I Lost It At The Obies

I Lost It At The Obies


In 1956, the year the Obies began, Eisenhow­er hadn’t even started his second term and Bill Clinton was in grade school. The Dodgers were still in Brook­lyn, Steve Allen hosted the Tonight Show, and the Mar­cia Clark of the day was Joseph Welch. Jack Kerouac was just hitting the road, Elvis wasn’t anywhere near the building, and an obscure professor at Cornell, Vladmir Nabokov, was becoming resigned to the fact that no one would risk publishing Lolita.

Down in the Village, Edna St. Vincent Millay had died only a few years earlier, Delmore Schwartz was pub­licly going mad, and Djuna Barnes, austere and cranky in her one-room apartment on Patchin Place, just across the courtyard from e e cummings, still had a quarter of a century to live.

Brooks Atkinson was the theater critic for The New York Times, Waiting for Godot was baffling Broadway audiences — a metaphor for impotence, explained Nor­man Mailer in the pages of this paper — few producers would take a chance on Chekhov or Ibsen, and almost no one had even heard of Jean Genet. Joe Papp was working as the stage manager for “I’ve Got a Secret” at CBS, Ellen Stewart was designing bathing suits, and Sam Shepard was still several years from becoming a bus­boy at the Village Gate.

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Over on Greenwich Avenue, in a one-and-a-half­ room office, a writer for the Columbia Encyclopedia, a psychotherapist, and the author of The Naked and the Dead were wondering if their new five-cent weekly could make it through the end of the month. But Jerry Tallmer, the paper’s managing editor and theater critic, had an inspiration. The Circle-in-the-Square had pro­duced popular Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams revivals, Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the Living Theater were mounting plays in living rooms and lofts, and The Threepenny Opera was starting its long run at the Theatre De Lys — there might not be anything up­town but blockbuster musicals and meretricious melo­dramas, but the downtown scene was beginning to be called “Off-Broadway.” Why not have an award cere­mony to celebrate the work being done in this new, al­ternative theater? A kind of Tony award honoring art not commerce. A gathering of the community to en­courage its artists. But what to call the new award? Off­-Broadway — OB — voilá — Obie!

Forty years. There’s a danger, of course, in calling at­tention to our age — how can an award so middle-aged, so venerable, claim to honor the new, the untried, the experimental, the innovative, the adventurous? (How, in fact, can we share a 40th anniversary with the Fortune 500?) Well, it’s not as if we haven’t stumbled along in the first place — changed, evolved, mutated, even, on occasion, blundered. But as long as we can keep our process casual, informal, and unstructured — and as long as we can keep the ceremonies from becoming institu­tionalized — we should be able to stumble along for an­other 40 years at least.

This isn’t the place to explain the selection process — except to say that while some things have remained the same (the judge who can be counted on to annually resign in a rage), many more have altered (adding more judges and a cadre of auxiliary scouts to handle the extraordinary prolifer­ation of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway, for instance, or eliminating “bests” except for the best play award, or gradually “shaping” the list of win­ners rather than taking a strictly nu­merical vote, or implementing the in­formal “seven-year rule,” under which you can’t vote for anyone with whom you’ve had an affair in the last seven years, a rule less invoked these days than in the 70s, and a rule that we once had to consider amending to include “or whom you contemplate having an affair with on the night of the ceremonies either”).

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As for nominations? Well, we decided early on that the spectacle of five nominees on TV — four of them giv­ing the performance of their lives pretending they’re hap­py for the fifth — was hardly in the spirit of artistic achievement. Why should art be competitive? Three­-time winner Morgan Freeman put it best at the Obie ceremonies a couple of years ago. “If you want to give me an award, give me an award,” he said. “Don’t nominate me for it and then tell me I wasn’t good enough to win.”

As for the ceremonies themselves, we equally dis­like the spectacle of tuxedoed and gowned guests sitting in rows in some gigantic auditorium with an accountant holding the envelopes and a TV crewman flashing 30-second warnings at the winners — though we have caved in on the “no TV” principle and this year will be on the tube for the fourth time. But there’s no limit on acceptance speeches (length or language), no “in ceremonies held earlier this evening” condescension to “lesser” awards, and no smirk­ing emcee with stupid host tricks. As I wrote in these pages on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Obies — and I see no reason to change a word — “Here at the Voice, we like to think of the Obies as a kind of funky family reunion, an informal yearly get-together where we can reminisce with old friends, or get to know newcomers, or welcome back former coworkers who’ve gone on to big­ger and (so we tend to believe) worse things.”

But enough. The 40-year his­tory of the Obies should speak for itself — a chronicle of artistic achievement, boisterous celebration and even an occasional boo.

1956 Shelley Winters, starring uptown in Hatful of Rain, drove her own car down to the Limelight to host the first Obie ceremonies, and was immediately besieged by photographers from the AP, the Daily News, and Movietone News. Under the klieg lights of Dumont television, and before a crowd of over 200 mem­bers of the new Off-Broadway community, the three top acting awards were presented to Julie Bovasso for The Maids, Jason Robards for The Iceman Cometh, and George Voskovec for Uncle Vanya. The best new play award was given to Lionel Abel for Absalom, the best production award went to Uncle Vanya, the best musical award was presented to The Threepenny Opera, and José Quintero won the best director award for The Iceman Cometh (thanking the actors, in his acceptance speech, “for teaching me my craft”). Among the other winners — a young actress named Frances Sternhagen, and an unknown young producer named Joseph Papp for the Shakespearean Workshop Theatre.

1957 It was a Gaelic afternoon at the Limelight, Colleen Dewhurst winning the Obie for best actress, James Joyce’s Exiles winning four awards, playwrights named Shaw, Wilde, and O’Casey figuring in other prominent Obies, and Irish coffee served to the 300 guests, who included the legendary Vil­lager and honorary Gael, Romany Marie. WOR’s Jean Shepard handled the preliminaries and postscripts, with Geraldine Page, gowned in linen and capped in straw, handing out the parchments. Other awards included Gene Frankel for best direction (Volpone), a special citation to Paul Shyre, and Louis A. Lippa for best play (A House Remembered, a play forgotten). Unable to attend the ceremonies due to rehearsals for a summer-stock production, Dewhurst sent a telegram — “Believe me when I say, happy the girl the sun shines on today.”

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1958 An ex-Marine recently turned actor, George C. Scott won the Obie for best actor for his performances in Richard III, As You Like It, and Children of Darkness. Maureen Stapleton served as emcee, handing out Obies to Scott, Anne Meacham as best actress (Garden District), Stuart Vaughan as best director (New York Shakespeare Festi­val), Samuel Beckett for best play (Endgame), and 11 other awards, including an Obie to a neophyte named Tammy Grimes for her performance in Clerambard, and an Obie to a recent newcomer to Off-Broad­way named Lucille Lortel. Clarence Derwent, Tony Randall, and Huntington Hartford were among the 300 guests, and Raymond S. Rubinow, chairman of the committee to close Washington Square Park to traffic, made the first polit­ical speech at the Obies — pointing out that the continued success of Off­-Broadway was linked with the preservation of community life in the Village.

1959 The Obies moved to the Village Gate, with over 500 in atten­dance, including Anne Bancroft, Arthur Lau­rents, Diana Sands, Lorraine Hansberry, guest judge Kenneth Tynan, and a contingent from Radio Free Europe. A special touch of emotion was added to the proceedings when emcee Kim Stanley, nearing the climax of her announcements, discovered that her husband, Alfred Ry­der, had won the Obie for best actor. She had no advance knowledge of his place in the vot­ing, and tears were near the surface as she hand­ed his Obie to his stand-in, actress Nan Mar­tin, since he was uptown rehearsing for a television production of Billy Budd. Other awards went to Ivanov for best production, a­nd Mostel for Ulysses in Nighttown, Hal Hol­brook for Mark Twain Tonight!, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green for their show at the Cherry Lane.

1960 The year of the Living Theater’s The Connection — Judith Malina and Julian Beck won the Obie for best production, Jack Gelber for best new play, and Warren Finnerty for best actor. What a year for playwrights — among the winners were Jean Genet for best foreign play for The Balcony, Samuel Beckett for Krapp’s Last Tape, and Ed­ward Albee for The Zoo Story. And what a year for actors — among the 10 winners were Eileen Brennan (best actress for Little Mary Sunshine), Vincent Gardenia (Machinal) and Nancy Marchand (The Balcony). Six hundred guests attended the ceremonies at the Village Gate, hosted by Anne Bancroft. Taking out ads in the Voice congratulating the Obies on their fifth year were Judy Holliday, Harry Belafonte, and an actor not yet known for his stage work — a fellow named Jerry Lewis.

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1961 Few people may have heard of Jean Genet, but that didn’t include the Obie judges, who in the sixth year of the awards gave him his third Obie, this one for best play for The Blacks. Congressman John Lindsay led off the afternoon with, as the paper noted, “a discussion of the intellectual and cultural climate of the city,” then turned the pro­ceedings over to host Julie Harris. Among the winners — Gerald Freedman for his direction of The Taming of the Shrew, Khigh Dhiegh for best actor for In the Jungle of Cities, Anne Meacham for best actress for Hedda Gabler, and performance awards to Godfrey Cambridge and James Coco. And for the first time, Off-Off-Broadway was honored — a parchment going to the improvisational revue The Premise starring Joan Darling and Tom Aldredge.

1962 Lotte Lenya presented an Obie to Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days as best foreign play “with judge Walter Kerr wish­ing to be announced as abstaining.” After a mo­ment’s hush, there came a scattering of hisses, boos, and some small applause. On the podi­um, co-judge Edward Albee indulged in a brief, dry smile. Among the winners Kerr agreed up­on were best performance awards to a 31-year-old actor named James Earl Jones (several pro­ductions) and actress Barbara Harris (who delighted the audience by performing a Second City sketch with Alan Arkin) for Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad; acting Obies to Vinnette Carroll, Rosemary Harris, and Ruth White; and best American play to Frank Gilroy for Who’ll Save the Plowboy? In explaining that he’d flown in from Califomia to receive his award, Gilroy added that when his agent had said, “What do you think it is, a Pulitzer Prize?” he’d responded that the Obies mean more to him than any recognition he could have received.

1963 Uta Hagen came forward to present the awards. Peering out in­to the dim, smoke-filled room, packed to the walls with standing latecomers, she echoes the opening of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which she was currently starring on Broadway — “What a dump!” Best actress and best ac­tor awards went to a recently married couple, Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott, both for Desire Under the Elms, and another couple, Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, received Obies for their performances in The Typists and The Tiger. Other winners included Olympia Dukakis and Joseph Chaikin (not a couple) for different productions of Man Is Man, and Alan Schneider, best director for his work on The Pinter Plays. Two highlights — entertainment by the belly dancer Sabah, and the announce­ment that from this year on the Voice would give a $500 prize to the best new American play of the year — the first award going not to an Off-Broadway play but to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which had just been turned down for the Pulitzer.

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1964 When an award to Julian Beck was announced for his set design for The Brig — which also won an Obie for best production — Beck and Judith Malina were just coming in the door of the Village Gate. Under strain from the two weeks of the federal trial that resulted from the closing of the Living Theater — a trial that ended two days later in conviction — the Becks received a prolonged standing ovation. Colleen Dewhurst was the host, entertainment was provided by Tiny Tim, Samuel Beckett was cited for best play (Play), LeRoi Jones for best American play (Dutchman — for which he also received a $500 check donated by Edward Albee), and what a roster of young performers were honored — Gloria Foster, Lee Grant, Taylor Mead, Estelle Par­sons, Diana Sands, Marian Seldes, and Jack Warden. And speaking for the judges, Richard Gilman announced an anti-Obie to the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center “for outstand­ing disservice to the American theater.”

1965 This year the citation “for outstanding disservice to the Amer­ican theater” went to Walter Kerr. Among the performers receiving their Obies from host Gloria Foster were Roscoe Lee Browne, Frank Langella, and Lester Rawlins (tied for best ac­tor for their performances in The Old Glory), plus Brian Bedford, Joseph Chaikin, Robert Duvall, Rosemary Harris, James Earl Jones, Frances Sternhagen, and Sada Thompson. Other awards included best play to neophyte playwright Robert Lowell for The Old Glory, Irene Fornes’s first of many Obies for Promenade, and special citations to two newcomers to the scene, the Caffe Cino and Cafe La Mama. H.M. Koutoukas showed up at the ceremonies carrying his pet parrot, and Charles Stanley arrived in djellaba and burnoose.

1966 Another discovery at the Obies — a young actor named Dustin Hoffman won the award for best actor for his performance in The Journey of the Fifth Horse. Host Anne Jackson handed the parchment for best play to Ronald Ribman for The Journey of the Fifth Horse, and gave another Obie for three one-act plays to Off-Off-Broadway newcomer Sam Shepard — who went on to win eight more Obies over the following years. Other awards included second Obies to Gloria Foster and Frank Langella, plus a special citation to the Bread and Puppet Theater. Among those gathered at the Gate were David Gordon and Val­da Setterfield, who would receive their Obies nearly two decades later.

