30 December 2011

Saints of the Theater

by Kirk Woodward

[Once again my friend Kirk Woodward is gracing us with a contribution to ROT. “Saints of the Theater” is a very personal piece of writing for Kirk, as you’ll quickly see. He’s spoken to me now and then of the two men he writes about here, Doug Ramey and Dave Semonin. I only got to know Kirk long after he knew Ramey and I never met the man, but Kirk mentioned him from time to time when he talked about people devoted to making theater for a community or a familiar audience. I did meet Dave Semonin a few times, the last time just before his death. As Kirk says, he was quite a remarkable man. I never got to know Dave well, but he did ask me to join the consulting company Kirk mentions at the end of the memoir as one of the theater people he could call on to help. It never came to fruition, but I was very flattered to have been considered.

[As he often has in past articles for
ROT, Kirk takes a slightly unexpected perspective on his memories of these men. He clearly admires them, but we’ll see that it wasn’t mere accomplishment that engendered that respect. I hope some of the people who knew Doug and Dave will get to read this homage. ~Rick]

Religions aren't the only institutions that have saints. Any field that inspires devotion finds saints in its midst. There are saints of music, saints of poetry, saints of animal rescue . . . and there are most definitely saints of the theater, people who, like saints in religion, live lives focused not on themselves but on the object of their devotion, frequently to the detriment of their bank accounts and even of their health.

I remember, for example, when I was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, a man with the wonderful name of C. Douglas Ramey, known as Doug, and known throughout the city for his devotion to Shakespeare. The website of the excellent Kentucky Shakespeare Festival includes the following on its home page:

Kentucky Shakespeare began with the vision of actor, director and producer C. Douglas Ramey and the Carriage House Players in 1949. In 1960, Ramey began free Shakespeare performances in Old Louisville and formed The Committee for Shakespeare in Central Park. Among the actors who started with Ramey and went on to achieve national recognition in the theatre are Mitch Ryan, Ned Beatty, and Warren Oates. Kentucky Shakespeare still offers free Shakespeare every summer at the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater in historic Old Louisville’s Central Park. For the 8,000 to 15,000 individuals we serve each summer, it is an opportunity to see professional actors and technicians present the works of William Shakespeare without social or economic bias. By presenting our productions free of charge, we stand by our firm belief that art is for everyone – rich, poor, educated, illiterate, healthy or disabled.

In addition to initiating free Shakespeare, Doug Ramey began a "Students for Shakespeare" program which evolved into the "Shakespeare Comes to Kentucky Schools" tour, the forerunner of our current educational outreach programs now entitled "Will on Wheels."

This accurate summary leaves out a couple of important points about Doug Ramey's contributions to theater, at least as I experienced them beginning in the 1960s. One is that he conducted his Shakespeare productions in the old style - that is, he was an Actor Manager, who played the leads as well as directing the plays. This approach was so long gone by the time I saw his work that the experience was a great deal like time travel – seeing one of his productions was like getting to go to a play put on by Garrick, Kean, or Irving.

The other point is that, again, at least in the 1960s, his productions were awful. An online biography notes that in this period he lost much of his funding through budget cuts, so much so that he was forced essentially to run a one-man shop – extremely difficult to do when your main purpose is to stage the plays of Shakespeare. I saw his Julius Caesar at my high school one afternoon and still have a note from the time about the nature of the disaster, which included students throwing pennies, and the end of a scene in which a body ended up half in front of the curtain and half behind it, forcing the "dead" actor to squirm offstage.

Actors reading this piece who have spent any time touring won't laugh at that story, and will recognize it as the sort of thing that happens all the time "on the road," where you may not have a chance to adjust your physical production to the size of the stage. I certainly don't mean to poke easy fun at Mr. Ramey's shows. The truth is that the odds are stacked from the start against anyone who tries to stage a Shakespeare play, and to do all the production work oneself, while also playing a lead, is no way to beat the odds.

Doug Ramey was born in 1908, when Actor Managers still roamed the wilds of theater; he died in 1979, long after he was practically the only survivor of the breed. Toward the end of his life, friends made him go in the hospital for an examination, and my recollection is that the doctors found maybe a dozen major things wrong with him physically. He had not spent any time taking care of himself; he had literally devoted everything in his life to theater. A saint, you see?

A lot could be written about actors who continued to perform knowing that death was knocking at the door. I believe I saw Rex Harrison in his last appearance on Broadway (in The Circle), when he knew perfectly well that he had pancreatic cancer and would be dead soon. He was quoted in an article as saying at the time, "Don't cower. Charge!" Many people saw Yul Brynner in The King and I in 1985 with the knowledge, which he shared, that he could not live much longer. Acting focuses your attention; for the time you're involved in doing a role in a play, everything else is secondary, even staying alive.

I barely knew Doug Ramey; I was just a kid when he was around and I never acted for him, but some of my friends knew him well. One of those friends was another saint of the theater, David Semonin, also known as Speedy, Speed, and Dave. (For this article I’ll settle on “David.”) To cover the facts of David’s life and career, the quickest way is to reprint his obituary (which I suspect he wrote or had a major hand in writing) in the Louisville Courier-Journal:

SEMONIN, DAVID, 68, beloved teacher and librarian at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, died February 11, 2010 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx where he was an advanced cancer patient.

Born and raised in Louisville, he was the son of Paul F. Semonin Jr. and Virginia Reeves Semonin. His lifelong career in the theater began as a young child with his participation in the Louisville Children’s Theatre where he acted, built scenery, ran lighting, and learned a lot about life and the theatre from such directors as Moyra Schroeder, Dale Carter Cooper, and Rick Schiller.

In 1950, thanks to his mother’s love for theatre, he saw his first Broadway play at age nine, the original production of
Peter Pan, starring Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff. He always said that he had been trying to fly ever since. As a teenager, he was an apprentice and later a member of the professional company at The Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown, PA, a summer stock theater where he obtained his equity card at the age of nineteen. He attended the University of Louisville, where he trained with James Byrd and Henry Tharp, graduating in 1966 with a BA degree in theater arts after participating in dozens of plays at the University of Louisville Playhouse.

During his college years, he helped to start the Actors Theatre of Louisville where one of his favorite roles was Lucky in Samuel Beckett’s
Waiting for Godot, directed by Richard Block. After college he moved to New York City and studied acting with Elizabeth Dillon, movement with Anna Sokolow, speech with Alice Hermes, and song with Arabella Hong at the Herbert Berghof Studio.

In the early 1970’s, he returned to Louisville and spent six seasons working as a director, stage manager and actor with Actors Theatre of Louisville under producing director Jon Jory. Form 1976 to 1980 he was stage manager at Syracuse Stage and an instructor in the Drama Department at Syracuse University. Returning to New York City in 1981, he began working at the Drama Book Shop and quickly became a fixture there for over 25 years as a knowledgeable guide to theater history and methodology for aspiring professionals and theater lovers alike.

During the late 1980’s, while collaborating with the Terry Schreiber Studio, he was a working stage manager on some ten Off-Broadway shows, including Bert Brinkerhoff’s
Someone’s Comin’ Hungry and Robert Dahdah’s musical Curley McDimple. In 1992 he put his encyclopedia knowledge of all aspects of theater to work as librarian and teacher at the neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where he continued to provide inspiration and guidance to students of the theatre arts for 17 years until his death.

In the 1990s he was a founding member of the Drama Department, an Off-Broadway company of prominent New York theater people. In addition to his stage work, he appeared in two independently released films,
Magdalen and A Chronicle of Corpses, both directed by the Philadelphia-based filmmaker Andrew Repasky McElhinney.

He is survived by his brother, Paul Semonin; his cousin, Melinda Semonin Anderson; his nephews, Octavi Semonin and Elam Huddleston; and the many friends and students whose hearts he touched.

Those are the facts, charmingly reported (as I said, probably by him). I can fill them out a little. I happen to know exactly when I first met David. It was on Saturday morning, April 30, 1963, when I went to “Wizards,” the tech group at Louisville Children’s Theater, urged on by my friend Perry Baer, an enormously talented performer.

The old Louisville Children's Theatre is now called Stage One and today it’s one of the preeminent theaters for children in the country. In my day it was not so impressive. It shared space with the student theater at the University of Louisville, its offices and costume collection huddled under the stage in the basement, and it was more a community theater than a professional one. It had a first-rate director, Rick Schiller. Unfortunately Rick left just as I arrived, presumably not through cause and effect.

I'm pretty sure that everyone thinks the people they hang around with when they're young are the most brilliant and clever people ever. I thought our group was, and I indulge myself in saying I'm not sure I was wrong. But actors need leadership, and for us, David was it. He was a student at the University of Louisville when I first met him, and he stayed that way a long time – I believe it took him about seven years to earn his degree, because he kept getting distracted. He was also drafted, to the astonishment of all of us, and spent a whole month in the Army before they sent him home, probably because he was blind as a bat.

David was a mild, terribly intelligent man, a fine and delicate actor and director, who loved theater with every fiber of his being. He was several years older than most of us. He wasn't at all a charismatic personality. He was bespectacled, round-faced, short, and slightly dumpy. He had a beautiful speaking voice, and he used it . . . all the time. He was a world-class conversationalist, one of those people who like to work out their thoughts as they speak them. (Oddly enough, he had a slight stammer, a trait that never surfaced when he acted.)

On his chosen subject, theater, he could talk for hours . . . days. In one diary entry I record that he agreed to drive several of us home, reached the first house on the route, talked so much that he had to leave us there while he took care of some errand, and returned, at 12:30 AM, to pick us up again and deposit us wherever we lived.

His father Paul was the best known real estate developer in Louisville, and David's family lived in one of his father’s subdivisions. David’s room was full of books (theater books, scripts) and record albums (original cast recordings). I would hang out with him at his house and he would play his favorite musicals (not always what you'd expect – as his obituary notes, he preferred the Bernstein Peter Pan, with Boris Karloff as Captain Hook, to the more famous version associated with Mary Martin) and talk about theater.

And that's where his leadership came from, because his lifelong quest in theater was to identify what was really quality work, to do quality work himself whenever possible, and at all times to encourage others to do the same. His process of analysis was continual and painstaking. He loved to identify the genuine moments in a performance, and didn’t hesitate to identify the fake.

Sometimes this process became obsessive. One of my clearest memories is that we both became so irritated at a certain director that we took a mutual vow not to complain about him and his work, not even once, for the entire rehearsal period. For two talkers, this vow was particularly strenuous, and keeping our promise nearly wore us out. We both felt the effort had been therapeutic but exhausting. David would refer to this experience to the end of his life.

I believe I only acted with David once, when the group did a holiday reading of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince,” which I recall for making me realize that I didn’t have any idea how to act. David’s not terribly enthusiastic verdict was, “At least we’ll all get to see each other again.”

Otherwise we didn’t work together much, but I did attend many of the rehearsals for Reckon On The River, written by the novelist Clark McMeekan, who was actually two ladies named Clark and McMeekan, with a score by Nelson Keyes, then composer in residence at, I think, the University of Louisville. It provided plenty of fodder for our discussions of theater quality. David played a peddler who at one point had practically everybody in the forest passing through his campsite as he sat there singing his song “Finders Keepers.”

One of those rehearsals, incidentally, provided my finest moment, I suppose, at Louisville Children’s Theatre. The scene in question featured a flatboat being steered down the river, an effect achieved by having people behind a lighted scrim crouching and moving across the stage with branches to give the effect that the boat was sailing. I watched a few minutes and suddenly shouted out, “The boat’s going backwards!” It was – because the people with the branches were moving in the same direction the boat was.

Well, everything changes, particularly in theater, and eventually the old gang broke up and went its separate ways. The obituary notes that David worked for several years at Actors Theater of Louisville. He directed a lovely Winnie the Pooh for children there, and played a memorable Lucky in Godot, of which he was very proud. Usually, though, he stage-managed. I recall seeing him one night rushing through the auditorium as we waited for the show to start. “The Pirate King’s cape lost its snap,” he hissed to me as he passed, and rushed on.

