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THE NEIGHBORHOOD PLAYHOUSE






From: How To Write Special Feature Articles
(Category: PART II)

A GIFT TO THE EAST SIDE--HOW THE SETTLEMENT WORK OF MISSES IRENE AND
ALICE LEWISOHN HAS CULMINATED AT LAST IN A REAL THEATRE--ITS ATTRACTIONS
AND EDUCATIONAL VALUE


The piece is the Biblical "Jephthah's Daughter," adapted from the Book
of Judges. The hero, "a mighty man of valor," has conquered the enemies
of his people. There is great rejoicing over his victory, for the tribe
of Israel has been at its weakest. But now comes payment of the price of
conquest. The leader of the victorious host promised to yield to God as
a burnt sacrifice "whatsoever cometh forth from the doors of my house to
meet me when I return from battle." And his daughter came forth.

In the last act, the girl herself, young and beautiful, advances toward
the altar on which fagots have been piled high. In her hand is the
lighted torch which is to kindle her own death fire.

The chorus chants old Hebraic melodies. Even the audience joins in the
singing. The play takes on the aspect of an ancient religious
ceremonial. Old men and women are in tears, moved by the sad history of
their race, forgetful of the horror of human sacrifice in the intensity
of their religious fervor.

Such is the artistry of the piece; such the perfection of its
production.

Yet this is no professional performance, but the work of amateurs. It is
the opening night of the new community theatre of New York's densely
populated East Side.

At No. 466 Grand Street it stands, far away from Broadway's theatrical
district--a low-lying, little Georgian building. It is but three stories
high, built of light red brick, and finished with white marble. All
around garish millinery shops display their showy goods. Peddlers with
pushcarts lit by flickering flames, vie with each other in their array
of gaudy neckties and bargain shirtwaists. Blazing electric signs herald
the thrills of movie shows. And, salient by the force of extreme
contrast, a plain little white posterboard makes its influence felt. It
is lit by two iron lanterns, and reads simply, "The Neighborhood
Playhouse."

The Misses Irene and Alice Lewisohn of No. 43 Fifth Avenue have built
this theatre. It is their gift to the neighborhood, and symbolizes the
culmination of a work which they have shared with the neighborhood's
people.

Eight years ago the Henry Street Settlement started its scheme of
festivals and pantomimes, portraying through the medium of color, song,
and dance such vague ideas as "Impressions of Spring." It was the boys
and girls of the Settlement who performed in these pantomimes. It was
they who made the costumes, painted the necessary scenery, sang and
danced.

And both daughters of the late Leonard Lewisohn were always interested
and active in promoting this work.

Out of it, in due time, there developed, quite naturally, a dramatic
club. Plays were given in the Settlement gymnasium--full-grown pieces
like "The Silver Box," by John Galsworthy, and inspiring dramas like
"The Shepherd," a plea for Russian revolutionists, by an American
author, Miss Olive Tilford Dargan. Such was the emotional response of
the neighborhood to this drama that four performances had to be given at
Clinton Hall; and as a result a substantial sum of money was forwarded
to "The Friends of Russian Freedom."

Then, in 1913, came the famous Pageant, which roused the entire district
to a consciousness of itself--its history, its dignity and also its
possibilities.

That portion of the East Side which surrounds the Henry Street
Settlement has seen many an invasion since the days when the Dutch first
ousted the Indians. English, Quakers, Scotch have come and gone, leaving
traces more or less distinct. The Irish have given place to the
Italians, who have been replaced by the Russians. In the Pageant of 1913
all these settlers were represented by artistically clad groups who
paraded the streets singing and dancing. No hall could have held the
audience which thronged to see this performance; no host of matinée
worshippers could have rivalled it in fervor of appreciation.

When the Misses Lewisohn, then, built their new playhouse in Grand
Street, it was not with the intention of rousing, but rather of
satisfying, an artistic demand among the people of the neighborhood. And
in the new home are to be continued all the varied activities of which
the Henry Street Settlement festival and dramatic clubs were but the
centre. It is to be a genuine community enterprise in which each boy and
girl will have a share. Miss Alice Lewisohn herself thus expresses its
many-sided work:

"The costume designers and makers, fashioners of jewelry, painters and
composers, musicians and seamstresses, as well as actors and directors,
will contribute their share in varying degree.

"Putting aside for a moment the higher and artistic development which
such work must bring, there is the craftsman side, too, which has
practical value. The young men will become familiar with all the
handiwork of the theatre, the construction and handling of scenery, the
electrical equipment and its varied uses. It will be conceded, I think,
that in this respect the community playhouse is really a college of
instruction in the craft of the stage."

It is a college with a very efficient and well-trained staff of
professors. Mrs. Sarah Cowell Le Moyne, already well known as a teacher
of elocution and acting, will be one of its members. Miss Grace
Griswold, an experienced co-worker of the late Augustine Daly, will act
as manager.

The pupils of this novel school are to have amusement as well as work.
The third floor has been planned to meet many more requirements than are
usually considered in a theatre. Across the front runs a large rehearsal
room, large enough to make a fine dance hall when occasion demands.
Here, too, is a kitchenette which will be used to serve refreshments
when social gatherings are in progress or when an over-long rehearsal
tires out the cast. In warm weather the flat-tiled roof will be used as
a playground. It will be the scene, too, of many open air performances.

The Neighborhood Playhouse has been open only a few weeks. Already it is
in full swing. On the nights when the regular players do not appear the
programme consists of motion pictures and music. There is a charming
informality and ease about these entertainments; there is also genuine
art, and a whole-hearted appreciation on the part of the neighborhood's
people.

* * * * *

(_New York Evening Post_)





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