1967 Barbara Harris presided over the ceremonies, and a new group called the Mothers of Invention, led by a singer named Frank Zappa, entertained the gathering between awards. Futz, produced at the Cafe La Mama, took the top three honors — Seth Allen for best actor, Tom O’Horgan for best direc­tor, and Rochelle Owens for best play (tying with Eh? by Henry Livings and La Turista by Sam Shepard). Other Obie winners included performers Tom Aldredge, Alvin Epstein, Stacy Keach, and Rip Torn, and special citations were given to the La Mama Troupe, the Open Theatre, and Jeff Weiss. Three of the winners, in accepting their Obies, described themselves as “paranoid.”

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1968 Another young actor won an Obie for best performance in his stage debut — Al Pacino for The Indian Wants the Bronx. An old hand at the Obies by now, Sam Shepard won a playwriting Obie, joined by newcomer’s John Guare and a previously unknown Czech playwright named Václav Hav­el. Estelle Parsons, who’d just won an Oscar for Bonnie and Clyde, handed out the parchments to the 23 winners, who included Billie Dixon (best performance by an actress for The Beard), John Cazale, James Coco, Moses Gunn, Roy R. Scheider, the Negro Ensemble Company, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

1969 Julie Bovasso, in cowboy hat and bush jacket, introduced the judges — who included Elizabeth Hardwick­ — and handed out the best play award to the Liv­ing Theater for Frankenstein. “The theater is life and the theater is in the street,” proclaimed Judith Malina and Julian Beck by transatlantic cable. “We suggest that all revolutionary artists write on their banners ‘love and gentleness.’ All the rest is treason.” Richard Schechner, in accepting an Obie for the Performance Group’s Dionysus in ’69, responded less lo­quaciously — “We deserve it.” Among the other winners were Jeff Weiss, Julie Bovasso, The­atre Genesis, Ronald Tavel, and Jules Feiffer (Little Murders). As part of the entertainment, Ching Yeh recited Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy in Chinese, rearing his passion to a hilarious tatters.

1970 “Everything’s coming up marigolds.” Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds shared the best play award with Megan Terry’s Approaching Simone, and Sada Thompson was cited for best performance for Marigolds. Dustin Hoffman presided over the ceremonies, handing out other awards to playwrights Václav Havel, Murray Mednick, and Joe Orton, and performers Vincent Gardenia, Ron Leibman, Rue McClanahan, and Austin Pendleton. Alan Arkin won a directing award for The White House Murder Case, and special citations went to Andre Gregory, Charles Ludlam, Richard Foreman, and Stanley Silverman. Boos interrupted several of the awards, until finally someone in the audience yelled at a par­ticularly boozy heckler, “Earn your right to be on stage, you loudmouth” — apparently un­aware that the heckler had, in fact, received an Obie earlier in the evening and was drowning his glee in beer. “I haven’t been in a room filled with so much love and hate since high school English,” said Zindel in receiving his Obie, going on to thank the rabbit in his play for reminding him that “we share this earth with all living creatures.”

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1971 Backstage before at the ceremonies, host Elaine May was nearly catatonic with panic, but the minute she strode on stage she was transformed into the portrait of vivacity. “Does anyone have any questions?” she said in her opening remarks. “Anything at all.” “Can you find me an apartment?” came a shout from the audience. Otto Preminger, with whom May was making a movie, came along to keep tabs on her and to present one of the awards. Among the Obies — John Guare for best play for House of Blue Leaves, and play­wrights Ed Bullins, David Rabe, Athol Fu­gard, and Derek Walcott. The best actress Obie went to Ruby Dee for Boesman and Lena, the best actor Obie to Jack MacGowran for Beckett, and among the other winners were Stacy Keach, James Woods, and Hector Elizondo (one of this year’s presenters), who was shoot­ing the rapids in Utah and asked his son to accept his plaque, the award having been up­graded from parchment.

1972 “You remember A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races,” I said in my introduction to this year’s host. “We hope that An Evening at the Obies will be just as memorable — with Groucho Marx!” What Groucho had to do with off-Broadway was unclear, but the audience rose and gave a long standing ovation as the 81-year-old leg­end walked slowly to the microphone, perched on a stool, and upon being introduced to co-host Madeleine Le Roux asked if she was a vir­gin. It hardly needs saying that Groucho upstaged the awards, which included a best theater piece Obie to the Open Theatre for The Mu­tation Show. Despite his frequent leers ar the winning actresses, and a bit of byplay with Kathleen Widdoes about bananas when she came onstage to accept her award, the Fuck the Army award gave Groucho a moment’s pause (and the Voice as well, which called it the Free the Army show in its account of the event). When told that winner Charles Stanley had in­cluded Greta Garbo among the characters he played, Groucho commented, “You don’t look like Garbo,” to which Stanley replied — the on­ly time in his career Groucho was topped­ — “No, but I often wear her clothes.”

1973 “I wasn’t really the first choice to present the awards,” said host Sylvia Miles. “The first choice was Shirley MacLaine, but Shirley is still off in China doing research for her new book, Don’t Fall Off the Eggroll.” The best play award was shared by Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore and Joseph Walker’s The River Niger, with Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime (perhaps his greatest play) settling for a citation. Among the performance winners were Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Stacy Keach, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Ludlam, Sam Waterston, and Alice Playten, who thanked her psychiatrist “for con­vincing me not to quit when the going gets rough.” (Three members of the audience approached her after the ceremonies to get his name.) Accepting a special ci­tation for the WPA, Harry Orzello thanked the Voice “even though we haven’t had a good review in six months” — leading Miles to remark that “the Voice is like the Pentagon. First they bomb you, then they give you an award.”

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1974 “It’s a pleasure to present awards to people who did not run $5000 campaigns in order to win,” said host God­frey Cambridge in opening the ceremonies. “You’re awarded for paying your dues, for dressing next to the furnace, where some of the dressing rooms still are, and for going to school and learning your craft. It’s a pleasure to pre­sent awards like that.” Recalling his own reaction to winning an Obie in 1961, he went on, “I sat there grinding my teeth and acted like a typical Off-Broadway actor at an award show, muttering, ‘This goddamn thing is fixed! What the hell am I doing here, for Crisakes? I don’t need it. I know I’m good.’  But when they called my name, I cried like a baby.” Among the win­ners was Hal Prince for his direction of Candide, but the highlight of the evening was the best play award to Miguel Pinero for Short Eyes — he was out on bail, having been arrested that very morning for possession of a controlled substance.

1975 For the 20th annual Obie cere­monies, presenters were called upon — Angela Lansbury, Sam Waterston, Melba Moore, Marilyn Sokol, and Shelley Winters, who told the 500-member audi­ence, “If I win an Emmy tonight, can I trade it for an Obie?” Leslie Lee won the best play award for The First Breeze of Summer, and other playwriting Obies went to Ed Bullins, Lanford Wilson, Wallace Shawn, and Sam Shepard. Christo­pher Walken, Kevin Mc­Carthy, and Tovah Feldshuh were among the performance winners, and five special 20-year Obies were presented — Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the Living Theater, Ted Mann and Circle-in-the-Square, Joe Papp, Ellen Stewart, and The Fantasticks. “When I get an award,” said Beck, “I ask myself. ‘What have we done wrong?’ ” Unable to attend the ceremonies, Dustin Hoffman sent a telegram — “Sorry I can’t be with you for the 20th anniversary of the Obies, but send my best wishes to all the losers.”

1976 Clay Felker, the new publisher of the Voice, decided to hold the Obies in Lincoln Center (though he couldn’t get his way when he tried to persuade Elizabeth Taylor to host the ceremonies), leading to the first, hereafter almost annual reading of a disgruntled statement by the Obie committee. “We must protest that this choice of place,” the statement concluded, “was made without consulting the Obie judges.” When it came time for Edward Albee to make his presentations, he read from his napkin —  “I wonder if we should be quite so snooty about Lincoln Center … Off-Broadway is a state of mind and has noth­ing to do with where it’s done.” Among the winners were Ralph Lee for starring the annu­al Village Halloween Parade and the creators of A Chorus Line. The best play award was shared by David Mamet for American Buffa­lo and Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Richard Foreman for Rhoda in Potatoland. Said Mike Kellin, who won a performance Obie for American Buffalo, “Of the 11 people who saw the show, I’m very grateful that six of them were Voice critics.”

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1977 Another judges’ revolt, this time over the best play award to Sam Shepard for Curse of the Starving Class, a play, as it happens, that wasn’t produced Off-Broad­way, or anywhere else for that matter, existing, at that point, only as a script. Three judges, Robert Duvall announced in ceremonies at the Bottom Line, had voted for Shepard, two had voted against, and two had abstained, and as Duvall concluded his reading of separate statements by each group, an informal dissent was added from the audience — “Bullshit!” Hosts Marilyn Sokol, Paul Sorvino, and Gilda Radner (“No, Emily Litella, that’s not OD, that’s OB” — “Never mind”) handed out the plaques to the winners, who included Tommy Tune for his direction of The Club, Philip Glass for his music for Einstein on the Beach, playwrights Irene Fornes and Ntozake Shange, and per­formers Danny Aiello, Martin Balsam, Lucinda Childs, James Coco, John Heard, and William Hurt. A new award was added, for lifetime achievement, the first going to Joe Chaikin.

1978 Live from the Bottom Line! The 23rd annual Obies on Channel 13! Said host Dustin Hoffman to the viewers, the Obies are “the only awards where the audience can see actors not trying to pretend like they’re healthy people.” Among those thanked by the winners were Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein, and Eric Bentley’s mother. Other winners included Nell Carter and Swoosic Kurtz for performance, a special citation to Squat, the life­time achievement award to Peter Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theatre, and the best play Obie to Lee Breuer for Shaggy Dog Animation, Breuer putting half the $1000 award aside as a revolving fund for “for theater people having emergencies.” For as Marilyn Sokol said before presenting several awards, “I’m here to tell you that winning an Obie is a future guarantee of absolutely nothing.”

1979 “Off-Broadway means to me,” said Judd Hirsch in accepting his Obie, “a place where they can’t fire you.” “Off­-Broadway means to me,” said Swoosie Kurtz in presenting another Obie, “toilets that don’t flush.” Ron Leibman hosted the ceremonies, which honored, among others, Michael Mc­Clure’s Josephine as best play (beating out Sam Shepard’s Buried Child), Al Carmines for sustained achievement, Jennifer Tipton for lighting, Tadeusz Kantor for The Dead Class, and performers Mary Alice, Fred Gwynne, and Meryl Streep. One of the winners, in his ac­ceptance speech televised on Channel 13, had a religious epiphany on the spot and exhorted the audience for 11 minutes to join him on the true path. And Weeden, Finkle, and Fay, in their entertainment segment, proclaimed their perception of the Obie committee’s function — “Sometimes we just say, ‘Godddamit,/Let’s give another to David Mamet.’ ”

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1980 The 25th anniversary of the Obies — and as the Voice noted in its account of the ceremonies, “What is un­doubtedly clear, and kind of nice in its own bumbling way, is that 24 years of practice didn’t help this year’s awards be anything less than the mess we have come to know and tolerate.” Chris Durang and Alice Playten entertained the gathering at the Ritz with a 10-minute history of Off-Broad­way, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers jubilantly juggled, having just won a spe­cial citation. Playwrights honored included Sam Shepard for sustained achieve­ment, Durang, Lee Breuer, Romulus Lin­ney, and Jeff Weiss, and acting Obies were handed out to, among others, Lindsay Crouse, Morgan Freeman, John Heard, Jon Polito, Bill Raymond, and Dianne Wiest. The cohosts were James Coco and Ruby Dee — who recalled that winning her Obie felt just like having “12 people in the theater when there’s two feet of snow.”

1981 The ceremonies at the Roxy were hosted by Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline, who announced, “Some actors like to work from the inside out. I like to work from the outside … out.” Kline (for Pirates of Penzance), Mary Beth Hurt, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken were among the winners of performance Obies, the sustained achievement award went to the Negro Ensemble Company, and the top play honor was shared by Emily Mann’s Still Life and David Henry Hwang’s FOB. And in a new tradition, one that seems to continue to this day, the ceremonies were panned in the Voice itself, proving either an abiding commitment to the F­irst Amendment or an ineradicable masochism.