It took us a while to get in touch once he moved up to New York. After that we got together periodically; once he came to our house and brought a boyfriend with him, the only acknowledgement I can remember that he was gay. (I suppose that eventually I had guessed. He talked about personal things very seldom.) I always called him; he never called me, and always meant to. He played Malvolio in a production for children of Twelfth Night that I directed, and to this day I can hear the voice of his character, indignant at the things being done to him, just a little baffled by what it all means.

Mona Hennessy (now managing director of Luna Stage in West Orange, New Jersey) and I both studied with a wonderful teacher at the HB Studio named Elizabeth Dillon, and when I told David about her, he studied with her too. When Mona and I developed a plan for a traveling theater for children, I told David about it. He said just one thing. “There are plenty of children’s theaters,” he said. “What will you offer that they don’t?” It was a magnificent question. We’ll write good plays, I said. The answer satisfied him, provisionally, and that’s what we did our best to do.

For years he worked at the Drama Book Shop and as librarian at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Both places suited him to a T. The Drama Book Shop is full of people who have odd questions about plays, and David knew the answers to most of them, and would provide them at length. The problem was leaving a conversation with him; he had so many ideas, so much information in his mind that one had to be firm about going somewhere else. I have no idea how many books he sold, probably not many, but they were well sold.

The library at the Neighborhood Playhouse looks like a tiny room in a medieval castle, and David ran it with devotion. His pride and joy was the yearly book sale, when the library got rid of books that seemed outdated to everyone but him. He would go to amazing lengths to make sure that the right people got the right old books. It was important to him that the books got good homes, and that their owners learned from them.

He knew practically everybody in the theater. I stumped him only once, when I was writing a piece about the playwright Tony Kushner and desperately wanted to ask him a few questions. Kushner is a pretty accessible man, but David didn’t know Kushner and didn’t know how to locate him, and neither did anyone else I ever talked to.

That was the exception. David knew everybody else. He particularly adored the wonderful actress Cynthia Nixon, with whom he worked on The Drama Department, and he was so delighted when someone tapped him on the shoulder in the subway one day and he turned around to see Cynthia surrounded by her family, visiting her in New York.

As I said, David was deeply concerned with the integrity of the work being done in theater. His other passion was trying to help the new people who are constantly streaming into New York hoping to act. They streamed through the two places where he worked, as students and as actors who worked or were trying to. He kept planning to start a consulting company to assist them with productions and advice, and I did my best to help him focus on the practical elements of that idea. I don’t suppose my input was all that terrific, but in any case he was really too scattered to bring the project to fruition. He had too many good ideas. Potential was almost more interesting to him than accomplishment was.

One of the wonderful things about David was how seriously he took the issues of other people’s lives, even though he couldn’t possibly have found all of them congenial, or at least certainly not all of mine. (In the early days I would pester him with stories of girls I wanted to ask out.) Nevertheless he would listen thoughtfully, consider the issue gravely, and make some unexpected comment on it, usually a funny one. In fact he was able to see the ridiculous in everything, even in his own life. I think many of us will take with us the memory of how lightly he carried his own burdens, or at least chose to appear to, and how those burdens never kept him from caring deeply about other people.

In his later years David paid so little attention to his physical person that he was fairly alarming to see as he came walking down the street. It always took me a few moments of conversation before I was able to ignore the fact that he looked like someone who lived under a bridge in a cardboard box somewhere. Actually he took over a tiny room on the Upper West Side when I moved out of it, later relocating a couple of times. For someone whose family was quite well off, he lived only the barely necessary life.

The careful reader of his obituary will notice that in a way there are a lot of theatrical events listed in it, and in a way there are not. For a person of his talent, David really acted and directed surprisingly little. He knew this, and I think he fretted about it, but I think he also saw himself as continually working on his potential. When he was dying he signed up for a directing class, and told me in detail with considerable glee how difficult the work was for him – his scenes got a lot of criticism – and how valuable he thought the experience had been for him.

I have the impression that David didn’t take care of himself medically any more than Doug Ramey did. However, he did get to the doctor (telling us all as little as possible about it) for a minor bout with cancer that turned into a fatal one, and he faced it with astonishing grace. “It’s curtains for Little David,” he said to me. He called me to talk one day. “Do you have time?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “Well, I don’t!” he said. He practically gloried in the hospice he moved to. The best accommodations, the nicest people, the tastiest food! He told me he’d lived a rich, full life.

They had to hold three memorial services for David, two in New York and one in Louisville, because so many people wanted to attend. I spoke, not terribly well, at one of them, and felt awed by the stories that others told – because there were so many stories, and because he so clearly had reached a level of kindness and selflessness that I certainly never have.

There was the actor from Europe who wrote the Drama Book Shop asking for help planning a theater season. David helped him so much that the actor flew to the United States for the memorial service, then turned around and went right back home.

There was the new student who came into the Neighborhood Playhouse library looking for a class scene. David practically explained to her the whole of dramatic literature, in the process finding scenes for her and giving her advice, and then he worked with her so closely in the following months that she felt he had taken charge of her career. “I don’t know what I’ll do without him,” she said at the memorial service, and she meant it.

There were so many similar stories of his amazing kindnesses to people that you wondered how he ever got anything else done. Maybe for him that was all there was to do.

As I said, a saint.

[I can tell you all now that Kirk has another article in press for ROT as I publish “Saints.” The next one, which I anticipate will be posted in January, isn’t about theater or even the performing arts at all. I won’t give anything more away here, but suffice it to say, Kirk takes his usual oblique perspective on his topic and I’m sure it will intrigue ROT readers.]

25 December 2011

"Stages in DC" (Summer 1985)

[I’ve just recently published two articles about the theater scene in Washington, D.C., which is my hometown (“Washington’s Arena Stage: Under Construction,” 26 November, and “Lincoln & Howard Theatres: Stages of History,” 2 December). Back when I was actively writing theater reviews, I wrote a round-up of what was on the stages of Washington and the metropolitan area for a publication called Stages, the coverage of which I think is self-explanatory. A version of this report appeared as "Stages in DC" in the September 1985 issue. I thought it would be interesting to take a look back 26 years ago at what I saw back when Washington theater was just emerging into its own spotlight. (Comments in square brackets are remarks I added for this republication on ROT.)]

Not too long ago theater in Washington, D.C., meant a touring show at the National, whatever was at Arena Stage, and a college production at Catholic University. Occasionally a special treat, such as a visit from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, would come along. Otherwise, the choices were pretty limited, and, except for Arena, pretty tame. Not only has the landscape changed considerably since then, but it keeps changing as if there were an earthquake under the Potomac.

In a recent week, dinner and stock theaters outside the city, long an entertainment draw to city dwellers, were hopping with no fewer than a dozen productions including standard musicals and light comedies. Maryland’s Olney Theatre, for example, presented Larry Shue’s The Foreigner with Jack Gilpin in the title role and an endearing, charming performance by Patrick Richwood as dim-witted Ellard Simms. The play, still in performance in New York, may not have much to say, but as an excuse to drive into the country and laugh yourself silly, it cannot be beaten.

The city has no official equivalent of Off- or Off-Off-Broadway, but there are an increasing number of small theaters offering more daring fare. Companies such as the Source, Woolly Mammoth, New Playwrights, Studio, and So Far Theatres present an eclectic selection of new, experimental, and seldom produced plays. [Broadway is represented by the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre.]

The New Arts Theatre, for instance, presented a taut, gutsy production of John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, recently seen in New York. While not solving the many problems of the awkward script, the performance showed vibrant and exciting talent from all involved. One might question Artistic Director Camilla David’s choice of script, but never her boldness for trying it.

Already several years old, this proliferation of theaters is only one symptom of the exploding theater life in Washington. The air of change, a distinct pleasure to longtime Washingtonians, has infected the established theaters, too, now.

At the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Peter Sellars’s plans for the American National Theater are already apparent. Two indigenous productions, Henry IV, Part I and The Count of Monte Cristo, launched the ambitious project this fall. The second part of Sellars’s plan, importing productions from other cities, began this summer. The “Chicago Season” brought two companies from that city to the Kennedy Center with two productions each.

The Wisdom Bridge Theatre presented an adaptation by Robert Falls of Jack Henry Abbott’s prison memoires, In The Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison, coming later to New York, followed by Shozo Soto’s Kabuki Medea. Concurrently, the Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre performed Lynn Siefert’s Coyote Ugly and David Rabe’s Streamers.

Sellars’s future plans include commissioning plays by leading American novelists and co-producing scripts with theaters around the country. If there will ever be a truly national American theater, it will certainly look much like this.

This is not to say that all the productions are unerringly successful. Henry IV closed early to disastrous reviews and Monte Cristo had a luke-warm reception. In the Belly of the Beast, though offering a stirring performance by William L. Peterson as Abbott, is decidedly one-sided and manipulative in its sympathies. It wants us to empathize with Abbott, but chooses the material and language with such obvious bias it makes one uncomfortable and even angry. It is also unclear whether the play wants to be a universal statement about society, prison, and violence, or a portrait of one particular, troubled soul.

Siefert’s Coyote Ugly [not related to the 2000 film with the same title], which attempts to show an earthy, bizarre family in the desert Southwest trying “to escape its dark origins,” has serious problems, too. She has written some striking scenes, performed with incredible intensity by Steppenwolf’s ensemble, and has created some wonderful black humor, but she has not written a play. The many scenes, separated by black-outs, just do not stick together.

The kinds of chances taken by David, Sellars, Steppenwolf, and Wisdom Bridge have been Arena Stage’s habitual territory for thirty-five years. In that time, Arena has become a Washington institution, providing varied productions for a loyal audience. Its last production this season, Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice, exploring the murder in San Francisco of Mayor Anthony Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by former Supervisor Dan White, may soon be seen in New York. [It was, in 1986. It was also adapted for TV, in a different production, in 1999.]

Far from growing staid and static in its middle age, Arena has just announced plans for a major expansion. It will operate year-round for the first time, double its acting company, increase its artistic and administrative staffs, and initiate several new projects. The company is preparing to purchase the land under its building, and its outreach project, the Living Stage, recently occupied a permanent home downtown. [These plans were different from the subsequent major rebuilding on which I reported in “Arena Stage: Under Construction.”]

Most recently, Arena was designated one of the five regional theaters in this year’s final Foundation of the Dramatists’ Guild-CBS New Play Contest. The contest obligates the company to accept, read, and evaluate unsolicited scripts, and ultimately produce one of the thousands received. [Full disclosure: I served as a script-reader at Arena for this contest, which went out of operation following the 1985-86 season.]

Washington’s third institutional theater, the Folger, is in the throes of change, too. Just last January it nearly closed after fifteen years of operation in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan theater. Saved at the last minute when the Board of Directors of Amherst College, which administers both the library and the theater, rescinded its decision, the Folger has announced plans to reestablish itself as a separate entity.

Along with creating its own board and raising its own funds, the Folger will increase its company and initiate touring productions, readings, and workshops. Artistic Producer John Neville-Andrews, who, since his arrival in 1981, has devoted the Folger entirely to works written before 1800, aims to make it the premier producer of classics in America. He is expanding the season from three full productions to four, and moving into the nineteenth-century realm of Chekhov, Shaw, Ibsen, and Strindberg.

Doing the classics at Folger by no means implies presenting museum pieces. Having set Much Ado About Nothing on a Cowardesque cruise ship of the ’thirties, Neville-Andrews last directed a seventeenth-century Midsummer Night’s Dream on a set of ramps, slides, and hanging Christmastree lights with an electronically disappearing bower for Titania and a silvery, NASA-perfect cut-out of the moon hovering over it all. The romanticism of the acting and Elizabeth Covey’s costumes played nicely against the expressionism of Lewis Folden’s set. Particularly engaging were the little fairies, with Covey’s wispy, gossamer costumes and Barbara York’s make-up.

All this activity certainly proves that theater is alive and kicking in the Nation’s Capital. Yet the strongest evidence that Washington acknowledges its own status and is proclaiming it to the world was May’s inaugural presentation of the Helen Hayes Awards to recognize outstanding artistic achievement in the city’s professional theater. Gathering a varied group of presenters connected with Washington theater life over the years, including Robert Prosky, Bruce Weitz, Robert Foxworth, George Grizzard, and Linda Carter, the ceremony is named after one of theater’s true queens, a native Washingtonian. Now, can a city that claims Helen Hayes as a native daughter be anything but a theater town at heart?

