04 April 2010

New York Free Theater

[Thirty-two years ago this month, a little band of pacifist theater artists in their early 20’s launched a street theater intended to combat racism and racist attitudes among the diverse population of New York City. It was a direct response to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., murdered 32 years ago today. The New York Free Theater only operated for a few years and toward the end, it expanded its mandate to accommodate other social ills, but its origins in April 1968 was single-minded. I’ve written several times about Leonardo Shapiro, who was one of the leaders of NYFT, and here is another episode from Leo’s early activism, a period that continued to influence and inform his life and art for the remainder of life.]

In the spring of 1968, a circle of NYU schoolmates including Leonardo Shapiro, Stephen Wangh, Larry Pine, and Margaret Rachlin Pine (plus former Brandeis University sociology major Chris Rohmann) co-founded the New York Free Theater, “a street and community theater of social and political involvement” which operated under the aegis of NYU’s School of the Arts. Following on the heels of Brother, You’re Next, an anti-Vietnam-war street musical which the NYU friends and Rohmann composed and staged on the streets of New York City, the Free Theater evolved (see ROT, 26 January 2010). (Though the Free Theater did not actually produce Brother, the performances of that play did continue after the founding of the troupe and the Brother company formed the core of NYFT.)

Chris Rohmann, the composer for Brother, recalled that the impetus for the founding of the troupe had been the assassination on 4 April 1968 of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the founders proposed the Free Theater that month, beginning street performances on Manhattan’s upper west side at 72nd Street and Broadway (its “Broadway opening”) on 15 July. Rohmann reported that the African-American artists in their circle began saying things like, “That’s it. We have to do black theater for black people,” and the white artists responded, “Yes, and we need to do theater about racism for white people.” One leader of the troupe said, “Our performances are directed toward white people,” and early proposals for the troupe cited The Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (commonly called the “Kerner Report”) which held, “White racism is responsible for the explosive mixture” that broke out into the race riots of summer 1967. “We are trying to engage and involve our audience, especially whites.”

The Free Theater eventually launched community workshops “intended to aid participants in directing neighborhood programs relating to racism, narcotics and violence” but in 1968 and 1969, the company devoted itself to street performances. (The group lasted until about 1971, but its final months were only haphazardly productive due mostly to financial problems.) In New York Times listings of free events during the summer of 1969, the theater described itself as “street actors in ‘involvement’ theater and satire,” mounting performances in neighborhoods all over the city, on street corners, in parks, and on college campuses in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. The Free Theater performed on its own much of the time, under the official sponsorship of the city, but it also participated in organized programs such as the Mayor John Lindsay’s 1968 summer venture, Broadway in the Streets.

Though NYFT announced the broad goal of “democratizing the arts” so as to “help all of us develop our creative capacities,” a promotional brochure explained that the company’s mission was to help halt the racial, ethnic, and social fragmentation of New York society. In a testimonial in the pamphlet, Mayor Lindsay acknowledged the troupe’s efforts in the “all-important work” of “rebuild[ing] the sense of community and common cause” the city had lost, calling its method “unique, inventive, and unusually effective.” The brochure affirmed that NYFT was

an integrated ensemble of actors dramatizing social themes and using techniques of audience involvement which keep the spectators from dissociating themselves from the action and issues of the play. We also guide the audience toward alternatives and avenues of action, encouraging people into community-oriented projects.

“Our technique is one of improvisation and audience involvement,” declared a company member, “encouraging people to take steps toward unified community action. . . . . White people and black people and Puerto Rican people out there, . . . they’re directing their hostility toward each other instead of working together--if that’s still possible in a society like ours.” Rohmann, who described his function as “songwriter and one-man band,” looked back on the company’s origins and observed, “We invented a theater that involved people in current issues by combining the immediacy of guerrilla theater with audience participation.” Monsignor Robert J. Fox of the New York archdiocese attested that the young actors “present thought-provoking drama about society today, drawing crowds of people into intense involvement with . . . the issues . . . such as poverty, peace, and racism” and New York Shakespeare Festival founder Joseph Papp wrote, “The spectators become participants in the dramatic action, and develop a heightened understanding of the need to join together on positive social action.” An article on New York City radical performance groups observed that NYFT “stages dialogues and confrontations at meetings where they have not been invited.” “Our main goal,” explained Rohmann, “is to play for people who don’t agree with our themes.”