1982 Harvey Fierstein stole the show. He’d just broken up with the man on whom the relationship in Torch Song Trilogy was based, as he told the audience at Savoy. “The man has his wife, but I have this,” he exulted, holding aloft his Obie plaque. He started to leave, but turned to the microphone to announce that he’d just become engaged to Tommy Tune, who was cohosting the ceremonies with Swoosie Kurtz. Tadeusz Kantor won the Obie for best theater piece for Wielopole, Wielopole, the sustained achievement award went to Irene Fornes, Caryl Churchill won an Obie for Cloud 9, and among the performance winners were Denzel Washington, Kevin Bacon, Carole Shelley, Josef Sommer, and Irene Worth.

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1983 Harvey Fierstein’s year once more, this time cohosting with Julie Bovasso. “I wanna say that I sat there in that audience for 11 years before I won an Obie,” he announced at the beginning of the ceremonies at the First City cabaret, “and I just want to ask the critics, ‘Was it so terrible? Was it really that bad?’ ” Gary Sinise won a directing Obie, and performance awards were handed out to Christine Baranski, Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Ruth Maleczech, John Malkovich, Donald Moffat, and Ray Wise (who ended up, years lat­er, as Laura Palmer’s murderer in Twin Peaks). Playwriting honors were shared by Caryl Churchill, Tina Howe, Harry Kondoleon, and David Mamet, and the  sustained achievement award was presented to Lanford Wilson, Marshall Mason, and the Circle Repertory Company. Another new tradition began — the Voice‘s annual grant of $10,000 to struggling theaters.

1984 Three of the transcendent pro­ductions of the decade were hon­ored — Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s Gospel at Colonus (with an acting Obie to Morgan Free­man), Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, (with acting Obies to Kathy Whitton Baker, Ed Harris, and Will Patton — the only time an award has gone to a cast replacement), and Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Through the Leaves (with performancc awards for Ruth Maleczech and Fred Neumann and a directing award to JoAnne Akalaitis). John Lone and Marybeth Hurt hosted the cere­monies at the Cat Club, helping hand out the sustained achievement award to the Music The­atre Group, performance Obies to F. Murray Abraham, Pamela Reed, and Dianne Wiest, and playwriting honors to Samuel Beckett, Irene Fornes, Václav Havel, and Len Jenkin. But to many in the audience the highlight of the evening was the special citation voted to Anne and Jules Weiss for their tireless devotion the Cafe La Mama. Said a delighted but discom­bobulated Anne Weiss, “Before we left home, Jules said, ‘Shouldn’t we get dressed up?’ but I said, ‘Oh no, they’ll never ask us up on stage.’ ”

1985 “This is a very tough fucking house,” said Dustin Hoffman at the 30th annual Obie ceremonies at the Puck Building. “Please listen to this shit,” he went on, holding a glass that had apparently been refilled more than once. “We’re all in consort about a couple of things. The critics vote these awards and we hate their fucking guts, because they don’t know as much as we know.” What’s im­portant, he continued, “isn’t the power the crit­ics have in deciding these awards, but the emo­tional vote of your colleagues in the audience who cheer when you win. When I won my Obie, 20 years ago, it was the greatest moment of my life. Everybody who is winning is winning for those out there who are not winning, and the reason you’re cheering is that you’re part of them.” Among those cheered by an audience that included Joe Papp’s special guest Robert DeNiro were Irene Fornes, who won the best play award for The Conduct of Life, sustained achievement winner Meredith Monk, directors John Malkovich and Jerry Zaks, and perform­ers Dennis Boutsikaris, Anthony Heald, Laurie Metcalf, and John Turturro, with special citations going to Spalding Gray and Penn and Teller. Said winner Max Roach — “Writing for Off-Broadway was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had in my life.” Said winner Barbara Vann — “It’s very strange being here, be­cause l can’t remember that anyone has ever said anything nice about me in the Voice,”

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1986 Sustained achievement — Mabou Mines. Best play — a five-way tie between Eric Bogosian (Drinking in America), Martha Clarke (Vienna: Lusthaus), John Jesurun (Deep Sleep), Lee Nagrin (Bird/Bear), and Wallace Shawn (Aunt Dan and Lemon). Other awards, in ceremonies presided over by Christopher Durang and Swoosie Kurtz, and featuring entertainment by Dario Fo and Franca Rame, included Robert Wilson for direction, and Jill Eikenberry, Edward Hermann, and Kevin Kline for performance. Kline thanked his girlfriend “for putting up with all the crap any­one goes through playing Shakespeare,” Spald­ing Gray remarked that “I feel like I have so much to say, but I don’t wane to be self-indul­gent — there’s such a fine line,” Wallace Shawn commented that “When I was 10 years old, I had a canary that lived off Hartz Mountain birdseed — that seems important,” and Ellen Stewart, in accepting an award on behalf of Tadeusz Kantor, said that the Obie “is some­thing that is holy in Eastern European coun­tries.” But the biggest cheer went to Farley Granger for his Obie for Talley and Son. “You’ve made an old man very happy,” he said through tears. “In my long and varied career, I’ve never received an award and this is the first.”

1987 “Everybody knows that the Obies are the only awards that count,” said cohost Morgan Freeman. “The rest are just doo-doo.” Both Freeman and cohost Christine Lahti won performance Obies — no it’s not rigged, the hosts, presenters, and entertainment are selected long before the vot­ing — and other winners included the sustained achievement Obie to Charles Ludlam, the best play Obie to Richard Foreman (The Cure and Film Is Evil … Radio Is Good — “Next year I hope to write a play people will really hate,” he said), and performance Obies to Philip Bosco, Black-Eyed Susan, Dana Ivey, and Robin Bartlett. Presenter Jules Feiffer prefaced his remarks by attacking the Voice critic who’d reviewed his revival of Little Murders — “I’m just not comfortable having my work defined by schmucks.”

1988 Winner Peggy Shaw thanked the Voice “for encouraging lesbian­ism by voting for me,” and sustained achieve­ment winner Richard Foreman remarked, “We’ve all bitched and complained about the Voice, but let’s admit it’s played a major part in keeping the community alive.” Among the other winners, in ceremonies presided over by Er­ic Bogosian and Kathleen Turner at the Ritz, were performers Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, and Amy Irving, directors Anne Bogart and Peter Brook, and Christopher Reeve for his work on behalf of Chilean artists.

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1989 The crowd at the New Ritz cheered loudly at a quote from St. Augustine condemning plays as instru­ments of the devil, roared with laughter when Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney did their “if men had periods” number, applauded know­ingly when an obviously surprised William Converse-Roberts acknowledged his perfor­mance award by admitting, “I have nothing to say, I don’t even know who to thank, and I was getting drunk,” and savored the irony when Fyvush Finkel accepted his award by cit­ing a 10-year-old Voice pan. Hosted by Christopher Reeve, the evening saw the sus­tained achievement award go to Irene Worth, performance awards for Gloria Foster, Nancy Marchand, and Everett Quinton, and direct­ing awards to Ingmar Bergman and Peter Stein. But entertainer Leo Bassi — who also won an Obie — stole the show by lying on his hack and juggling a piano with his feet. “There are strange things that happen to me when I do this,” he explained. “I see this piano turning on my feet and I feel deep down, ‘What a waste of time.’ ”

1990 Penn and Teller were the first presenters. Before they’d give Dan Hurlin his framed certificate, they insisted on doing a card trick. Hurlin picked a card, Teller put it back in the deck, then spread the cards over the Obie. Penn took a hat pin out of his hair, Teller stuck the pin in his arm and let blood flow all over the cards and the award. Penn then picked the card with the most blood. It was the right card. Cohosted by Julie Bovas­so and Olympia Dukakis, the ceremonies hon­ored Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss), Suzan-Lori Parks (Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom), and Mac Wellman (Bad Penny, Crowbar, and Terminal Hip) for best play­wrights, and saw performance Obies go to Alec Baldwin, Jean Stapleton, Danitra Vance, and four awards to the Mabou Mines gender-reversed Lear. George Wolfe won a directing Obie for Spunk, Eric Bogosian and Joe Papp were among the special citations (Papp for his refusal to accept a grant from the NEA), and the sustained achievement award went to ACT UP. “I have been awarded the Obie prize three times for my plays,” Václav Havel cabled from Prague. “In all three cases it meant encouragement for my further work. Despite the fact that toward the end of last year I became president of our republic, I still remain a member of your artistic community.”

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1991 Stockard Channing and Alan Arkin hosted the ceremonies at the Palladium, which featured a best play Obie for Wallace Shawn for The Fever and playwriting Obies to John Guare for Six Degrees of Separation and Mac Wellman for Sincerity Forever. “I didn’t think this was actually a play and I was trying to get out of the theater,” said Shawn in accepting his award. Other winners included John Leguizamo, Ron Rifkin, and Stockard Channing for performance. The Blue Man Group accepted its Obie via signboard, Angela Goethals became the youngest Obie winner at the age of 14, and Lori Seid won the first ever Obie for stage managing. Outing herself by baring her Clit Club T-shirt, Seid thanked Madonna because “someone might buy a record by someone who might suck pussy.”

1992 In ceremonies dedicated to the memory of Joe Papp, cohosts Jerry Zaks and Kate Nelligan helped hand out Obies to, among others, performers Cherry Jones, James McDaniel, Roger Rees, Lynne Thigpen, Randy Danson, and Nathan Lane. Special citations included Anna Deavere Smith, and the sustained achievement award went to Athol Fugard. The best play award was shared by Donald Margulies for Sight Unseen, Robbie McCauley for Sally’s Rape, and Paula Vo­gel for The Baltimore Waltz. “I guess I’m put in the position of having to publicly thank Roy Cohn,” said Ron Vawter as he received his Obie for Roy Cohn/Jack Smith. Obie winner Laura Esterman thanked her director for stripping her of her mannerisms, leading Vawter’s partner and copresenter Greg Mehrten to proclaim, “I want to thank Ron Vawter for not stripping me of my mannerisms.”

1993 Said David Drake in accepting his Obie for The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, “I want to thank The Village Voice because when I was growing up in Baltimore, I didn’t have queer magazines. The Voice was the queerest thing I could find.” Larry Kramer, as it happens, was also one of the winners, his The Destiny of Me sharing the best play award with Harry Kondoleon’s The Houseguests, Jose Rivera’s Marisol and Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey. Other winners, in ceremonies cohosted by Nathan Lane and Ann Magnu­son, included Jane Alexander, Bill Ir­win, and Robert Klein for perfor­mance, and JoAnne Akalaitis for sustained achievement. Said Edward Hibbert in accepting his Obie, “The last award I got was for playing Lady Macbeth when I was 16. It’s wonderful to get an award for playing a dif­ferent sort of queen.”

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1994 “I am sustained,” said Edward Albee upon receiving the sustained achievement award. After noting that there was no check with his performance Obie, Michael Potts thanked the Public The­ater for giving him a job so he could qualify for health benefits. And Myra Carter, in accepting an Obie for her performance in Three Tall Women, remarked, “Thank God you got me here before I died.” Mayor Giuliani sent a proclamation declaring this Obie Awards Week — he apparently hadn’t read what the Voice had been saying about him — and Mary McDonnell and James McDaniel cohosted the ceremonies, which honored Anna Deavere Smith for best play (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992). Winner Bob McGrath recalled “as a kid in Burbank reading about weird theater and thinking, that’s what I want to do.’ ” Winner Danny Hoch announced that it was “an hon­or to be here in front of all you adults,” and at the other end of the spectrum, winner Judith Ivey quoted Ruth Gordon’s comment on re­ceiving an award at the age of 82 — “I can’t tell you how encouraging this is.”

Forty years. Forty years of encouragement, weird theater, and occasional shouts of “Bull­shit!” — with another 40 still to come. As Dario Fo commented upon winning his Obie, “There are critics involved in this, but nothing is perfect in this world.” ♦


A History of Hype: The Cockettes Conquer New York

Cockettes in New York: A History of Hype
November 25, 1971

New York is dead, everyone complained. The last thing to hit town was Jesus Christ Superstar, and it was so unbelievably crass. The major art openings were over, and the holiday parties hadn’t yet begun. Dull dull dull. But didn’t Rex and Truman rave about some divine hippie drag queens from San Francisco who actually wear glitter on their “private parts” as well as their eyelids? Right. “The Rockettes like rocks, and the Cockettes like—” How utterly outrageous! And weren’t they opening down in the slummy crummy East Village along with Sylvester, a black rock queen who sings falsetto? How off off can you get? And isn’t this the Year of the Gay? — it’s all right for men to dig other men in public. Everyone understands now. And hasn’t the underground press been covering the Cockettes favorably for over a year, even though the regular San Francisco press accepts their ads but doesn’t review them? Isn’t it time for something different? Let’s discover the Cockettes!

