The Mint Theater: Visionary Resurrection of Forgotten Plays
This is the story of a unique theater, hospitable to dismissed, abandoned, and ignored plays we might never otherwise see and of the man whose unique inspiration drives it.
“I’m interested in giving life to plays that have disappeared and gratified by the experience of doing it, but the original impetus was telling stories that people didn’t know how they ended.” Jonathan Bank, Artistic Director, The Mint Theater
Jonathan Bank knew he wanted to go into theater. Straight out of his Cleveland, Ohio high school, he signed on as a dogsbody with Fairmount Theater of the Deaf; built sets, sold ads, wrote grants, acted, directed, even co-authored a play. At 18, Bank’s response to a humdrum director was his own determination to be in charge…from the ground up…to pick the material. “I’d rather be a plumber than a cog in an uninspired machine.” The experience translated into an undergraduate degree.
Training as an MFA actor at Case Western Reserve University, Bank didn’t for one minute intend to perform. The school had programs in neither Direction nor Dramaturgy, but “studying acting is studying direction.” This is a man who lets nothing go to waste. He never acted again.
Jonathan Bank, Artistic Director, The Mint Theater
In the mid 1980s, Bank arrived in New York. “I had a plan, a reasonable plan. I’d start out paying for opportunities, graduate to opportunities that didn’t require payment, and then to those for which there was some compensation.” Unhampered by the illusion that compensation and earning a living would be synonymous, he waited on tables while working at various theaters.
An Arts Action Research symposium supported the young director’s conviction that assuming artists are not good business people is false. “Casting, organizing, completing rehearsal on time – these are skills that all businesses need…It’s not routine that a law firm is run by someone other than a lawyer or that a group of doctors is helmed by anyone but a doctor. Why should someone other than an Artistic Director be hired to run a theater?”
Door to and lobby of the former Mint Theater
Fellow graduate Kelly Morgan contacted Bank a decade after they both left college. He’d founded The Mint Theater, then a pay-to-play organization with student fees funding productions in which they would act. Bank signed on as a teacher/director. When the company Morgan assumed would support him could not, he took a repeatedly extended leave of absence teaching acting elsewhere in a salaried position.
The Board made Bank the Artistic Director. Financial underpinning derived from subletting the space. Students were transitioned out. “For awhile it was a little of this, a little of that…” Four years later, embedded in his vocation, Bank risked quitting the restaurant and began to apply the atypical vision with which The Mint Theater was reborn.
“Before The Mint, I was working as a stage manager/aspiring director at The Jean Cocteau Repertory and was put in charge of a reading series. I decided I didn’t want to do plays people knew, so I dug up forgotten pieces that hadn’t been seen for a very long time.”
Bank took his approach to The Mint. He staged J.M. Barrie’s Quality Street (1901 – before Peter Pan) George Aiken’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853) and Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch’s The House of Mirth (1906.) “Largely, the standard is, if you’ve heard of it, I’m not interested. The bar is very high as far as obscurity.”
In Quality Street, old maid sisters run a genteel school occasionally visited by a gentleman in whom one has great hopes. When he returns from war, realizing she’s grown haggard, the now early middle-aged woman masquerades as a young relative. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, of course, based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel. The House of Mirth is the story of Lily Bart, destroyed by the very society to which she fervently aspired. All three were made into Hollywood films. All reflect timeless concerns – the ostensibly supreme value of physical beauty, prejudice, and class assimilation.
The Voysey Inheritance by Harley Granville Barker: Robert Boardman, Jack Koenig, Lisa Bostnar, Kraig Swartz- Photo by Michael Gottlieb
In 1999, colleague Gus Kaikkonen brought Harley Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance (1905) to Bank’s attention. “I resolved to stop trying to predict what would work. If we were going to sink, I’d just as soon do something worth doing… Nobody got paid to do anything then. Our set only cost $1,500.” A tale of financial fraud, the play couldn’t have been more prescient. It ran 12 weeks and was the theater’s first hit.
“Voysey was the moment I said, this is what we’re going to do and I rewrote the Mission Statement”: MINT THEATER COMPANY finds and produces worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten. It is our mission to create new life for these plays through research, dramaturgy, production, publication, readings and a variety of enrichment programs.
Diana of Dobsons by Cicely Hamilton – Left: Rachel Sledd and Karl Kenzler; Right: Mikel Sarah Lambert and Glynis Bell
“The idea comes from my awareness that as a director, I’m not a conceptual guy. I’m interested in telling stories in dramatic, Aristotelian narrative. This is not, by and large, what contemporary playwrights are producing…After the late 1950s, play writing kind of really went to hell.” The Board was apparently intrigued, but wondered what Bank would do in two years when he’d run out.