(On at least one occasion, the tables were turned on the New York Free Theater and they found themselves on the receiving end of an unplanned confrontation. NYFT had been slated to appear at Fillmore East, the East Village rock music venue, for an overnight benefit on 22-23 October 1968 for the legal defense fund for Columbia University students who had been arrested during the student strike there the previous spring. The benefit had been organized by Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre, with Shapiro’s group and Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater among those scheduled to perform. After an audience-participation piece by the Living Theater--the first scene of Paradise Now--a group from Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, an East Village radical anarchist hippie group, seized the stage and demanded the free use of the theater one night a week for the community, threatening to burn the theater if Bill Graham, the Fillmore’s owner, did not agree. After lengthy negotiations mediated by Beck, Graham conceded to the group’s demands--though he never actually complied with the agreement.)

At a rally on 10 April 1969 at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, an “open hearing” in support of the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), an NYFT spokesman asserted other goals for the troupe, presenting a decidedly more radical and activist profile. (Before settling on the name New York Free Theater, and before that briefly the Free Theater of New York, the troupe dubbed itself a “theater of action.”) It “hop[ed] to decentralize, anarchize and democratize the arts,” in order to “destroy repressive arts institutions,” the speaker said, denouncing especially what he called “bureaucratized arts institutions.” “The Free Theater brings radical arts festivals into forgotten, oppressed communities,” declared the speaker. To change “basic social institutions and processes,” the NYFT representative demanded “radical social transformation.”

The company asserted that they researched the communities where they performed and suited their texts to the concerns of each audience. In Flatbush, for instance, the material would reflect the conditions in Brooklyn; if the audience was largely teenaged, “we try to talk their language,” said a troupe leader. Though Free Theater promotional material said the actors “work closely with local groups” in business, politics, and civic affairs to get their advice on community problems, potential audience proclivities, performance locations, and so on, so that they “inspire” neighborhood organizations to take action for “community change,” a journalist who had been invited to attend an NYFT event in August 1969 depicted them in conflicting terms: conscientious and sincere in their beliefs but out of their element in some of the neighborhoods in which they operated. Made up of largely middle-class youths, the Free Theater seemed to confront conservative whites in working-class neighborhoods who reacted with hostility and aggression. Responding as if their hometown had been invaded by hippies, they scolded the actors: “Why don’t you do this where you live?” During a performance in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which included dancing to a rendition of The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” singing a song called “Grass,” presenting a mock television commercial for “downers,” and performing a sketch about army training, one spectator yelled, “We’re gonna get some pipes and crack you people’s heads!” the article reported, accompanied by choruses of “Take a bath” and “Get a job” from others on the street.

The troupe made a point to travel to neighborhoods that had never seen street theater, and it sometimes seemed as though the material the Free Theater offered was outside the grasp of the audience: after the drug ad parody, one spectator muttered, “Disgusting,” as others looked perturbed, apparently believing the cast was really stoned. The army training skit fell afoul of a pair of Vietnam veterans, one of whom asked the crowd, “Are we going to stand for them using the flag for this?” The former Green Beret having commandeered the microphone, the NYFT sound technician turned it off, ending the performance. The actors asked the audience to vote on whether the show should continue. Almost no one did.

At Greenwich Village performances, by contrast, competing with traffic, noise, and crowded sidewalks, the troupe attracted curious and appreciative passersby, many of whom rushed across the street or paused their shopping to watch; some even joined in the singing or took up a dance beat. The performers invariably received what Rohmann called “Manhattan applause.” In Park Slope, where the Free Theater had its acrimonious confrontation with the residents, the shopkeepers wondered why the actors had to set up in front of their stores; in the Village, the sidewalk vendors moved closer to the performers to capitalize on the crowd they knew was about to form.

In black and Puerto Rican districts, the troupe was tolerated with bemusement. As Florynce Kennedy, an African-American civil- and women’s-rights activist-lawyer whom NYFT had invited to address them, admonished the troupe, “As long as you haven’t confronted your own oppressors, you have no business going into other people’s neighborhoods and telling them they’re oppressed.” Kennedy was referring to the support that the Free Theater received through NYU and the city. Troupe members paid themselves salaries of $90, and no less a counterculture figure than radical activist Abbie Hoffman scolded them when he learned they did not pass the hat for their funds. “Liberals,” he sneered, and added, “I really ought to send them a bill.”

