Celebrating 30 Years of Off-Broadway
May 21, 1985
On May 20, the Obies celebrate their 30th birthday. This special supplement, with selections from 30 years of the Voice and reminiscences by many of the major figures of the American theater, is dedicated to the artists of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway.
GENE FRANKEL: I was sitting at a café on the Champs Elysées on August 3, 1959. Opposite me was Stefan Brecht, the sole controller of the American rights to his father’s plays. “I am interested in mounting an Off-Broadway production of Mother Courage,” I told him.
“What about Chalk Circle or Good Woman?”
“What about Puntila? Zero Mostel and Edward G. Robinson are both interested in playing the lead.” (I lied.)
“Okay.” I lit up like a Roman candle.
“I require $10,000 in advance royalties.” I deflated like a ruptured inner tube.
“Stefan, this is Off-Broadway, not Broadway.”
“You know, Eugene, my father is not the only playwright in the world,” he replied. “Have you read Genet? I just happen to have the English translation of his new play Les Nègres with me. The translator is a friend of mine. Read it and tell me what you think.”
I read my consolation prize in one sitting that night, and was immediately, immensely aware of Genet’s theatrical genius. From the first moment, the hypnotic effect of the dionysian revels evoked by Genet stole the breath, stilled the heart, and fevered the brain. What was written as an assault on French colonialism would have even stronger impact in New York, reverberating off the 300-year-old guilt consciousness of liberal white America.
Incredibly, St. Mark’s Playhouse was the only Off-Broadway theater at that time suitable for the production scheme I devised — it had the height for a two-level set, and the raked seating necessary to suggest the amphitheater of a Greek arena. And most important of all: no proscenium, no curtain, no separation of audience and actor. Excited by my talented cast of “unknowns,” which included Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, Roscoe Lee Browne, Godfrey Cambridge, Lou Gossett, and Charles Gordone, and also by the ingeniously designed set and extraordinary costumes and masks by Patricia Zipprodt, I invited Genet to the final weeks of rehearsal. But the State Department refused to grant this genius playwright a visa, because of his criminal record and sexual proclivities.
So I asked Bernard Frechtman, his translator, to substitute. Seeing our rehearsal Frechtman was entranced — he had nothing but praise for the actors and the confrontational, improvisational, razor’s edge approach I was taking. “Genet will be pleased, he will be pleased,” Frechtman kept saying.
Then, three days away from previews, in the midst of a run-through, nearing the close of the first act, at the height of a voodoo-frenzy, suddenly Frechtman let out a scream. “The curtain. You’ve forgotten the curtain.” “Bernie, relax. There is no curtain.” “But Genet asked for a curtain. In his text, plainly, in black and white.” “Bernie, the architecture of this theater, the working construct of this production, the lack of wings, the thrust stage, all speak against having a curtain. So be reasonable, sit down, and shut up.” “I must telephone Genet immediately.”
The next morning he handed me a telegram: Monsieur Frankel. S’il vous plait. Je souhaite que le rideau soit en conformité avec mon texte. Bernie happily translated: “As my text requires, please use a curtain.” I immediately composed a letter, outlining in detail all the reasons why a curtain was unnecessary, undesirable, and unwanted. The reply was quick enough: Je voudrais avoir le rideau. (I want the curtain.) This time I composed an even longer, even more philosophical in-depth analysis, explaining why a curtain in this particular theater, in this particular production, was unnecessary, undesirable, and unwanted. Again the reply was swift and terse: Je demande le rideau. Assured by Frechtman that if thwarted, Genet would go to any length to denounce me and the production, I gave in. I cabled to Genet that since he insisted, I would comply. But as we were already over budget, could we have the author’s permission to take the cost of the curtain out of his anticipated royalties? This time Genet’s reply was swiftest of all: Je me fous du rideau — or, “Fuck the curtain.”
ELLEN STEWART: We began in 1963 in the basement at 321 East 9th Street, which was owned by a Mr. Slywotsky from the Ukraine. The other tenants were enraged to be living above a “nigger,” so they tried to get Slywotsky to drive me out by vandalizing their own apartments and sending him the repair bills. I remember someone smashing their own bathtub with a hammer. One day a very distinguished looking gentleman came with a summons for my arrest. The neighbors had reported me for prostitution, saying I had entertained 15 white men in six hours. The truth is that many of my friends happened to be white males, and they were dropping by to help me fix up the basement. We explained to the officer that we were building a theater. He was sympathetic because he had worked in vaudeville, and told us all we had to do was serve coffee and say we were a restaurant and we would be legit. My nickname at the time was Mama; we were going to use that name, but someone thought it wasn’t fancy enough, so we became La Mama.