Over time, Bank filled his shelves with play collections. “Most of the world thinks good things are known and unknown things are not good. The key difference between me and them is that I’ve decided that maybe that’s not true and that I’ll trust my taste regardless of the judgment of history.”
Walking Down Broadway by Dawn Powell: Carol Halstead and Christine Albright
The Mint has disinterred and revived English, Irish, Austrian, Hungarian, French, and Russian work as well as that of American playwrights. Bank reads them in English, but several, including Arthur Schnitzler’s The Lonely Way (1904) and Jules Romains’ Donogoo (1930) were re-translated. (These, from the original German and French.)
Schnitzler’s intertwined stories illuminate the emptiness of lives concerned only with their own self indulgence while Romains’ farce centers on a down-and-out Parisian who sells gold exploitation investments in a nonexistent settlement called Donogoo-Tonka (South America). Sound germane?
Left: The Lonely Way by Arthur Schnitzler, Lisa Bostnar and Ronald Guttman; Right: Donogoo by Ferenc Molnar, James Riordan; Immensely innovative Projections by Roger Hanna & Price Johnston
The world has changed less than we think. Bank doesn’t so much look for work with relevancy as more often than not, find it. Similar aptitude is employed regarding the proportion of material by women – 30 percent. “The question really is, are women likely to be equally or disproportionately neglected? And by the way, if you’re only looking at the name of an author, not doing additional research, you may be mistaken about gender. Many women have fought prejudice by using pseudonyms or just initials rather than their names.” As Shakespeare said, the play’s the thing.
Occasionally the theater presents several pieces by a single author, offering insight into a body of work and reaffirming that lack of notice is not due to a writer’s having been “a flash in the pan.” Three George Kelly plays and three by Teresa Deevy exemplify this practice.
Eclectic recoveries introduced us to such as The Fifth Column (1937) by Ernest Hemingway, Love Goes to Press by Martha Gelhorn and Virginia Cowles, and Mr. Pim Passes By & The Truth About Blayds by A.A. Milne, who created Winnie the Pooh. Were you aware that these authors were additionally playwrights?
Actors who find themselves immersed in alternate periods discover people are people. When Bank himself directs (about once a year), he tells them not to have preconceptions. “If you think your character feels this, he probably does. If an event sounds unlikely to have taken place in say, 1911, one should remember that when the play was produced, people weren’t commenting about that outrageous behavior in Act II…”
A Little Journey by Rachel Crothers: Laurie Birmingham (back), Samantha Soule,Victoria Mack, Joey Parsons, John Wernke; Immensely creative, revolving Set by Roger Hanna
EnrichMint events, developed by Associate Director, Jesse Marchese, are free to the public without requiring ticket purchase. Marchese, who joined the theater about four years ago with directorial aspirations, also relishes research and “the thrill of discovery.” Like Bank, he’s drawn to “well made writing, patient 2, 3, 4 act, literate plays with focus on narrative.” Together, the two are formidable.
As an addendum to dramaturge Maya Cantu’s fascinating author histories found in programs, EnrichMint presents theater professionals and academics who deliver insight into authors, social context, and play content. A valuable video archive featuring some of these talks can be found on the theater website.
Left: Benjamin Zipursky, Professor of Law at Fordham University speaking after a performance of The New Morality by Harold Chapin; Right: Kristin Celello, Associate Professor of History at CUNY Queens College speaking after a performance of The Fatal Weakness by George Kelly
Discovery is also fostered by The Mint’s Reclaimed series of published books, currently the work of Teresa Deevy, St. John Hankin, Harley Granville Barker, and Arthur Schnitzler.
The Mint Theater is an extraordinary endeavor. It stands out among its peers for clarity, integrity, and originality of mission as well as excellent productions. All because one man held fast to his convictions.
Fashions For Men by Ferenc Molnar: Mark Bedard, John Tufts, Annie Purcell, Joe Delafield, Maren Searle, Jeremy Lawrence; Beautifully detailed Set by Daniel Zimmerman
Two highly successful productions, 2014’s London Wall (John Van Druten, first produced in 1931) and 2015’s Fashions For Men (Ferenc Molnar, first produced in 1917) were selected to air on PBS Thirteen’s new series “Theatre Close-Up”
Women Without Men by Hazel Ellis
Next Up: Women Without Men by Irish Playwright Hazel Ellis first produced in 1938
Through March 26, 2016
One of only two by its author, this is the piece’s first production in 77 years and its America debut. The play explores the clash of conflicting natures and petty competitions that erupt among the cloistered teaching staff of an all-girls boarding school.
In the Mint Theater’s temporary home at City Center Stage II
Opening Photos of Playwrights – Left to Right, Top: Susan Glaspell, J.B. Priestley, Edith Wharton, J.M. Barrie
Bottom: D.H. Lawrence, Dawn Powell, George Kelly, Zona Gale
All unattributed performance photos – Richard Termine