Character, in the sense of solid, admirable repute, is not a term generally associated with theatrical producer. It implies standards of quality and unassailable integrity. It is a trait usually voiced in eulogies and often unremarked in the living, a perhaps old-fashioned virtue in a world where "everybody does it" is a common excuse and where the word "character" can mean eccentric, erratic or unreliable.
No, character is not what one thinks of in terms of theatrical producers who must hedge here and shave a bit there. Yet character is the one word that comes up when theater people speak of Cheryl Crawford.
What a record! From theatricals at Smith College she landed a secretarial job with the Theater Guild in its great days. She was co-founder of the Group Theater, co-founder of the Actors Studio, co-founder of the American Repertory Theater, co-founder of the Actor Studio Theater, co-founder of the ANTA Experiemtal Theater. Her productions of "One Touch of Venus," "The Tempest," "Brigadoon," "Camino Real," "Sweet Bird of Youth," "The Tower Beyond Tragedy" and "Family Portrait" have loved beyond their runs as watermarks of our stage.
Nor, at 74, is Cheryl Crawford on the shelf. Soon will come international productions of a one-character play drawn from the writings of Janet Flanner, the New Yorker's Paris letter-writer, Genet.
Still, at 74, Crawford admits she's pretty well broke. She has none of the trappings of the theatrical Success Story. The Connecticut home for decades mysteriously was burned to the ground though no one had been in it. A business manager for a dozen years turned out to have been living high on her money. The future must look bleak.
But everyone says "Cheryl Crawford has character."
They're right. It shines through her absorbing autobiography, "One Naked Individual." Its title stems from her childhood mistake of that "one nation indivisible" in the Pledge to the Flag. "One naked individual perfectly descrebes my sense of myself in the face of the formidable world in which I led my life . . . finite adn vulnerable."
The book is honest, again not a word one would use for most books about theater. While other producers would avoid mentioning they had turned downs such chancy ventures as "West Side Story," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Member of the Wedding," she explains, concisely, why. And while she was working with Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill on "Love Life," she didn't think "Death of a Salesman" would do.
Institutional theater has become the likeliest survival vessel for our theater. And Crawford was associated with the most hopeful attempts in the past 40 years.
Harold Clurman, in "The Fervent Years - The Story of the Group Theater," and, its later guru, Lee Strasberg, have written of that organization. Now the partner of Clurman and Robert Lewis, whom Strasberg replaced, adds a chapter of her own. After the American Repertory Theater replaced, adds a chapter of her own. After the American Repertory Theater partnership with Eva Le Gallienne and Margaret Webster collapsed under union regulations, Crawford wrote:
Why, she asks, "didn't I remember those words later, when I got involved with the Actors Studio Theater for six productions? The answer: One forgets pain after an operation and I was never cured of my dream. This was always the problem; when I was alone, I dreamed of a company; when I was part of a company, I thought of the freedom of being on my own. And so, through out my career, without quite realizing it at the time, I charted a zigzag course between the two."
But "One Naked Individual" is not a solemn book. Imagine Marlene Dietrich, spreading her knees to play a musical saw while Crawford and Weill spent weeks discussing something that never would happen, Dietrich as Venus. Think of how too much champagne in Detroit canceled a tour which might have made both Mary Martin and Crawford a bundle. "Andorra" and "Mother Courage" both were speedy failures: "I didn't really appreciate the irony of seeing them included in the year's 10 Best Plays."
Why not sit back and enjoy life? "It isn't a question of proving, not now. It's the teasing of dreams, the dream production of 'Othello,' the dream production of - but I must keep my secrets . . ."