Not since Andy and Edie had New York made a group of society’s freaks its very own darlings in one short week — seven days to scale the highest media peaks, only to fall opening night with a great dull thud. How come? One reason is that the media-heavy audience came opening night expecting to see some sort of new art form and got comatized instead; but more importantly, the Cockettes were victims of the Big Hype — that peculiar New York phenomenon whereby people and things are declared hot, cool, in, out, under, and over. The poor little gold differs of ’71 from San Francisco made a big mistake — they believed it.

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Reality is fantasy and fantasy is reality to the Cockettes. Their life style is carefully contrived to blur if not actually diminish the distinction between the two. So when the Big Apple gave them the Hype they were ready for it. “Darling, we’re the toasts of the town, they love us to death!” said Big Daryl, a Cockette leader. Never mind the hassles with the producers, the el cheapo production, the lack of a sound system to rehearse with, the cockroaches and the broken plumbing in the hotel, or even the parties the nights before that made rehearsing almost impossible, because the Tinsel Tarted Broadway babies were having their pert little behinds kissed bought up and downtown and Ziegfield wasn’t around to ask if they could sing or dance. Nobody did. “I’m Goldie Glitters, and I go to all these ritzy penthouses every night, and these photographers keep wanting to take my picture.”

Performance for the Cockettes is mostly an excuse to live a freaky life style. Why be a hairdresser or work in a third-hand store if you can be a Cockette and spend all day getting dressed up like your favorite movie star? The drag’s the thing — the Tinsel Tarts spend a lot more time on themselves than they do on the shows. In San Francisco the Cockettes are pure hippie-nostalgia street theatre with rinky tink piano, clever lyrics, and tons of glitter thrown in for good measure — gay hippies plus women who love to show off for their friends. There are far too many freaks in San Francisco for them to be considered avant garde, political, or revolutionary. It’s a $2.50 midnight show at a funky old Chinese movie house where you can watch Betty Boop festivals and dig the spectacle. Stoned at 2 in the morning, you don’t care if it moves. The indulgent audience is half the show, and knows it.

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But the Big Apple declared the Cockettes media myths, the “fashion and faggot aristocracy” came out en masse to view their drag for inspiration, the ticket price shot up to $6.50, and Time, Life, Women’s Wear Daily, etc., all showed up to review them. The opening night’s theme song should have been “Please baby,” pant pant, “give us some new freaks to love.”

It’s easy to love the Cockettes. Their zany behavior turns on even the most hostile people, and every personal appearance is a major production. Integral to the making of the myth were the word-of-mouth reports spread around town by key writers, editors, or celebrities who saw the Cockettes behave outrageously at the Whitney, in Max’s, and at all the posh parties where they were honored guests. Everyone expected they’d be better on stage, but that’s a misconception. The Cockettes are much better in real life. I traveled with them for 10 days, and it was pure insanity all the way.


At the San Francisco airport pandemonium reigned from the moment the Cockettes stepped off their chartered bus, along with three tons of luggage that was heavy on the cardboard and tinsel. “Remember, girls,” Pristine Condition yelled, “The password for New York is Sugar Daddy.”

“Did you see that?” Mr. whispered to Mrs. Iowa at the baggage check as Link floated by in a one-piece latex bathing suit with a beauty queen banner of girl scout badges pinned to the front. And when Wally — in six-foot plumes and a pair of plastic Halloween pumpkins filled with gold tinsel suspended over his breasts — began beating his tambourine and asking for “tricks or treats,” four people canceled their flight.

Bystanders were treated to a wacked-out visual feast. In addition to 35 Cockettes, Sylvester’s musicians came with their old ladies, groupies appeared bearing gifts (Grasshopper, a favorite Cockette groupie, even flew to New York), several dozen awestruck airline employees gathered to gape, and one uptight tv cameraman was furious. “This is worse than a double X movie.” Nobody’s mother came to wave goodbye.

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The “Cockette party” of 45 had to sit in the back of the huge 747, along with a few straight passengers who got mixed in. They either opted for stereo headphones and tuned out for the duration of the flight or slumped way down in their seats behind books on California redwoods.

The stewardesses couldn’t handle the commotion. One dropped her oxygen mask when the Cockettes applauded her act, and her partner, a blank-looking blond in a pinafore, just stood watching quizzically as one of the Cockettes called out, “Hey, we made a movie about a girl whose drag looks just like yours — Tricia’s Wedding.”

The Tinsel Tarts spent the rest of the flight “ritzing” around the economy lounge of the 747 where they allowed curious passengers and shy closet queens to buy them beers. One little old lady in an orlon sweater set and mink hat squinted at Wally. “Are you girls in high school or college?” “Neither. We’re Miss America contestants.” A belligerent drunk confronted Lendon, resplendent as Carmen Miranda: “Are you a man or a woman?” “We’re both, honey, and that’s just for starters!” By the end of the long flight everyone was getting very cozy. The Cockettes were singing show tunes for fellow passengers, who joined them, happily posing for one another’s Instamatics and Nikons just as if the Cockettes were some stray Indians they had found in the Grand Canyon. Smile click. Smile click. “My wife won’t believe this. Heh heh. Thanks a lot.”

The flight marked the culmination of more than three months of broken promises and tight money while trying to plan the New York tour. The New York people had originally come to them. The Cockettes were not actively seeking an eastern tour. Two New York producers had strung the Cockettes along from July to October, promising a Halloween opening at the Fillmore East. The Cockettes — most of whom are on welfare — stopped doing new San Francisco shows, and when the rent fell due at their three communes, they couldn’t pay it. One of Bill Graham’s yes men, after taking a month to make the decision on the Fillmore, decreed “The Cockettes will diminish the Fillmore East’s reputation as a rock palace,” which ought to be news to the neighborhood junkies.

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Finally a San Francisco rock lawyer got them the Anderson Theatre, a block down from the Fillmore. Harry Zerler, a young, former talent scout at Columbia Records who had never produced a theatrical show before, but whose father, Paul Zerler, had been around the business for years, flew out to California and saw the same wild and funny Cockette show that Truman Capote loved and that sent Rex Reed to wondering enthusiastically, “Will the Cockettes replace rock concerts in the ’70s?” The Cockettes were thrilled. Long snubbed by the local aboveground press, they had at last been discovered by the big-time New York media. Zerler promised to bring the Cockettes to New York, and the myth began.

Even though the Daily News wouldn’t print Reed’s raving review, the Washington Post and many other papers throughout the country did. I wrote a favorable piece on the Cockettes for The Voice, and Rolling Stone published an article a short time later. Those three articles became the basis for all the hype in the Cockettes’ ads: “This is the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen” —Truman Capote. “Insanity becomes reality, fantasy becomes truth, etc.” —Village Voice. Both quotes were taken out of context, but that sort of hyperbole is justified by the producers in terms of the amount of money it takes to transport 45 people across the country and put them up for three weeks, especially people who sign the hotel register “Miss Creemah Ritz,” “Eatapuss Rex,” and Scrumbly. Paul Zerler figures it cost him $40,000. The Cockettes didn’t think setting the ticket price at $6.50 was fair, but they didn’t fight it — after dividing the money 40 ways they were only making $75 a week each plus lodging. The Cockettes have also yet to see a penny of the profits from their film, Tricia’s Wedding, but they are usually too engrossed in fantasy to seriously worry about finances.

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Until the moment they landed, the Cockettes had no idea where they were going to stay. Rumor had it they were going to be put up in a one-bath, three-bedroom house in Connecticut with 25 cots set up in the basement. They got the Hotel Albert instead, in the Village, where on a good day the hallways smell somewhere between old socks and vomit. Miss Bobbie, 17, the youngest of the Cockettes and so beautiful he was offered a modeling audition at Harper’s Bazaar, cried upon seeing the Albert. She expected maybe the Plaza. The rest of the troupe amused themselves with cockroach counting contests in their suites. There was no room service. Pretty tacky for swishy West Coast queenies, but not so different from the Haight either.

It was very difficult to reach any of the Cockettes by phone at the Albert since several had changed their names when registering. Big Daryl vacillated between Harold Thunderpussy and Miss Creemah Ritz and confided his fears of being typecast forever as the whorehouse madam, especially after two janitors mistook him for Mae West on Halloween night.

If the hotel wasn’t “fabulous enough,” the Cockettes’ arrival at Kennedy had more than made up for it in advance. Danny Fields, the skilled rock PR man, had everything arranged. About 100 freaks were on hand, including two third-stringers from the Factory, and Superstar Viva’s husband, Michel, shooting videotape. Few of these people had actually seen the Cockettes perform, but that didn’t seem to matter. The rest of the New York airport crowd watched silently bemused with a so-what-else-is-new expression that contrasted sharply with the jovial hilarity at the San Francisco airport. I sensed New York would be a lot more difficult for the Tinsel Tarts and wondered if the Cockettes felt it too, but they were surrounded by local admirers, including suave Errol Wetson in total black velvet, the “fabulous millionaire hamburger king” as Dennis Lopez, Sylvester’s manager, referred to him. Suave Errol had wined and dined Dennis one night along with Warren Beatty and Roman Polanski. Dennis, used to paying for his own meals with fellow record company flacks, was properly impressed. (Actually Wetson is part owner of Le Drugstore and heir to a chain of 153 hamburger joints.) Suave Errol was dying to introduce the Cockettes to New York — there’s more to life than burgers — and thereby launch himself as the arbiter of a new social phenomenon in the process. “I heard about the Cockettes from my friend Truman, and New York’s been so quiet, so dead, something’s gotta happen. No, I haven’t seen the Cockettes perform. I don’t have to. I can feel their vibrations.”

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Later that night Wetson hosted the Cockettes’ first New York party at this empty East 62nd Street townhouse. Diana Vreeland, grande dame of Vogue, designer Oscar de la Renta, and executives of the hamburger corporation came along to catch the action. The Cockettes gave it to them — in wild costumes they uninhibitedly danced, sang, romped, and stomped. Wetson’s comptroller, perhaps sensing his young boss’s enthusiasm could have some future financial implications, commented, “They’re great at a party, but can they act?” Diana Vreeland was much more positive. She was truly impressed with the originality of the Cockettes’ drag and felt they had put on the best fashion show she had seen in a long time. “What’s so marvelous is that they look happy, truly happy, and that’s so rare these days, don’t you think?”

Meanwhile the Cockettes were digging the plush surroundings, their usual milieu being a couple of joints or a bottle of Cold Duck in the Haight. “Wow, we’ve never been treated like this before, with champagne and all,” said Lendon. After Suave Errol’s bash the group made a pilgrimage to Max’s Kansas City and turned the place upside down. In two days they completely revitalized the sagging dragging atmosphere at Max’s, and according to the regulars, “brought the place alive again.” After the third straight night there the Cockettes were allowed to charge hamburgers and Harvey Wallbangers, which was fortunate since they hadn’t been paid and were actually going hungry — but they were getting lots of attention, hype hype. The first night at Max’s, Pristine Condition fell out of her chair when she saw Trash star Joe d’Allesandro. She swiped his bread roll, brought it back to the Albert, shellacked it, and sewed it on a hat. That night rock critic Lillian Roxan told Prissie, “I always wondered what it was like to take New York by storm, now I know.” That was the sort of comment that got passed around town by word of mouth to turn on the general populace.

During the week before opening night I must have gone to 27 parties with the Cockettes, on the East Side, on the West Side, in the Village, in penthouses, lofts, museums, and basements, gotten a total of 15 hours sleep, met two thirds of the freaks of New York, and began to suspect that all of Manhattan was gay. New York was bored and the Cockettes were so joyous they were almost wholesome. The Tinsel Tarts became the hottest numbers in town. They got a standing ovation at the Brasserie on Halloween night, then a ride home to the Albert in Marlene Dietrich’s silver limousines, which stretched the fantasy beyond all imagination. “The chauffeur, who evidently just cruises around picking up freaks, told us she’s out of the country and doesn’t own a television set. Honey, it was outrageous, and lucky, because we didn’t have the money to pay for a cab.”

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The fantasy hardly ever stopped. Robert Rauschenberg flipped for Pristine Condition, John Rothermel, and Goldie Glitters at a Whitney opening and gave them $1000 when he found out they were hungry and broke. “The only people who support artists are other artists.” “Honey, that was Bingo with a B,” Prissie said. Taxi drivers usually turned off their meters and often gave the Cockettes drinks and joints. After Goldie Glitters offered to put one particularly polite cab driver on the guest list for opening night, he declined, saying he had a “very square wife.” “That’s okay,” said Lendon, dressed in a girl scout uniform with saddle shoes, “so do I.” Candy Darling acted like a perfect lady and invited them to her press conference. Holly Woodlawn taught them how to scarf dinner from fancy hors d’oeuvre trays. The Fontainebleau wanted the Cockettes for December!

