Thursday, October 14, 2004

Dinosaurs and Fresh Meat

Part I — The Symposium

The next four or five Jamespeaks will sort of coalesce into a larger argument, although…not really. They’ll be connected in a 1001 Arabian Nights sort of way. Hang in there. You’ll see what I mean.

The whole thing starts off with the symposium at the Drama Book Store Nosedive Productions attended. The evening opened a huge enough can of worms to merit a few like-minded entries.

So, today I’d like to talk a little bit about the founding members of the original Off-Off-Broadway movement.

* * *

On Monday night, I was invited to the Off-Off-Broadway Symposium at the Drama Book Shop, sponsored by United Stages and the NY Innovative Theatre Awards. Upon arrival, Pete, Patrick and I were quite happy to see some photos from our shows in the display window. Thanks, Shay!

One of the primary functions was to promote a book by Stephen J. Bottoms called Playing Underground, A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement. The other function was to meet and listen to a panel of the founders of said movement. The panel included Paul Foster of LaMama, Walter Hadler of Theatre Genesis, Doric Wilson and Robert Heide of The Caffe Cino and Lawrence Kornfeld of The Judson Poets’ Theatre. Ellen Stewart, founder of LaMama, although not on the panel, was also in attendance (as were many other “old school” playwrights, directors and actors).

I must say, it was great to hear the heavyweights of Off-Off-Broadway theatre. I mean, these people here were the underground theatre movement of New York. And it was great fun hearing their stories on meeting Joe Cino, working with a young Sam Shepard, getting arrested, doing lots of drugs and creating a coterie of self-admitted criminals.

My kind of people.

“Yes, goddammit, yes. YEEEESSSS!!”
—Coconut Pete

“We were counter-cultural without being chic,” said one of the panelists (since I’m just an armchair journalist, I didn’t take notes and can’t quite remember who to attribute the quote to, although I believe it was Walter Hadler). I dug that.

Doric Wilson said at one point that we were listening to the dinosaurs of OOB theatre. I guess us newbies were the fresh meat.

The other thing the Nosedive gang dug was when Ellen Stewart went at it with Paul Foster. Foster made some comment about his involvement with LaMama, and Stewart took offense, got up and went head-to-head with him. When this happened, we Nosedivians realized that this shit doesn’t change. The self-proclaimed dinosaurs were just as likely to get into pissing-match smackdowns with other theatre-makers as the newbies. I don’t know if this is good or bad, comforting or depressing, but it’s just plan weird to see the founders of OOB theatre behave the same way us twenty-something newbies act. There were divides among the elder veterans, with Stewart’s crew on one side of the room and the panelist’s crew on another. Now, I don’t know the whole story behind the acrimony, so I’m not taking any sides or implying that either Stewart was out of line and being a drama queen or that Foster usurped her rightful position on the panel (in the words of Jesus in a South Park episode: “I’m not touching this one with a ten-foot pole.”). But it was very telling to see that you don’t outgrow the bitterness and rivalry in this weird underground self-made world.

What I didn’t like was this reiteration of the dinosaurs insisting that the OOB movement needs support, and they, for one, give it.


No, they don’t!

I’ve been doing this for nearly five years, and I have even met at least one person on this panel (who I won’t name), and I’ve never seen him or anyone else from the older generation at one of my shows, and I probably never will. This isn’t sour grapes, it’s just the truth.

Let’s face it; the founders of this movement don’t give a flying fuck about the careers of young, fledgling—and underground—playwrights, directors or actors.

And, so we’re quite clear on this, here’s what “support” means:

1.) Show up,
2.) Buy a ticket,
3.) Either bring someone, or recommend the show to someone if you like what you see.

“Support One Another” seems to be a nice, self-righteous mantra that is becoming nothing more than empty rhetoric to me (which I plan to address in part three). I guess this is why I try not to use the jargon too often.

I guess when I hear the older generation talk about their interest in what the younger generation is doing, it sounds disingenuous.

“Well, James, when you become old and obsolete, will you be showing interest in the next generation of theatre-makers?”

