Lortel founded The theater in 1947 on her estate at the corner of Cranbury Road and Newtown Avenue. The estate straddled both Norwalk and Westport, with about in Norwalk and in Westport, and the theater was sometimes called an institution in Westport, which has more ties to the theater than Norwalk. Lortel donated much of her memorabilia to the Westport Public Library.
With the theater, created from an old horse barn on the estate, Lortel aimed to present unusual and experimental plays, promote new playwrights, composers, actors, directors and designers, and help established artists develop new directions in ways they might not have been able to do in commercial theater.
Plays that started at the 148-seat theater (some of which went on to commercial success elsewhere):
Transfers to Off-Broadway from the White Barn Theatre include:
Transfers to Broadway:
Writing in The New York Times in connection with a gala event at the theater, Alvin Klein, wrote that the gala August 25, 1996 museum exhibition opening, allied stage performances and reception was "the night of the year [...] memories are made of this!"
At another gala event a year later (August 31, 1997) in celebration of a half century of the theater and Lortel's career as a producer, Klien wrote in the Times, "[O]ver the years, Ms. Lortel — now in her 90's — has often been quoted as saying she won't take on another White Barn season. After Sunday's celebration she could be overheard inviting two well-known performers to 'put something together and come up to The Barn next summer.'"
On September 26, 1992 the White Barn Theatre Museum was set up by expanding and renovating a former small storage area attached to the theater.
Lortel bequeathed the property to her theater foundation, which later proposed putting a housing development and possibly a school on the site, something opposed by members of the Save Cranbury Association.
In 2005, the state granted $450,000 to the Norwalk Land Conservation Trust Inc. to help preserve the parcel, which contains a pond, open fields, extensive wetlands and woodland. Stony Brook, a Class A stream, runs directly through the property and feeds a nearby aquifer.
The property was sold in 2006 for $4.8 million to 78 Cranberry Road LLC according to Westport Now Magazine.
In 2008 the property was purchased by the Connecticut Friends School in nearby Wilton. The school plans to build an expanded school building campus on the property with occupancy expected in 2009.