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The Birth of Off Broadway: Crash Course Theater #47


Hey there! I’m Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash Course
Theater, and today we’re going all the way from Broadway to Off-Broadway, which Yorick
reminds me is… not very far from Broadway. Why are we going to Off-Broadway at all? Look, mid-century Broadway is great. It has incisive social dramas and dancing
girls! Though not usually in the same show. But in the middle of the twentieth century,
Broadway only had thirty-some theaters, which was not nearly enough for producers to take
a chance on all that avant-garde goodness. So, today, we’ll look at the history of
Off-Broadway and the genres, styles, and troupes it supported, including the Black Arts Movement. Lights up! Unless lights are too normal for your weird
show. INTRO
Off-Broadway theater had actually been around for a long time before anyone started calling
it that. It is the natural continuation of the Little
Theater movement that we explored in our episodes on American moderns and the Harlem Renaissance. In New York that meant theaters like the Provincetown
Players, the Washington Square Players, the Neighborhood Playhouse, and the Krigwa Players. After World War II, new theaters and companies
appeared and this movement became known as Off-Broadway. If you want to get technical, Off-Broadway
used to refer to theaters outside the Broadway Box, a stretch that ran from 40th to 54th
Streets in Manhattan. That leaves a lot of city! Originally, most Off-Broadway theaters were
located in Greenwich Village, often in the same spaces that the Little Theaters had occupied. Eventually, Off-Broadway became an Actors
Equity designation concerning theater size, referring to theaters in Manhattan that have
between one hundred and four hundred and ninety-nine seats. But Off-Broadway is also a mindset. It’s against shallow, big-budget entertainment
and in favor of ensemble-driven, noncommercial work. Of course, plenty of Off-Broadway stuff ends
up transferring to Broadway and turns out to be very commercial. So… I mean, you might be surprised to know that
this bit about theater is complicated. In the early days, a lot of Off-Broadway theaters
were interested in producing the European avant-garde because America was apparently
not absurdist enough on its own! But Off-Broadway theaters also helped to develop
a new American avant-garde, and were supportive of works by queer writers and writers of color. Let’s look at a few significant theaters
and troupes: The Living Theater, Jose Quintero’s Circle in the Square, and Joe Papp’s New
York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater. The Living Theater was founded in 1947 by
Judith Malina and Julian Beck. They started out producing Brecht and Cocteau
and Pirandello. But in the late 1950s, they began producing
new American work, like Jack Gelber’s “The Connection,” an immersive play about drug
addicts, and Kenneth H. Brown’s “The Brig,” a
brutal play about a military prison. The Living Theater then relocated to Europe—this
was partly because of an unfortunate tax thing; anarchists do not like to pay taxes! The company reinvented themselves as a devised
theater company, meaning a company that creates its own original works through rehearsal and
exploration. Artaud was a big influence. The Living Theater created a bunch of pretty
shocking, occasionally nude, and very participatory pieces like “Paradise Now” and “Mysteries
and Smaller Pieces” and brought them back to New York. These shows are basically where all of our
clichés about experimental theater come from: long hair, loincloths, naked screaming, naked
rolling around on the floor, naked screaming and rolling around on the floor with long
hair… But try to remember these weren’t cliches
when the Living Theatre did them. The Circle in the Square Theater was founded
in Greenwich Village in 1951 by Jose Quintero, the son of Panamanian parents. It was sort of a theater-in-disguise, because
it was originally housed in a former nightclub and licensed as a cabaret space. This meant that the actors, a bunch of whom
lived on site, also had to serve drinks. Circle in the Square made some gestures toward
the European avant-garde, but under Quintero’s passionate direction, it’s best known for
cementing the legacy of Tennessee Williams and rehabilitating the work of Eugene O’Neill,
who had fallen way out of favor. The consummate Circle in the Square work is
probably Quintero’s 1956 revival of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” which had pretty
much flopped the first time around. It starred Navy veteran, almost EGOT, and
awesome actor Jason Robards, who at the time was still driving taxis. The New York Times wrote that since Circle
in the Square had originally been a nightclub, it was the perfect place to house O’Neill’s
waterfront dive. “It seems not like something written, but
like something that is happening,” wrote the critic. Take that, Broadway! Circle in the Square became known for an intense
acting style, introducing audiences to influential actors like Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst,
and George C. Scott. The theater moved to the South Village in
1960. And then in 1972, it moved—surprise!—to
Broadway. Joe Papp was born in Brooklyn to Yiddish-speaking
parents. After a stint in the Navy and some time out
in California with former members of the Group Theater, he returned to New York and began
to stage free Shakespeare plays in a Lower East Side church, insisting that Shakespeare
could and should be for everyone. In 1956, the Parks Department gave him permission
to use the East River Amphitheater. Robert Moses, then the parks commissioner,
told him that he would have to charge admission fees, but Papp refused—Shakespeare should
be free for all. The courts supported him. A permanent theater was built for him in Central
Park. It opened in 1962, and free Shakespeare is
still performed there every summer. Show up early; it gets crowded quick. In 1966, Papp moved into what had been the
Astor Library on Lafayette Street and transformed it into the Public Theater, which you can
visit today. It’s adjacent to another music, theatre
and nightclub venue called… JOE’S PUB. Some of the Public Theater’s hits include
“Hair,” “A Chorus Line,” “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the