[Many things have changed since 1985. Washington theater star Robert Prosky died in 2008; the namesake for the District’s theater award, Helen Hayes, made her permanent exit in 1993. Peter Sellars’s plans at the Kennedy Center went bust in a spectacular way after he alienated nearly everyone in town, from the audiences to the theater press. The American National Theater never developed—and I’ve never forgiven Sellars for that failure because the basic idea was terrific and it was his solipsistic personality that killed it. (The man actually said that he didn’t care if people complained about his productions as long as they were talking about them! Can you believe that?) The Folger Shakespeare Group under Neville-Andrews, as I note in one of my recent articles, became the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger shortly after this report came out and then ceased to exist, morphing into the Shakespeare Theatre Company under Michael Kahn. (More full disclosure: my late father served on the board of the Folger Shakespeare Group; he was also a voter for the Helen Hayes Awards.) At the Arena, as my profile of that company reports, the artistic leadership passed from Zelda Fichandler, one of the founders, to Douglas C. Wager in 1991 and then to Molly Smith in 1998. Several of the small companies I named above have folded, but new ones have arrived on the scene and many have expanded into major Washington-area cultural institutions. At the time I wrote this wrap-up, I’d say that Washington theater was in its adolescence; I’d say it’s now in its young adulthood: mature but not stodgy or set in its ways. I’d even be so bold as to suggest that theater in the District now rivals some of the country’s best theater towns like Chicago, Seattle, or San Francisco. It pretty much got its wind up in the ’80s.]

20 December 2011

'Happy Hour'

Back on the live performance beat since my last outing in mid-October, my usual theater companion, Diana, and I went to Theatre Row to catch the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Happy Hour by Ethan Coen. Like Dreams of Flying . . ., our last ATC show (see my report on ROT, 6 November), this production is being presented in borrowed digs while the Chelsea home of ATC is under renovation, so we were back in familiar territory on Friday night, 9 December: far-West 42nd Street, the Peter Norton Space formerly occupied by the Signature Theatre Company. (Coincidentally, Diana and I’ll be seeing our first two Signature productions in their new complex a block east after the New Year, a Fugard in February and an Albee in March. Reports will be forthcoming.) Happy Hour, in its world première staged by ATC artistic director Neil Pepe, is a collection of three one-acts by Coen, a trilogy of bleak glimpses at human behavior with an ironic title. As the ATC press release puts it: “Your life could be worse—and these three one-act comedies show you how.” Another way to put Coen’s dramatic philosophy: Life sucks, and then bad things happen.

Coen is probably better known as half, with his brother Joel, of the Coen brothers film team. (The two writer-directors have won four Academy Awards, two for writing: Fargo, 1996, and No Country for Old Men, 2007.) Ethan Coen made his Off-Broadway stage début at ATC with the world première of Almost an Evening in 2008, followed the next year by the world premiere at ATC of Offices. Both productions, also bills of one-act plays, were directed by Pepe. Coen’s Broadway début is his one-act contribution, Talking Cure, in the current three-play bill at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre entitled Relatively Speaking that also includes comedies by Elaine May (George is Dead) and Woody Allen (Honeymoon Motel), directed by John Turturro. (Besides making 15 films with his brother, Coen has published a book of short stories, Gates of Eden, 1998, and in 2001, another of poetry, The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way.)

I don’t usually start my play reports by quoting reviews, but it’ll be easier to get in to this one by mentioning what Elisabeth Vincentelli concluded about Happy Hour first. In the New York Post, she bluntly states, “Ethan Coen’s new show may be titled ‘Happy Hour,’ but by the time it finally ends, you may have renamed it ‘Two Miserable Hours I’ll Never Get Back.’” (I won’t do a survey of press responses yet, but I’ll précis the general reception. Nearly all publications agreed that it was a bleak evening of little depth.) I start here because I want to say that I can’t be quite that dismissive or absolute. While there was a great deal wrong with the plays, both individually and together, there were moments of, not insight but cleverness, and some scenes, especially one, had definite dramatic vitality. That said, I can’t say Happy Hour ended up amounting to much as an evening in the theater. Let’s see why.

First, let me address the production and the stage work. Irrespective of the writing, the acting at ATC is uniformly excellent in Happy Hour. (In fact, over the years of seeing plays at ATC, though I’ve been disappointed in the material selected, I’ve never found the performing less than good. The same’s true of the directing with only the most occasional reservations, usually with regard to choices rather than execution.) The problem with the performances, especially among the lead characters in each play, is that they are almost all single notes—but that’s the way they’re written and Neil Pepe either couldn’t or wouldn’t find any variations in the characters to prevent the actors from seeming repetitive. Without reading the scripts I can’t be certain, but I don’t think there’s much Pepe could have done on this score. The result, unhappily, is that that the characters all end up being set-ups, little ideograms that Coen came up with to represent his concepts, but not real people. They’re wind-up dolls, most of them set at high volume. (Everyone seems to shout a lot, even when they aren’t arguing with one another, which is pretty often.) What’s more, as several published reviewers remark, the characters aren’t people you’d want to spend any time with. (In the Village Voice, James Hannaham warns that “the protagonists will make you reach for your pepper spray.”) Marilyn Stasio in Variety calls the acting “lugubrious,” but I’m sure she’s referring to the style, not the technique.

I’ve already remarked on Pepe’s direction, at least with respect to the actors. He restricted himself severely as far as blocking goes because of the set design (by Riccardo Hernandez). The Peter Norton stage is shallow but fairly wide; however, Pepe and Hernandez divided the space with partial walls and curtains so that each scene only uses half or less of the lateral space. Add even a small piece of furniture, and the room for actors to do any moving aside from shifting from one bed to the other in a motel room is minimal. This makes for cramped visual pictures and a static stage. As pinched as Coen's outlook is thematically, this makes the production even more stagnant.

It’s worth noting at this point that Coen’s tactic here of composing these short plays—the first two, comprising the first act of the bill, are about 40 minutes each; the last is 45 minutes—in multiple scenes, though a simple matter in cinema, is criticized by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times for becoming “a laborious business in live theater.” That’s one of the several critical remarks with which I completely agree. Worse, some of the tiny scenes seem dramatically unnecessary, attenuating not only the playing time (two hours, 10 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission) but also the dramatic arc, such as it is. There’s no appreciable set shifting between scenes (just between the playlets), but a few seconds or a minute of semi-darkness is always necessary for actors to cross backstage, during which there’s (loud and, to my ear, irrelevant) pop music playing to cover the change. What on screen would have been an instant cross-fade or blackout is here just dead air.

Hernandez’s set, a unit background of an essentially plain wall with movable panels and a couple of practical doors, is mostly bare and characterless. The rest of each set is made up of selected furniture: a wooden bar with stools for the main set of End Days with a chair and lamp table for the secondary scenes; the one-room apartment of a musician and the living room of the slightly better established young teacher in City Lights; and two twin beds with a night table of a cheap motel room and the private dining area of an “authentic” Japanese restaurant for Wayfarer’s Inn. Panels swing out from the back wall, painted institutional green, or red curtains fly in (for the Japanese restaurant), separating the settings and carving up the stage into small playing areas. Decoration is limited to a lighted beer ad in the bar of End Days and the standard motel art print over the beds in Wayfarer’s Inn. I have to assume that this is all done by choice (rather than bad taste) and that Pepe and Hernandez are continuing Coen’s bleak dramaturgical outlook in the scenic design. It looks, however, like an incomplete design or one that was built with an inadequate budget. (I can’t help remembering that Signature’s Angels in America, staged in the same theater—see my ROT report, 11 December 2010—used multiple sets on stage at the same time to much greater benefit.) Of Hernandez’s design in Happy Hour, Marilyn Stasio states bluntly in Variety, “The sets are dismal . . . .”

Now let’s look at the material all this work was intended to support: Coen’s playwriting. I haven’t seen the other examples of his theater work (and I’m not a great fan of his and his brother’s movies), so I don’t have a lot to compare with. I gather from the published reviews that this set of one-acts is not dissimilar from his other plays—except perhaps nastier. (The tone of Happy Hour, apparently, bears a resemblance to his film scripts, although some critics say that Joel Coen acts as a mollifier to brother Ethan’s excesses and that their directing provides a dynamic that doesn’t appear in Ethan’s solo stage work directed by other artists. However, I have insufficient experience of the work to provide me that insight, if it’s even relevant at all.) Since this is only Coen’s third foray into stage writing (plus a single one-act as part of the Broadway trilogy), maybe what we’re witnessing is a playwright just emerging from his screenwriting cocoon but not yet fully developed into a stage-writing butterfly. He’s obviously still using film technique in his plot developments, with the multiple, short (in some cases, very short) scenes. The fact that he’s still composing one-act plays also suggests (but certainly doesn’t prove) that Coen’s not entirely secure as a playwright yet, unable, maybe, to commit to a longer form that requires a surer structure and narrative, plus more complete character development. Snapshots are easier to make than full-fledged art photographs—though some great playwrights have written some wonderful one-act plays (Shaw, Chekhov, Molière, Yeats, Tennessee Williams, among many others). Since Coen’s not a novice writer, he demonstrates skill with words, and some of the dialogue in Happy Hour is both pointed and very funny. (A line about how global warming in Switzerland has reduced an Alpine glacier to “just a little yarmulke at the very top of the mountain” is the best example.) He can also tell a story, as one scene in the last play proves. Variety’s Stasio believes Coen “desperately needs a dramaturg, or an editor” and I agree to an extent: an editor would help pare away the excess verbiage and tighten the dialogue, but a dramaturg (a function with which Stasio has had some experience) might also help Coen flesh out the characters and find the structure that would help turn the situations into small, complete dramas.

On the other hand, many a good and even great writer of other forms has run aground on the shores of theater, including Mark Twain and Joyce Carol Oates. Some years ago, the American Place Theatre launched a program in which they invited accomplished writers of prose or poetry to try their hands at playwriting. Very few of the efforts went beyond an early draft and none were truly successful. The conclusion of the theater’s literary staff was that playwriting is just so different and difficult that even the best writers in other genres can’t succeed just by deciding to turn their minds to the stage. It’s just a different skill and talent. Coen could be among that element, too, of course.

It also must be considered, however, that Ethan Coen may have another problem, too—one that isn’t so easily dismissed as an unpracticed playwriting hand. Look at what he chooses to say in his plays. The Coen brothers’ movies are often chilly and depict characters who are unlikeable or unsympathetic—and that’s when Ethan Coen collaborates with his brother, said to be a modifying influence. Happy Hour portrays a gallery of losers, unhappy souls, borderline manics without a redeeming character trait. In the plays, they’re all in extremis so we get the full blast of their soul-devouring personalities and defense mechanisms. All but one character in Happy Hour has any sense of her or his own self-destructive drive (and that one exception attempts suicide alone in a cheap motel room). Leaving aside how well Coen handles his malaise, how well he depicts it on stage, it’s an unrelieved desolation that makes for a bleak evening in the theater. (Vincentelli’s New York Post notice bears the headline “You’ll need a drink after this ‘Happy Hour’” and ends with the wish that “perhaps this ‘Happy Hour’ could offer the audience two Prozacs for the price of one.”)

But looking at the manner in which Coen engages his demonstrably icy view of man- (which is to say, ‘male’) kind—his women are slightly less depressing and miserable (though only slightly)—there’s reason to fear that the playwright’s not so much on the up-slope of his playwriting career, but on plateau. Two Neils have made theater about the hapless, disappointed, or badly-behaving zhlub—LaBute, who’s the grittier and darker, and Simon, of an earlier generation whose outlook was sunnier and, I should stress, funnier. LaBute’s still finding his stage legs to a degree (and he’s not always appealing, either), and Simon left the gag-peddler behind in his later plays, but both writers had greater depth and stronger craft behind their dim view of humanity. (It’s not altogether fair or accurate to say that Neil Simon had a dim view of humanity—just of human existence in the world as we knew it in the middle of the last century.) Coen’s plays are one-note diatribes, laced with Mametesque obscenities (but without Mamet’s lyricism), with one-dimensional characters who, once you get their tune, become entirely predictable and repetitive. You know exactly where things are heading. The lines and gags can sometimes be clever and even surprising, but the points they make aren’t startling or new. There’s simply no meat on the plays’ bones. And just to exacerbate the dramatic disappointment, Coen’s plays don’t actually end. They just stop. Actually, they just trail off . . . . (In Back Stage, David Sheward writes that Coen “gives us three screams of pain and fails to develop them beyond the initial anguished syllables.”) There’s no finish, no final point, and no one learns anything. That may be Coen’s idea of a thematic conclusion, but it’s frustrating to me. As Marilyn Stasio concludes in Variety, “Coen's world view is dyspeptic to say the least, but the last thing any play about alienation needs is an alienating production.” She’s writing about director Pepe’s contribution, but I put the problem at the feet of the playwright.

