Laura Pels, the fiercely dedicated nonprofit supporter behind the Laura Pels International Foundation for Theatre, has passed away at the age of 92 due to complications of a COVID-19 infection. Throughout her lifetime, Ms. Pels contributed immensely to the survival and livelihood of nonprofit theatre companies and theatre productions.
Née Josette Jeanne Bernard, Ms. Pels was born on May 1, 1931, in a village near Bordeaux, France to two schoolteachers, Raymond and Jeanne Yvette (Dauvignac) Bernard. At some point in her 20s, Pels started going by "Laura" in lieu of Josette. Ms. Pels went on to study acting in Paris, but ultimately decided a career onstage wasn't the right path. She moved to London at 25, where she met her first husband Adolphe Meeus, a translator for the United Nations. They married in 1956. The couple moved to New York City soon after, but divorced in the 1960s. Not long after, Ms. Pels met media executive Donald A. Pels, and the pair married in 1965. Mr. Pels served as president and executive of Lin Broadcasting for two decades, beginning in 1969, and in the 1980s, Mr. Pels made major investments in cellular communications, which earned him nearly $175 million.
Out of Ms. Pels' longtime love and passion for theatre, Mr. and Ms. Pels quickly utilized their position of wealth for charity, donating over $1 million to Tony Randall to assist with the foundation of the National Actors Theater, which aimed to produce financially accessible productions of plays by classic playwrights. Through this, Ms. Pels developed close working relationships with playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, and became acquainted with the leaders of several nonprofit theatres across New York City.
Following the couple's divorce in 1993, Ms. Pels received a sizable settlement that she went on to pour into the theatre community. She became the namesake and president of the Laura Pels International Foundation for Theatre, with which Ms. Pels formed the goal of nurturing "serious theatre," or theatre that she felt took risks and challenged both artists and audiences. For this mission, she regularly attended theatre across New York City—as often three times per week—to search for productions and companies to sponsor.
In a 1995 interview with Playbill, she described her vision: "I decided that I was going to do exactly what I wanted with it—help the theatre. I really believe that the public is ready for the kind of theatre that provides food for the soul. The things that can be done if you have a little courage are amazing."
Ms. Pels prioritized finding plays that supported classic theatre, advanced the work of great playwrights, and made theatre more accessible to the general public. Her foundation supported Playwrights Horizons, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Laura Pels Foundation also offered grants for students at arts institutions. Ms. Pels was described as being incredibly involved with the Laura Pels Foundation's efforts from 1993 up until very recently, with the foundation's former executive director Hal Witt stating that she read every script that was submitted for funding.
Ms. Pels and the Laura Pels Foundation worked most closely with Roundabout Theatre Company, and its artistic director Todd Haimes, who also passed away recently at the age of 66. In October of 1995, Roundabout Theatre Company opened a new performance space named The Laura Pels Theatre. Its inaugural production was Harold Pinter's Moonlight.
In addition to her work with the Laura Pels Foundation, she also awarded an annual cash prize of $10,000 in collaboration with PEN America to American playwrights. Treasurer of the Laura Pels Foundation Jack Brister has estimated that throughout Pels' time with the foundation, it granted over $5 million to nonprofit theatres across the country.
Ms. Pels is survived by her daughters Juliette and Valerie, her son Laurence, her four grandchildren, and all the art she nurtured through her lifetime of dedication to nonprofit theatre.