NYFT was better appreciated, or at least drew less opprobrium, in the heart of middle-class New York, such as East 47th Street in Manhattan. In another testimonial in the promotional brochure, Carl Rachlin, legal director for the Scholarship, Education and Defense Fund for Racial Equality (and father of NYFT founding member Margaret Rachlin Pine), confirmed that the Free Theater devoted its efforts “to bring[ing] the white middle class to a realistic confrontation of these problems [of racism and violence] and to involve the white middle class in the resolution of them.”

To be fair, many participants--and the officials of the supporting organizations--found the NYFT both effective and beneficial. “In the tradition of Shakespeare, another great street-player, the Free Theater examines the folly and tragedy of modern urban living, offering as an alternative to our plight a celebration of life and love,” wrote one neighborhood newspaper. “The Free Theater talks about what is relevant to all age groups.” The writer from the Village Voice who reviewed one of NYFT’s street performances concluded, “After most indoor productions my impulse is to join the rush for transportation. After street theatre I want to linger and continue the dialogue.” And the national magazine Life pronounced its verdict:

There are skeptics, of course, who call Mayor Lindsay’s project a sugary placebo that cannot cure any basic social ills. Nonsense. Lindsay’s pills are sweet, but effective, too. They help get at sources of social ills by offering concern, affection and a high value on individual worth. What’s more this new breed of theater is pushing culture out of the elaborate centers and museums into the places where people struggle and grow. And the ultimate reward will not be what culture can do for the people, but what they can do for culture.

A street performance on 22 July 1968 which dealt with “the disastrous state of civil rights” in the United States demonstrated NYFT’s aim “to improve intergroup relations throughout the metropolitan area.” Before an audience of about 300 at the Avenue of the Americas and 50th Street on that early Monday afternoon, a cast of ten NYFT members gave a performance of songs and playlets. While all of the plays were original, the songs, intended to attract a crowd, ranged from rock-and-roll standards (in one appearance, they opened with the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”) to original compositions (at a Queens performance, the cast sang “Summertime in New York”). At a late July performance, the cast sang “Summertime” to illustrate the hardships of New York’s poor in the summer heat. The Free Theater’s repertoire also included another original song called “Riot”--almost certainly a response to the race riots that wracked the country in the middle and late 1960s--the lyrics of which contained the repeated line “Are you afraid” and ended with the verse:

Please--talk to me.
We cannot be safe for long.
Can I be your hand to save our life?
Or am I the gun that kills you?

Rohmann recalled that people began to assemble on the sidewalk as soon as the group started setting up. A performance habitually began with cast members installing the sound equipment and then practicing their juggling and tuning the guitar as other actors put up the multi-colored NYFT banner. In the Rockefeller Center neighborhood on a summer Monday that first year, the performers played drums, tambourines, a trumpet, and a guitar and distributed castanets and sticks among the audience so that the mostly young executives and secretaries could keep the beat. In one scenario, two men, one white and one black, scuffled; suddenly the two men drew guns; the guns went off. At a Queens performance on a different Monday, 19 August 1968, at Main Street and Northern Boulevard in Flushing, some passersby started to call for police until they realized they were witnessing a performance--one which Mayor Lindsay, leaning against a lamppost, watched after arriving at a nearby airport by helicopter. At the end of the 15-minute Manhattan performance, the company polled the spectators, about 75 per cent white, to engage them in the effort to reshape the racial outlook of Caucasians and to motivate them to act against racism; eight of the spectators voted for the white man to die, two called for the black man’s death, everyone else abstained. In Queens, the entire audience of 50 or 60, including the mayor, agreed that neither man should die. When the cast went into the Manhattan audience for small-group discussions, many spectators objected that the choices had been too limited.