The curtain raiser is End Days, essentially a running screed by an angry boozehound in a bar (possibly the “Happy Hour” of the umbrella title). Hoffman (Gordon MacDonald) is monumentally pissed about what the world around him has become, and he blames technology—all those cell phone calls and microwave communications—and just about everything else we’ve heard people bitch about for decades (“serious social shit”). (Among other sources, Coen seems to have been channeling the Occupy movement around the country.) It’s not that his complaints don’t have the ring of truth—or rationality—or that his ideas are crackpot. It’s that he’s a crashing, drunken, unstoppable bore, and as hard as MacDonald works, with obvious skill and talent—the actor delivers the tirades with considerable intelligence—there’s nothing he can do to make this guy a palatable companion or compelling stage figure. There’s a bartender (Lenny Venito) who never speaks and a couple of fellow patrons, Koch in the first bar scene (Clark Gregg) and Slava in the second (Rock Kohli). Koch gets a few questions out, mostly to provoke Hoffman to another rant; Slava (who may not even speak English) is passed out on the bar the whole time anyway. Between the two bar scenes, Hoffman goes home where he sits in an armchair with his newspaper and a pair of scissors and clips articles that obviously support his pessimistic opinions of society and which he files away in a box he keeps under the chair. (He always has trouble opening his apartment door, and once his unseen wife calls to him from the off-stage bedroom—but Hoffman says little in these scenes, one of which has no dialogue and lasts all of 10 seconds. It’s these scenes I found unnecessary, especially considering how much extra production effort they add.) Despite being divided into two settings (and four scenes), the play is sedentary: Hoffman goes from sitting on a bar stool to sitting in his living room chair and back (and back again). So much for “movement.” (Hoffman’s fighting to get his key out of the door lock is the only action in the playlet.) Like the plays to follow, End Days has no . . . well, end. Hoffman, et al., are apparently caught in a feedback loop and will repeat the cycle over and over, like a nihilistic take on Groundhog Day. Now that’s a horrifying prospect.

Ironically, the second play of the evening, City Lights, might not have occurred had there been cell phones when it’s set, the mid-to-late 1970s (the Carter administration). Ted (Joey Slotnick) is a lonely guy, a session guitarist of whom even he freely admits no one has ever heard. On a cab ride home from a gig, laden with half a dozen instruments, he leaves something vital in the cab. The cabbie (Kohli) was chatty—and a would-be songwriter—and tried to get the antisocial Ted into a conversation, musician to musician. To put him off, Ted gives the driver a phony telephone number, deliberately reversing two digits of his own number. When the guitarist gets to his one-room walkup and realizes he’s left something behind, he frantically calls the number he gave the cabbie. We first hear the nearly-Kafkaesque explanation from Ted’s end, then from the receiver’s end. (The two sets are side by side.) She’s a first-grade teacher, Kim (Aya Cash), who’s just broken up with her boyfriend, lonely and insecure. Ted arrives to wait for the call from the cabbie he hopes will come and Kim, who can’t stand cursing, and her more self-assured friend Marci (Cassie Beck) listen to Ted’s ranting. Mismatched though they are, it’s clear that Kim and Ted are meant to get together, despite Marci’s cautions. Cash’s little-girl optimism—she’s even dressed in braids and a pinafore (costumes are by Sarah Edwards)—is a complement to Slotnick’s vulgarity-laden (he just can’t help himself) anger and defensiveness. (Slotnick bears a vague resemblance to Coen himself, a complete accident of casting I’m sure—though all Coen’s male leads seem to be avatars of himself. Coen, by the way, vaguely resembles a scruffy, red-bearded Hugh Laurie.) Meanwhile, the cab driver shows up at Ted’s place, lets himself in (don’t ask how he got into the apartment), finds no one home, and leaves a plastic bag with the mysterious lost item (a classic McGuffin, by the way). As Ted returns home to find his treasure—it turns out to be a demo tape of a country ballad of surpassing sensitivity which I suspect no one will ever hear—the driver turns up at Kim’s. (How he found her name and address—remember, there’s no Internet for tracing phone numbers to addresses—we never learn.) He felt a kinship with Ted, despite the musician’s obvious attempts to cold-shoulder him, and he defends Ted to Marci as Kim picks up on the good qualities the cabbie attributes to the angry guitarist. Of course, Marci, so leery of Ted, almost immediately jumps the cabbie’s bones on Kim’s living room couch, sending Kim fleeing the apartment in embarrassment—and she goes straight to Ted’s (having gotten his address from the AFM card, which he gave her as ID), whom she found “sad and lonely.” Ted lets Kim up in surprise, but as soon as she tries to listen to his tape, he drives her out with the vilest language, shouting obscenities after her as she runs down the hallway. The idea is supposed to be that Kim and Ted are each other’s best hope for a connection, but however vulnerable and needy Cash’s Kim might be—she’s a mid-century Pollyanna—I figure she dodged a bullet. Slotnick’s Ted is so broken and damaged, for whatever reason, he’d be dangerous to connect with. As with End Days, the cast of City Lights inhabits their roles thoroughly and credibly, but the one-dimensional characters don’t grow and have only one thing to say, and keep saying it. No one gets anywhere—they’ll all go back to where they were before the play started. Beck’s Marci is a cynic, but she’s the strongest character in the play—the whole evening, actually—and though her fling with the cabbie might be brief and meaningless, she’ll have a good time most of her life, I imagine. In Happy Hour, that amounts to a good ending.

Wayfarer’s Inn, which constitutes the second act of Happy Hour, is the most substantial piece in the evening—though that’s a low bar in this production. Set in some small city somewhere on the circuit of a pair of married traveling businessmen, Buck (Gregg) and Tony (Venito), the playlet opens in a crummy motel room (they couldn’t get into any of the big chains—there’s a college sports event on) as Buck is on the phone making a date with two women he and Tony apparently know from previous trips. Tony emerges from the shower and tells Buck he’s not really up for a night out. Tony’s suffering from existential angst, it seems, and everything seems meaningless and empty ("the world doesn't like us"), so he just wants to stay in the room. He promises Buck he’s all right (he’s just feeling “a little . . . I don’t know—Canadian”), and Buck goes off to meet Gretchen (Ana Reeder) and Lucy (Amanda Quaid) at a “very authentic” Japanese restaurant where they sit on the floor—much to the distress of Buck’s back—and the waitress (Susan Hyon) yells at them in Japanese as she serves the sake and food. This extended scene, which could actually stand as a short one-act on its own, is mostly devoted to the recounting of a story Lucy tells about the diving instructor with whom she hooked up in Costa Rica. He always wears a knife while diving, and the explanation is a fantastic tale of how he was once sucked in by a startled blowfish and had to cut himself out of the fish’s belly with the knife, so he always carries one for “self-defense.” This initiates an animated discussion about the implications of the story, whether or not it’s actually true—or even possible. Each character has her or his own interpretation: optimistic Gretchen sees it as positive, showing how clever and resourceful the diver is; Lucy sees the tragedy of the human race; and Buck notes that it’s kind of the metaphor for life these days, the very problem with which Tony was struggling back in the motel: the “hostile universe” being cut apart from the inside by an attacker it carries within it (i.e., humanity) and can’t escape. This might be the metaphor for Happy Hour as a whole and makes the scene the most interesting moment of the evening. When Buck gets back to the motel, he can’t find Tony until he goes to hang his coat up in the closet. Tony’s gone in there and shot himself in the head—though we learn in the final scene that the shot just “creased” Tony’s skull and he’ll recover. Still, Tony’s act is the only one approaching a definitive move of any of Coen’s characters—even if it is inconclusive. That’s as close to a conclusion to which any of the playlets comes, even though we don’t really know what will happen to Tony, let alone Buck. I mean, Buck stays on at the motel, though they give him another room (the only one available—unrented because the heater doesn’t work!). I’d guess that he’ll be back in town on his next business trip—though maybe he’ll stay at another motel if he can get into one. He’ll probably still call up Gretchen and Lucy—though he won’t go to such an “authentic” eatery again, he says. Venito’s Tony has little to do, though he expresses his sense of being lost well enough, even if Coen hasn’t been very articulate about what’s bothering Tony. Venito manages to make Tony a real person, a confused and lost soul without the words to express his feelings. Gregg may have the best role in Happy Hour, and he creates a character who’s both blasé about the state of modern humanity (when Tony’s trying to explain his malaise) and cognizant of it (when he’s interpreting Lucy’s fish story). Gregg’s also the only actor who’s asked to display more than one dimension (though it can’t be called growth, just instant shift).

One odd thing about this production came up when I was poking around the Internet looking for information on the play (without reading other reviews, having already read the Times). The Times review, which habitually notes the running time, listed the show as two hours and fifteen minutes. The ATC website says that Happy Hour runs 90 minutes without an intermission. When I got to the theater and picked up my program, there was an insert saying that the play would be performed with a 10-minute break. The usher explained that the intermission was added after the play opened, intimating that Happy Hour had gotten longer during rehearsals. (Even adding a 10-minute intermission, however, doesn’t account for the discrepancy between two-and-a-quarter hours and an hour-and-a-half. Something had to have been added.) It’s just a guess, of course, but I got the feeling that the Japanese restaurant scene may have been added or greatly expanded—it’s such a set-piece and seems so unlike everything else around it. (As for what the purpose of the shouting waitress is, I have no clue. Maybe Coen went to a restaurant with a server like that and he thought it would be funny, or he thinks of Japanese that way somehow, or it’s supposed to be emblematic in some way of the overall malaise depicted in Happy Hour in the same vein as the blowfish tale.)

The published reviews here were almost universally negative for the play (with mostly praise for the cast), some with a backhanded compliment or two. The New Yorker, almost complimentarily, says, “Coen’s characters are well drawn and the dialogue is pitch-perfect and fun, but watching one self-involved jerk after another becomes tiresome” and Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News describes the evening as “grimly—and flickeringly—funny.” In New York magazine, however, Scott Brown gives the nastiest appraisal: “Happy Hour, the latest string of crappy from filmmaker Ethan Coen . . ., is a powerful argument for writing plays. Not that Coen has written one. He’s actually written three non-plays—barely even sketches, really . . .” and the Times’s Isherwood sums Happy Hour up as “a wearying evening” whose recipe is: “Mix two ounces of misanthropy, one ounce of anomie and a jigger of acrid humor. Add two splashes of bitters and serve with a twist of tedium.” Hannaham concludes in the Voice that Coen is writing about a “stale subject” that “remains stale” in the production and Vincentelli characterizes Coen’s plays, like his films, as “condescending and emotionally cold” in the Post. In Back Stage, Sheward writes that as each playlet “focuses on unrelieved anger and depression,” the overall “experience is a less than happy one for the audience as well as the characters” and Variety’s Stasio, addressing those characters, writes that “the misfits, losers, and malcontents in this omnibus of one-act plays are still pretty sour specimens of humanity” whom Coen “has also made . . . devoid of any redeeming charm whatsoever.” Brown seems to have laid down the final ultimatum for everyone (including me, I might add): he figures Coen’s trying to write in a post-modern vein, coming up with “a kind of pomo gotcha,” which Brown then derides in his own “pomo” pun: “Very po’ indeed. So please, no mo’. Not till there’s a completed play.”

