Off-Broadway Theater

Off-Broadway developed as an alternative to Broadway, one that would free the creative possibilities of the stage from commercialism. It came into its own in the 1960s and 1970s, with important productions and serious attention from drama critics and the public alike. As early as 1961, the New Yorker magazine appointed Edith Oliver its Off-Broadway reviewer. Composed of a loose configuration of theaters scattered throughout Manhattan, the houses, many of them well appointed, seat between 100 and 299 viewers. They now offer a middle range of ticket prices and talent that may at other times be found on Broadway or in films. Among OffBroadway’s major contributions have been audience development, new financial paradigms, a second chance for failed plays, and the freedom for talent to develop.

Off-Broadway has its roots in the art theater movement. Two theaters served as important pioneers. The Provincetown Players, born in a shack on a wharf in Cape Cod, settled in Greenwich Village in 1916, where it remained until its demise in 1929. Devoted to American playwriting, it was amateur by design, as a remedy for what was perceived as stagnant, mannered playwriting and acting; but it could boast some of the most interesting minds of the decade—among others, its founders George Cram Cook, a classicist, and his wife, Susan Glaspell, feminist and novelist turned playwright; Eugene O’Neill, who later won the Nobel Prize in literature; poet Edna St. Vincent Millay; designer Robert Edmond Jones; and journalists John Reed and Edmund Wilson. The other pioneering group, the Washington Square Players, established in 1915, grew out of a reading group at the Liberal Club in Greenwich Village. Determined to produce the best plays, European and American, it championed modern playwrights like Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw, and Maurice Maeterlinck. Some of the members regrouped after World War I and named themselves the Theatre Guild. Under the direction of Lawrence Langner, a lawyer; Maurice Wertheim, a banker; Lee Simonson, a set designer; and Theresa Helburn, its executive director, the Guild dedicated itself to raising the artistic standards of the nation by fostering talent and producing serious European and America plays.

Off-Broadway officially began in 1950 with two exciting new ventures: The Circle in the Square Theatre, like the Provincetown, originated within a community of theater people living communally—in Woodstock, New York. Upon moving to Greenwich Village, they shared apartments in adjacent brownstones off Sheridan Square. Cofounders José Quintero and Theodore Mann believed in a new, intuitive approach to American drama. Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke had failed on Broadway in 1948; their 1952 revival became Off-Broadway’s first hit. It demonstrated the value of the more intimate arenatype stage, and Quintero claimed that poverty had freed the theater from a reliance on solid sets and realistic props, and that the bare stage challenged the imagination of the audience. Their second success, a 1956 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, which had received mixed reviews at its premiere in 1946, initiated an O’Neill revival and introduced actor Jason Robards Jr. The Circle in the Square was the first American theater to produce Jean Genet’s The Balcony, an absurdist comedy about working-class men acting out their ambitions in a brothel and then assuming these roles—as Bishop, Executioner, and General—in real life. It was typical of the new experimental European dramas that would influence generations of American playwrights. In 1969, the success of Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, which had failed on Broadway a year earlier, proved that more than luck was involved. The Circle in the Square had a knack for attracting talent: Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, James Earl Jones, Dustin Hoffman, Geraldine Page, and George Segal were all Circle actors. It was this sort of theatrical intelligence that made the Circle in the Square one of the most important companies in America.

Joseph Papp, who founded the New York Shakespeare Festival and the New York Public Theatre, was another great Off-Broadway innovator. In 1956, he initiated a truck tour of free Shakespeare plays through New York neighborhoods and thus changed the face of theater. His mission was twofold: to bring Shakespeare to the disenfranchised and those priced out of the big houses and to create a new American style of Shakespearean acting, which would combine classical acting and the Stanislavsky Method (see Actors Studio). Clowning, unusual casting choices, and a mixture of the contemporary with the historical would become its trademarks—soldiers in armor might be watching television in camp. Papp championed colorblind casting and ethnic perspectives, encouraging inner-city actors to find their distinctive voices. He also welcomed big-name actors, who had moved from the stage to film—once a one-way route—back to Off-Broadway. In 1962, he moved his free summer Shakespeare productions into the new Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. In 1967, he rented the Astor Place Library from New York City for $1 and opened five theater spaces. Successful shows, like Michael Bennett’s musical A Chorus Line (originally an Off-Broadway workshop production based on anecdotes shared by dancers), which transferred to Broadway in 1975 and ran for almost 15 years, were used to fund experiments, new playwrights, and other fiscal gambles. Two Public Theatre productions, No Place to Be Somebody by Charles Gordone, an AfricanAmerican playwright, and Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, won Pulitzer Prizes in consecutive years, 1970 and 1971. Two years later, another Public Theatre play, Jason Miller’s That Championship Season, won the Tony, Pulitzer, and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards after it relocated to Broadway. An early version of Hair, a rock musical about the hippie generation and the Vietnam draft written by Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni, and James Rado and directed by Tom O’Horgan, was staged by the Public in 1967 before it moved to the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway, where it played for four years.

The Merchant of Venice at the New York Shakespeare Festival, 1962, production photograph/

The Roundabout Theatre, which now has a Broadway house, is another Off-Broadway success story. Founded in 1965 by Gene Feist in the basement of a Chelsea supermarket, it garnered praise as a first-rate revival house. As it changed locations and its subscription base grew to become the second largest in the country, it added contemporary drama to its season. In 1991, it moved into the Criterion Center on Broadway and is currently housed in the new American Airlines Theater on 42nd Street. In the early 21st century, it had plays running at four different locations and a new American play program.