When we moved to 82 Second Avenue we were harassed by the Building Department and others. One night I returned to find the entire back wall of the building had been torn down. I knew they’d give us a coffee house license if the building had been a restaurant before us. It had been the Zen Tua House, but the city had no record of it because the tea house was a front for a communist printing press, and someone high up in city government had destroyed the records. I managed to get the tea house’s tax report, so we survived again, but had made some enemies.
Then in 1965 we got our first citation from the Voice, along with Giuseppe [Joe Cino]. Before that we had been like orphans; the Obie made us legitimate. It was especially a big thrill because our work wasn’t so hot in those days, compared to now at least.
I wouldn’t do it differently if I were starting out now. Since the beginning La Mama has been committed to doing as many plays as possible, and we still do about 40 each season. My biggest joy is to know people are working. I don’t go to rehearsals. I’m not even really that keen on seeing performances. I just love the excitement of everyone running around putting plays together, the look on their faces when they leave a good rehearsal.
STEVEN BEN ISRAEL: I’d been working in the Village as a jazz drummer. Around 1958 I was hanging out and noticed these little theaters springing up everywhere. I went to a benefit for the General Strike for Peace, and met Julian Beck and Judith Malina. One day I was in a cab that stalled on 14th Street, noticed their theater, got out and went up to see them. They invited me to stay and see The Connection. I walked out saying that’s what I would do with my life. They were opening Brecht’s Man Is Man and hired me to play Sunday performances for Joe Chaikin. At that time we were the only rep theater in New York.
Then came The Brig. Newsweek called it “devastating,” and The Times said if it was true there should be a congressional investigation. Then the IRS moved in to close the theater for back taxes. They sealed off the entrance, so we had the audience climb up ladders into the second-floor window. We were arrested after the performance; they locked us up in the cage we used as a set for the play.
JULIAN BECK and JUDITH MALINA: The Off-Broadway movement was born of the impulse to create a counter-theater that would bring glow, wings, and artistic cohesion to an art which had become the prisoner and plaything of the middle class. The powers of the establishment threaten to take possession of every tool and discovery of the movement, so there’s a need to start again, to reinvest the theater with risk and daring, to declare that a theater without moral consciousness is just crème caramel in a world of nuclear madness.
DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: It had always been obvious that Broadway was not the place to say anything serious about the experience of blacks. We had no choice but to carve out our own arena. Off-Broadway for us was not so much an alternative but the only real possibility.
The one production I would most like to live through again is the Negro Ensemble Company’s first, the Song of the Lusitanian Bogey, a play about Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique and Angola. It was created before we had a name to live up to, so we could concentrate on the work for its own sake. There is no production I particularly regret. Struggle in theater is the norm.
JERRY TALLMER: The Voice and the Off-Broadway movement started almost simultaneously, but it was Julie Bovasso’s performance in The Maids that really got my juices stirring. Some time during that first year, a bunch of us were sitting around the office and asked, why shouldn’t there be some sort of awards for OffBroadway, to single it out from Broadway, to stick it in the establishment’s eye? The name actually came from Harvey Jacobs, a novelist who was working in the advertising department. We sent a notice to the Times, and Sam Zolotow, the eminent theater reporter, called to ask what the Voice was — as a matter of fact, he didn’t even know where Greenwich Village was.
The only big fight we ever had was over Beckett’s Happy Days in 1962. The judges that year were Walter Kerr, Edward Albee, and myself, and Kerr adamantly refused to vote for it. He was a nice guy, but very stubborn, and insisted on Frank Gilroy’s Who’ll Save the Plowboy? Finally we divided the prize. Kerr stipulated he’d only accept the compromise if we announced that he was abstaining. So the single abstention in the history of the Obies has been Walter Kerr on Samuel Beckett.
SPALDING GRAY: When Liz LeCompte and I first saw Dionysus in ’69 at the Performing Garage, we sat on the highest platform. I was afraid one of those naked zombies would make me do something or everything I thought I didn’t want to do. Sometime after that, after I cooled down a bit, I sent Richard Schechner my picture and resume. It was a studio shot taken while I was working at the Alley Theatre. I had a beard and my hands were dramatically clasped in a sort of beatific biblical prayer position. There was special-effects smoke floating in the background and the whole thing looked like a publicity shot for King David.
When the performer who was playing Malcolm in the Group’s environmental production of Makbeth gave four days’ notice (the only healthy alternative to killing Richard), I was called in. Richard asked me if I thought I could do the role in four days. “Sure. No problem,” I said. After all, I’d done five years of summer stock and was gracefully unaware that the group had taken two years to develop Makbeth.
