Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder, founders of the Playwright's Unit, along with Edward Albee, were a major force in producing plays by new, talented playwrights during the 1960s and helped to establish Off-Off Broadway as a viable theatrical venue. Their committment to emerging playwrights whose works were outside of the mainstream of Broadway productions allowed them to showcase the early works of playwrights like Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Jean Claude Van Itallie, William Hanley, A.R. Gurney, Terence McNally, Jack Richardson, John Guare and Paul Zindel. Their work garnered them a number of awards including the Vernon Rice Award (1962) for their "Theatre 1961" productions; and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? received the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award (1963) and the NY Drama Critics' Circle Award (1963). The Margo Jones Award for encouraging new plays and playwrights was awarded to Barr and Wilder in 1965. While both men attended Princeton University, four years apart, they took slightly different paths in their careers.
Richard Barr was born Richard Baer on September 6, 1917 in Washington D.C. He graduated from Princeton in 1938 and began his career as an actor with the Orson Welles-John Housman Mercury Theatre, performing small parts on the stage and the radio, including their production of War of the Worlds . He joined Welles in Hollywood becoming his Executive Assistant on Citizen Kane as well as performing a bit part in the film. He left the company in 1941 and served in the United States Army Air Force (1941-1946) making military training films, eventually becoming head of the motion picture unit, working with Ronald Reagan. In 1947 he returned to Hollywood becoming a dialogue director on several films. During the late 1940s to mid 1950s he made his name primarily as a director both in summer stock companies and in New York. He began producing shows in the late 1950s. Some of his early productions include Hotel Paradiso, Fallen Angels and All in One . In 1960 Barr joined up with H.B. Lutz to form "Theatre 1960" in order to produce experimental plays Off-Broadway including Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape in a double-bill with Albee's The Zoo Story . The following year he joined up with Clinton Wilder to form "Theater 1961". Their first production was the eventual double-bill of Albee's The American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith .
Clinton Wilder was born in Irvine, Pennsylvania in 1920. He attended Princeton University, graduating in 1942. He also served in the Army Air Force (AAF) during World War II (1943-1945) appearing in the AAF production of Moss Hart's Winged Victory . He began his professional career in 1947, serving as stage manager for the touring company of Heartsong and Streetcar Named Desire at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, but he soon moved onto producing. In 1949 he was associated with Cheryl Crawford in the production of Regina . In the 1950s his productions included The Tender Trap (1954), Six Characters in Search of an Author (1955) Visit to a Small Planet (1957) and The World of Suzie Wong (London, 1959).
In 1963, Barr, Wilder and Albee established the Playwright's Unit. It was an Off-Off Broadway company that showcased the works of new, talented playwrights. Albee, an up-and-coming playwright himself, became the main focus of Wilder and Barr during the early productions of the theater group. In addition to the early Albee plays listed above they also produced Albee's Tiny Alice (1964) and the Tony Award winning Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1963). Among the later Albee plays were two Pulitzer Prize winners, A Delicate Balance (1966) and Seascape (1975). Other works that were presented by the Unit were Up to Thursday (1965) by Sam Shepard and Home Free! (1965) by Lanford Wilson. In addition the company produced another double-bill of Beckett's Play with Harold Pinter's The Lover and Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro, among many others. Barr, Wilder, and Albee were a team for 8 years, until Wilder left the Playwright's Unit in 1968, producing a range of work from short one-acts by established playwrights like Beckett and Pinter to experimental works by up and coming playwrights and revivals. Charles Woodward, Jr. replaced him and he and Barr continued to produce shows on and Off-Broadway including the national premiere of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band (1968).
Barr later became the president of the New York League of Theatres. He died at the age of 71 on January 9, 1989. Wilder became the founder and director (1968-1974) of the Theatre Development Fund and remained a member of its board of directors until his death in 1986.
From the guide to the Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder papers, 1935-1982, (The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.)