A major contribution of the Off-Broadway movement was the growth of audience-specific theater. Yiddish drama was an early-20th-century forerunner of this movement, a tradition continued by the Folksbeine (with headset translations) and English-language groups like the Jewish Repertory Theatre, Jewish Theatre of New York, and the American Jewish Theatre. During the 1960s, a new wave of audience-specific theaters was born. Although they began Off-OffBroadway, they were envisioned as alternatives to commercial theater and, for the most part, quickly moved to larger houses, thanks in part to an increase in government and corporate funding. They were established not only to speak for a targeted community but also to develop the talent pool. They have been a catalyst in nontraditional casting in the commercial worlds of stage and screen.

The Latin community, separated from the theater mainstream by language, established three theaters that have become New York institutions (see Hispanic drama). Like the Public Theatre, the Puerto Rican Traveling Company, formed in 1967 by actor Miriam Colon and her husband, George P. Edgar, began by touring the city. It still tours but makes its permanent home in the theater district. Repertorio Español was founded by Gilberto Zaldivar and René Buch in 1968, and Intar Hispanic American Arts Center, whose projects include sophisticated funding collaborations between playwrights and composers, began in 1966 under the guidance of Max Ferra. These theaters are important not just for audience development and as a venue for new bilingual voices but also because they are links to Spanish-language theater around the world. Other ethnic Off-Broadway theater includes the Irish Arts Center, the Irish Repertory Theatre, and the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, founded by Tisa Chang in 1973, which presents new works as well as new perspectives on classic works.

African-American drama has existed since the 19th century, but it was long limited by segregation to African-American venues. In the early 20th century, African-American actors were typecast in plays written by whites when the roles were not played by whites in blackface, but the production of The Blacks by Jean Genet at St. Marks Playhouse in 1961 initiated a new movement. The play is a trial after the rape and murder of a white woman. All the actors were African Americans. Many wore bizarre white masks. The court was presided over by a queen, a judge, a missionary, and other officials. There were confrontations with the audience (who were usually white) about racist attitudes. It was visceral ritualistic drama, an emotional purging. Running for a record 1,408 performances and employing hundred of actors, The Blacks provided the impetus for the formation of African-American theater troupes, like the Negro Ensemble Company. Founded in 1967 by African-American actor Robert Hooks, African-American playwright/ director Douglas Turner Ward, and white businessman Gerald S. Krone, it produced important plays, such as Joseph A. Walker’s The River Niger (1973) and Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play (1981). The shortlived New Lafayette Players (1967–73) were based in Harlem. Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre, established in 1970, has experienced some rocky years and many relocations but is still producing.

Although the rise of Off-Broadway coincided with the women’s movement, it is still surprising that there are more than two dozen women’s theater groups in New York. One of the earliest was the Interart Theatre, founded by Margo Lewin in 1969 at the Women’s Interart Center. The most visible is the Women’s Project and Production, founded by Julia Miles in 1978 in a spare room of the American Playhouse. The WOW (Women’s One World) Café, a women-only collective, was founded in 1980 by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver. The Women’s Shakespeare Company offers all-female casting, while Judith Shakespeare Company follows nontraditional casting. The Looking Glass Theatre revives neglected masterpieces written by women. Because of budget and size, some of these are contractually Off-Off-Broadway houses.

Off-Broadway has proven itself indispensable. By the early 1970s, it was creating the most exciting theater in New York, and the shows were enjoying commercial success. The Threepenny Opera, a musical written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, opened at the Theatre de Lys in 1955 and ran for more than six years. The Fantasticks, the first Off-Broadway musical hit, which opened in 1960, ran for more than 40 years. Off-Broadway companies were the first to produce avant-garde plays, especially those by Genet and the absurdists, who inspired new generations of American playwrights, such as Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit, Maria Irene Fornés, and Tina Howe. There were also other homegrown Off-Broadway playwrights: Wendy Wasserstein, Terrence McNally, A. R. Gurney, Craig Lucas, David Henry Hwang, John Guare, and Adrienne Kennedy. Actors Frank Langella, Faye Dunaway, Al Pacino, Christopher Reeve, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Hal Holbrook, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Holly Hunter, Joel Grey, and Glenn Close were among the many talents who first appeared Off-Broadway. The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, and Pulitzer Prize committees include Off-Broadway in their awards, and in 1955 the Village Voice created its own Off-Broadway awards, the Obies.

As Broadway presents fewer and fewer plays (as opposed to costly and lucrative musicals) and relatively few new plays, Off-Broadway has increasingly become the place where serious drama can be seen in New York. Producers and critics pay serious attention to Playwrights Horizons, the Manhattan Theatre Club, the Atlantic Theatre Company (founded by playwright/director David Mamet and actor William H. Macy in 1983), and Lincoln Center (one of whose stages is now eligible for Tony Awards as a Broadway house). The Signature Theatre Company often has dedicated a full season to a contemporary playwright. The Pearl Theatre Company has loyal audiences and is affiliated with educational programs to train the next generation. Many of these theaters have stayed true to their mission, but the New York Public Theater, now under the direction of Oskar Eustis remains the leader in bridging the gap between Broadway and Off-Broadway, by creating some productions that move uptown while remaining committed to cuttingedge theater.

Little, Stuart W. Off-Broadway: The Prophetic Theater. New York: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1972. Price, Julia S. The Off-Broadway Theater. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962.
Source: Publishing, I., 2010. The Facts On File Companion to American Drama. New York: Infobase Pub.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: