200 YEARS AGO (1820)
The Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, a Georgian-style building modeled after the Theatre Royal in Bath, England, is destroyed by fire. The company is performing in Baltimore at the time, so there are no injuries or casualties. Though the cause of the blaze is unknown, the use of gas fixtures could have been involved, as historians will consider the theatre the world’s first to illuminate its stage with that technology instead of candlelight or oil lamps.
95 YEARS AGO (1925)
Garland Anderson’s Don’t Judge by Appearances is given a reading in New York City with 600 audience members in attendance. The play, written in three weeks while Anderson worked as a switchboard operator and bellhop in San Francisco, will become Broadway’s first three-act play by an African American and the first to employ a racially mixed cast. Actor Al Jolson financed Anderson’s move to New York to produce the play.
80 YEARS AGO (1940)
Former Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan speaks at a joint meeting of Vassar Experimental Theater and the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., college’s largest student theatre organization, the Philaletheis Society. Flanagan spells out VET’s operating principles, stressing a collaborative ethos wherein “the whole is more important than the parts,” and participants learn every aspect of production, from delivering a monologue to sewing on a button.
65 YEARS AGO (1955)
Actor Constance Collier dies at 77 in Manhattan. Born Laura Constance Hardie in England, she had a successful stage and screen career in the U.S., often performing with her husband, Julian L’Estrange. Theatre was in Collier’s blood: Named after a character in Shakespeare’s King John, she was born while her parents were appearing in a tour of that play, and she made her stage debut at age 3 as a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
50 YEARS AGO (1970)
The group that will become TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, Calif., holds its first meeting. The inaugural show will be Popcorn, which begins performances in July. The organization kicks off by performing original material on found stages in the region. The theatre will go on to specialize in reworking classical works, such as pieces by Shakespeare and Molière, and classic plays and musicals by August Wilson, Stephen Sondheim, and others. The company will also stage a variety of West Coast premieres.
30 YEARS AGO (1990)
August Wilson receives the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Piano Lesson, his second of two wins, following Fences (1987). Both are part of Wilson’s influential 10-part Century Cycle, of which three other works will become Pulitzer finalists: Two Trains Running (1992), Seven Guitars (1995), and King Hedley II (2000). In addition, The Piano Lesson was a finalist the previous year, when Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles took the prize.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Hallie Flanagan had yet to serve as director of the Federal Theatre Project in 1940. Flanagan’s tenure in that role began in 1935 and ended in 1939.