(Fuck no and I never pretended to think otherwise because I’m a selfish cranky fuck.)

“Then what are you arguing—”

(—I’m just pointing out that people like Stewart or Foster or Wilson don’t need to pretend; we don’t look up to them for their compassion.)

The sad thing that Pete pointed out is that the founders of the OOB movement don’t have aesthetic or artistic followers. Their creative works haven’t paved the way for the next generation of writers, directors and actors; their politics, perseverance and attitudes have. In other words, they weren’t the plays themselves that influenced this new generation of OOB, but the process of mounting them.

(Show of hands: who got into theatre because hearing stories of counter-cultural revolution taking place with theatre in the 60s? Okay, a good number of you. Now, how many got into theatre because reading or seeing American Hamburger or Silver Queen Saloon changed their lives?)

Again, I don’t really know what to make of this. On one hand, if it weren’t for people like Ellen Stewart, Joe Cino, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, we wouldn’t have independent theatre. They set the precedent.

But on the other, it strikes me that their heirs are pale imitators, who know all the words to the songs but not the meaning. These self-proclaimed dinosaurs were fearless, dangerous mad dogs; sociopaths. They were heavily involved in drugs. They got arrested. They ran in very violent circles. The people who look up to them (for the most part) are anti-Bush, sure, but that’s not the same thing as being counter-cultural dangerous mavericks. Not even close.

North American leftists just keep trying to relive the '60s, or to make the '60s happen again. Oasis are a pretty poor excuse for The Beatles, and John Kerry is a pretty poor excuse for John F. Kennedy.
—Dave Sim

One of the problems exposed with the current OOB world that the panelists pointed out was money. Back in the day, space was cheap. DIRT cheap. A 100-seat theatre cost $300 a month. Now a 60-seat theatre costs $1700 a weekend.

(Side note: Stewart got up again to bring up a point about not worrying about money, and suggested that young theatre-makers get their sets and props from off the streets. That way, we’d use our imagination rather than our wallets to create theatre. I thought it was a good point, although I was thinking both, “Well, DUH,” and “We’re not six years old, lady!” It reminded me again that the older generation sees its heirs as retarded infants.)

But again, the founders of the OOB movement weren’t making theatre for money, weren’t making it for prestige or for the desire to be accepted, where I would say that—despite insistences otherwise—most of us younguns are (more on this in Parts II & III). The founders, the dinosaurs, were often performing shows under arches of bridges, in cafes, in backrooms of bars, in churches.

A modest proposal to halt this money problem: why don’t we start performing and rehearsing in alternative spaces? Right now Bryan K. Brown is performing Wallace Shawn’s The Fever as Shawn did himself: in people’s apartments. Why not take advantage of word-of-mouth, of going underground, of ignoring mainstream media as it ignores us (more on this in Part IV, which will primarily deal with press coverage and the New York Times’s decision to cut its theatre coverage).

Isn’t at least one lesson that the dinosaurs taught us is that the tearing down of affordable spaces, the jacking of rent prices and the cutting of press coverage will not kill independent theatre?

I understand that not everyone is going into OOB for the same reasons that I have (staging plays with complete creative control & freedom and taking advantage of a cheaper, more immediate and more imaginative medium than film or television). I’m referring to the wannabe revolutionaries in the present OOB scene; the nouveaux hippies who “want to change the world” (just as long as it doesn’t jeopardize their management careers or their cell phone plan). It strikes me that so many people (in general, not just in theatre) want to be counter-cultural and chic; to be accepted into the mainstream, but grudgingly, annoyed, as if they always believed they were too subversive to get any accolades.

Overall it was a very informative experience. Some points depressed me, some exhilarated me. It did make me have to yet again re-re-reassess whatever role I (or Nosedive) have (has) in the OOB scene, or if we have one at all.

(Well, we do—there are pictures of our productions in the Drama Book Shop! Woo-hoo!)

Being eaten,

James “Raw But Not Rare” Comtois

October 14, 2004

Next time: Part II. Concerning the old generation versus new generation of theatre-makers — Passing the torch— Getting burned.


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