When I arrived at the Performing Garage for my first rehearsal, I was surprised to find only Joan MacIntosh and Richard Schechner. The rest of the group had refused to come in. The love affair had gone sour. So Joan played her role and Richard performed all the others. He was a very bad actor and particularly bad as the messenger that brings the news of the murder of all Macduff’s “pretty ones.” But bad as his acting was, looking back on it now, I feel that might have been the right concept for the production: Richard and Joan playing all the roles.
At the time, Richard was hot into his theory of actuals. No mimesis and no props please. We were not to pretend we were doing anything, we were to actually do it. For me, the strangest and most far-out section was the banquet scene in which, instead of food, everyone ate the king. Duncan had to bare his upper torso while everyone else fell upon him and sucked. The play had been running for a long time and the guy who played Duncan looked like E.T. after shiatsu. His pulpy white body held a, wild profusion of flowering hickies that started at his navel and ran, like little purple foot print, all the way to his neck. I’d never seen anything like it.
When the time came to rehearse that scene, Richard stripped-down to his Jockey sports, flopped out on that huge platform, and grunted, “Eat,” and with no hesitation I dove in and began to gum him. “Harder! Harder! Suck harder!” he cried and I did. I went down on that hairy belly that was then like the combination of a Buddha belly and an orangutan’s: I sucked and sucked, only pulling back for air and to pick hairs from between my teeth, and as I was doing this.I thought, yes, it’s true, I’m like any actor. Even in this experimental, environmental theater production I’ll do anything for a part, even if it means going down on the director in front of his wife on a giant wood platform in a garage that used to be a silver press shop in a funky crazy warehouse district that the audience was afraid to set foot in and that would soon become surprising Soho, that most desired of desired spots in New York City.
KEVIN O’CONNOR: I had graduated from the Neighborhood Playhouse expecting to go out to one of the regional theaters to hone my craft on the classics, but alas, I was rejected and rebuffed, so I got a job waiting tables at the Village Gate. My fellow waiters were all actors, directors, and painters and such — including playwright Leonard Melfi, director Ralph Cook, and a busboy named Sam Shepard. Well, like Mick and Judy; we all wanted to put on a show, so along with Ralph Cook, and the Reverend Michael Allen, we started Theater Genesis at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery Church. We had Monday night readings of new plays with such writers as Murray Mednick, John Guare, Sally Ordway, Tom Sankey, and many others. Like other Off-Off theaters we used things from our apartments for set pieces — I remember ripping the bathtub out of Shepard’s place on Avenue C for his play Chicago, and moving most of Melfi’s apartment to the church for Birdbath, including his desk and typewriter.
Through all this time Ellen Stewart was producing a new play every week. It seemed all you had to do was go to her and say you had a script you liked, and she’d hand you $100 and say, “Go ahead, honey.” Around 1965 she got the idea that if she sent some of us off to Europe we could come home famous the way opera stars do. She formed two troupes; one under the direction of Ross Alexander went first to Paris, the other under Tom O’Horgan went to Copenhagen. I was in O’Horgan’s troupe. We did nine one-acts in three weeks. There was a stage manager but no crew, so Tom ran around doing lights, and making sound and musical effects. We began with an audience of nine in a 100-seat theater, and by the third week they were lined up around the block.
Down to Paris. A big flop: American expatriates walking out left and right. We stayed for about a month, living in a seedy hotel on the Left Bank, playing “Like a Rolling Stone,” on the jukebox. Our next tour tours were more successful, and culminated in 1968 with Tom Paine and Futz being produced Off-Broadway. Between these tours I continued to wait tables at the Village Gate. At that time the Obie presentations were held there. I was able to find someone else to work for me the night I won for Chicago.
ROBERT PATRICK: A Caffe Cino in the 1960s: An actress walks out on a show. Reason: Someone stateside was laughing in what she considered inappropriate places and she felt artistically compromised. Result: Joe Cino made a few phone calls and a galaxy of Off-Off luminaries appear in an impromptu revue which included several songs that went on to become world classics.
At La Mama in the 1970s: Half the cast leaves a show. Reason: They had all been offered paying jobs in an uptown Off-Broadway turkey that not one of them believed in. They told the La Mama playwright, “Just postpone the show and we’ll be back when this folds.” Result: The turkey lingered on and La Mama had to bring in a production from outside, but the canceled play was eventually produced with great success elsewhere.
At Theater for the New City in the 1980s: Half the cast walks out on a play after the first of three scheduled weeks. Reason: They got a bad review and felt the play was no longer a good showcase for TV jobs. Result: The author is told he cannot extend the run beyond the three weeks Equity allows even if he recasts, and if the play later moved, he would still be responsible under the showcase code to offer the roles to the actors who walked. Because theaters now get their grants based on how many premieres they do, he has not been able to get a second production anyway.