Even so, Happy Hour was by no stretch the worst evening I’ve spent in the theater, but my impression of Coen’s work here is that he didn’t so much have something he wanted to say, an idea he wanted to explore or depict. I think he had some general thoughts for gags or situations (‘What if some guy in a bar . . .?’ ‘What if this musician . . .?’ ‘A waitress who berates her customers in Japanese is funny.’) and decided to write them down. Maybe they were left over from some film script he worked on, who knows. But they aren’t much more than blackouts, sketches—bitter, nasty, and vulgar, but no more than skits. That he’s relatively clever with words might make them seem more substantial that they really are, but, as I used to tell my writing students, I’m from the Clara Peller School of Writing: “Where’s the beef?”

15 December 2011

Greenwich Village Theater in the 1960s (Part 2)

[This is a continuation of the survey of theater activity in Greenwich Village and the East Village during the first decade of the Off-Off-Broadway movement. At the end of Part 1, I left off with a brief discussion of the influence of playwriting and acting ensembles on the kind of theater produced in this period and I pick up here with the next important aspect of Off-Off-Broadway: the finances—or lack thereof. (Advice to readers: Some things won’t make total sense unless you’ve read Part 1 first.)]

As I observed in passing, another thing that was missing from the Village theater scene of the ’60s was money. There was almost none involved. New York Times reviewer Mel Gussow described this phenomenon just after the decade ended: “It is theater on a shoestring. Ticket prices are minimal or nonexistent. The only profits are artistic. It is the place where one can be experimental—or even traditional—and not worry about reviews or grosses.” “The great thing about the . . . Off Off Broadway scene is that you can afford to fail there,” proclaimed the late Lanford Wilson, who got his start on the stages of Off-Off-Broadway. “You can try things that you don’t know will work. If they don’t, you might find out why.” Writer Paul Goodman, an enthusiastic supporter of this new theater scene, characterized troupes like the Living Theatre as “a group of theatre-people . . .—some of them of great reputation—who have all of them . . . given themselves, often financially unrewarded, to the development of our modern art. . . . Nobody would question that they are devoted to the growth of theatre and not to making money; they try to make enough to sustain themselves.” Many of the dramatists and directors, in fact, could have moved into decent-paying positions in the mainstream, but then someone else would have had control over their work—producers, artistic directors, business managers, executive directors—making demands on everything from casting to script revisions. (Even Joe Papp, in producer mode, was known to throw his weight around.) These artists sacrificed comfortable lives for the artistic freedom to see their work staged the way they wanted it.

The budgets for OOB productions were often under $100 (and some were as little as $35-50, though more established troupes, like the Living Theatre, could spend as much as $8,000-10,000 to mount a show). The troupes themselves subsisted on donations and public and private funding when they could get it, though sometimes political activity or leanings, like that of the Living Theatre, queered the pitch for corporate and state support. (This, of course, is why the NEA, which was launched in 1965, was supposed to look only at the artistic merit of eligible art, not the content. In the 1990s, however, certain political figures, including members of Congress and the President of the United States, bent the agency toward judging the political and social import of the art under funding consideration. When an anti-obscenity pledge, derisively dubbed the “loyalty oath,” was required for all recipients of NEA funds, many artists and producers, including Joseph Papp, refused to sign and gave up the federal support rather than accept prior restraint.) Money that came with strings attached wasn’t welcome. Shaliko founder Leo Shapiro, for instance, asserted that for one federal program, “I had to satisfy the commissar in too many ways, [so] I couldn’t do it.”

The members lived off of odd jobs, temp work, or bread-and-butter jobs like waiting tables, driving cabs, selling clothes, doing copy- or technical-editing (often overnight)—I even knew actors who held unlikely or unpleasant jobs: one actor with whom I worked who came from a family of butchers worked at that profession at a market near me in the Village and another, who called himself a char, cleaned people’s homes. There was a common unemployment scam as a way to pay the bills: instead of paying the artists a small yearly salary, the company paid its members twice as much for six months, then they could subsist on unemployment insurance for the next six. (There was also a gimmick involving the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a federal program in effect in 1973-82. By defining some of the members as trainees, the company could get a grant under CETA. The paperwork was voluminous, however, and there was government oversight that made the tactic onerous so it wasn’t used often.) Expenses for the theater, production budgets, and small payments for the artists, as well as other income came from passing the hat. For the most part, though, OOB artists worked for nothing out of devotion, either to the art in general or to the troupe’s vision. A young Off-Off-Broadway actor in 1972 put it simply: “Why do we do it? There’s only one reason. It’s to get out there and act. We love it.” (When I was trying to become an actor and was working in the Off-Off-Broadway arena, one of my friends was fond of saying, “Actors are the only people who’ll work for nothing . . . if you let them.”) By the same token, Shapiro declared: “I’m a director. I love rehearsing. I love to work.”

Many of the performance spaces weren’t licensed as theaters or even cabarets, so it would have been illegal to charge an admission even if the troupes wanted to be so crass. (Ellen Stewart avoided the licensing issue by forming La MaMa as a private club. She asked for a minuscule membership fee which was often waived.) The spaces usually offered few amenities—actors and spectators not infrequently shared bathrooms, which couldn’t be used during the performance—and creature comforts like cushioned seats, legroom, clear sightlines, clean (and vermin-free) houses, air-conditioning (or even, sometimes, heat), palatable coffee, and adequate lobbies, were rare. Not a few would-be theatergoers (not to mention some reviewers, agents, or mainstream pros like directors, producers, and casting directors) were reluctant to go to the theaters and neighborhoods where Off-Off-Broadway happened. In The Off Off Broadway Book, published in 1972, Albert Poland and Bruce Mailman noted that the OOB performance spaces “were small, nontheatrical facilities, makeshift theatres in cellars, bars, lofts, storefronts and coffeehouses,” but as Elinore Lester added, “Part of the ‘sensuous experience’ which might also be distasteful to the average theatergoer is the ordinary physical discomfort that is taken in stride by OOB-niks. All of the permanent OOB spots have hard chairs, but each also has its special tribulations.” Seating capacities (legal, that is) could be anywhere from 50 or 75 up to 99, the maximum Equity allowed (after it began to set rules under which union actors could appear). Props, costumes, and set materials were begged, borrowed, and, yes, stolen. (Sidewalk scavenging was a useful skill among OOB producers, directors, and set designers.) Ellen Stewart told how she and her earliest collaborators at La MaMa had a routine of taking five-finger discounts at five-and-dimes to help mount their shows and sometimes members of a troupe were known to cash rubber checks to help assure that their play would open. The trade-off, Lester continued, was that “[m]embers of the audience are never far enough from the stage lights to feel totally blacked out. They must . . . participate in the action by keeping their chairs from grating and their coffee cups from rattling. This gives them the feeling they count as individuals . . . .” Even if the playwrights and directors wanted a “fourth wall” production, there was no room for such a convention. “The last Off Off Broadway show I saw,” recounted one enthusiastic young OOB theatergoer to Lester, “an actress in a negligee accidentally tripped into my lap during the performance . . . . I got into an all-night bull session with the playwright after the show.”

The plays that were being offered ignored all the established rules and conventions for contemporary drama. “When I now go to see something on a proscenium stage,” asserted Joe Cino, “it’s like something else—with no comparisons to what is done here.” Off-Broadway had been daring in its staging techniques, especially in its earliest incarnation at the turn of the century, but the plays were often classics or European work by established authors and their American disciples. Off-Off-Broadway swept even that limitation away, as much out of necessity as artistic choice. (A new play by an unknown author often came without royalties.) What was lost to budgetary constraints and cramped spaces, however, was made up for in enthusiasm and energy. A new style of dramaturgy, acting, and directing evolved, drawing on the techniques of Brecht, the theories of Artaud, and the innovations of Meyerhold. Realism and Naturalism just weren’t the style on the new downtown stages, any more than Aristotelian structure or Method acting were. Impressionism, Expressionism, Symbolism, montage (as defined by Sergei Eisenstein on stage before he introduced it to the new art of film), and collage were frequent influences. There was no theory being evolved, however, no manifesto of Off-Off-Broadway, no unifying social or political agenda; it was all by accident, serendipity, and happenstance: theatrical bricolage. These folks all just wanted to make theater, using whatever was available and whatever worked. (Of course, the theories did come later as academics, critics, and subsequent artists tried to capitalize on the innovations of the progenitors. As Grotowski put it: “A philosophy always comes after a technique.”) The plays, as Ralph Cook demanded, were relevant to the life going on in the Village communities in which the artists and the spectators lived. They reflected what was happening in Washington Square or Tompkins Square, or on Christopher Street or St. Mark’s Place.

Because dancers, musicians, and poets were part of the same downtown community as the actors, directors, and dramatists, performances often incorporated verse, singing, and dancing or dance-like movement. (The Village painters and sculptors, some now-famous like Larry Rivers, sometimes designed sets for Off-Off-Broadway theaters. Julian Beck himself had been an Abstract Expressionist painter before starting the Living.) The language, even with the poetic influence, was frequently profane and colloquial; the actions, which could be either hyperreal or totally symbolic and ritualized, were frequently violent, sexual (of every conceivable variety), and disturbing. Elenore Lester listed what a spectator might find on an OOB stage: “Lusty love-making in the choir loft, four-letter words echoing in the parish hall, dancers and actors in outrageous costumes or non-costumes cavorting in a vaulted church interior, hairy hippies sprawled in the church pews.” John Keating warned that there were “no restrictions of any kind” on what went on on the stages of the Village theaters, including what elsewhere would be considered immorality, indecency, or blasphemy. He added that “the experimentation ranges from the wildly imaginative to the wildly self-indulgent.” As the young spectator, a painter, in Lester’s report continued, “The plays? Man, they’re alive. Even when they stink, they’re alive.” The OOB models, the prototypes, were the Living’s Connection and The Brig, Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, Michael McClure’s The Beard, Jean-Claude van Itallie’s America Hurrah, the routines of Lenny Bruce, and Happenings.

The Connection by Jack Gelber, which the Living Theatre began presenting in 1959 and kept in its repertoire through 1963, is considered by many to have been the initiating production of Off-Off-Broadway, combining as it did contemporary themes and language with live jazz music. It also put the audience into the event—they were “allowed” to observe the lives of the junkies waiting for their fix as a documentary film is being made—and posited that the world of the play was a metaphor for the lives of all of us who are, in one way or another, all waiting for some kind of “fix.” Former Marine Kenneth H. Brown’s The Brig, the portrayal of brutality and inhumanity in a Marine Corps jail in Japan in the 1950s, opened on 15 May 1963 under the direction of Judith Malina on a set designed by Julian Beck (performing the same jobs they had for The Connection). The Living also presented Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities twice, opening on 20 December 1960 and 20 November 1961, and then, in a production that coincided with an uptown Off-Broadway staging, generating lots of press and winning Joe Chaikin an Obie, Man is Man (18 September 1962-31 March 1963). Other early OOB fare included Gene Frankel’s renowned production of Genet’s The Blacks which opened at St. Mark’s Playhouse (which would later become Theatre Genesis) on 4 May 1961 and ran until September 1964. It featured African-American actors in white masks. Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and Albee’s The Zoo Story (in the playwright’s American début) opened in rep at the Provincetown Playhouse on 14 January 1960; they ran until 1965, though they’d moved to the Cherry Lane by that time; The Days and Nights of Beebee Fenstermaker by William Snyder opened at the Sheridan Square Playhouse on 17 September 1962 and ran until 26 May 1963; Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano opened at the Gate Theatre on 17 September 1963 in a double bill with The Lesson.

In 1962, producers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder (later to team with Albee to form Albarwild, a play-producing organization and a play-development unit) presented the groundbreaking Theater of the Absurd bill, a seminal event in the early formation of the Off-Off-Broadway scene, at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village from 11 February to 25 March 1962. The plays in the repertory series, all of which shared the same ten actors and were directed by, among others, Alan Schneider, George L. Sherman, Donald Davis, Albee, and Barr, were Kenneth Koch’s Bertha; Jack Richardson’s Gallows Humor; Genet’s Deathwatch; Arrabal’s Picnic on the Battlefield; Albee’s Zoo Story, The Sandbox, and The American Dream; Beckett’s Endgame; and Ionesco’s The Killer. Such fare was for the most part unknown on other New York stages at that time. At the end of the decade, Edward Parone, the head of the Albarwild Playwrights Unit, directed an evening of 11 very short plays—six to 20 minutes—by 12 Off-Off-Broadway authors like Leonard Melfi, Israel Horovitz, Terrence McNally, Martin Duberman, and Jean-Claude van Itallie, at the Cafe au Go Go in the West Village. Collision Course opened on 9 May 1968 and covered “contemporary America” as each writer provided a humorous perspective on a serious subject, among them sex, the war in Vietnam, racism, and slums.