Throughout this madness the Cockettes starred, wherever they went — at the erotic film festival party, the Screw anniversary party, Le Drugstore, where Suave Errol gave them another party and fed them, and in front of the clicking camera phalluses of scores of photographers who invited them to pose. David Rockefeller, shy about attending opening night, sent his chauffeur down to the Anderson to buy 11 tickets for the second night’s performance. Rex Reed, given 30 free tickets by Paul Zerler, was organizing a busload of celebrities to attend opening night and Suave Errol was throwing the after-the-opening party at guess where?

Days began at 2 p.m. and ended at dawn. The Cockettes were living just like the girls in the ’30s musicals they parodied. Stage door Johnnies that would have freaked Busby Berkeley were saying goodnight early in the morning. One evening at Max’s, after underground star Taylor Mead’s boyfriend stood on a table, sang to Taylor, and simultaneously stripped for the benefit of the Cockettes, I asked John Rothermel, “Madge the Magnificent” in “Tinsel Tarts,” and Big Daryl, in Eleanor Roosevelt drag for the evening, what they thought of New York. “I know we’re degenerate,” said John, flipping her boa, “but we weren’t prepared for the nihilism of New York.”

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Early on in the week the New York establishment press began to get very interested. The Post ran a story saying the Cockettes were to drag shows as Niagara is to wet. Life’s entertainment department was dying to cover them, “but we’ll never get it past our managing editor.” They sent a photographer opening night anyway. Esquire decided to go ahead with a story, after having been told about the Cockettes over a year before. A Harper’s Bazaar editor was ecstatic. “That sounds just like the sort of thing we want to get involved with.” Time and Newsweek were coming to the opening, as was the Sunday TimesWomen’s Wear was really in a tither. They wanted to run something but felt uncomfortable using the word Cockette in print, especially since they had recently run an interview with rock star Sly Stone and quoted him as saying he was “happy as a motherfucker,” and a big Chicago garment mogul had canceled his subscription. The Washington Post, already hipped to the Cockettes from Rex Reed’s review, sent the same reporter to cover opening night who had just returned from writing about some other queens at the Shah of Iran’s 2500th anniversary bash. Even the local tv news, usually much too conservative to cover drag shows was sending a crew to film at the Anderson. I was approached to revive a Cockettes film project I had begun and then dropped. We decided to go ahead, and got the Maysles Brothers to shoot opening night.

The producers were spending an inordinate amount of time hyping instead of insisting the Cockettes rehearse, but Harry Zerler still wasn’t satisfied that the Cockettes had done enough to promote the show(!). “I haven’t seen any handbills passed out on the streets of New York,” he yelled at Sebastian, the Cockettes’ mild-mannered manager, “and why are they so filthy? All the front rows are littered with bottles of Ripple. Next time I’m going to produce a bunch of compulsive anal retentive people.”

Danny Fields said the Cockettes were the easiest act he had ever promoted. “I haven’t seen such enthusiasm from the press since the Rolling Stones’ tour of the U.S. in 1969.” Opening night was over-sold and everybody was clamoring for tickets. “No,” barked one of the theatre staff. “I don’t care if John and Yoko come to opening night. There’s no excuse for mediocrity.”

Every once in a while reality would rear its ugly head. Dusty Dawn felt terrible. It was bad enough that New York laws prevented her from dancing on the stage with her son, 16-month-old Ocean Michael Moon, “the world’s youngest drag queen,” on her back, but Ocean had developed a terrible rash. Eight-and-a-half-month-pregnant Sweet Pam’s baby dropped. And Wally, still wearing the plastic Halloween pumpkins, had had an emergency appendectomy five days before leaving San Francisco and was afraid he had glitter in his incision.

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The producers didn’t have time for such mundane details. They were trying to cope with an inadequate budget — the Cockettes had kicked out 24 footlights and the soundmen were scrounging around for $25 mikes — but the Big Hype continued, so I took Wally and Dusty to the emergency room of Columbus Hospital for a check-up. Nonplussed would hardly be the word to describe the good sisters upon Wally’s arrival, but they remembered charity begins at home — they let him keep his 47 bracelets on. He had to leave his gold tinsel outside with me, however. The doctor told Dusty she obviously didn’t bathe her baby. She was indignant. “I bathe Ocean twice a day — it’s just in New York when he rolls around on the sidewalk he gets a lot dirtier.”

By the end of the week the Cockettes had barely rehearsed. The sound system hadn’t been installed and the Tinsel Tarts insisted they needed a different set. Harry Zerler balked, so the Cockettes stayed up all night Friday anyway, building a new, special-for-New-York cardboard set. On Saturday they could barely keep their eyes open. At dress rehearsal Saturday night the hastily put together sound system broke down completely. Such was the power of the Sunday Times, however, that three Times photographers interrupted dress rehearsal for over an hour to get “exclusive” pictures.

Meanwhile, Sylvester’s three back-up singers had left for Washington to sing the Black National Anthem at the White House. From the Cockettes to Nixon? I would have believed anything at this point — but the girls didn’t return and nobody knew where to find them. “They were last seen with the President.”

Dress rehearsal was really the first full rehearsal. The Cockettes didn’t know how to use mikes or project their voices and on the big Anderson stage they came across like a parody of a parody, only it wasn’t funny — it hurt. Obviously opening night would be a painful experience, but the Cockettes didn’t understand.

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They consistently refused to deal with reality. Sebastian, worried about technical difficulties, pronounced the show “great.” Suave Errol didn’t think so. What a dilemma — hundreds of people invited to his big party and his social standing was on the line. Where was Truman now that he needed him? Out in California.

The Cockettes declined rehearsals Sunday and toddled off to one more press party, at John de Coney’s, a hip barber shop on Madison Avenue where scores of reporters and photographers were invited to watch the Cockettes get their hair done. Before leaving I asked Goldie if she didn’t think it would be better to spend the time rehearsing, but the PR girl from the barber shop had arrived, not about to be thwarted. “But they’re waiting for you and Jacqueline Susann will be there.” Miss Susann never showed, but the Cockettes sipped wine under the dryers, posed endlessly for the 20 photographers present, and answered reporters’ questions that were definitely a case of life imitating Grade B flicks.

The Crawdaddy man: “Is it true the Cockettes had an orgy via closed circuit tv?” Answer: “No.” “Well then, what do you expect to get out of tonight’s performance?” “Enlightenment.”

Then Goldie divinely ensconced under the dryer, started telling her dreams to the film interviewer. “I dreamed I was an olive in a martini glass, but no one would swallow me — oh hello dahling, come be in my movie.”

Opening night was everybody’s movie, from Footlights Parade to Phantom of the Opera. According to Rex it was the “craziest, wildest in New York’s history.” The Big Hype had really worked. The Anderson was jammed. Hundreds of fashionables pushed and shoved their way through the one open door. Beautiful People and big-time celebrities had to plough through just like the hoi polloi. Literati, glitterati, and culturati rubbed shoulders with dreaded freaks and every important drag queen in town. Some groupies had sprayed their bodies completely silver, others carried teddy bears, one even brought a whip.

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The WWD photographer was beside himself. How could he shoot Gore Vidal, Allen Ginsberg, Angela Lansbury, Alexis Smith, Robert Rauschenberg, Rex Reed, Peggy Cass, Diana Vreeland, Nan Kemper, Clive Barnes, Sylvia Miles, Kay Thompson, Bobby Short, Elaine, Bill Blass, Estevez, Tony Perkins, Dan Greenburg, Nora Ephron, Mrs. Sam Spiegel, Jerry Jorgensen, Ultra Violet, Candy Darling, Taylor Mead, Gerard Malanga, John Chamberlain, Cyrinda Fox, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, the entire cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, the President of Gay Lib, a dozen Vogue editors, two real princesses, and the night clerk at the Hotel Albert?

At 8:30 Sunday night, when the doors to the Anderson were supposed to be open, Sylvester was still on stage rehearsing. His backup singers had suddenly reappeared at 7:30 and now he was arguing with one Sweet Inspiration and one Supreme who he had hired to take their place. The Cockettes, dead tired and not yet dressed, were quietly munching turkey sandwiches in the front row while half the “ritzy penthouse” people of New York were shrieking and fighting to get in the door. Truman sent an encouraging telegram — “keep it gay light and campy” — and the delighted Cockettes dedicated the show to him.

The audience came to get wrecked and thrilled by a fantastic new set of freaks. But as soon as the curtain went up it was all downhill. The audience was dying to be surprised, outraged, anything. They loved Sylvester, even after 45 minutes, but the Cockettes were hopeless. The sound system was terrible, the show was too slow to crawl, and the Tinsel Tarts were even too tired to be themselves. They forgot lines and bumped into each other, all this for the media heavies and literati. “My god, how could they disappoint us like this?” After 40 minutes, when Taylor Mead shouted “Bring back Jackie Curtis,” people began to get up and leave. (Jackie should love the Cockettes. After being panned everywhere when Vain Victory opened, he’s suddenly hot stuff in all the comparative reviews.)

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One man in the audience, who had slept through the entire show, awakened and promptly vomited all over Princess Delores Rispoli, one of Rex’s guests. The usher was indignant. “What are you, some kind of vomit freak?” It was a fitting climax.

The critics were unanimous. “Having no talent is not enough,” declared Gore Vidal. “Dreadful,” pronounced Women’s Wear. The Sunday Times headlined, “For This They Had to Come From Frisco?” Lillian Roxon wrote the only favorable review, for the Daily News. She said the Cockettes were 15 years ahead of their time.

The party later a Le Drugstore was the expected mob scene. Inside Wally was trying to explain to an unsmiling woman reporter from Time, “But you don’t understand, we’re not professionals, we’ve never been professionals.” And outside, late-arriving Cockettes were barred from entering because too many people were already inside. “But it’s our party, let us in,” pleaded Reggie.

By the next morning Suave Errol had dropped the Cockettes forever. Ironically the strong dose of failure reality opening night was like a shot of adrenaline for the Cockettes. By the second night they had improved considerably, and the audience loved them, but none of the hypesters were around to see it. The Cockettes blew it. They had embarrassed the media moguls and weren’t about to get a second chance.

Harper’s Bazaar no longer wanted to get involved. Dick Cavett made them sit up in the balcony, and David Frost’s producer, alienated by Sylvester’s “being nothing but a queen,” canceled them one hour before showtime. The Big Hype was already looking for something new to swallow whole — and then spit out.

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Obies Theater Uncategorized

“Fuck the Curtain”: An Oral History of Off-Broadway

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.

“Not available.”

“What about Chalk Circle or Good Woman?”

“Not available.”

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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.”


CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Obies Theater Uncategorized

A Brief History of Off-Broadway, 1955–1985

“The Golden Days of American Theater”

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.


“I have not seen Waiting for Go­dot nor read the text, but of course I have come across a good many reviews of it, and heard more than a little in its favor and disfavor. What amuses me is the deference with which everyone is approaching Beckett, and the fault of course, the part which is sad, is that none of the celebrators of Beck­ett have learned anything from Joyce… But at the very least, the critics could have done a little rudimentary investigation into the meaning of the title, and the best they have been able to come up with so far is that Go­dot has something to do with God. My congratulations. But Godot also means Hot Dog, or the dog who is hot; and it means God-O, God as the female princi­ple, just as Daddy-O in Hip means the father who has failed, the man who has become an O, a vagina. Two obvious dialectical transpositions on Waiting for Godot are To Dog the Coming and God Hot for Waiting, but anyone who has the Joycean habit of thought could add a hundred subsidiary themes.” — Norman Mailer 

“There are two shows, really, at the Theatre de Lys. One has a cast of 20 ebullient and engag­ing actors and actresses.… The other show has a cast of one, and her name is Lotte Lenya. Miss Lenya is, as you know, not merely the widow of Kurt Weill but the original Jenny of the original Berlin production of Dreigroschenoper. For rea­sons of plot, she is hardly seen, much less heard from, until somewhere near the middle of Act II, when the scene shifts to the reception room of a whorehouse. What happens next is I hope enough to raise the hair on your neck, as it did mine. Critics are always being advised to stay away from the word electric; I can only say that there is no other word available to me, at this late hour, with which to categorize that instant when Miss Lenya shambles front and center to exhale the first weary, husky, terrible notes of her hus­band’s famous song about the Black Freighter.… Her voice lifts and hardens into the reprise (‘ …and the blaaaaaack frayta…’), and suddenly all the essential blandness and healthiness of all that has gone before is swept away, and we are stark up face to face against a kind of world and a kind of half-century that no one born this side of the water can ever quite fully make, or want to make, his own.” — Jerry Tallmer 

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“Tamora is played by Colleen Dewhurst a good deal more than passably if a good deal less than perfectly. It is in any event a great recovery for Miss Dew­hurst from her recent misfor­tunes in Camille, and I am consi­derably the happier for it. I only wish this young lady could somehow learn to temper her God-given native forthrightness with a little wilting feminine de­viousness; then we should have an actress who could really ex­cite us.” — Jerry Tallmer


“Mr. Papp, for what he has done with his Workshop and with these summer festivals, is ap­proaching the category of hero: I really mean it.” — Jerry Tallmer

“All over New York you can feel the excitement and it is good to be in my business this month and see such merit at last so rewarded. A dozen people have said to me over the weekend that they finally dare dream once again of a dynamic, successful repertory theatre here in this country, and everywhere there are intimations that the Shake­speare Workshop, just coming of age with its solid Central Park Macbeth, will go on with in­creased civic, public, and pri­vate support to an unlimited and golden maturity. Let us all do what we can to make it so.” — Jerry Tallmer


“He looks like a Marine, he walks like a Marine, he talks like a Marine, biting off his words sardonically, glancing at you coolly down his long nose; and once indeed he was a Marine, for four years — ‘burying people in Arlington Cemetery’ — but now he’s an actor and a damn fine one.” — Jerry Tallmer

“On Thursday of last week Jo­seph Papp, producer and creator of the New York Shakespeare Festival, refused to answer questions about his political be­liefs before the House Committee on Un-American activities. He was immediately fired from his job at CBS — unit manager of the TV show I’ve Got a Secret— on which he had sustained himself while bringing into existence the Shakespeare productions which some 100,000 New Yorkers have seen, for free, in Central Park and the East River Amphitheatre.

