstenberg was also producer and president of The Playwrights' Theatre of Chicago, 1922–1945. She was active in the Alice Gerstenberg Experimental Theatre Workshop in the 1950s and the Alice Gerstenberg Theatre in the 1960s, which helped to cultivate the legacy of the Little Theatre Movement of the early 20th century.

In 1912, two theatre groups were formed, the Toy Theatre in Boston and the Chicago Little Theatre, these events often being cited as the official start of the Little Theatre Movement in the United States.[13] Continuing to react against commercialism, amateur companies began to write and produce their own works as well as new plays from Europe that had been ignored by the syndicates.[14] A wide variety of experimental groups, clubs, and settlement houses undertook to reform the theater, bringing more inwardly directed plays to a wider public audience.[15] New forms of drama, some influenced by or parodying the new science of psychoanalysis, began to be presented in smaller venues, many converted from other uses into makeshift theatres.[16] The new groups began to experiment with new forms of storytelling, acting styles, dialogue and mise-en-scene. This experimentation, influenced by European models, ranged from an ultra-detailed naturalism to, by the early 1920s, a wildly provocative expressionism, part of a new stagecraft.[17] Women were pervasive throughout these companies, although their efforts were often belittled, dismissed, or undervalued.[18]

Pasadena Community Playhouse

The movement achieved high-water marks in artistic significance, community involvement, and international recognition with the Pasadena Community Playhouse. Originally a community theatre, the Playhouse boasted at its peak capacity six stages, each featuring a new production every two weeks, making it, for most of the early 20th century, the world's most prolific theatrical production organization. This palatial venue was, at the time of its construction in 1925, the largest theatre complex west of Chicago. The organization was able to complete many projects beyond the scope of professional companies, thanks to volunteer labor, widespread community support and the directorship of Martha Allan. Notable undertakings of the Pasadena Playhouse include the staging of the entire canon of Shakespeare for the first time on a single stage and a Midsummer Drama Festival showcasing the work of local writers.[19] In 1928, the Playhouse produced the massive theo-philosophical epic Lazarus Laughed by Eugene O'Neill. The first fully realized production of this play, the cast included 250 primarily local amateur actors, often doubling in roles that required over three hundred masks and costumes.[20]

Little theaters in the 1920s and 1930s

The Little Theatre Movement began in the early 20th century and was a result of young theatre practitioners, dramaturges, stage technicians, stage designers, and actors, who were influenced by European Theatre. More specifically, they were interested in the ideas of Max Reinhardt, a German director, the designing techniques of Adolphe Appie and Gordon Craig, and the staging methods at the Théâtre-Libre in Paris, the Freie Bühne in Berlin, and the Moscow Art Theatre.[1]

Seeking larger audiences and with more complicated production ambitions, by the early 1920s, several leading companies of the movement had turned professional. The Provincetown Players, who produced O'Neill's first one-acts, moved to New York in 1916; members of the former Washington Square Players formed the Theatre Guild in 1919;[21] but in its heyday, dozens of Little Theatre groups presented alternatives to mainstream commercial theatre. Numerous small companies had flourished, creating environments for diverse voices and viewpoints, in turn leading to the rise of giants like O'Neill.

The Provincetown Players brought the first important playwright, O'Neill, to fruition. The Provincetown Players were founded in 1915, by three people: Neith Boyce, George Cram Cook, and Susan Glaspell, who undertook Realism, an eccentric form of theatre at the time. O'Neill joined the Provincetown Players in 1916. That summer, Bound East for Cardiff, O'Neill's first play, was performed. Their summer season was so prosperous the company decided to move to New York. The Provincetown Playhouse in New York City continues to feature up-and-coming playwrights and independently-produced pieces.[2]

Other new little theaters started as community theater groups and university drama programs in the United States and Canada. Theatre Arts Monthly magazine dedicated its July issue from 1924 through the 1930s and beyond to "tributary theatres", its name for little theater programs that acted as tributaries or wellsprings of Broadway, London's West End and other centers of professional theater,.[22] In 1932, Burns Mantle of the Chicago Tribune listed the following non-professional and semi-professional theater companies that were interested in staging new and untried plays: Gilmour Brown's Pasadena Playhouse, Garrett Leverton's Northwestern University group, Syracuse University, the Little Theatre of St. Louis, Frederic McConnell's Playhouse in Cleveland, Western Reserve University, Duluth Little Theater, Dartmouth College, University of Iowa (under the direction of Prof. E. C. Mabie), University of Minnesota, Little Theater of Birmingham, University of Denver (under the direction of Walter Sinclair), Little Theater of Akron, Ohio, Little Theater of El Paso, University of Nebraska, Jasper Deeter's Hedgerow Theater at Moylan Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, the Parrish Players of Stony Creek, Connecticut, and the Little Theater of Dallas, Texas.[23]

The July 1939 issue of Theatre Arts Monthly listed the following companies in its "National Little Theatre Directory":[24]