There were, and are, many exceptions to these moods, but the general picture is accurate. The original Off-Off spirit now seems to be in the clubs and outside New York.
lRENE FORNES: What draws me to theater is the adventure. Working Off-Off-Broadway I can do a play as often as I want, as often as my endurance permits. That is the greatest riches I can ask for.
The longevity of a writer depends on being unafraid to think about writing in ways different form the way he or she thought about writing before. The longevity of a playwright depends on having a place where his or her work will be performed with love and trust, a place that is not filled with terror and fear of collapse. A place that would rather collapse than give up the idea that there is such a thing as art.
JACQUES LEVY: The audiences in the middle-to-late ’60s were as unconventional as the work itself. People came prepared to have their expectations upended, craving to be startled, shocked, even assaulted for the purpose of having a Fresh Experience. We were trying to make the theater jump out of its skin.
When I directed Red Cross (Sam Shepard’s first Off-Broadway production), I had loud rock ‘n’ roll music blasting form the moment the audience entered the theater, and the all-white lighting on the all-white set was blinding. Over a 20-minute period prior to the beginning of the play, the intensity of both sound and light diminished until the theater became silent and dark; the actors took their places; then the lights banged on at full intensity.
However, on opening night, when the lights banged on, a main fuse in the theater blew. While I, helpless at the back of the theater, was having something close to a coronary, the audience — this knowing audience, by then accustomed to taking a you-can’t-put-one-over-on-me stance, a slightly paranoid and more than slightly cynical attitude — sat there as if nothing untoward had occurred (some of them laughing that special laugh that indicates they are in on the joke), for what must have been 10 minutes. Thinking back, I question whether we hadn’t perhaps loosened the fabric of expectations too much. Did we really want to create a situation, establish a conspiracy, between audience and creator, wherein all judgment of competency was suspended?
WYNN HANDMAN: I came to off-Broadway 23 years ago, when there was no support institution for new American playwrights. Then those writers appeared in all their diversity, outrage, and talent. They found places all over the city; suddenly there was room for them. “Writing is a solitary act,” one playwright told me, “but I have found a family.”
PAUL FOSTER: I had written a play which I thought was an act of genius. Unfortunately no other producer thought so. So Ellen Stewart said “We’ve just got to build a theater to put this on.” “Where in hell will we get the money to do that?” “Don’t worry honey, we’ve got backing.” “We got backing, where?” “I got the check right here.” She dove into her pocketbook and pulled out her $55 unemployment check.
Later when things got clicking, Ellen was really bankrolling everything, with a job she had in a bathing suit factory. She kept Tom O’Horgan and me on a daily stipend. I got $5 a day, enough for a hamburger and a pack of cigarettes. Then I found out she was giving O’Horgan $10 a day and I was furious. So I faced her down. She knew she was trapped. She told me,”Honey, he’s got a lot of laundry to do.”
When we began we obviously knew very little. The first director we had asked where the light board was. I was unsure what a light board was. Ellen pointed to the single on-off switch on the wall. He said, “All right, where’s the lights?” We showed him some tin cans. Then he asked for gels. That threw us; neither of us knew what he meant. Ellen said, “I’ll look in my pocketbook. I must have some somewhere.”
RONALD TAVEL: I met Eddie McCarty in some disreputable place back in ’63. He was short, untoned, freckled, redheaded, and pale to the point of green. He was also broke and Irish. He ate raw potatoes and cried a lot. And most people said he was the best gentile pianist in America.
In February 1967, Harvey Tavel hastily staged a one-acter of mine, Kitchenette, to pay the rent on the old Play-House of The Ridiculous. We asked Eddie and leggy Mary Woronov to star in it. We rehearsed for five days and Mary couldn’t learn her lines. Harvey would stand right on stage feeding them to her. That gave me an idea: it was the first of my plays to incorporate the actual director as an actor. But it was Eddie’s manic performance that caught up the critics. He got an Obie. A scout for The Times was in the audience one night and, after seeing him, told me The Times ought to be covering this sort of thing. And down they were for the next (Gorilla Queen), in which Eddie also appeared.
He starred again in Arenas of Lutetia in 1968, but by this time something was wrong. He repeatedly struck an actress on stage, her boyfriend intervened, and the show folded. In the years that followed I was not always in touch with Eddie. But when I did see him, I couldn’t understand what he was saying. And no one seemed able to help. He returned to Decatur, Illinois, his hometown, and a bit after, a phone call came from Jo Ann Forman telling me that Eddie McCarty had passed away. An autopsy failed to disclose any reason. I lost my voice for three days. He was 31.
JOANNE AKALAITIS: Every performance is special, but Red Horse Animation at Theater for the New City was unforgettable, because the fact that you could hear wind through the walls added an amazing effect. One night during a blizzard we performed for only two people, Philip Glass and Bob Fury.