“People do get shook up from watching our performance,” a company leader reported of a Brooklyn appearance. Rohmann observed that in Manhattan, especially Greenwich Village, the audiences generally agreed with the points the Free Theater made and they were applauded; when they played Brooklyn, say, they got “less applause” but “Brooklyn is where the cast learns a lot more about the people they live with.”. “They got so shook up in Cypress Hills two weeks ago that people pelted us and our cars with eggs,” noted a Free Theater leader, speaking of a Brooklyn neighborhood. Rohmann contrasted two other performances: one at which employees of a large national company “sacrificed their lunch hour to see our show” and the other at which a spectator tossed a tomato at the actors. As Lindsay saw it, NYFT’s work made people pay attention: “It seems to get people involved, even if they don’t want to become involved.”

In other sketches, a young black woman was auctioned off to an African-American man in the audience for $1 million and the group sang a song which ridiculed white liberals in lyrics like this:

Love thy nigger as thyself.
Keep thy gun upon thy shelf.
Speed thy money all for welfare.
Give the black man all of thy pity.
And get thy children out of the city.

In a fourth scene, a young white woman told a black youth that African Americans are treated the same as whites: “You can go to war like anyone else,” said the woman. “The enemy doesn’t discriminate.”

“What about integration, housing and employment?” the man asked her.

“You can’t shove these things down the white man’s throat,” she responded.

By 1969, the Free Theater had begun to look at other social ills than racism, including economic ones such as what they called “credit buying.” In an hour-long playlet called I’ve Been Screwed, White by Rohmann and Wangh, the group presented a woman who was compelled to buy. After opening with several rock songs to gather the audience in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the cast shifted to the theme song, “Buy American,” and then the interracial crowd watched a woman from the ghetto try to purchase her way into mainstream American society on the installment plan. She bought a car she did not want, then went into debt to pay for it. After taking out loan after loan, she finally refused to get that last loan-to-pay-all-loans, whereupon she was declared un-American.

By 1970, the company members were recruited from area high schools students and the focus had shifted to their concerns: the generation gap, parental pressures, educational pabulum, and, still, Vietnam. Rohmann described an August 1970 performance on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn of one of the playlets focusing on the issues of teenagers:

It features 18-year-old Jacqueline Dupree as a well-meaning kid who keeps getting trapped between what she wants and what she’s told to be by parents, teachers, friends, employers. A group of self-styled gurus leads her from one misadventure to another: ‘We’re the Helpful Happies / And we’re here to help to make you happy, / Happy, happy, happy all the time!’ . . . . Jackie is surrounded by her ‘supporters’ who are chanting ‘You can make it! You can make it! Climb! Climb! Climb!’ Trying to get away, she follows their instructions by scaling a step-ladder. As she reaches the top the crowd’s hysterical chant changes to ‘Jump! Jump! Jump!’ Looking around wildly from her 12-foot perch, she screams and throws herself headlong to the ground. The audience gasps audibly, then applauds as the other actors catch her six inches from the sidewalk.

The troupe usually did two performances like these a day, five days a week. The plays were based on group improvisations around social issues in the daily news reports and shaped with the guidance of a director and a playwright. The company altered the scenes a bit as they moved from one neighborhood street corner to another and shifted their roles from scene to scene, sometimes espousing the position of the white liberal; other times, the black militant’s outlook; and in still other instances, the white racist point of view. “We aim . . . to irritate the bigot, to encourage the egalitarian and to dramatize to well-intentioned people who have done nothing while riots brew,” said one NYFT leader.

As the company itself described it: “By involving our audience in mutual experiences with a highly mobile, highly fluid, highly entertaining form of theater, we revive the original communal functions of the Greek and Medieval drama.” The NYFT casts set out to create “a highly intimate actor-audience relationship” that “actively involved them in the dramatic event and challenged them to respond” to the issue under exploration. Other aims of the company were its objective to “dissolve the boundaries between art and life” and its call for “a non-competitive coalition” to attain their ends. Steven Wangh, the Free Theater’s first director, also declared that the company was conceived as a way “for us--as artists in society--to become involved in the problems or the day.”

[Leo Shapiro led The Shaliko Company out of New York’s East Village from 1972 until he retired to New Mexico in 1992. He died there in 1997 just after he turned 51. In the brief time that I knew him, Leo was one of the most intriguing artists in any discipline whom I’d ever met. My contact with Leo in that short period still has repercussions in my life.]

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