State/Territory Company School City Director
Alabama The Auburn Players Alabama Polytechnic Institute Director: Telfair B. Peet
The College Theater Alabama College, Montevallo Director: Walter H. Trumbauer
Arizona Dept. of Dramatic Arts University of Arizona Director: Gordon Davis
California Placer Junior College Drama Guild Auburn, California Director: Lillian B. Allen
Padua Hills Theatre Claremont, CA Director: Charles A. Dickinson
University Dramatics Society University of California at Los Angeles Executive head Marvin Brody
Department of Drama Mills College Directors: Marian Long Stebbins, L. Louise Stephens, and Evaline Uhl Wright
Pacific Little Theatre College of the Pacific Director: DeMarcus Brown
Canal Zone Balboa Little Theatre Director: Subert Turbyfill
Colorado University Civic Theatre University of Denver Director: Walter Sinclair
Perry-Mansfield Steamboat Springs, CO Director: Charlotte Perry
Illinois Goodman Memorial Theater Art Institute of Chicago Head Maurice Gnesin
Mundelein College for Women Chicago, Illinois Director: Anne Larkin
Northwestern University Theatre Evanston, IL
Drama Department Rosary College River Forest, IL
Indiana The Players Club Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College Director: Charlotte Lee
The Sycamore Players Indiana State Teachers College Terre Haute, IN Director: R. W. Masters
Iowa Department of Drama Grinnell College Grinnell, IA Director: Sara Sherman Pryor
Kansas Fort Hays Kansas State College Little Theatre Director: Orvis Grout
Kentucky Guignol Theatre University of Kentucky Producing Director: Frank Fowler
Louisiana Tulane University Theatre New Orleans, LA Director: Monroe Lippman
Maine The Maine Masque University of Maine Orono, ME Director: Herschel L. Bricker
Massachusetts Theatre Workshop Emerson College Boston, MA Directors: Gertrude Binley Kay, Grover Shaw, Allee Hamilton
Erskine Drama Department Boston, MA Director: Phyllis Stohl
Gloucester School of the Theatre Gloucester, MA Director: Florence Cunningham
Theatre Workshop Wellesley College Wellesley, MA Director: Edith Margaret Smaill
Michigan The Michigan Repertory Players University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI Director: Valentine B. Windt
Graveraet Dramatic Club Marquette, MI Director: W. M. Whitman
Minnesota University of Minnesota Theatre Minneapolis, MN Director: C. Lowell Lees
Missouri Missouri Workshop University of Missouri Columbia, MO Director: Donovan Rhynsburger
Stephens College Players Columbia, MO Director: A. Laurence Mortensen
Nebraska Omaha Community Playhouse Director: Gordon Giffen
New Hampshire Dartmouth Players Hanover, NH Director: Warney Bentley
New London Players of New Hampshire New London, NH Directors: Josephine E. Holmes, Dorothy A. Claverie
New York Sarah Lawrence College Bronxville, NY Director: Mary Virginia Heinlein
Cornell University Theatre and Summer Theatre Ithaca, NY Director: A. M. Dummond
The Little Theatre of Jamestown Jamestown, NY Director: George & Harriet Warren
The Rochester Community Players Rochester, NY Director: Robert Stevens
Civic University Theatre Dramatic Activities Syracuse University Director: Sawyer Falk
North Carolina The Carolina Playmakers Chapel Hill, NC Director: Frederick H. Koch
The Greensboro College Players Greensboro, NC Director: Elba Henninger
Ohio Cain Park Municipal Theatre Cleveland Heights, OH Director: Dina Rees Evans
Players Club Columbus, OH Director: Stokes McCune
The Wesleyan Players Ohio Wesleyan University Delaware, OH Directors: R. C. Hunter, Hortense Moore
Peabody Players Western College Oxford, OH Director: Helen Hasley
University Theatre University of Toledo Director: Morlin Bell
Antioch Players Yellow Springs, OH Director: Paul F. Treichler
The Youngstown Players Youngstown, OH Director: Theodore Viehman
Oregon The University Theatre University of Oregon Eugene, OR Director: Ottilie Turnbull Seybolt
The Portland Civic Theatre Portland, OR Director: Donald Marye
Pennsylvania Department of Dramatic Art Allegheny College Meadville, PA Director: Alice H. Spalding
The Green Room Theater Franklin and Marshall College Lancaster, PA Director: Darrell Larsen
Pittsburgh Playhouse Pittsburgh, PA Director: Frederick Burleigh
The Penn State Players State College, PA Director: Arthur C. Cloetingh
York Little Theatre York, PA
South Carolina The Palmetto Players Converse College Spartanburg, SC Director: Hazel Abbott
Tennessee Classic Players Bob Jones College Cleveland, TN Director: Bob Jones Jr.
Texas The Curtain Club The University of Texas Austin, TX Director: James H. Parke
Utah The Playbox Salt Lake City, UT Director: Robert Hyde Wilson
Vermont The Bennington Theatre Studio Bennington, VT Director: Francis Fergusson
Virginia The William and Mary Theatre College of William and Mary Williamsburg, VA Director: Althea Hunt
West Virginia West Virginia University Players Morgantown, WV Director: James B. Lowther
Wisconsin Lawrence College Appleton, WI Director: F. Theodore Clark

Contemporary effect of the Little Theatre Movement

Little Theatre can be seen as a precursor to the Off-Broadway movement of the 1950s as well as to other smaller, non-commercial ventures thereafter.[25] Today's community theater may be also seen as an outgrowth of the Little Theatre Movement.


