Eve Adamson, who died on October 8 at the age of 68, was an unlikely candidate to create Jean Cocteau Rep, the last quarter-century’s most dependable New York redoubt of classical theater. The daughter of Hollywood lyricist Harold Adamson (who wrote the theme to I Love Lucy), she was given a typical Tinseltown upbringing, with Fred Astaire and Joan Crawford dropping by the family manse.
But once she traded in Beverly Hills for then dicey Bond Street—where Jean Cocteau began its life in 1971—she stuck, directing more than 100 productions, including numerous mountings of favorite authors Beckett, Pinter, and Shakespeare. Female artistic directors were a rarity in New York when she began working, and so was what she had to offer: a standing ensemble performing in repertory. Over the years, critics sometimes groused about an encroaching mustiness at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre—the cast-iron Second Empire Bowery building that became the Cocteau’s permanent home in 1974—but most were also thankful for the enduring presence of a theatrical temple dedicated to the stage’s antecedents. And Adamson’s equal devotion to plays and actors won her years of low-paid service from popular Cocteau lifers like Craig Smith, Harris Berlinsky, and Elise Stone—actors whom subscribers watched grow and experiment over the years.
“As a director, she was very much in charge of the look of the show,” says Smith. “She wanted a simple, bold statement with her show; she wanted lighting that sculpted the actors, so that they became the architecture of the show and as important as the text. She was as happy doing lights as directing. That’s surprising to people in a way, because the Cocteau got known for dusting off old Jacobean classics.”
Adamson was also not without marketing savvy. The company’s peculiar name (not much Cocteau was performed there) came when, after conducting “a little nonscientific survey,” as Smith put it, she discovered that people better remembered a theater if it was named after a person. Remember it they did, though Jean should think twice before taking credit.