I’ve never seen anything like the strong sense of community I find off-off Broadway even today. It comes from knowing we are survivors.
JOSEPH PAPP: When we first started to tour Shakespeare, we had gone up to Harlem and set up our stage in a big school yard. There were several tough guys hanging around. I said to one of them, “You can’t stand here, this is backstage.” He looked at me hard for a moment and said, “Are you kidding? This is third base.”
SUSAN YANKOWITZ: In 1970 I received a Drama Desk award as most promising playwright of the year for my work on the Open Theater’s Terminal. The award was given at Sardi’s, a highly incongruous setting for a writer who was being paid $25 a week and whose theatrical environment and experience had been confined to a loft with uneven floorboards on 14th Street. Dressed to kill, knowing that Lauren Bacall and other luminaries were to be present, I approached the door, where to my astonishment and chagrin I was given a chit entitling me to one drink at the bar and advised that further refreshments were to be at my own expense. The glamour of celebrity was immediately dispelled, and not restored even by John Lindsay’s kiss on my cheek as I accepted the citation.
CHRISTOPHER DURANG: Titanic Sinks. Titanic Hits Bottom. So said the headlines. “Horrors,” said Doug Watt. I should have known better than to title a play Titanic.
My first two plays in New York were one-acts done at 11 p.m. at the now defunct Direct Theater, run by Allen Belknap. First was Nature and Purpose of the Universe, warmly received. Months later came Titanic, which got more mixed reviews but had a bit of a cult following, so Yale classmate (and actor) John Rothman decided to move it to Off-Broadway.
Mel Gussow’s review of the first version had said that if the play were cut by about 10 minutes it would “float” (this play triggered endless boat metaphors). I cut precisely 10 minutes. Sigourney Weaver and I came up with our first version of Das Lusitania Songspiel as a curtain-raiser. To save money it was decided that I would act as assistant stage manager and the director, Peter Mark Schifter, would be production stage manager. I also appeared as the body of the Captain’s wife, which meant I had to strip to underwear and be wrapped in a sheet and tied to a handcart, with a pillowcase over my head.
The day after opening Sigourney and I had been booked on the Joe Franklin Show, and had to stare at him blankly when he asked us about reviews and pretend they hadn’t come out yet. He didn’t know who or what we were anyway, and asked us endless questions about nutrition because he had some food expert on the program. Sigourney remarked that she and I always ate liver and green beans for energy. Franklin seemed impressed with her beauty and called her Sigornia.
The Van Dam theater went from being pretty full during previews to having about 12 people per night after we opened. Schifter became sloppy running the tape machine, and one night the sound effect of the ship hitting the iceberg came out as a mere “pip”; the poor actors pretended to hear something larger, and fell to the floor in a heap, though their bodies shook with laughter.
I’ve never been back on the Joe Franklin Show, but I’m still hoping.
MEREDITH MONK: In Vessel, back in 1971, we moved the audience around in a bus, starting at my loft, then to the Performing Garage, then on to a parking lot on Wooster Street. One night I remember so well, it was raining, and because I played an electric organ in the piece I was afraid I’d be electrocuted. The police had interrupted the rehearsals that afternoon and the children in the piece were scared to perform because they thought the police might come back. The motorcycle riders in the company missed their cue. And in the middle of the performance someone leaned out of an apartment which faced the parking lot and started singing along with the rest of us.
It’s no longer possible to do pieces like Vessel. There were 100 people in that piece, all volunteer. Today people either perform professionally or don’t perform. In Europe there’s more money, but you have to have the production all worked out before you start rehearsals. That’s no good for me because I work on all the elements of my pieces simultaneously. At least Off-Off still offers the possibility of working that way. It may mean light-bulb school of lighting, but there’s freedom in that.
AL CARMINES: The Judson Poets Theater began under the auspices of playwright Bob Nichols and myself. Right off we discovered a beautiful play by Joel Oppenheimer, The Great American Desert, for our first production in September 1961. It was serious spoof on Western heroes like Billy the Kid. Our theater at that time was the balcony loft of Judson Church. We could seat about 80 by crowding. We placed actors all over the place — on the organ pipes, or under the balcony. An actor might pop up under your feet.
Our budget for each production the first two years was $37.50 per play. We charged no admission; people contributed what they could. We begged, borrowed, and occasionally stole what we needed. In those days there was a shortage of actors (hard to believe now), so I often ended up acting in some of the early plays. I remember that during a performance of a play by Derek Wolcott two actors were sick and I did both roles, kind of throwing my voice for the double effect.