Of course, with so much freedom of expression and so few constraints from administrators and managers, not all the plays offered Off-Off-Broadway were top-of-the-line theater. “Once we are convinced of the artistic taste of a director, we leave everything in his hands,” explained Ralph Cook, and Ellen Stewart, who told me, “I don’t read texts, okay,” insisted, “The plays that we’re doing are the plays I want to do. I don’t interfere in how they get to be that way.” In its early days, Off-Off-Broadway was often amateurish and could be so far out that even dedicated downtown audiences might be left confused. (The popular media, particularly TV, still likes to portray OOB showcases in this light—kooky, unintelligible performances by over-serious artistes who disparage the audiences for not understanding their art. I might even suggest that the current Broadway/former Off-Broadway hit, David Ives’s Venus in Fur, which is about an audition for an Off-Off-Broadway play, engages in this depiction for humor.) Former reviewer Keating observed: “At its worst, Off Off Broadway reduces the theatre of the absurd to the theatre of the ridiculous and meaning is not so much impenetrable as non-existent. At its best it exhibits flashes of freshness and freedom rarely attempted elsewhere.” Paul Goodman characterized this new theater’s audience as “torn between fascination and the impulse to walk out in disgust,” though Lanford Wilson asserted that OOB spectators were more open to experimentation than mainstream theatergoers (who paid a lot more for their seats), even if the play ended up not working.

The theater that grew up in the East and West Villages was a spectator-oriented theater. The artists spoke to the viewers in the language they both spoke and understood. What’s more, the artists weren’t just speaking to the spectators, but those viewers were from their same community: the plays weren’t aimed at the uptown audience or one from out of town. The writers and directors were talking to the folks who lived down the block or around the corner from the theater—in the very world the Village theaters were putting on stage. Cook summed this up:

The actors, directors, and writers are members of a geographical community and are presenting plays for members of that community . . . as an integral everyday part of the life of the community. The audience, young and old, born of the streets of New York, or escapees from Ohio or Poland, come together to see themselves or their neighbors as they are, and perhaps to find the means of survival in this accelerated age.

Not only did the audiences respond viscerally to the performances, the performances responded directly to the audiences. This theater was a real-time exchange between performers and spectators while they were right there in the room together. “What is happening onstage is not a mirror,” said OOB playwright Murray Mednick; “it’s what’s happening.” The performances often involved some kind of intellectual, emotional, or physical actor-audience engagement. Michael Smith contrasted the established theater with the new:

There are few occasions for personal commitment in the commercial theatre today. The structure is industrial—the “entertainment industry”—and the product tends to be generalized, fixed, packaged diversion, coldly performed and passively to be watched; like television and the movies, it is indifferent to the spectator. . . . Seeing the theatre in these terms—to permit it to become this—denies its nature, which is to join performers and spectators in a mutual experience.

The critics, usually the reifiers of cultural significance, were simply ignored. They weren’t needed. While the Off-Broadway producers wanted the press coverage and did everything their big brothers and sisters uptown did to get reviews and news stories in the papers, the Off-Off-Broadway actors, artists, and producers turned their noses up at that whole aspect of professional theater. Indeed, when reviewers did come downtown and published on the new offerings, most coverage was inadequate and condescending (and often appeared after the show had closed). Few of the established journalists understood what was happening in the Village. For example, in a column for the New York Daily News, where he’d been a drama reporter and then senior drama critic from 1940 through 1993, Douglas Watt wrote in reference to an OOB production of Brecht’s Mother Courage by Richard Schechner’s Performance Group:

Now, I don’t pretend to know exactly what this new [Brechtian] esthetic is, if we can call it an esthetic, but I do deplore it if for no other reason than that it opens the floodgates to amateurism. Which is why I think such catchy labels as Theater of the Absurd and Theater of the Ridiculous are noxious, conferring, as they do, a form of respectability on what is all too often plain nonsense.

The 61-year-old Watt, who’d been reviewing theater in New York City for 35 years by this time, acknowledged his confusion about one of the mainstays of Off-Off-Broadway theater, Bertolt Brecht, whose plays and ideas were built into the very foundation of Off-Off-Broadway. Exceptions to this attitude (which, to be fair, wasn’t shared by all establishment reviewers) included the Village Voice (founded in 1955), the hometown paper of downtown New York, as well as inside reportage from the burgeoning alternative press that was proliferating downtown like The Villager (1933) and The East Village Other (1965)—Other Stages (1978), a monthly that covered alternative theater in New York City, and The East Village Eye (1979) came along later—and underground periodicals that sprang up (and often disappeared after a few issues). Unlike the uptown dailies, these were part of the scene. Even paid advertising, when the theaters sprang for it, was enigmatic. Because of the unlicensed nature of the spaces, which drew the ire of city agencies (often intensified by animosity to the nonconformity of the artists involved), many listings and ads, such as those for La MaMa in the Voice, omitted the address. Everybody who needed to, knew where it was; otherwise it wasn’t worth tempting fate.

By the end of the decade, the Village theater scene had changed noticeably. The OOB houses still existed—La MaMa had moved out of its rented home at 122 Second Avenue and was about to open its own building at 74A E. 4th Street—but Joe Cino was dead and Caffe Cino was gone, and Ralph Cook had left Theater Genesis which had closed its doors as well. In 1975, the derelict block along 42nd Street from 9th to 10th Avenues was officially designated Theater Row and soon became home to Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theaters (now extending all the way west to 11th Avenue), moving the center of the alternative theater uptown to the Theater District. Off-Broadway institutions like the New York Shakespeare Festival and Circle in the Square-Downtown were still producing in the Village, but were by this time decidedly establishment, if still a bit edgy. (By 1970, Circle in the Square opened its own uptown theater on 50th Street just west of Broadway, competing directly with commercial producers.) The artists, especially the writers, who’d been radical outsiders in the theater world were now the nascent talent of a new mainstream: Tom O’Horgan had become a Broadway success with Hair; Terrence McNally, Sam Shepard, Leonard Melfi, and Israel Horovitz were seeing their plays in commercial productions. “Off Off Broadway has been absorbed into mainstream theater,” wrote Elenore Lester in 1968.

Actors’ Equity had entered the arena in 1966, promulgating the Showcase Code, requiring the theaters to abide by certain rules if they wanted to cast union actors. The code, periodically updated and renamed, was intended to prevent the exploitation of the actors by OOB producers, but at the same time it restricted the rehearsal period and hours, limited the number of performances, and put a cap of the ticket price the theaters could charge. If a producer didn’t sign the non-negotiable code, Equity actors weren’t allowed to work at the theater (though some did anyway, using false names in the program). Essentially, the artistic freedom that reached its pinnacle in Off-Off-Broadway in the ’60s and the collaboration among the artists began to diminish as roles of “playwright,” “producer,” “director,” and “actor” became more rigidly defined. (In 1975, when a new OOB code was handed down by the union council, actors who worked in the arena voted it down because they found it too restrictive.) By the 1980s, Off-Off-Broadway was approaching a sort of impecunious Off-Broadway with the goal of the producers, playwrights, and actors to get a show reviewed in the mainstream press and transferred to a commercial theater so they could all move on up with it. Plays no longer cost $50, $75, or $100 to stage, and bare-bones productions weren’t enough anymore. Grant money became more a necessity than a luxury, and some OOB theaters began tailoring their choices of scripts to appeal to granters and site evaluators. The epitome of this dream was Urinetown in 1999: an OOB musical that went all the way to Broadway in 2001 where it even won a passel of Tonys. (Before Urinetown was Dance With Me, which began as Dance Wi’ Me Off-Off-Broadway in 1971 and came to Broadway in 1975. Terrence McNally’s Bad Habits opened Off-Off-Broadway in February 1974 and moved to the Booth Theatre in May. The 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Next to Normal, began in 1998 in workshops both out of town and in OOB spaces in New York City, moved to Off-Broadway in 2008, played at Washington’s Arena Stage later that year, and then came to Broadway in 2009, winning several Tonys.) It was less the art that drove many of the participants in Off-Off-Broadway in the last third of the 20th century than the artists’ careers.

There’s still life in the movement yet, though. In 1997, the Present Company launched the New York International Fringe Festival (from which Urinetown was picked up), one of the largest multi-arts events in the country that’s essentially an annual celebration of Off-Off-Broadway theater in spaces all over lower Manhattan. In 2004, the New York Innovative Theatre Awards (IT Awards) were founded to recognize achievement Off-Off-Broadway. At the end of the ’60s, nonetheless, “the center of gravity in advanced theater activity is again shifting,” observed Lester. “Forms are changing and so are the locations: the new ones are the streets, the parks and the college campuses . . . .” Radical theater, presented frequently on the streets as guerrilla performances, was assuming the mantel of the new “new theater.” The storefront and loft theaters of Off Off Broadway were already beginning to be the old guard. Indeed, the Living Theater’s return to New York City in 1968 after five years of self- imposed exile in Europe helped inspire many small troupes to take to the streets to agitate not so much for artistic and theatrical audacity, but political and intellectual liberties. Though those streets were all over the city and even beyond, the center, the heartbeat, was still Greenwich Village. If you looked closely at the protesters and radical artists at the hub of this activity, you shouldn’t have been surprised to find a connection somewhere to New York University, the behemoth of the East Village. The movement’s parade ground was Washington Square Park, the gathering place for the hippies, activists, radicals, and students of the Village. Assembling to confront social evils as they saw them, young artists agitated for peace, civil rights, youth power, the sexual revolution, and the decriminalization of marijuana. They often performed for free and lived together communally, with a total commitment to their causes and their troupemates. They were the counterculture in action. As one participant in the radical theater movement proclaimed in 1968: “There is going to be a confrontation between the Establishment and the dissident forces in this country within the next few years. I don’t know whether or not that confrontation is going to be bloody, but I am sure the theater is going to be a main carrier of this revolution.” Indeed, among the protesters at the 21 October 1967 March on the Pentagon was a troupe of NYU students who performed their anti-war street musical Brother, You’re Next, based on Brecht’s Man is Man, on the steps of the Defense Department headquarters. The Village had moved on from the theater of free artistic expression; it was now in the era of “movement theater.” It was a new decade.

[Most of the Off-Off-Broadway sources from which I’ve quoted in “Greenwich Village Theater in the 1960s” were either contemporaneous or written during the period and published right after the decade ended. The most prolific reporter among my sources, Elenore Lester, wrote “The Pass-the-Hat Theater Circuit” (New York Times Magazine 5 Dec. 1965); “In the Parish Hall, the Hippies Go Ape” (New York Times 26 Mar. 1967); “. . . Or the Wave Of the Future?” (New York Times 30 June 1968); “In the Bronx, Revolution?” (New York Times 29 Dec. 1968); and “Off Off Broadway Takes Center Stage” (New York Times 31 Aug. 1975). Other sources were: “New Theatre and the Unions” (Paul Goodman, Dissent Fall 1959; in Creator Spirit Come! [Taylor Stoehr, ed., 1977]); “Observations: A New Deal for the Arts” (Paul Goodman, Commentary Jan. 1964); “Making It Off Off Broadway” (John Keating, New York Times 25 Apr. 1965); Eight Plays from Off-Off Broadway (Nick Orzel and Michael Smith, eds., 1966); “Religion and Drama Meet Off-Off Broadway” (Dan Sullivan, New York Times 20 Jan. 1968); “Off Off Broadway Aims to Be Right On” (Mel Gussow, New York Times 12 July 1972); The Off Off Broadway Book: The Plays, People, Theatre (Albert Poland and Bruce Mailman, eds., 1972); “Off Off Broadway Emerging From Wings” (New York Times 15 July 1974); “What Makes Off Off Broadway Off Off?” (Stuart W. Little, New York Times 22 Dec. 1974); and Off-Off-Broadway Explosion (David A. Crespy, 2003). Other sources I consulted include: New York’s Greenwich Village (Edmund T. Delaney, 1968); Dreiser (W. A. Swanberg, 1965); “Look at New School of Dramatic Thought” (Douglas Watt, Sunday News [New York] 13 Apr. 1975); The Last Romantic: A Life of Max Eastman (William L. O’Neill, 1978); The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre (Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau, 1959); The Off-Broadway Theater (Julia S. Price, 1962); The Off-Broadway Experience (Howard Greenberger, 1971); and Off-Broadway: The Prophetic Theater (Stuart W. Little, 1971). Of course, some of my observations came from my own experience as well.]

