Off-Off-Broadway Theater

Off-Off-Broadway is the experimental edge of New York theater. If Broadway is about commercial runs, and Off-Broadway today is about new voices and revivals, then Off-OffBroadway is about theater as performance, an affective experience. Jerry Talmer, writing for the Village Voice, coined the phrase “Off-Off-Broadway” in 1960 to identify the new creative approach. Although centralized in the adjacent neighborhoods of the East Village and SoHo, the theaters may also be found in other outlying areas. The venues are professional performance spaces, converted storefronts, old school buildings, basements, or rooms adjoining bars or restaurants. Actors’ Equity defines an Off-Off-Broadway theater contractually as any house with fewer than 100 seats. Budgets are low, and the quality of the work is uneven. Off-Off-Broadway is where the hopeful and the talented learn their craft. Audiences are mostly young and adventurous, and ticket prices are sometimes little more than the cost of a movie.

The movement was born in the late 1950s in the East Village, an area where artists had clustered because of the low rents, the colorful ethnic neighborhood, and the easy accessibility to the cultural spots of Manhattan. Although still evolving, Off-Broadway was becoming an institution where making theater required planning and financing. Almost spontaneously, small venues began welcoming impromptu performances, and from this a new audience emerged. The challenge was putting it all together on a shoestring; perhaps because of that, Off-Off-Broadway offered an intoxicating freedom to those who had been denied admission to their creative fields. Soon there were dedicated playwrights and performers at places like Caffé Cino, a coffeehouse that was founded in 1958 by Joe Cino, an ex-dancer with a taste for the flamboyant. He invited his customers to use the space to display their art. Performing artists were paid by passing the hat. For the next 10 years, the Cino would produce a new play every other week. Most of the playwrights have vanished, but Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard went on to Broadway. Ellen Stewart, a West Indian clothing designer, was another seminal figure. She founded what eventually became known as the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in a basement in 1961 because a friend could not get his play produced. Stewart used her own funds to keep the theater alive and allowed poor artists to camp out in her apartment. La MaMa had to keep relocating because of fire code violations, but it eventually found a permanent home containing several performance spaces in the East Village.

Churches were critical to the early success of the movement. Ministers saw drama as a way to unite or build a community. The Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village dedicated a room to poetry readings. In 1961, the participants formed the Judson Poets’ Theatre, which became known for its musicals. Reverend Al Carmines, an assistant minister and composer, became well known for his Off-Off-Broadway chamber musicals, a genre he created. Recognizing that theater could be an integral part of the everyday life of the East Village community, Ralph Cook formed Theatre Genesis in St. Mark’s in the Bowery. The American Place Theatre, devoted to new plays about rarely broached social problems, began in St. Clement’s Church in the Clinton area of Manhattan. It, in turn, offered a room to a small venture, the Women’s Project and Production Company under the direction of Julia Miles, which has grown into an OffBroadway company (now simply called the Women’s Project) dedicated to developing the careers of women in theater. Robert Kalfin’s now defunct Chelsea Theatre Center (CTC) found homes in several churches before moving to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The CTC was dedicated to new American voices, like that of Amiri Baraka in Slave Ship (1969), a wrenching drama about the Middle Passage, and to modern European dramas by authors like Federico García Lorca and Edward Bond, whose Saved takes a hard look at the British working class. To their credit, none of these churches censored any of the plays, although as the Off-Off-Broadway impetus grew, the subject matter became more daring.

Off-Off-Broadway theaters fall roughly into three categories: the coffeehouses and cafes where impromptu or no-budget presentations are staged, especially during a work’s early phase; performancebased groups, which adopt the text as inspiration for multimedia or social consciousness-raising work; and companies that are shoestring miniatures of OffBroadway, often committed to either revivals or new American plays. Representative of the latter is the Circle Repertory Theatre, located off Sheridan Square and founded by playwright Lanford Wilson, director Marshall W. Mason, and actors Rob Thirkield and Tanya Berezin in 1969 to serve the new American dramatist. The emphasis was on lyrical realism and ensemble acting. Wilson’s Hot l Baltimore (1973), 5th of July (1978), and Talley’s Folly (1979), as well as Albert Innaurato’s Gemini (1977) and Jules Feiffer’s Knock, Knock (1976), enjoyed highly successful runs (Circle Rep closed in 1996). The Circle Stage Company, devoted to updated productions of classical dramas, is now known as CSC (Classical Stage Company). It has flourished and seen its artistic directors, like Sharon Ott and David Esbjornson, move on to other successes. In this category, the distinction between Off- and Off-Off-Broadway is budgetary. Manhattan Theatre Club (founded 1970), Playwrights Horizons, WPA, and Hudson Guild Theatre, similar companies dedicated to new American and contemporary drama, are considered Off-Broadway companies. However, the Mint Theatre Company, as an example, has produced admirable revivals of underappreciated American plays, works on smaller budgets, and has retained the Off-Off-Broadway label.