We were in close communion with the other Off-Off theaters at the time. We exchanged props, costumes, actors, even playwrights. I remember the first time I met Rosalyn Drexler. She came in wearing a crucifix. “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” my secretary asked. “Why the crucifix?” “Well,” she replied, “I knew I was coming to see a minister. I figured it couldn’t hurt.” We always had beer parties after the plays, and I remember dancing with Joyce Aaron and her telling me about her new boyfriend Sam Shepard. “He’s a budding playwright,” she said. Then she sighed, “I wonder if he’s bisexual like all my boyfriends.”
Joe Cino was the father of us all. On a stage no bigger than a postage stamp, he created Magic Time for all his audience. When he committed suicide, the beginning days of Off-Off-Broadway officially ended.
ISRAEL HOROVITZ: The night before Line was set to open at La Mama, the actor playing the lead finished dress rehearsal and made the most extraordinary announcement. He said he had gotten the lead in a TV pilot in Hollywood and that he would have to be on a plane for L.A. the very next morning. He did that. He highest tribute I can pay to that particular memory is that I’ve actually forgotten his name. We were stunned. Nobody wanted to leave the theater after the announcement. The director, Jimmy Hammerstein, had noticed that throughout rehearsals I had been mouthing the words on the sidelines. “You know the part, Israel. You play it.” We rehearsed all night.
Line begins with an actor, on stage, in line behind a white tape on the floor, waiting. My character enters and immediately challenges the other character, Fleming, for first place. My first line was “Is this a line?” With great enthusiasm I came out into that safe, familiar room and — by God! It was full of strangers. Critics lined the front rows. I forgot who I was, where I was, why I was. The stage manager, Bonnie, had the unpleasant task of having to respond to my sick little plea: “Line, please?” She yelled out, “Is this a line?” I repeated, “Is this a line?” “What’s it look like?” Fleming answered, and the audience laughed and clapped.
In The Indian Wants the Bronx, John Cazale played Gupta, an East Indian, and Al Pacino played Murph, wherever and whenever somebody would let us do the play. Cazale was brilliant, but I thought it was going to be insulting to East Indians to have a Caucasian play the role. I insisted on finding a real Hindu and did: an accountant who lived in Queens and had a penchant for the stage. Our first and only performance in Hampton Bays there were 3000 seats and only three people showed up: three old ladies in huge hats, atop hopeful bluish-haired heads. Midway through the performance, they left. They simply stood and they simply left. A migraine hit me like a thrown plant pot.
We got Cazale back, we got Hammerstein, but the new producer wasn’t buying Al. “He’s too short.” “The man’s a genius.” “He’s too short.” “You can’t do the play without him. I won’t do it.” “He’ll have to audition” “He’ll audition.” “You’ll have to consider other actors.” “I said, ‘He’ll audition!’ ” He did. Al got two lines out of his mouth and the producer was startled. I ran down the aisle and screamed out to Al, “You got the part!” The 20 other actors sitting waiting to audition were not happy. Now, looking back, I don’t think Al minded having to audition at all. He knew he was unbeatable. He still is. He still knows it.
TED MANN: In April of 1956 Circle in the Square theater was on the verge of going under; we decided that if we were to close, we would make the final production the biggest, the most challenging and most difficult. We chose O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, a play that had failed on Broadway 10 years before, had a cast of 25, and ran over five and a half hours. Jose Quintero was set to go into rehearsals with Howard da Silva playing Hickey, but da Silva withdrew at the last moment. A young actor came in and pleaded for an opportunity to read for the role. We had found our Hickey — Jason Robards Jr.
JAMES COCO: My first experience Off-Off was in a production of Salome. Contrary to all reports, I played Herod the king. We had a special makeup person, and I ended up with more makeup than Salome herself. I had a tough time finding a job after that.
CRYSTAL FIELD: We’ve been doing Street Theater at Theater for the New City as long as we’ve been around. That’s 14 years. Early on we decided to move into the boroughs. Schaffer Beer had shown an interest in sponsoring us in Greenpoint, where they had a brewery, but pulled out at the last moment — something about beer and children. George [Bartenieff] thought twice about going, but I said, “Come on, it’s Brooklyn, they’ll love us.”
We were doing Undercover Cop that year by Bob Nichols and when we arrived, the first thing we found was two gangs in the midst of a verbal brawl. “That’s O.K.,” I said, “a play will calm them down.” One gang leader assured us that a play with singing was just what was wanted, so we proceeded to start. There was no electricity in the playground, so three members of one gang climbed a fire escape, broke into an apartment and plugged us in — it happened so fast we couldn’t say no.