12 December 2011

Greenwich Village Theater in the 1960s (Part 1)

In the years before World War I, when the century was less than a dozen years old, an upheaval that would have cultural and artistic repercussions across the country was taking place in an obscure corner of New York City. The social, artistic, and political forces came together in what became known as the bohemian life in Greenwich Village. Intellectuals of all stripes came to work or live in this community, its distinct character, according to Edmund T. Delaney, a lawyer who wrote extensively about New York history, “somewhat richer than other parts of the city,” and influenced “American literature, art and thinking wholly out of proportion to their numbers.” The influence, across the gamut of culture and ideas, was made by a motley group including proponents of atheism, socialism, cubism, anarchism, free-thought, free-love, birth-control—”and women who bobbed their hair and smoked cigarettes.” As socialist journalist John Reed portrayed it:

Inglorious Miltons by the score,
And Rodins, one to every floor.
In short, those unknown men of genius
Who dwell in third-floor-rears gangrenous,
Reft of their rightful heritage
By a commercial, soulless age.
Unwept, I might add—and unsung,
Insolent, but entirely young.

To be sure, Villagers included “crackpots or phonies,” but many were sincere artists and thinkers and, in the words of W. A. Swanberg, biographer of Village resident Theodore Dreiser, “most were conscious rebels . . . [in] revolt against mildewed American concepts and properties . . . .” This side of Village life was summed up by radical author and editor Max Eastman, in the words of his biographer William L. O’Neill:

All that was self-consciously new in American culture—the “new women,” the “new morality,” the “new art”—could be found there. On one level Greenwich Village was becoming a showcase of the cultural revolution, on another it led the movement, serving as headquarters to . . . the Innocent Rebellion.

It’s perhaps illustrative of this “Innocent Rebellion” that at a New Year’s Eve party in 1917, several inebriated Village residents including John Reed, American painter John French Sloan, and Dada artist Marcel Duchamp climbed up the interior staircase of the Washington Square Arch, built a fire on its roof, hung Chinese lanterns, fired cap guns, and released balloons. Reading a statement, they declared “The Independent Republic of Greenwich Village,” a utopia committed to “socialism, sex, poetry, conversation, dawn-greeting, anything—so long as it is taboo in the Middle West.” With Europe at war since 1914, the United States having entered the conflict in April, and the political scene at home roiling and acrimonious, the Village independents wanted little to do with the “commercial, soulless age.” They wanted the freedom to create and go their own ways.

All this creative activity set the stage for an influx of artists “ready to espouse all the new causes—individual freedom, free love, socialism, avant-garde literature and futuristic painting.” Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau, the historians of the Provincetown Players, pointed out that “with so many arts represented, drama was the natural meeting-ground, the inevitable medium of expression.” The new theater art was in the air, but wasn’t much practiced on America’s commercial stages and would therefore have been a most attractive outlet for the new ideas and artistic endeavors of the Village artists and thinkers. For example, among the participants in the Washington Square Players, which was formed in the Village but performed uptown, were journalist Reed, short-story writers Alice Brown and Susan Glaspell, lawyers Lawrence Langner and Elmer Reizenstein (later, Elmer Rice), businessman Edward Goodman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelist Floyd Dell, publishers Charles and Albert Boni, and sundry others. They amalgamated with the few professional actors, scenic artists, and playwrights and began a movement that started or influenced a number of interrelated theater developments across America: the art theater, the little theater, Off-Broadway, and serious American playwriting.

In the early 1900s, the “Little Theater Movement,” a nationwide phenomenon, grew into Off-Broadway in New York City. Offering artistically significant plays in an inexpensive, non-commercial atmosphere, groups such as the Washington Square Players (1915) and Provincetown Players (1916 in New York City) staged plays Broadway ignored, in small, out-of-the-way theaters mostly in (or near) the Village. Other Village-area theaters included the Cherry Lane Theatre (1924; the oldest, continuously used Off-Broadway theater in New York), Theatre de Lys (1953; renamed the Lucille Lortel in 1981), Actors Playhouse (1956), Gate Theatre (1957), Sheridan Square Playhouse (1958), and Sullivan Street Playhouse (1960; where The Fatasticks played for 41 years). Producing troupes included Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre (1926), Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater (1947), Theodore Mann and Jose Quintero’s Circle in the Square (1951), Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival (1954; now the Joseph Papp Public Theater), John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous (1965), and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater (1968). (Neither Off-Broadway nor, later, Off-Off-Broadway—officially designations of Actors’ Equity based on seating capacity—were confined to Greenwich Village. Theaters and companies working in those arenas were based all over the city and some were even itinerant, but the artistic and theatrical dynamic that spawned, nurtured, and fed the movements was centered in the West and, later, East Villages.) Many troupes weren’t only experimental but amateur as well, some lasting only a few years before falling victim to financial problems or their own success as artists parlayed triumphs into jobs in commercial theater and, later, Hollywood. After World War II, however, Off-Broadway attracted critical attention. Several successes transferred to Broadway, beginning with New Stages’ presentation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute (1948).

In the 1950s, the West Village and, later, the newly designated, edgier East Village (rebranded from the northern part of the Lower East Side around 1964) became the cradle of New York’s Beat generation, with its new, raw, and mold-breaking style of poetry and writing; jazz, heard in Village night clubs and coffeehouses; challenging forms of painting and art such as Abstract Expressionism, especially “action painting” (which was an impetus for the Happening) as exemplified by Jackson Pollock, a Village resident; and the revolutionary politics preached by its denizens and frequent visitors. With untried, non-commercial, or experimental plays or productions, using then-unknown talent and shoe-string budgets, Off-Broadway became an artistic magnet. Serious attention started with Circle in the Square’s hit 1952 revival of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke. In 1956, the Village Voice gave out the first Obie Awards to recognize accomplishments in this arena. (In 1964, the Obies began recognizing OOB plays; since 1986, the Lucille Lortel Awards, presented by the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, have also been given for excellence Off Broadway.) Such companies as the Living Theatre, New York Shakespeare Festival, Roundabout Theatre Company (1965), Chelsea Theatre Center (1965), Negro Ensemble Company (1967), and Circle Repertory (1969, as the Circle Theater Company), many of which started Off-Off-Broadway, presented original, failed commercial, or neglected plays. By the 1970s, a split developed between commercial Off-Broadway houses such as the Astor Place (1831), Orpheum (1904), Theatre de Lys, Perry Street (1975), and Minetta Lane (1984, the first new Off-Broadway theater built in New York City in 50 years), and non-profit companies like the Ridiculous Theatrical Company (1967), Jewish Repertory Theatre (1974), Hudson Guild (1974), and Pan Asian Repertory Theatre (1977) that fostered new works and U.S. productions of European and non-Western plays. Mostly, however, real experimental and avant-garde theater had moved to Off-Off-Broadway. “Off Broadway died in 1970 and no one even sent flowers,” wrote Tom Eyen, an OOB playwright, three years later.

In response to the Eisenhower years, particularly McCarthyism and the HUAC hearings; the rise of issues like the war in Vietnam, nuclear-weapons development, civil and equal rights for African Americans and women (and, later, Latinos and gays); and proliferating consumerism, the Beat impulse evolved into the angrier and more activist ’60s. In the early 1960s, the Village theater and art scene was just developing into the exciting, vibrant, and multi-cultural world that it became known as by the end of the decade. Folk and rock music also came to the Village in the early part of the decade, and bars and clubs in the Village like the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, Googies, the Night Owl Cafe, the Fat Black Pussycat, and too many more to name became venues for singers, musicians, songwriters, and poets like Bob Dylan, Dave Von Ronk, Tim Hardin, Joan Baez, Rod McKuen, James Baldwin, and Allen Ginsberg. With this upheaval came the birth of a new alternative theater centered in the Village, inspired strongly by the writings of Antonin Artaud and the work of European dramatists: Off-Off-Broadway (a label supposedly devised by Village Voice reviewer Jerry Tallmer). Like Artaud, Vsevolod Meyerhold was a general inspiration for nearly all the avant-garde theater artists working or developing in the 1960s: his theories were just in the atmosphere of the time, especially in Greenwich Village. (It’s significant, I think, that the American editions of several seminal books of theatrical theory were published in these years: Artaud’s The Theater and its Double, 1958; Brecht on Theatre, 1964; Antonin Artaud Anthology, 1965; Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, 1968; Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre, 1968; Meyerhold on Theatre, 1969.)

Before the start of the 1960s, Off-Broadway, with a few exceptions like, notably, the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Joseph Papp Public Theater), had begun to become little more than a less-expensive Broadway, a commercial-theater venue. “The development of the Off Off theater,” wrote John Keating, a former review-writer for Cue magazine and one-time president of the Drama Desk, in a 1965 New York Times article, “is . . . explained by its adherents as . . . a revolt against the growing professionalism and decreasing experimentalism of the regular Off Broadway movement.” As the costs of Off-Broadway production rose, the impulse to experiment and innovate lessened. Off-Off-Broadway, with its minimal-to-non-existent budgets, became the anvil of experimentation. A founder of Circle Rep, Marshall Mason, insisted, “Off Off Broadway gives us freedom from economic pressures,” and Eve Adamson, director of the Jean Cocteau Repertory, observed, “I can afford to do a crazy play of Oscar Wilde. On Broadway no one can.” And the head of the Off Off Broadway Alliance (now the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, or ART/NY) said, “We’re the laboratory where directors, actors, and playwrights can sharpen their tools.”

Among the principal venues for the new OOB theater were the churches of the Village. Theatre Genesis (1964), for example, was actually part of the cultural ministry of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, and the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square and the Washington Square Methodist Church on West 4th Street (which would later house Grotowski’s Theatr Laboratorium in 1969) had their own cultural and theatrical programs. Observed Elenore Lester, a New York Times writer who covered the new OOB arena in the ’60s and ’70s, in these and similar parishes, “a new kind of churchgoer sees underground films, original plays by young writers or hears far-out poetry or jazz liturgies.” In addition, of course, were the two most prominent OOB venues unaffiliated with a church: Caffe Cino (1958) and Café La MaMa (1961; later, the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club). In all of these places, and many others, spectators could see experimental films, Happenings, jazz bands, political speakers, and radically innovative poets. Among the hippies and protesters who frequented the Village or lived there, there were theater people, innovative writers, and radical thinkers like Julian Beck and Judith Malina, Ralph Cook, Ellen Stewart, Joe Cino, Al Carmines, Robert Hooks, Douglas Turner Ward, Joe Chaikin, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Michael Harrington, Murray Bookchin, and Paul Goodman who gravitated to the East and West Villages in the 1960s and afterward.

As this was all beginning to swirl and roil in the Village, developing into a disorderly, uproarious, and unrestrained hub of hippiedom and the counterculture, there were new kinds of theater being tried out by writers and directors—aided greatly, of course, by adventurous actors and imaginative designers and technicians—that were redefining the form, not to mention the content, of American theater. Off-Broadway had deteriorated into a place where artists went merely to get work: “The distinction between the practice of an art and the performance of a job or assigned task is lost” in the “establishment theatre,” wrote Michael Townsend Smith, OOB playwright and reviewer for the Village Voice. Finding little personal or artistic satisfaction in the established theater, whether Broadway or Off-Broadway, commercial or non-profit, the artists came to the Village to search for something they couldn’t find anywhere else. At the beginning, getting a part in an Off-Off-Broadway production wasn’t just a matter of acquiring a résumé credit, as it frequently is now, but a chance not only to be seen but to work alongside fascinating writers, directors, and designers. In Elenore Lester’s words, “Everyone is in it for love. . . . [T]hey’ll try anything if they think it’s ‘beautiful,’ ‘interesting,’ ‘real theater’ or ‘a challenge.’” Audiences, advised Lester, came for analogous reasons: “to be shook up, intellectually and emotionally.”