“The Village Voice invited Mr. Papp to comment on the issue. Here are his remarks:

“For myself, I am more than ever determined to devote my energies in bringing the classi­cal theatre to all people regardless of their ability to pay. I will not be diverted from considering my work in the theatre a social as well as an artistic responsi­bility. My philosophy is no se­cret. It is most clearly expressed in the founding and development of the New York Shakespeare Festival. And although I have no reluctance to discuss my opin­ions and beliefs with anybody, I will not be coerced into revealing names of innocent people. I will not be intimidated into repudiat­ing the meaning of my life. I will not cooperate with an irrespon­sible publicity-seeking commit­tee bent on destroying reputa­tions and spreading the insidious blacklist…”

“On the front page of the Sunday Times Drama Section of April 13 there was a long, interesting ar­ticle by Arthur Gelb on the ever ­increasing difficulties of doing good work, or any work, off Broadway in the face of rising costs and union demands.… On Friday, April 11, two days before that issue of the Times, a company of Equity ac­tors… opened at the Theatre Club in what they called An Evening of Katherine Mans­field.… The Times had a re­viewer there (not Mr. Gelb) on opening weekend. He was heard to grumble at the stairs, the lift, the whole mise en scene, and he left abruptly at intermission. No review ever appeared in the New York Times, evidently on the grounds that the event wasn’t worth mentioning. Yet far inferi­or products — in ‘regular’ theatres, without flights of stairs — are mentioned, praised, cruci­fied every day. Whether praise or crucifixion makes no matter: the production is perfectly legitimate and there should have been a report on it. If we are truly to save the off-Broadway theatre we must look for creative expression even two flights up in no man’s land.”

“Mr. Tennessee Williams, without much doubt America’s first true poet-playwright, has delib­erately chosen to go off Broad­way with his two latest works for fear that one of them at least is too strong a dose for Broad­way’s tender duodenum. He is right.” — Jerry Tallmer

“Paul Goodman, playwright, poet, and novelist, spoke on ‘Pornography on the Stage’ last Saturday at the Living Theatre, where a series of lectures on ‘Creative Theatre’ is now taking place weekly through May 23. Mr. Goodman, whose Young Dis­ciple was presented by the Liv­ing Theatre three seasons ago and whose Father is to open there soon in repertory with Many Loves, stated that of all the most censored because it visually acts out the audience’s fantasies, thus mak­ing it more stimulating than the written word. Theatre, he said, has a public audience, not a pri­vate reader. The spectator is part of a community sharing guilt enthusiasm, and risk, and responding as a mass.”

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“To my mind, the Living Theatre has once again excitingly justi­fied the adjective of its title. I pray that Mr. Beck and Miss Ma­lina can keep the show alive un­til word-of-mouth overcomes the worst efforts of the (second­-string summertime) daily re­viewers. If The Connection can’t make it in Greenwich Village, or wherever people care deeply about imaginative theatre, then nothing can. But I think it can ­— if its producers, for their part, can hang on… What The Con­nection as a whole did for me as a layman was to flesh out, mar­velously, my own layman’s image of the world of heroin, its tired knowing endless deep­freeze of detumescence and ut­ter hopelessness — and all such evocation of images I should consider well within the province of living theatre, if not necessar­ily of enduring drama. Yes, the Living Theatre’s alive…” — Jerry Tallmer

“Larry Hagman has been given practically nothing to say or do in his performance as the Jack Kerouac figure. He comes out of it, once again, as a most attrac­tive, manly, and promising young actor, and that’s all I can think of to say about Nervous Set. The rest is too embarrassing.” — Jerry Tallmer

“Carol Burnett’s clowning as the princess is excellent up to the point where it too begins to pall.” — Jerry Tallmer


“Joseph Papp has come of age as a director in his own right with the clean, stirring, engross­ing production of Henry V that opens the 1960 season of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Previously Mr. Papp had been content to play Proteus and Ga­lahad to his Festival while leav­ing the direction to others (ex­cept in the not too satisfactory instance of last year’s Othello). Now he at last steps forward, seizes the reins, clutches the tiller, grasps the throttle, and gives it full speed ahead into the most dynamic show his group has offered since Stuart Vaugh­an’s Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1957.” — Jerry Tallmer

“I am sadly out of practice at writing raves. As any critic knows, it is far easier to pick out a production’s faults than its virtues, and I am hard-pressed to explain The Fantasticks. With this in mind, I did something for the first time last week. Having seen the show free on Tuesday, its opening night, I bought tick­ets and went back on Thurs­day…

“The play’s thesis is that ‘without a hurt the heart is hol­low,’ a dangerously romantic no­tion these days, and the most elaborate and sophisticated art is employed to catch the au­dience in its simplicity. The Fantasticks is not the dregs of an uptown backer’s audition, nor an under-produced Broadway musical. What are usually limi­tations off Broadway become advantages. I just might go see it yet again.” — Michael Smith

“At the opening of The Balcony I encountered an old friend, a man in his mid-50s who happens to be an exceptionally solid citizen. His abilities and achievements, which are known around the world, have nothing to do with theatre. We took a cup of coffee together after the show. He had been much affected by it. In the second act, he said, the key to the whole play had suddenly flown into his head; from there on, his understanding had raced along almost ahead of the lines. The key to the whole play was orgasm — orgasm as that blind­ing instant of seeming self-real­ization in the overgrown imagery of our fondest, most atavistic self-illusions. ‘There’s a lead for you,’ he grinned, meaning a lead sentence for this review. ‘Jean Genet has made the drama com­mit orgasm.’ ” — Jerry Tallmer

“First there was Jack Gelber, the 27-year-old author of The Conn­ection. Now there is Jack Ri­chardson, an unknown who at 24, parenthesis exclamation mark parenthesis, has come up in his first try with one of the most competent, sophisticated, and satisfying new plays of the past half-decade off Broadway or on. Perhaps this generally miserable season of 1959–60 will walk away with the laurels after all.” — Jerry Tallmer

“Two short, disparate works have been jammed together to make a fascinating single even­ing of theatre at the Province­town Playhouse. I happen to think the pieces are presented in the wrong order; I would prefer the lyrical affirmations of Samuel Beckett to come after, not before, the hostilities and negations of young Edward Al­bee, but this is a matter of philosophy and personal taste which may be ignored. I shall, however, have to review Krapp’s Last Tape and The Zoo Story as distinct and opposing entities, even though they share in com­mon the form and voltage of the brief tour de force.

Krapp’s Last Tape is almost certainly the most amazing piece of ‘incidental’ writing of the de­cade… The Zoo Story is the contribution to the Provincetown double-bill of a young Villager, and comer, named Edward Albee. He knows how to handle situation and dialogue and bring you up deftly to the edge of your seat. Whether he has anything less sick than this to say re­mains to be seen.” — Jerry Tallmer

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“At last a really interesting new script by a young and in America unknown author. The Birth­day Party, by Harold Pinter, received five performances recently on London’s West End. It was promptly slaughtered by all critics, and has now been brought out in print by the vengeful editors of Encore, a modern-minded little British theatre magazine well worth subscribing to in its own right. Mr. Pinter is the first English­-language playwright who has apparently joined artistic forces with Eugene Ionesco. In his own way, of course, else he wouldn’t be worth talking about…” — Jerry Tallmer

“A thoroughly delightful and thoroughly polished musical comedy arrived last Wednesday at Off-Broadway’s Orpheum Theatre. Little Mary Sunshine is a spoof on American operetta of the Victor Herbert vintage.… The casting is first rate, with Eileen Brennan heading the bill as Little Mary Sunshine. She has a fine pure voice and is a subtle finished comedienne. Altogether her performance is superb — one may almost say flawless.” — J.H. Livingston

“The strongest feeling I get from most workshop or showcase productions is one of competi­tion. Every actor on the stage wants to shine, wants his bits to catch the agent’s eye, with the result that the material of the play is distorted or even ignored. The actors want to convey their singularity, and forget that act­ing is a cooperative art… None of these distracting aims are ap­parent in the present revival of Dead End, and it becomes, para­doxically, an excellent show­case. It contains the best en­semble acting by an American cast that I have seen in a long, long time… The Kids — played by Ken Kercheval, Robert Levy, Paul B. Price, Levy Ragni, Dusty Hoffman, and Murray Levy — are constantly fascinating.” — Michael Smith


“It had to happen. Some place in the midst of all its glory, the New York Shakespeare Festival had to come up with a dud. Its King Richard II, which closes the current season in Central Park, is a gauche and grisly bore.” — Jerry Tallmer

“The American Dream, says Edward Albee, is death. Mommy death, daddy death, kiddie death, lover death, sex death, apartment death, values death, youth death, everything death. It is a sad and one-track theme (inherent also in The Zoo Story, his earlier smash off-Broadway success), and perhaps it is right. But I cannot go for it. At the same time I can once again admire Mr. Albee’s unquestionable talent for making a hilarious joke of his grimmest forboding — in­deed a hilarious dirty joke waft­ed through and through with es­sence of inversion and eau de necrophilia…” — Jerry Tallmer

“Such was the magic of these charades that our friends, wives, and acquaintances who acted in them became afterward simply the Explorer, the Tough Girl, the Angel on a Stepladder. I knew nobody in the cast, but I felt that. There were times when the audience didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, whether to applaud or keep quiet. We were not sure when the play be­gan, or when it was over. How to describe these ‘happenings’? In Madame Bovary Flaubert set about, not to write a plot, but to convey a color, the color of a wood house. These ‘happenings’ convey a sound. It is the sound of a light-cavalry march, while in a cafeteria a starved man is pouring out catsup. The cafete­ria is painted red, white, and blue, with sad blotches of yel­low. The sound changes to a striptease medley; a tape of lambs bleating (in a slaughter­house), a Victor Herbert operetta. But it’s always the same sound, and the next day you’ll hear it as you cross the street. Because that’s the way it is, here in the New York of Claes Oldenburg.” — Robert Nichols

“No one who believes in the greatness of certain plays would go to any one of our houses to enjoy them. They exist as thun­dering productions in the mind only. We know how they might be done (King Lear, for example, should be played by Ernest Hem­ingway), but one also knows that way lies nightmare, mad­ness, and no hurricane’s spout. Our theatre is a cancer gulch. Anyone who has worked in it, felt the hate-twisted nerves of the actresses, the fag-ridden spirit of the actors, the gulping mannerlessness of our directors, hysterical at resistance, ponder­ous at exposition, and always psychoanalytical, must admit that yes, at its best, our theatre is a rich ass and/or hole, at its worst, the heavens recoil.