In the play, George, playing a druggie, was to steal Margaret Miller’s purse and run through the audience. Margaret was supposed to scream and run after him, followed by me (I was playing a little fat boy) screaming and running after her. Well, I had always shut my eyes when I screamed because it had to be loud and from a sitting position. When I opened them, the entire audience was on its feet, chasing George. “It’s just a play,” I screamed. “If you keep behaving like this we won’t come back next year.” They all looked contrite. But it wasn’t three minutes before the growling began again between the two gangs and chains swung and knives twisted in hands.
We never felt directly threatened ourselves, though we thought we might “get it” by mistake and it spoiled our concentration and I never felt that they really understood the show. But there were no injuries and no thefts. They pointed the way to the bridge and cheered us as we drove off.
NORRIS HOUGHTON: Back in the earliest days Circle in the Square was dedicated to new actors, and the Living Theater to a new kind of theater, but there was no place for established actors to perform away from the pressures of commercial theater. What with tickets up to a $6.60 top, it looked like Broadway was pricing itself out of existence.
So T. Edward Hambleton and I started the Phoenix. We opened with Sidney Howard’s Madam Will You Walk? starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, on December 1, 1953. The audience was extremely favorable and our hopes were high, but the newspapers had gone out on strike. Fearing the Phoenix would be reduced to ashes in our very first season, we made a curtain speech begging the audience to spread the word. By the end of the week we had sold out.
FLORENCE TARLOW: I first appeared at Judson Poets Theater in Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias, playing a kiosk. Only my arms were visible, so the kiosk could express itself. From then on, for a period of six or seven years, I seem to have been in one play after another, from the truly splendid to the god-awful, but each had tremendous energy and enthusiasm. Some transferred to off-Broadway, like Shepard’s Red Cross and Irene Fornes’s Promenade, and had respectable runs and good houses. Others were not so lucky. On a beautiful summer matinee day, when I fervently wished I were at the beach and was performing instead at the Martinique in Ronald Tavel’s marvelous comedy Gorilla Queen, there were twice as many of us on stage as out in the audience.
Close contender to the Judson for my fond memories of Off-Off Broadway in the ’60s was the Hardware Poets Theater, situated over a hardware store in a block now occupied by the New York Hilton Hotel. Performing in their always-original, often-mad plays was enormous fun. There were frequent special events like the three-day Yam Festival during which one could participate or watch events continuously for the entire period. I did both, without leaving the premises for 72 hours, and emerged into the bright sunshine with something like the bends.
TAYLOR MEAD: Outside of the dreadful bullshit and sadism of almost every producer and director I worked with in the ’60s, there was an intensity of living both on, and off stage. Sometimes the two were indistinguishable — if the lines or timing didn’t suit the individual’s mood of the evening, voila, a new play! Ondine was one of our greatest prima donnas — beating up members of the audience or ordering them to leave if they laughed at the “wrong” part. In Conquest of the Universe we always wondered whether he would go on or not, or when the curtain would rise on him still fixing his makeup.
Conquest was one big anecdote because we had a very strong cast, fortunately, and because we had a very strong director — John Vacarro — and nobody took any nonsense from anybody. When I first read the script I thought it was unreadable, pointed to the middle, and said, “I’ll do it if I can sing ‘I’m Flying’ from Peter Pan right here.” Vacarro said, “Okay,” and we had a ball. Later I performed the song (covered in jewels) on the Johnny Carson show. A nervous Bob Crane was guest host. He thought I was going to answer the questions the way I did in the interview, but when he asked, slightly acidly, what I did all day, “the dishes?” I replied: “I only have one dish.”
RICHARD FOREMAN: In the early ’60s, when I entered the Off-Off Broadway world, I had just spent six years deeply involved with Jonas Mekas and the underground film movement. It was quite a few years before my tiny film-oriented audience started to include more “establishment” Off-Off Broadway spectators. From ’68 until ’72, we would normally perform for 15 to 20 people a night, half of whom would leave within the 20 minutes. We measured the success of the evening in terms of how many people stayed till the end (often not more than five or six). I’ve often thought that if it hadn’t been for the lucky accident of the Voice sending Arthur Sainer to review my first pieces, for which he wrote enthusiastic reviews, the general audience hostility (and tinyness) might have done me in. As Gertrude Stein says: artists don’t need criticism, they need praise.
RICHARD BARR: Edward Albee, Clinton Wilder, and I ran the playwrights unit on Vandam Street for about 10 years. The manager of that unit was Charles Gnys. At the beginning we each read all the plays submitted; later Gnys read them alone. Then Albee submitted his new play, Box, under a pseudonym; Gnys wrote a scathing review. The play became Box Mao Box. Just shows what can happen if you delegate authority.