In 1965, a 19-year-old student who’d been traveling to Greenwich Village since his high school days when he met the Becks, hung out at Theatre Genesis, and discovered Caffe Cino, illustrated the world of Off-Off-Broadway for an Ohio campus publication. In a dialogue reminiscent of a very young man’s take on Brecht’s Messingkauf Dialogues, a cabbie offers to take a young theater-seeker “off-Broadway” and the passenger says, “I’m looking for something fresh, something alive. A theatre where writers can try things out, where there’s a possibility of affirmation. A theatre where the grand tradition of theatre, ritual theatre, is joined to the . . . .” He breaks off when he realizes that Off-Broadway’s offerings differ little from what’s playing everywhere else. The cabbie, having turned into “the spirit of . . . Joe Cino,” transports them magically to “off-off-Broadway” where “[s]omething’s always new.” The cabbie instructs the young man that the new playwrights represented there are “trying to say something” as they “attempt to get back at the roots of the theatre—spoken poetry—in the most direct manner possible.” In words that echo Antonin Artaud, the cabbie explains: “We’re trying to do something basic to get at the rituals that have always formed the core of theatre.” (In seven years, that 19-year-old, Leonardo Shapiro, would be directing and creating plays with his own company, Shaliko, in the East Village. He became part of the very world he described.) To support the new theater activity came ad hoc little troupes, often in communication with European experimenters like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Adamov, Michel de Ghelderode, Jean Genet, Fernando Arrabal, and Harold Pinter, and directors like Peter Brook, Peter Hall, Charles Marowitz, Joan Littlewood, Roger Blin, Jean-Louis Barrault, Giorgio Strehler, and later Jerzy Grotowski and Yuri Lyubimov.

The progenitor of the Off-Off-Broadway movement was Joe Cino’s coffeehouse, opened at 31 Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village in 1958 and closed soon after Cino’s suicide in 1967. Cino, a former dancer, had originally intended it as a place for his artist friends to display their work, then poets began reading their writing there. The first theatrical offerings were established plays by writers like Tennessee Williams, William Saroyan, and Jean Giraudoux, but by 1960, playwrights began reading their scripts, and eventually staging them. The first original play performed at Caffe Cino and, perhaps, the first true Off-Off-Broadway première, was James Howard’s Flyspray in 1960. Eventually plays by Lanford Wilson, Doric Wilson, Tom Eyen, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and Robert Patrick (the most prolific Cino writer in its lifetime) were staged and the work of directors like Marshall Mason and Tom O’Horgan and actors like Al Pacino (who made his début for a paying audience in William Saroyan’s Hello Out There in 1962 or ’63) and Bernadette Peters was first seen at Joe Cino’s coffeehouse. Though Cino eventually built a small stage, the early productions at Caffe Cino were staged on the coffeehouse floor with the audience sitting very close around the playing area. Sets and props were minimal because of the lack of funds and the need for simplicity, and the lighting was the main source of atmosphere. Many of what would become the innovations and identifying characteristics of OOB theater were born at the Caffe Cino, but as much of necessity and impecuniousness as artistic choice and philosophy. The coffeehouse’s short life is far outstripped by the influence Caffe Cino had on New York and American theater, the Village, and Off-Off-Broadway. One Caffe Cino writer, Claris Nelson, called it “an island where our souls can play.” It was the first venue to become identified as a home for gay-themed plays before the Stonewall riots launched the gay rights movement in New York and elsewhere. Cino’s model, the coffeehouse theater, was copied by dozens and then scores of other small spaces around the city, centered mostly in the West and East Villages but fanning out to all the boroughs and even other cities and towns across the country. This all happened by word of mouth because if Off-Off-Broadway got very little press in its first decades, Caffe Cino got none. In 1967, Joe Cino committed suicide. Friends tried to keep the caffe going, but it couldn’t survive without Cino and in the face of new regulations for cabarets and clubs, and it closed in 1968. If Artaud was the OOB movement’s philosopher and Meyerhold its model director, Cino had been its stage manager. Almost no theater artist who worked in the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s doesn’t owe some kind of debt to Joe Cino—if not directly, then indirectly.

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, founded in October 1961 by Ellen Stewart, a would-be clothes designer, in an East Village basement as the Café La MaMa, was seen by many to be the successor to Caffe Cino. It’s the only one of the main Off-Off-Broadway originators that’s still producing. (Ellen Stewart died at 91 on 13 January 2011, the last of the original OOB impresarios; see my homage on ROT, “The Pushcart Theater: Ellen Stewart (1919-2011),” 4 April. It also provides a slightly more detailed history of the theater.) La MaMa moved about the East Village for many years until it purchased its own building at 74A E. 4th Street, still its headquarters (and for many years the residence, on the top floor, of Stewart). Stewart started La MaMa so her brother and his friends would have a place to create and perform their theater works. She dedicated the theater to the playwright and welcomed artists who were underrepresented, underfunded, and often misunderstood, at a time when the perception of what theatre could be was changing rapidly. For artists such as Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, Tom O’Horgan, and Philip Glass, La MaMa was an artistic refuge, especially after Caffe Cino closed. Stewart also brought international artists such as Tadeusz Kantor, Andrei Serban, Kazuo Ohno, The Tokyo Kid Brothers to the U.S. to present their work at La MaMa. In addition, La MaMa E.T.C. maintains a resident company at the theater, first The La MaMa Troupe directed by Tom O’Horgan and then The Great Jones Repertory directed by Andrei Serban and Elizabeth Swados, the current company. Other companies and artists had residencies at the La MaMa complex, too, some for several years and others for a short time until they moved out on their own; 30 companies and artists work out of La MaMa at present. The latest troupe to be offered a residency at the theater was the Belarus Free Theater, forced into exile by the totalitarian government in their home country. La MaMa may be the busiest producer of plays in New York City—or possibly the entire country—with three theaters in its main building, a large space in the Ellen Stewart Theatre (formerly the Annex), plus a rehearsal building, an art gallery, an archive, and artists’ dormitories.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South was devoted to social outreach through programs to help people, including the controversial and unpopular, in need. The “beatnik church” supported a radical arts ministry, making space available for art exhibitions, rehearsals, and performances, ensuring that it was a space where artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, and Robert Rauschenberg, unknown at that time, could experiment in their work without fear of censorship. Later, artists Red Grooms and Yoko Ono also exhibited work at the gallery. The first Happening is said to have been presented at Judson Memorial. After the church hired Al Carmines as Assistant Curate, he opened the Judson Poets' Theatre in November 1961 with The Great American Desert, a satiric Western drama by poet Joel Oppenheimer. Carmines presented experimental plays and musicals by writers such as Sam Shepherd and Lanford Wilson, and directors like Tom O'Horgan in the church's main Meeting Room. Starting in 1962, Carmines began composing and producing his own musicals, including several based on texts by Gertrude Stein, staged by the Judson Poets director Lawrence Kornfeld. In the 1980s, the church sponsored political-theater performances, such as those by Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater. In 1977, Carmines suffered a cerebral aneurysm that disabled him with devastating headaches. He ceased his theatrical activities in 1981 and retired from the ministry in 1985, effectively ending the run of the Judson Poets' Theatre, the third (and the second-longest-lasting) of the four original OOB houses. Al Carmines died in 2005 at age 69.

Ralph Cook’s Theatre Genesis was housed in St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, an Episcopal church on Second Avenue at E. 10th Street. Cook, a fervent civil-rights activist who’d been arrested for his activities on several occasions, had been hired in 1964 by the church’s rector as the arts curate to coordinate the arts ministry at St. Mark’s and he immediately launched the theater. The plays he staged concerned the life of the street—usually in the language of the street—and were imbued with a sense of anarchy that was laced with spirituality. Cook encouraged his playwrights, often poets before he recruited them, to work improvisationally with the actors and directors, experimenting with language to explore their world and the conflicts they encountered in their lives. The artists were working through their ideas and concerns and the spectators didn’t see a reflection of something that had already happened, but watched it happen right in front of them. The performance style, while not abandoning Stanislavsky’s psychological realism, was more subjective in its interpretation, stripping everything down to the basics and, as Artaud required, refusing to indulge or condescend to the audiences. The closeness Cook fostered among his artists was intended to build a tight community and the explorations were conducted on a personal level as the artists revealed their core humanity in plays that bore witness to what was happening outside the church. Cook viewed playwrights as seers, the only ones who could penetrate the fiction of the mass media and the illusions of capitalism. The plays, often gritty and violent, were revolutionary in form as well as content, with minimal settings in a tiny space that could be configured for a half dozen different audience-performer relationships. They were regarded as works still in progress and Cook promoted the revision and reshaping of the works even as they were before an audience. Theatre Genesis produced, among others, the early plays of Sam Shepard; Charles L. Mee, Jr.; Leonard Melfi; and Adrienne Kennedy. Ralph Cook, about whom little is recorded (including his life dates) outside his activities at Theatre Genesis, left the theater in 1969 and Theatre Genesis closed a few years later.

In the ’60s, among other shifts in approach, the theater creativity in the Village was often generated by the playwright. “[W]e are not looking for plays to produce,” explained Cook, “but writers who are at that point where they need a continuing relationship with a stage and actors in order to evolve.” In the modern era, playwrights’ theaters, like Shakespeare’s or Molière’s or, before that, the world of classical Greek drama, was rare and in the United States, mostly unknown. The mainstream theater was generally an actors’ theater, though some important directors held sway on some stages. But as the Off-Off-Broadway theater developed in the Village, the playwright—not always an established dramatist as many companies gravitated to poets in particular—became the focus of the creative impulse. It became more and more common for writers to work not just with specific groups but for them, creating plays for certain actors, even certain performance spaces.

In another Village shift in the ’60s, the experimental theaters tilted toward acting ensembles, often working improvisationally, often without a formal director. These new theaters were often collectives of artists creating symbiotically, though the focus on writers also had its influence here, with, as I noted above, authors developing work with groups of which they were also members. (In ensemble-created work, the playwright often refined scripts developed by improvisation.) These groups investigated language imagery and new ways of conveying meaning through the sounds of words and other non-verbal utterances as described by Artaud. The collaborators were inventing an Artaudian grammar of symbols drawn from their everyday experiences and those of their audiences, who connected to the performances as participants in the creative event. Robert Brustein observed that “the new theater style is intimately linked to revolutionary politics. What we are witnessing is the effort of the avant-garde to translate ‘participatory democracy’ into artistic terms, demanding a new egalitarianism that gives equal rank to everyone . . . .” It was often difficult to discern who were the principal creators of such works, the writers, the actors, or the director, as they all contributed their skills during the development process and worked as equals in an artistic commune of sorts. (In some cases, the companies were actual communes, often living together in the same lofts were they created and performed.) Groups like the Living Theatre, Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre (1963), Richard Schechner’s Performance Group (1967; the predecessor to the Wooster Group, 1975), Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Project (1968), Crystal Field and George Bartenieff’s Theater for the New City (1971), Omar Shapli’s Section 10 (1975), and others who lasted a few seasons or so, produced many of the iconic theater pieces of the decade. This was not the life style of the commercial theater of Broadway or Off-Broadway, or even the non-profit theater of Off-Broadway. Even when the troupe didn’t live together, the members had a common connection that often defined their art. Once the OOB bug caught hold, the agenda-free theaters like La MaMa or Theatre Genesis were joined by companies with a defining interest. There were black companies, Hispanic companies, Asian companies, even a French and a German troupe. There were theaters that focused on gay or lesbian plays, women writers, Jewish subjects, veteran’s issues. In the beginning of this development, the plays were sometimes strident and more issue-oriented than artistic, but by the end of the decade, some good theater and writing developed from the focus

[To cover this subject even at the superficial level I’m attempting here requires more space that I can manage in a single post. So I’m going to continue this discussion in a few days, picking up where I’ve left off above, starting with the financial aspects of Off-Off-Broadway theater in its first decade. I hope readers will come back later this week to see what else I have to say about the new theater activity that grew up in the West and East Villages of lower Manhattan in the 1960s. (I’ll also append a list of some of the sources from which I’ve drawn the quotations I’ve used in “Greenwich Village Theater in the 1960s.”)]