The primary Stages Off-Broadway Oral history Project

Celebrating the visionaries who created New York's vibrant Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater.

MUSINGS

Posted Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Off-Broadway Oral History Project
by: Casey Childs
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FROM THE STAGE

Posted Thursday, March 2, 2017

Working the Cino
by: Robert Patrick
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FROM THE HOUSE

Posted Thursday, March 2, 2017

Casting about Off-Broadway
by: Rosemarie Tichler
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FUTURE FORWARD

The Off-Broadway Oral History Project

Posted Thursday, March 2, 2017
by: Casey Childs

THE FABULOUS MISS MARIE, by Ed Bullins, at the New Lafayette Theatre on 134th Street and 7th Avenue was my first exposure to Off-Broadway. It was February of 1971 and I was on tour with a group of teens from an aggressively progressive church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. On that and subsequent trips, I also saw the original HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES, by John Guare, at the Truck and Warehouse Theatre (now the home of the New York Theatre Workshop on East 4 th Street) and THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, both at the Mercer Arts Center in the University Hotel on lower Broadway, a building that later collapsed.

Thus began my romance with the possibilities of New York’s Off, Off-Off and alternative theatre.

While at Carnegie-Mellon, I made many pilgrimages to New York to attend Off-Broadway shows, and on their tours to Pittsburgh I saw performances by both the Living Theatre and Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. I arrived in New York City to stay in December 1980. After three and a half years working at New Dramatists, I founded Primary Stages and my cosmic fate was sealed.

I have always had a curiosity with the people who create theatre out of pure passion and, like many artists, I have always been frustrated by the sad, ephemeral nature of producing plays. I have also had a lifelong yearning to capture these artists, these ideas, these histories and preserve them in some way. Much like productions themselves, the memories of these companies and artists fade with time. It seems inevitable that my curiosity would eventually manifest itself in the creation of the Primary Stages Off-Broadway Oral History Project, housed by this new website called OFF-CENTER.

The possibilities of this oral history project have been circling around in my imagination for years. During my stint as a vice president of the Directors Guild of America, I learned how invaluable a digital archive could be. There is a great dearth of first-hand information about the creation of Off-Broadway. There are plenty of recorded interviews with the likes of Joe Papp and Ellen Stewart, but little else (except printed interviews in newspapers and journals) with the hundreds of artists and managers who pioneered this movement. I originally approached several libraries and arts support groups with the idea for a digitally-recorded oral history project. They all saw the need for such an archive, but none of them would get involved in the creation of such. Finally Sally Plass, a longtime friend and collaborator, committed in 2014 to helping make this Off-Broadway Oral History Project a reality. Primary Stages agreed to host it and the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation, Michael and Janet Schlossberg, and Anne Bernstein stepped forward with the much needed start-up funding.

These interviews that comprise Primary Stages Off-Broadway Oral History Project here at OFF-CENTER intend to be more archival than entertaining, although at their best they are highly entertaining and enlightening. We have broken many of the rules of classic oral history procedures along the way, but we are committed to the idea of recording everything the subject has to say, and we only edit if we take a break in the interview or if our participant later requested something be cut. Sometimes our interviewees get a name or date wrong or forget altogether. When that happens, we just encourage them to move on. We value accuracy, but facts can and should be double-checked at a later date if they are to be quoted. These innovators have worked on numerous shows with numerous people, and they often cannot recall every detail in the moment.

What is important in oral history is getting interviewees to talk freely, to not self-censor too much, and to not just give succinct or rehearsed answers to the questions. By talking, they reveal themselves and the chaotic and vibrant world of early Off-Broadway. The power of every interview is in the richness of the details, in the atmosphere the subjects evoke, in their commitment to share their stories with every tiny nuance and shading. Many of our interviewees commented afterwards on how they had not thought about some of these events in years and were surprised that many of these memories still lived inside them. I found myself maturing as an interviewer with every history we recorded. I got much better about pulling myself back, resisting the need to correct them or help them with an answer. In our earliest ventures, I made some embarrassing guesses while trying to answer for them.

Every interview has four basic parts:

1.) Where did they grow up and who were their early influences?
2.) What was their training, if any, and when did they move to New York City? And what did they remember about New York City and Off-Broadway at that time?
3.) What were their career highlights, their accomplishments, their failures, their passions, their regrets?
4.) Where do they see Off-Broadway going from here?

When we use the term Off-Broadway in our title, we use it as a catch-all phrase covering Off, Off-Off and alternative theatre. New York City has always had a tradition of non-Broadway theatre, and we cover both not-for-profit and commercial ventures in this project. When we speak of Off-Broadway here, we are mainly referring to post-World War II theatre in New York City—theatre that did not take place in Broadway houses. The actor Fyvush Finkel, who was born in 1924 and began working professionally as a performer at age 9, painted a vivid picture of pre-WWII theatre in New York City for us; Judith Malina gave us a sharp account of the founding of The Living Theatre in 1947 with her husband Julian Beck, but the Off-Broadway movement as we know it did not find its full voice until the early fifties. It was during that time that two major productions shouted to the world that Off-Broadway had arrived. It was then that Circle in the Square opened Tennessee Williams’ SUMMER AND SMOKE starring Geraldine Page, and Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s THE THREEPENNY OPERA, starring Lotte Lenya, opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, which was then called Theatre de Lys.

We recorded our first interview for the Primary Stages Off-Broadway Oral History Project on June 11, 2014. Our first interviewee was my old friend, the actress Elizabeth Wilson, who had an extravagantly fruitful career Off-Broadway and has since passed. Sadly, a half dozen of our interviewees have died since we began the Project.

This OFF-CENTER website and the Primary Stages Off-Broadway Oral History Project are dedicated to paying tribute to Off-Broadway’s marvelous history. To date we have recorded close to one hundred interviews. And we are just getting started.