MICHAEL FEINGOLD: The first show I directed Off-Off-Broadway was at the Old Reliable, around 1970, a pair of one-acts by Lonnie Carter. I made a terrible mess of one and did the other brilliantly. In the first one Neil Flanagan played the god Bacchus; Arthur Sainer gave us an awful pan in the Voice, but he mentioned that Neil wore a nine-foot garden hose coming out of his fly as a phallus, so the next day we had lines around the block. In the second play Neil was a mad German physicist who had discovered a way to remove space from time, Joan Pape was his wife, who did nothing all day but make ginger-ale-flavored yogurt, and Albert Poland — his last onstage performance — was their villainous nephew, who wanted to exploit Neil’s discovery. They had a very tense confrontation in the final scene and one night, just as they hit this moment, with dead silence in the theater, there was a gunshot, very distinct, in the building next door. Albert went completely white; they both stood stock still for a minute. Then Neil, trying to recover, said, “Nephew,” very softly, and thank goodness, just then we heard the police siren approaching. “Nephew,” Neil said, “you’re not going to get away with this. I took the precaution of phoning the police.” And everybody cheered.
ARTHUR SAINER: As Voice drama critics, Michael Smith and I would often go to the theater together. We’d confer after the show; the unwritten rule: whoever liked the play better would write the review. In June of ’63 Michael wrote and directed a play at the Caffe Cino called I Like It. In it, a mother and grown son spend most of their time in a big brass bed. (Michael hauled over his own bed for the run.) I was scheduled to do the review; I was also temporarily staying in Michael’s apartment. I wrote the review (mixed) on Michael’s typewriter, listened to the periodic downward thrust of the pants presser in the shop below (it was hovering near 100 degrees that week), visited the adjoining apartment, where Tom O’Horgan had painted his living room walls a deep green to give one a vivid sense of the subterranean life, and finally in desperation wrote a one-act play, The Bitch of Waverly Place, which two years later was to mark my debut as a playwright in that then arcadian world of Off-Off Broadway.
I’d written The Bitch as a solo performance for Jenny Hecht. Jenny was nervous about soloing and couldn’t fathom what the play was about. She (the entire cast) vanished the last two days of rehearsals. Opening night, searching for something to hook into, Jenny began improvising: “I don’t know what this play’s supposed to be about. Mr. Sainer wrote this stuff, I can’t make any sense of it, can you?” I had a recurring fantasy about running onstage and turning Jenny’s monologue into a dialogue, but was too timid in those days. Well, Jenny has since departed from this Earth, as have Joe Cino and others who were in the forefront of a strange and lovely moment in theater history. Bless them.
HARVEY FIERSTEIN: I worked my ass off for 11 years in over 60 productions, playing everything from Greek tragedy to Christmas camps. Eleven years of rat-ridden rehearsal rooms, thrift shop costumes, organ loft dressing rooms, and sweatbox theaters. I suffered the slings of Michael Feingold, the arrows of Michael Smith, and the outrageous fortunes of Joe Papp. I sported tuxes and togas and lamé gowns. I tap-danced and stripteased and hung by chains from the walls. I ruined my health, alienated my family, and embarrassed my friends. And all for what? So that one day I might be sitting in Art D’Lugoff’s columned hall, drinking sangria snatched from the next table, when the emcee announced, “For outstanding everything, the judges have awarded an Obie to Harvey Fierstein.”
So did it ever happen? Every year I sat there, my acceptance speech scrawled in my sweaty palm, and for 10 years it was always the same: “For outstanding everything, the judges have awarded an Obie to Maria Irene Fornes.” After 10 years I figured they’d at least give me a lifetime achievement award. After all, Irene already had four of those. But no, my 10th year slipped by unnoticed. In fact, I wasn’t even invited to the Obies that year.
Now this saga does have a happy ending. I was finally awarded an Obie for writing and acting. (God forbid they should give me two separate ones. They gave Irene three that year.) The award hangs prominently among a humbling array of such trophies and I’m certainly glad to see it each morning. But in closing let me just remind the august Obie Committee that 1986 marks my 15th year among y’all and I’m sure Irene’s walls are full while I have a country house to decorate. Enough said. See you at the Obies.
THE CONSCIENCE OF US ALL
From his performances with the Living Theater, through the startling ensemble productions he created with the Open Theater and the Winter Project, from his interpretations of Beckett, through his collaborations with Sam Shepard, Joseph Chaikin’s work has been a model of the best of Off- and Off-Off: noncommercial, unconventional, intelligent, visceral theater.
A year ago, Chaikin suffered a stroke. He has only partially regained his speech, but recently wrote and recorded two radio plays with Shepard and hopes to conduct a workshop in Israel next fall. When I asked for a contribution to this history, he handed me letters from Shepard. In one the playwright quotes his favorite line from a Brecht poem: “You can make a fresh start with your final breath.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 20, 2019