This month, the 13th Street Repertory Theater will kick off its celebration of Founder/Artistic Director Edith O’Hara’s 100th year. Appropriately–since O’Hara has spent so much of her life championing up-and-coming artists–the celebration is starting (on April 15, 2016) with a festival of new plays. In her long and productive life, O’Hara has helped many people–myself included. I hope the theater will continue to celebrate her centennial for the next year. And I hope Edith O’Hara–who’s made of remarkably sturdy stock–is here to celebrate many more birthdays.
Because I’ve known her so long and so well, I’d like to offer a kind of birthday toast here. I think her accomplishments are well worth celebrating. I’ve known many theater people in the U.S. and abroad. I’ve never known anyone quite like her.
The little theater on 13th Street that she calls home–she actually resides in an apartment above the theater–has helped launch many careers. O’Hara can proudly tell you that such talented artists as Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Chazz Palminteri, Amy Stiller, Jamie DeRoy, Christopher Meloni, and many others performed at her theater when they were younger. For 17 years, the unique, dark monologist Brother Theodore–a Greenwich Village icon–made the 13th Street Repertory Theater his base.
O’Hara sizes people up quickly and decisively. If she likes you and believes in you, she extends complete trust. And her commitment is total. The first time she presented one of my plays, she told that as long as she’s living and has the theater, I should consider it my home; she’d present anything I wrote. (She actually gave me the key to the building, so I could come in, any time.) And she’s been true to her word. I’ve workshopped and presented assorted shows there, including “Irving Berlin’s America,” “One Night with Fanny Brice,” “Irving Berlin: In Person,” “Theater Boys,” “The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue.” When the original cast album of my show “Mad About the Boy”–which we presented at the 13th Street Rep last year–comes out in the Fall, the album will be dedicated to her.
I’ve praised her in lectures I’ve given everywhere from Idaho (where she was born, just before the U.S. entered the First World War) to Korea. She believes theater should be fun; she believes it should be a place where writers and actors can explore and create with freedom. And she gives people freedom. For many years, she ran it by herself, or with one trusted right-hand associate, Sandra Nordgren. No committees or boards making decision. She trusted her instincts. And she attracted all sorts of people.
When she presented one of Tennessee Williams’s plays at her theater, he proclaimed from her stage that future of theater in America was not in big Broadway theaters, but in small, independent houses like the 13th Street Rep. It meant a lot to her that Williams–about as great a playwright as America had ever produced–had graced her stage. (She could show you, proudly, exactly where he’d stood, downstage right.) After his death, she gave his play “Pieces of Paradise” its New York premiere.
The award-winning playwright Israel Horovitz’s play “Line” (which has now been produced in more than 120 countries) has been running at O’Hara’s 13th Street Rep for some 45 years. Originally directed at the theater by O’Hara herself, it is the longest-running production in New York City. Oh, there have been a few “time out” gaps in those 45 years, when cast members left and new cast members were being rehearsed. But the gaps are not significant. The play has basically been a rolling concern, presented once or twice a week on that little stage,. for some 45 years.
When one of Horovitz’s sons was six, the boy asked Edith O’Hara if she would present at her theater a play that he’d just written. O’Hara, who has always been a great believer in encouraging young talent, did just that! She sees her mission in life as nourishing the talents of others.
O’Hara has helped many careers over the years, and has produced hundreds of plays. O’Hara helped develop the musical “Touch,” which ran for two years in New York; its cast album received a Grammy nomination. She presented New York’s first hit gay musical, Bill Solly’s “Boy Meets Boy” (1974) at her 13th Street Repertory Theater, then moved the show to larger theaters in New York and Los Angeles, for successful year-long commercial runs.
Although Solly had had other, more conventional shows of his produced successfully before “Boy Meets Boy,” he could not find any producers, in New York, London, or anywhere else, willing to gamble on a gay musical, until he met O’Hara. She took a chance on him. And he felt right at home-even helping make repairs at the theater.
O’Hara has always had a knack for getting people to help out in all sorts of ways. And she attracted people who love the theater as deeply as she does. She gave them room to thrive.
And O’Hara has also given encouragement to young talents via awards to rising young artists-watch, such as Emily Bordonaro, Rayna Hirt, Michael Czyz, Benjamin Grier, winners in recent years of the theater’s “Betty Buckley Award,” “George M. Cohan Award,” and “Matthew Nardozzi Award.” (The photos show O’Hara by herself; with me and members of the cast of my show “Mad About the Boy”; and with winners of last year’s “George M. Cohan Award,” Rayna Hirt and Michael Czyz, joined by Cohan’s great-granddaughter, Jennifer Ross, and myself.)
Edith O’Hara has always done her own thing. As a youth in Idaho, she formed and led an all-girls band. .. She fell in love with theater when, in her youth-due to a shortage of local boys interested in acting-she was cast to portray George Washington in a school play. .
What does she think accounts for her success? She’s often said: “If I thought I should do something, I just did it.”. She did not make excuses; she did not let health issues (including epileptic seizures) stop her from doing what she wanted to do in life. She’s always had a strong work ethic and sought to surround herself with those who are like-minded. And she’s always been extraordinarily kind to strangers, people who’d walk in off the street, somehow drawn to her curious little theater. She would turn seemingly no one away.Edith O’Hara with Chip Deffaa and cast members from Mad About the Boy
When one homeless man asked her if he could help in any way, she found odd jobs for him to do. When she discovered he was highly artistic, she made Tom Harlan the theater’s resident set designer/costume designer, and gave him a place to live in the building. (O’Hara’s own apartment is above the theater.) I don’t know of any other theater in New York where that could have happened. And it was wholly characteristic of her.
Theater, I might add, seems to be in the blood of Edith O’Hara’s family. Her daughter Jill O’Hara made her mark on Broadway in the original casts of “Promises, Promises!” and “George M!” Her daughter Jenny O’Hara, among many other credits, did “Promises, Promises” and “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway, and in more recent years had a recurring role on the sitcom “King of Queens” Her granddaughter, Sophie Ullett, is an actress. And Edith O’Hara’s son, Jack O’Hara, is a singer/songwriter.
In recent years, age and health issues have forced Edith O’Hara to limit her activities. But she established a theater with its own traditions, and she’s said she hopes to keep it running for as long as she lives. I like her. And I like her spirit.
A toast to this remarkable woman!
* * *
For more information, contact the 13th Street Repertory Theater, 50 W. 13th Street, NYC,http://www.13thstreetrep.org.