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 d├ębut) 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.]

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