Through the emphasis on experimentation and free speech and the Little Theatre staging performances based on pure talent, several young writers profited from this opportunity. Among these talented playwrights were Eugene O'Neill, George S. Kaufman, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson and Robert E. Sherwood.[1]


The 1920s was one of the most critical periods in the United States for the showing of foreign films. Films from several European countries were exhibited throughout the U.S. It is important to note that prior to World War I, many European films were shown in the United States. However, the 1920s was crucial because European films laid down the foundation for the American independent film culture, also known as the Little Theatre Movement.[26]

Several people disliked the American film industry for moral or social dilemmas. The Little Theatre Movement served to oppose Hollywood and the film industry; they dismissed Hollywood's mass production and creation of films to appeal to the largest possible audience.[26]

The Little Theatre Movement's focus was on creating fine art, focused not on commercial purposes, but rather, on artistic, historical, or political content. European films were screened often since there were not a lot of alternatives to major Hollywood productions. These theaters appealed to the upper class and radicals that were isolated from Hollywood. Audience members were encouraged to discuss the films after they were shown.[26]

There was an outstanding increase in Little Theatres that specifically screened European films from 1926 to 1929. The films were believed to be of "perceived artistic superiority to Hollywood Films,"[26] which coined the concept of the European Art Film. Eventually, the term 'art film' became very lose and society started seeing any film not produced in Hollywood as 'art'.[26]

The way the term 'art film' was used in the United States lead to more critical thinking on film. The Little Theatre Movement gave birth to the Golden Age of the International Art Film (19501960s), when directors like Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, and Michelangelo Antonioni became popular in the United States.[26]

See also


  1. "little theatre | American theatrical movement". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2016-04-21.
  2. "University of Delaware Library: Playwrights, Production, and Performance: American Theater in the 20th Century > Section 10". Retrieved 2016-04-21.
  3. Bryer, Jackson. ed. The Theatre We Worked For. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1982. p. 9. ISBN 0-300-02583-1
  4. Watt, Stephen and Richardson, Gary, ed. American Drama: Colonial to Contemporary. Cambridge, MA: Heinle & Heinle. p. 147-150. ISBN 1-4130-9631-X
  5. Bryer p. 9.
  6. Watt and Richardson p. 150-151
  7. Watt and Richardson p. 152
  8. Martinez, Andrew. "A Mixed Reception for Modernism: The 1913 Armory Show at the Art Institute of Chicago", One Hundred Years at the Art Institute: A Centennial Celebration, The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Volume 19, no. 1, 1993. p. 36
  9. Twenty Years at Hull House Addams, Jane. New York: MacMillan, 1912. Project Gutenberg, 1998.
  10. Glowacki, Peggy and Hendry, Julia. Images of America: Hull House. Arcadia Publishing, Chicago, Illinois, 2004 p. 34, ISBN 0-7385-3351-3
  11. Browne, Maurice. Too Late to Lament: An Autobiography. London, Gollancz, 1955. p 128.
  12. Lock, Charles. "Maurice Browne and the Chicago Little Theatre." Modern Drama 31.1, 1988. p 109.
  13. Black, Cheryl. The Women of Provincetown, 1915-1922. Noe, Marcia. Review of "The Women of Provincetown, 1915-1922/Composing Ourselves: The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience" by Cheryl Black. American Drama, Winter 2005.
  14. Bryer p.9.
  15. Black, Cheryl. The Women of Provincetown, 1915-1922. Watt and Richardson p. 339-344.
  16. Watt and Richardson, p. 339,352. Noe, Marcia.
  17. Watt and Richardson p. 340-341.
  18. Chansky, Dorothy. Composing Ourselves: The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois 2004 ISBN 978-0-8093-2574-0
  19. Pasadena Playhouse United States History.
  20. Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. p. 289
  21. Bryer p. 5.
  22. see, e.g. "Sixteenth Tributary Theatre Issue", Theatre Arts Monthly, July 1939
  23. The Literary Digest Magazine, August 13, 1932, pg.n 14: "Must Broadway Take a Back Seat?"
  24. Theatre Arts Monthly, July 1939, Sixteenth Tributary Theatre Issue
  25. Watt and Richardson p. 338-341.
  26. "Project MUSE - The Little Theatre Movement: The Institutionalization of the European Art Film in America". Retrieved 2016-04-21.
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