“By way of preface to some remarks on The Blacks. If one is tempted to say it is a great play with insidious, even evil veins of cowardice in its cruel bravery, one has to add immediately that such greatness exists as still another of those exquisite lonely productions of imagination’s al­ley. The show, the literal show on the boards (and the set for this one is worth an essay of quiet criticism in itself), that tangible corporal embodiment of The Blacks, ended as good theatre, shocking as a rash, bug-house with anxiety to some, nervous fever-hot for all. (A lot of people left.) It is a good production, one of the doubtless best productions in New York this year, and yet it fails to find two-thirds of the play.” — Norman Mailer

“Twee. In Britain they’ve lately invented this word, twee, to de­scribe and classify all such shows as Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Ma­ma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. You gather that it’s onomatopoetic; it means what it sounds like. Usually it is coupled to the modifier ‘little’ — ‘a twee little revue,’ ‘that twee little play.’ So here from the boy wonder of Harvard College we have the self-defining case of twee, the ding an sich.” — Jerry Tallmer

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“I WAS NOT originally going to write an article in this newspaper this week, the week of the Worldwide General Strike for Peace conceived by Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre; it had for some time been my plan to leave my space here blank, except for my by­line. When it came down to the wire I found myself stretched on the inevitable prongs of contra­dictory responsibilities: on the one hand to the personnel of the production at the Mermaid, the readers of theatre reviews, and, if you like, to that timeless thing we call the drama; on the other, to the whole human race. In the final analysis the second preten­sion seemed, under the circum­stances, even more fallacious and self-aggrandizing than the first and I have chosen to aban­don it — I hope without prejudice to my conviction that the Worldwide General Strike is the fore­most creative idea toward our salvation that has been made public since the day the bomb went off on Hiroshima.” — Jerry Tallmer

“To the tinkle of drinks being served at comfortable chairs in Washington’s Shoreham Hotel overlooking Rock Creek Park­way, Theodore Flicker and his talented colleagues, Thomas Aldredge, Joan Darling, and James Frawley, have been delighting Washington’s theatre-goers since opening on January 15. Politics, government, and people take a wonderful spoofing, not without some poignant and ap­propriate barbs. Anybody pre­sent when this reviewer and his wife attended could see that this would be a rave notice. ‘It’s all so good I don’t know where to begin,’ was our comment. To which our wife replied: ‘Make that your lead!’ ” — John V. Lindsay

“Yclept ymote ymedieval yrane yvenge yterminable ymishmash­-metaphor message ygods.” — Jerry Tallmer

“THE FUNNIEST DEADPAN I’ve seen belongs to Vic Grecco. He and Fred Willard do a show which I saw at the Phase 2, and which is funnier than all but two in England. They told me they hadn’t got an agent. Somebody uptown should take his feet off the desk.” — Tom Stoppard

OBIES 1961–1962
“The virus had Lotte Lenya se­verely indisposed in Art D’Lu­goff’s private office at the Vil­lage Gate. More than 700 people were packed into the cavernous rathskeller on Saturday after­noon waiting to see her present the 1961–62 Village Voice Obie Awards. Brecht on Brecht press agent Howard Atlee rushed over to master-of-ceremonies Jerry Tallmer. ‘She’s got to go home,’ he said. Tallmer went into the office and told Miss Lenya: ‘You’ve got to go home.’ ‘I won’t,’ she said, white as a ghost. Then you’ve got to lie down.’ She lay down: Ten min­utes later… Miss Lenya was on stage graciously accepting the warm welcome of the audience.”

“The great off-Broadway boom of our era has been a rampa­geous conglomeration of glory and garbage; if you want to taste of the glory a little, go and know the living experience of Brendan Behan at One Sheridan Square. This is not the hot­house-forced, panic-shouted Be­han of The Quare Fellow (off Broadway) or the constrained, over-manipulated Behan of The Hostage (on Broadway). This is The Hostage come to Off Broad­way and Off Broadway come to perfect pitch in one of its few legitimate functions: the revival of important works, old or new, in less ornate and more honest productions than elsewhere.” — Jerry Tallmer

OBIES, 1961–1962
“James Earl Jones, 31, born Tate County, Mississippi, raised by his grandparents on a wilderness farm near Jackson, Michi­gan, the second of his family and first of his high school graduating class ever to go to college — premed at the University of Michigan — is the Best Actor of the off-Broadway season of 1961–62. He is the son of an actor and long-time Villager, Ro­bert Earl Jones.”

“We watch, we are pleased, en­tertained, excited, frightened­ — George C. Scott’s Shylock both excited and frightened me, the first Shylock that ever has — but we are not at the root of it deep­ly moved. We are not moved at all; we are neutralized. There are too many disparities, and too many equals. Yet within the dis­parity-neutrality there is a breathtaking powerhouse performance by Mr. Scott, making Shylock not merely a hurricane, figure, a titan, a crushed giant; but also a human truly torn by personal losses, personal trage­dy, and the great tragic tempta­tions of empty vengeance. And also a man of wit, terrible, trag­ic, vengeful wit. Very impressive. Not Jewish. More like an Orozco Christ, the lion bursting from his lair. With a head and visage not infrequently as from a rough-cut Michelangelo Pietá. Mr. Scott adds much to his stature as an actor with his contributions these summer evenings in Cen­tral Park.” — Jerry Tallmer

“The New York State Board of Regents’ attempt to censor the film of Jack Gelber’s play The Connection on the grounds of obscenity was unanimously overruled on Monday by the Ap­pellate Division of the State Su­preme Court. The Regents had objected to the word ‘shit’, which is used 11 times in the film as a colloquialism for heroin.”

“Do not be fooled by the appearances. Edward Albee has written a play about truth and illusion, and the evening’s number one illusion is that this is a conven­tional play — extraordinary in its emotional persistence, its vital language and coruscating wit, and its all-round technical supe­riority, but conventional and or­dinary in its form and devices. This is, I repeat, an illusion. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, subtly but critically, a new kind of play.” — Michael Smith

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“A symposium at 11 p.m. tonight (Thursday) at the Writers’ Stage Theatre, 83 East 4th Street, will consider the question ‘Is Off Broadway Still Free?’ Among those attending the symposium, which is open to the public, will be Stuart Vaughan, George Ta­bori, Madeleine Sherwood, Her­mione Baddeley, Alfred Ryder, and Edwin Harvey Blum, author of The Saving Grace, which is currently running at the theatre. The following night at the same time and place, Blum will con­duct an open meeting; its aim will be to form ‘a permanent organization to study ways and means to effectuate a continued fight for the freedom of Off-Broadway.’ Blum’s campaign was sparked by the ‘irresponsibility’ of major newspaper reviews of his play. ‘Off-Broadway,’ he says, ‘is one of our few forums for free expression. I am not doing this in regard to The Saving Grace, but in regard to a deep need by other writers.'”

“It is true that The Brig isn’t a play. Neither are all the events in the Judson dance concert series dances, nor are Jim Dine’s pictures paintings, nor in conventional terms are even John Cage’s compositions always music. But it is meaningless to criticize any of these works in terms they don’t use. The Brig uses a stage and (in a sense) actors and (in a sense) dialogue — but is does not use story, plot, character, conflict (in its technical meaning), or any of the other traditional devices of dramaturgy.” — Michael Smith

“Lawrence Kornfeld’s production of Gertrude Stein’s first play is pure lyric theatre, a direct lyrical experience which has no counterpart in logical words or concepts or ideas, and so there is not much I can say about it except that I expect to go a couple more times during its run at Judson Church, and I hope to see you there. I will briefly tell you that Kornfeld has taken Miss Stein’s open-minded words and made them into a visual anthem, if that makes any sense. He uses five girl dancers who move, act, and speak. The correspondences between the words and the actions are on some other level than sense or reason can determine, but un­questionably they exist. Every­thing that happens has the ca­sual inevitability of great art. In addition to the girls, Kornfeld has used four men as singers. One of them is Al Carmines, who has composed a delightful score that contains more tunes than My Fair Lady, and he plays it on the piano and sings and moves around all at the same time.” — Michael Smith

“The second in a series of read­ings by ‘jail poets’ — poets who have spent time in jail — will be given at 8:30 p.m. on Monday, September 9, at the Living Theatre, 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. Participant poets will be Taylor Mead, Jackson MacLow, Deane Mowrer, John Weiners, James Forest, Michael Graine, Philip Havey, Carl Einhorn, Ray Bremser (in absentia), and H. Lee Heagy. Tickets range from$1 to $5.”

“Every once in a while I am overcome by a morbid compul­sion to go see what they’re mak­ing into hits on Broadway. Don’t get me wrong: the urge seems neither morbid nor compulsive when it strikes me. In fact, I go with a sense of anticipation. It probably won’t be great art (I tell myself), but it’s sure to be fun. It won’t be deep or intellectually demanding (I condescendingly imagine), but it will certainly be pleasant and diverting. Well, welcome Barefoot in the Park (at the Biltmore) to the ranks of dull hits.” — Michael Smith

“Nobody ever expected the Liv­ing Theatre to die quietly. And after four frantic days — with events ranging from a melan­choly press conference through a bootleg performance of The Brig to 25 arrests — New York’s leading avant-garde playhouse; although stripped of physical premises and possessions, is still a living idea. On Sunday, while codirectors Julian Beck and Judith Malina were in feder­al prisons on charges of imped­ing federal officials in the perfor­mance of their duties, the physical assets of the Living Theatre were removed from the building at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue pending an auction toward payment of $23,000 ow­ing in back federal taxes. The Becks have always been news­worthy, but the daily newspa­pers have given them more cov­erage for their political activities — in protest against civil defense drills and as leaders of the General Strike for Peace — than for their artistic achievements. The latter have won them numerous prizes and the Voice recently described the Living Theatre as America’s ‘most original, profoundly ad­venturous, and persistently im­portant theatre institution.’ In this incarnation it persists no more.” — Michael Smith

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“Lanford Wilson’s fantasy-melo­drama is unusually effective cafe drama, and it is a pleasure to report that Wilson, who was earlier represented at the Cino by So Long at the Fair, has de­veloped his gift for vivid char­acter dialogue and somewhat re­strained his reliance on gimmicks. Home Free has its share of gimmicks, to be sure, but they are disciplined to the service of the plot. Although the play is neither subtle nor par­ticularly serious, it is inventive, exciting, and emotionally solid.” — Michael Smith

“Julian Beck and Judith Malina, directors of the Living Theatre, were indicted last week by a Federal grand jury on 11 felony counts, each carrying a maxi­mum sentence of three years and $5000 fine. The Becks are alleged to have impeded federal agents in the pursuit of their du­ties when the Living Theatre was closed by the Internal Rev­enue Service last October for nonpayment of nearly $30,000 in federal taxes. On receiving the indictment, Julian Beck said: ‘We are surprised and shocked that the grand jury is not able to differentiate between the devo­tion of artists to their art and criminal acts.’ ”

“I find it very odd that I can remember almost nothing of Ro­salyn Drexler’s Home Movies ex­cept the fact that I loved it.” — Michael Smith

“ ‘The human heart and the hu­man mind have to examine the rigidity of the law,’ Judith Ma­lina Beck told the jury last Fri­day. She was summing up her defense against charges that she, along with her husband, Julian Beck, impeded federal of­ficers in their seizure of the tax­-delinquent Living Theatre last October. On Monday, after five hours of deliberation, the jury of 11 men and one woman found the Becks guilty of impeding fed­eral officers and of ‘rescuing’ seized property. Beck was con­victed on five counts under the first charge and two under the second. Miss Malina was con­victed on two counts under the first charge and one under the second.” — Stephanie Harrington 

“Judith Malina and Julian Beck received individual prison sen­tences of 30 days and 60 days and the Living Theatre corpora­tion was fined $2500 by Judge Edmund L. Palmieri on Friday in Federal Court. The prison terms resulted from contempt charges leveled at the Becks on May 25, the day they were convicted of impeding federal officers during the closing of their theatre last October. At the final day of the trial Judith Malina repeatedly cried, ‘innocent!’ and accused Judge Palmieri of having caused the conviction; Julian Beck said then that the trial ‘demeaned and degraded’ the majesty of the nation.” — Michael Smith

“If service stripes could be given out to coffee-house owners for heroic behavior under fire from the city licensing department, then Ellen Stewart, the proprie­tress of La Mama Experimental Theatre, would have a box of ribbons and a chest full of Pur­ple Hearts. La Mama has sus­tained so many casualties in the coffee-house licensing war that it operates now as a private club and hides itself behind curtained store-front windows in a loft at 82 Second Avenue. In fact, La Mama is so well attended by re­presentatives of the police and fire departments that it could al­most be called a bootleg theatre; during performances Miss Stewart sits sentry-duty outside the door to make sure that stray policemen don’t interrupt the ac­tors.” — Sally Kempton

“I know it sounds pretentious and unprepossessing — Theatre Genesis at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bouwerie, dedicated to the new playwright — but they have actually found a new playwright, which is more than you can of­ten say for Broadway or Off-­Broadway. The playwright’s name is Sam Shepard, and I know nothing about him except that he has written a pair of provocative and genuinely origi­nal plays.… The plays are diffi­cult to categorize, and I’m not sure it would be valuable to try. Shepard is still feeling his way, working with an intuitive approach to language and dramat­ic structure and moving into an area between ritual and natural­ism, where character transcends psychology, fantasy breaks down literalism, and the patterns of ordinariness have their own lives. His is a gestalt theatre which evokes the existence be­hind behavior. Shepard clearly is aware of previous work in this mode, mostly by Europeans, but his voice is distinctly American and his own.” — Michael Smith

“Although LeRoi Jones’s two new plays are highly personal, almost private works, they are interpreted as political state­ments, public pronouncements, position papers on advanced in­tellectual, left-wing Negro think­ing. Dutchman, which last year brought Jones his first attention in the theatre, in one scarifying speech established Jones as an important Negro spokesman. His new plays — and the other plays he has written — have little to do with race problems except on the surface.” — Michael Smith

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“The Caffe Cino was destroyed by fire on Ash Wednesday morn­ing. The cafe at 31 Cornelia Street opened in December, 1958, and quickly became im­portant as New York’s most tenacious and active cafe theatre. For several years the Cino had been producing plays, changing the program every week, and an emphasis on original scripts had led to the discovery of several talented new playwrights.” — Michael Smith

“In addition to distributing hon­ors for distinguished achieve­ment, the judges of this year’s Obies made a citation for ‘dis­service to the modern theatre.’ The first such negative award — informally dubbed an ‘anti­-Obie’ — last season named the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. Walter Kerr, drama critic of the New York Herald Tribune, was singled out for this year’s citation. The text, read by judge Gordon Rogoff during Obie cere­monies at the Village Gate on Saturday, follows: ‘In recogni­tion of outstanding disservice to the modern theatre: For his de­termined resistance to the works of Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, O’Casey, Brecht, Sartre, Ionesco, Genet, and Beckett; and for turning his skills instead to the promotion and maintenance of a commod­ity theatre without relevance to dramatic art — Walter Kerr.’ ”

“The Caffe Cino, 31 Cornelia Street, reopened on Tuesday evening. The cafe theatre had been ravaged by a fire in March, and several benefit perfor­mances were given by various theatres to raise money for its reconstruction. The cafe was re­built on the same premises and will continue its traditional poli­cies. H. M. Koutoukas’s play With Creatures Make My Way will play at the Cino this week and next. Elizabeth Davison plays the single role, and the play has been directed by Ro­berta Sklar. Performances are at approximately 9 and 11 nightly, with additional 1 a.m. perfor­mances on Friday and Saturday.”

