Places that Matter

Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater (former)

Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater (former)
Off-Broadway company that performed classic works of drama
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

For ten months of every year, the Jean Cocteau Repertory Company brings the great plays of dramatic literature to life in a historic cast-iron building on the Bowery. The cast and the audience of each play--it could be a work by Euripedes, say, or Beckett--is a crew of regulars as faithful as any barfly. Starry-eyed tourists are as welcome here as they are on Broadway, but they'll no doubt sit shoulder-to-shoulder with old-timers and devotees. This being New York City, the regulars are no small bunch. The company estimates that about 25,000 patrons come to its shows each season.

Eve Adamson founded the company in 1971, amidst the off-off Broadway movement, in a storefront on nearby Bond Street. The company is named with the well-known French playwright and director Jean Cocteau's philosophy in mind, aiming for a "poetry of the theatre" that creates a complete experience of theatergoing by melding each individual aspect of the performance. From the beginning, the company has performed classics of Greek drama, Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Shaw, as well as more neglected American classics, contemporary avant-garde European work, and original productions (works by Tennessee Williams and Seamus Heaney, among others, have both premiered there). In 1974 the Repertory moved into the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, already an off-Broadway destination, and has been a theatrical mainstay of the neighborhood ever since. Some of the current actors have been involved with the company for almost as long.

The building's elaborate cast-iron façade (in the architectural style of the French Second Empire), whose sculpted molding creates a rich chiaroscuro on a sunny day, was first home to the Bond Street Savings Bank, an institution that failed not long after its opening in 1874. The German Exchange Bank took over in 1879, when German Jewish immigrants populated the surrounding Lower East Side. In the 1940s, the building was converted to lofts for textile finishing. It was standing empty by 1963, when an actress and theater-lover Honey Becker renovated it for use as a 183-seat theatre. The "Bouwerie Lane Theatre" sign hanging at the corner of Bond Street and the Bowery remains from this period.

The Jean Cocteau Repertory seeks to be not just dependable, but dependably inventive. It has received a host of awards, including an Obie for Shakespeare's Pericles directed by Tony Robertson. The company puts on about 200 performances a year of five to seven different plays from August to June. The repertory rotates, so that playgoers might attend two different plays in the same week, and the company stays on its toes, each actor switching roles regularly.

For 29 of its 31 years, the Jean Cocteau has performed daytime shows for New York City school students--its Student Matinée Series is the oldest such program in the city. The company also takes its shows to college campuses across the boroughs and extends its audience still further by offering discounted tickets to give people of different backgrounds and economic situations a chance to come to the theatre.

The lobby is cozy, with just a small concession stand.