Rainbow is Enuf,” “The Normal Heart,” and yes, “Hamilton.” which rumor has it is VERY good… Papp’s legacy is really important. He insisted on staging the classics with diverse
casts. He championed queer writers and writers of
color. And he demanded that theater could and should
be available to everyone. “Theater,” he said, “is a social force. Not just entertainment.” Off-Broadway also helped foster the Black
Arts Movement, the cultural wing of the Black Power Movement. The Black Arts Movement has its roots far
from Broadway, mostly with the Free Southern Theater, which toured plays like “Waiting
for Godot” around the Deep South. But the Black Arts Movement was specifically
about encouraging African-American artists and suggesting that their work was part of
a tradition separate from the cultural work of white artists. The movement allied itself with postcolonial
independence movements in Africa and around the world. One of the movement’s leaders was the poet
and playwright Amiri Baraka, who began his career as LeRoi Jones. His 1965 poem “Black Art,” written after
the assassination of Malcolm X, became a manifesto for the movement. In one section, he wrote: We want a black poem. And a
Black World. Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem Silently
Or LOUD Baraka’s most famous play is probably “Dutchman,”
which opened at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theater in 1964. It’s set on a subway car, where Lula, a
white woman, meets Clay, a black man. Lula mocks Clay and tempts him, finally goading
him into admitting the anger he feels toward white people, even though he says he would
never act on that anger. Lula then stabs Clay, and with the help of
the other passengers, she throws his dead body out of the car. She then waits for the next black man. The most important playwright to emerge from
the Black Arts Movement and one of the greatest living American playwrights is Adrienne Kennedy. Let’s take a look at her breakthrough play,
“Funnyhouse of a Negro,” which opened Off-Broadway in 1964 at the East End Theater. Funnyhouse is another word for a carnival
funhouse or a madhouse, and the play explores the devastating effects of racism on a young
woman. It filters the style of the European avant-garde
through the spirit of the Black Arts Movement. Help us out, ThoughtBubble:
“Funnyhouse of a Negro” is set in the bedroom of a young African-American woman
named Sarah. But it’s also immediately clear that we’re
inside Sarah’s mind. The daughter of a dark-skinned father and
a light-skinned mother, Sarah doesn’t feel that she belongs anywhere. She is refracted into separate selves by race. You can feel this even in the stage directions:
“in the middle of the Stage in a strong white LIGHT, while the rest of the Stage is
in unnatural BLACKNESS.” The action is often interrupted by a harsh,
frightening knocking at the door, the sound of Sarah’s father trying to come in. After a prologue in which a woman in a white
nightgown crosses the stage carrying a bald head in her arms, the play begins with a conversation
between Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg about whiteness. The woman in the nightgown interrupts: she
is Sarah’s mother, distraught. She says she should never have let a black
man touch her. The scene shifts to Sarah’s landlady who
tells us that Sarah’s father killed himself when Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence
leader, was assassinated, and that Sarah hasn’t left her room since. Also, Sarah’s hair is falling out. Sarah says that the landlady is wrong. She killed her father, clubbing him with a
black skull. But we later learn that he may have actually
left the family and married a white woman. The Duchess has a conversation with a character
named Raymond, the proprietor of the funnyhouse. They talk about how Sarah’s mother is in
an asylum, how her hair has all fallen out, and how Sarah is the product of rape. Patrice Lumumba gives a speech, and then the
Duchess talks with Jesus. The scene changes to a jungle, and the characters
reappear, haloed and screaming. The scene returns to Sarah’s room, and Sarah
is discovered hanged. Thanks, ThoughtBubble. That was upsetting. And hallucinatory. But it’s supposed to be upsetting and hallucinatory. The play is about one woman wrestling with
identity in a racialized world, but it is also about how black artists and intellectuals
fight to find their own voices in a world in which almost all of the models and precedents
are white. Adrienne Kennedy’s voice is distinct. Her precise, surreal style is built on personal
anguish and experience, and is deeply concerned with what it means to be a woman of color
in a white world. Her work also expands the boundaries of what
theatre can do and finds a new stage language for stories previously unseen in the American
theatre. And s–he is still writing today, and is widely
revered as a mentor figure by young African American playwrights. Conclusion
By the 1960s, there was a problem. Off-Broadway had gotten… fancy. Work had become increasingly commercial, and
costs were higher. That’s how we got Off-Off-Broadway. Like Off-Broadway, this was a more or less
spontaneous movement. It kicked off in four Downtown spaces: Caffe
Cino, Theater Genesis, Judson Poets Theater, and La MaMa. Caffe Cino, run by Joe Cino, was literally
a coffeehouse, but it gave playwrights, especially queer playwrights, space to try out their
work. The Judson Poets Theater was run by Al Carmines,
an assistant minister, out of the Judson Memorial Church. It became a space for art world happenings
and experimental dance. Theater Genesis was housed in another church,
St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, which was later the home of Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric
Theater. Run by Ralph Cook, Theater Genesis encouraged
poets and playwrights to improvise with their actors. La MaMa, was founded by Ellen Stewart, a former
swimsuit designer, in 1961. Exuberant and welcoming, she supported many
New York artists and later provided residencies to several European companies. La MaMa is still going today. Funnily enough – I’VE WORKED ON SHOWS AT
ALL THREE OF THESE PLACES. And also I sat next to Lou Reed at La Mama
once! Thanks for watching. Next time, Yorick and I will be poor and downtrodden—more
so than usual—when we explore Poor Theater and the Theater of the Oppressed. Until then… wait, can we afford
a curtain? Okay. BUDGET Curtain!

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