“The Open Theatre has burst onto the scene with intelligent, spirited, and idiosyncratic work. After preparing in close for a year and half, the group — 30 ac­tors, four directors, and four af­filiated playwrights, under a three-man directorate — has been doing a series of alternate Monday Evening performances at the Sheridan Square Play­house. I have seen the three most recent productions and can only rejoice that the group has come out in the open. It is the most engaging theatre to be seen in New York. Praise to the directorate (Joseph Chaikin, Peter Feldman, Sydney Schubert Walter) as the inspiration and driving force; praise to the members for solid and frequently brilliant manifestation of the in­spiration; praise to them all for achieving, in such short order, an ensemble with a definite style.” — Robert Pasolli

“For those of you who are busy people, facts first, implications later. (And by facts I mean, of course, nothing closer to the truth than my opinions.) Sam Shepard is one of the youngest and most gifted of the new playwrights working Off-Broad­way these days. The signature of his work is its unencumbered spontaneity — the impression Shepard gives of inventing drama as a form each time he writes a play. His new theatre piece, Icarus’s Mother, is pres­ently on view at the Caffe Cino. Sad to say, it gives the impression of being a mess.” — Edward Albee

“Cafe La Mama received a sum­mons last week requiring exten­sive electrical repairs, and BbAaNnGg! was the result. Twenty-six brief plays, all by different authors, were given to help Ellen Stewart raise the needed cash. Each play was limited to three minutes; there were no other specifications. The responses to this challenge indicated some of the ways the newest generation of New York playwrights are thinking.” — Michael Smith

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“Dustin Hoffman is superb as Zoditch, the reader. He is furiously caught up in a comedy of madness, becoming hateful, loathsome, Hitlerian, grotesque, but always both funny and unexpectedly human.” — Michael Smith

“Readings, dances, and music will be given tonight (Thursday) at Judson Memorial Church in memory of Fred Herko, the dancer and choreographer who last week jumped to his death from a sixth-floor window on Cornelia Street. Herko was a prominent member of the Judson Dance Theatre. LeRoi Jones, Frank O’Hara, Diane di Prima, and Allan Marlow will read; Phoebe Neville, Deborah Lee, and Arlene Rothlein will dance; and music by John Herbert McDowell and Al Carmines will be performed beginning at 6 p.m. at the church, 55 Washington Square South.”

“Maria Irene Fornes could use four-letter words at a tea party (and might if it seemed natural at the moment) without ever being accused of not being a lady. She is unassuming, little — ­cute, even, though she probably wouldn’t react well to the word. Or maybe she’d like it. She’s not predictable. She has what is called a nice face — open, fair-­skinned against a frame of short, dark hair, slightly freck­led, with big, brown eyes that might be described as frank, ex­cept that they don’t tell you a thing about what’s going on be­hind them. It’s the kind of face that makes you feel comfortable in a room full of strangers.” — Stephanie Harrington

“This is more like it. For months now I’ve been wondering where the action is. The Judson had it for a while and maybe they’ll get it again, and there have been flashes of the real thing at La Mama, Caffe Cino, and at a few other places. But take my word for it, there’s nothing in town as lively and inventive and mad and just plain entertaining as the show the Theatre of the Ridicu­lous is putting on at its theatre ­loft on West 17th Street.” — Joseph LeSeuer 

Viet Rock, which the Open Theatre presented two weeks ago at Cafe La Mama, was ex­traordinary on at least two counts. It is the first realized theatrical statement about the Vietnam war that I have seen and a rare instance of theatre confronting issues broader than individual psychology. And it is the first time the special ensem­ble techniques of the Open Theatre, developed during sever­al years of workshop sessions, have been fully applied and used for a purpose.” — Michael Smith


“As three views of the U.S.A., these plays are of little inter­est… The members of the Open Theatre have devoted themselves so wholeheartedly to exploring the nonverbal aspects of theatre that they’ve over­looked the words themselves… We’ll have to suspend judg­ment, as they apparently did, until they find a play worthy of their talents.” — Ross Wetzsteon

“…to America Hurrah…”

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“Al Pacino gives a fascinating performance, all cool, fluid, swaggering mannerisms, as graceful and gratuitous as smoke. But what I liked best was the subtlety of his broadness, the naturalness of his fakery­ — years ago, actors adopted the mannerisms of hoods, and now the mannerisms have returned to the hoods by way of the mov­ies.” — Ross Wetzsteon

(The first nudity Off-Broadway):
“When I briefly fantasized that Pauline had clothes on, I realized that my basic, undistracted reaction to the play itself was an atavistic urge to scratch dirt over it with my paws. But of course Pauline was naked, ex­cept for a few adroitly misplaced turkey feathers, and the play was just a vehicle (or rather, since it was virtually immobile, a dais) for her buoyant figure. By way of acting, Pauline shifted her weight from time to time, but didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands. I understand there was some talk of arrests on opening night, but I don’t think Pauline had to worry — I mean she didn’t do anything dirty like playing the cello… Ed Wode deserves credit for bringing a wholly new audience to the Off-Off-Broadway theatre. De pudendum non est disputandum.” — Ross Wetzsteon

“It suddenly occurred to me, when I realized that a radical black would probably find the work of the Performance Group irrelevant, to what extent the Dionysiac appeal (and menace) is essentially a middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, anti-Puritanical phenomenon. Group therapy cum Esalen? Utopia as sexual rather than a political ideal? The children of Brown rather than Marcuse? A rather peripheral revolution to anyone but a certain kind of American. Still, a revolution, and a staggering piece of theatre. The difference between the Living Theatre and the Performance Group is the difference between religion and therapy. An interesting thing about the Performance Group is that one feels that acting in Dionysus for several months had been good for them. It’d be good for pretty much all of us, for that matter. Still, I can’t help thinking that there’s an odd disjuncture between the method of the per­formance (releasing and the orgiastic) and the themes of the play (self-acknowledgment and the tragedy of excess) that throws its conclusions slightly off balance, as if the bulk of their commitment is to half a dialectic.” — Ross Wetzsteon

THE ’70s

“Leaving aside the economic and social causes, Broadway died (and it has died — what we have left is a mumble) because its practitioners started believing their own myths. The joy of appearing on The Great White Way, the splendor of having your name up in lights, the excitement, the struggle, the sense of belonging among the insiders, all started out as frank hokum — and, like the artists, the public knew that the myth was half to be taken seriously, like all good hokum… Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line is a show about the kids and the myth. It never questions the assumptions of the myth, which is a major drawback, but its creators have taken pains to be accurate to the lives of the people who worship at the shrine of Broadway, with the result that the show is built around a very hard kernel of truth and genuine feeling. It’s perfect, too, that A Chorus Line should be created at the Public Theatre, on public money, as living proof that the entrepreneurial side of Broadway can no more be depended on these days than the artistic side. A Chorus Line is, in effect, the last Broadway musical.” — Michael Feingold

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“Theres a new generation of unheralded playwrights about to burst forth with major works, but only David Mamet has done work worthy of major critical recognition at this point, and recognition not so much for his plays as for the potential they represent, especially in his careful, gorgeous, loving sense of language. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that at the age of 28 Mamet is the most promising American playwright to have emerged in the ’70s and that he has the most acute ear for dia­logue of any American writer since J. D. Salinger.” — Ross Wetzsteon 

“Meryl Streep came to Manhat­tan last September, fresh from her MFA Yale Rep, a summer at the O’Neill, and not much else. Nearly upon arrival, she was playing the ingenue lead in the Lincoln Center production of Trelawny of the Wells, landing a major part in 27 Wagonloads of Cotton at the Phoenix, following this with a jewel of a Southern Belle in the Phoenix’s revival of Secret Service… In nine months, Meryl Streep has be­come a leading lady; it will not take much longer before she is a certified star.” — Terry Curtis Fox 

“It’s pure delight to have a laugh without checking my spirit at the door and to enjoy a musical diversion in which first-rate singing and dancing aren’t wasted on some dumb vehicle. As usual the jokes are sexist, but this time the real joke’s on them. Eve Merriam’s piece is lighthearted, not featherbrained, charming but not corrupt. It’s about men without being meaner to them than they deserve. It’s aware of class and race. And it manages simultaneously to use and satirize current tastes.… What I liked about the play’s feminism is that it’s taken for granted as the rational point of view, and male sexism as ab­surd. Women surely will find The Club funny. So should their male friends, lovers, and colleagues. As for those other men, I hope it makes them horribly uncomfort­able to be among the few not laughing.” — Erika Munk


“Not to mince words, Maria Irene Fornes’s rich, astonishing play, Fefu and Her Friends, seems to me the only essential thing the New York theatre has added to our cultural life in the past year. I first saw the play last spring, when the New York Theatre Strategy produced it in a SoHo loft; seeing it again, in the visually enhanced and partly recast production at the Ameri­can Place Theatre, I realized that it’s been in my mind since that first performance, as inevi­table a part of my cultural furni­ture as Bach’s ‘Air for the G String’ or Seurat’s La Grande Jatte — one of those works that, on first hearing or viewing, you recognize immediately as being part of you.” — Michael Feingold 

“One ad for The Shaggy Dog Animation is a photo of Lee Breuer kissing his husky, tongue to tongue, his hands holding her paw. Another ad is more myste­rious: just the dog’s head, her eyes showing almost nothing but white; perhaps she’s dead, per­haps staring off at an odd angle of vision. These are precise images of the play, for Shaggy Dog is about romantic love, and all Mabou Mines’s animations breathe into dead forms, inert ideas, and inanimate objects. They are also plays on words, grand extensions of punning. Shaggy Dog is rather shaggy­-doggish in form — long, superfi­cially rambling, with a nice sense of the absurd. All the ani­mations are about animals, and all use the quick cuts and violent juxtapositions of cartoons. Red Horse concerns journeys, bur­dens, speed style, and nerves; B. Beaver portrays the construct­ing mammal — a damming up, and damned species. Shaggy Dog is about ‘a species of devo­tion’ — itchy, groveling, and hopeless.” — Erika Munk 

“Harvey Fierstein’s Fugue in a Nursery continues the adven­tures of a character I always see as Arnold the Gay — not an Arth­urian knight but the hero of Fier­stein’s earlier one-act The Inter­national Stud. Not your typical Everygay, either, Arnold is a fic­tional reflection of his author: professional transvestite, Brook­lyn-Jewish street wit, and, at heart, a sentimental naif. Looked at another way, Arnold is a gay analogue of Krazy Kat, the straight world his Offissa Pup, and his Ignatz Maus — the love object who retaliates with bricks — is that most confused of men, the Closet Case. Like its worthy predecessor, Fierstein’s work is trifling and cartooned, but it is also honest, precise, and funny — major virtues in a time when even homosexuality is mass-marketed as a product… Fierstein’s voice still re­minds me of a Brooklyn high­ schooler in a machine shop, learning the many uses of the rasp; but being Arnold, only he can do the character justice.” — Michael Feingold