Still from Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights/Archie Kent

The irreverent spirit of Off-Off-Broadway—the consciousness that continues to define the category—originated with the Living Theatre and was expanded upon by companies like the Performance Group and the Open Theater. These troupes insisted on new freedoms with the text: the right to interpose or omit scenes, to rewrite dialogue and reshape characters. They—and their modern representatives—adapted novels, letters, and biographies in order to comment on a time period or a contemporary theme. Often the creators were inspired by obscure pieces. The text became secondary to the actors and directors, even to dancers and designers. Many of the presentations were multimedia, open collaborations of creative minds. Dance, theater games, improvisation, and innovative visual and sound effects were all welcome.

Although Judith Malina and Julian Beck created the Living Theatre in 1946, well before Off-Off-Broadway was a movement, it was more a forerunner of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway movement than a component of the Off-Broadway movement. Malina and Beck wanted to investigate and extend the boundaries of theatrical expression. Their first productions were with nontraditional scripts, a Japanese Noh play and Gertrude Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights. In 1959, they staged Jack Gelber’s The Connection, about heroin addicts waiting for their supplier. Blurring the border between reality and drama, cast members mingled with the spectators before and after the performance, some demanding handouts or staging confrontations. After touring Europe from 1963–68, they returned with a new style. FrankenStein, based loosely on Mary Shelley’s novel, was an allegory about primal forces set loose in a repressed world. The actors hung on a grid, forming the outline of the creature with their bodies, and acted out aspects of his appetites and experiences. After performances of Paradise Now (1968), in which the cast and spectators mingled in the acting space, audiences were encouraged to continue the sensory as well as political revolution—an overthrow of repressive social and political systems— in the streets.

Richard Schechner, a professor at New York University and editor of The Drama Review (formerly, the Tulane Drama Review), maintains that in his “environmental” theater, there is no artificial demarcation between audience space and stage; instead, all the space is for both the performers and the audience. The pieces were staged in “found” (nontraditional) venues, often with the audience participating. The first production of his Performance Group was Dionysus in 69 (1968), an adaptation of The Bacchae, with some text from Antigone and Hippolytus mixed in. It was performed as a series of rituals, including a reenactment of birth in which the actors were nude. In 1970, Commune incorporated the violence of Vietnam and Charles Manson into a textual mix of elements from the Bible, 16th-century English drama, and 19th-century American literature. Schechner’s production of Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime (1973) illustrates the conflicting visions of the Off-Off-Broadway community. Schechner felt free, as a theater innovator, to modify the script about an aging rock star who has to confront a younger challenger for his territory, but Shepard was distressed to find his work altered and reinterpreted without his consent.

Joseph Chaikin, an alumnus of the Living Theatre and founder of the Open Theater, experimented with theater games and the collaborative creation of a performance piece. The early work of Mabou Mines, a 1969 collective directed by Lee Breuer, relied primarily on visual images and movement, although they have since produced work inspired by literature. The Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, founded in 1968 by Richard Foreman, has adapted theoretical scientific texts as well as American classics for precisely organized visuals and movements. The emphasis is on process, invention, and audience reactions, not on plot, character, or logic. The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, founded in 1967 by Charles Ludlam, was technically an Off-Broadway house, but its campy versions of science fiction and classical literature were designed to alter perceptions of reality and gender— as well as to entertain.

The early years of Off-Off-Broadway introduced an explicitness about sexuality, politics, ethnicity, feminism, and alternative lifestyles. Off-Off-Broadway also nurtured many fine performers: Al Pacino, Judd Hirsch, Nick Nolte, Bernadette Peters, Robert De Niro, and Raul Julia. Playwrights obsessed with national themes emerged: Sam Shepard, whose plays reworked American myths, and David Rabe, who took a hard look at the generation that had returned from Vietnam.

Today, Off-Off-Broadway is thriving, thanks in part to the many academic drama departments and acting schools that have created a new generation of practitioners. It is best represented by the Fringe Theatre Festival, a 12-day celebration in late August offering more than 200 activities in 20 downtown spaces all within 15 blocks. Tens of thousands of people attend, attracted by low ticket prices; almost round-the-clock shows, representing 17 states and 12 countries; and side attractions, like Fringe Jr. for children, parkinglot Shakespeare, a life-size chess game, workshops, readings, and art exhibits. In the true spirit of OffOff-Broadway, proposals are judged for their vibrancy, innovation, and diversity. The goal of the festival is to unite the next generation of theater artists and to increase public awareness and support.

Off-Broadway Theater

Bottoms, Stephen. Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off Broadway Movement. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. Crespy, David A. Off-Off Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960s Ignited a New American Theatre. New York: Back Stage Books, 2003. Little, Stuart W. Off-Broadway: The Prophetic Theater. New York: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1972. Rodriguez, Eve, ed. New York on Stage. New York: Theatre Development Fund, 1991. Stone, Wendell C. Caffe Cino: The Birthplace of Off-Off Broadway. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.
Source: Publishing, I., 2010. The Facts On File Companion to American Drama. New York: Infobase Pub.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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