Sunday, January 4, 2009

Taking It to the Street

My old friend T. Scott Lilly has been posting all of these photos of us in Theater for the New City's summer street theater way back in the late 1980s. Seems like a lifetime ago, especially since there's hardly any vestige left of the East Village in the 1980s. It's like a dream that never existed but then like Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ, occasionally you find yourself at one of the bars with the first names (Mona's, Blanche's, Joe's, Sophie's...) and you look around and think, wait a sec... you were there, and you were there, and so were you...

I think I'm 16 in the photo below. It looks like HIT THE ROAD, the street theater of 1989, which mystified a lot of first generation immigrants and street kids with little knowledge of underground American history since it was about hobos. That's me on the far left, with Joe Davies next to me. Joe was one of the founders of the Caffe Cino, the first Off-Off Broadway theater, but I didn't know that as a teenager the 1980s. To me, he was an old teddy bear who smelled a little and was a bit unintelligible because he badly needed new dentures. He was in a perpetual fight with his landlord over his rent controlled apartment. The landlord would turn off the water so Joe was forced to shower at the theater. I lived in the basement of the theater when I was 16 and there was only one shower. In the women's bathroom. Nothing wakes you up like getting up to pee and stumbling onto a large naked old man. Joe ended up getting work as a token clerk and I loved seeing him at the 8th Street station. I heard he moved to Florida and recently died. I really miss him.

The one below is a publicity shot for CONEY ISLAND KID, the 1988 summer street theater. We're all gathered around George Bartenieff in a bad wig, who's playing Ronald Reagan. Alex Bartenieff, his son is on the bottom left in the Santa suit. I'm next to him in a shedding silver beaded dress. My good friend Sheridan Roberts is flying up in the air on the far right, held aloft by George Liker, a decidedly odd bird who was in Street Theater for two years. I think he was (is?) part of the Living Theater. Scott Lilly, who posted these pictures on facebook is in the boxer's outfit, playing the Coney Island Kid. This was one of the best Street Theaters, about a family getting evicted and ending up in Coney Island. They squat an old funhouse and the Coney Island Kid busts out of an old publicity poster.

Street Theater is still going strong at TNC, but it's an art form that's dying in New York City from the combined effects of lack of public funding and the squeaky cleanliness of the new New York where god forbid a raucous performance break out without a permit and police presence. I'm not talking about Lincoln Center Out of Doors or Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte - I'm talking about a bunch of performers traveling from place to place with a stage they erect, taking theater into places where it normally doesn't exist. Street Theater is usually political to the point of being agit-prop and a free-for-all of dance, mime, clowning, musical theater and whatever else the performers can come up with to compete with the usual New York City panorama - you know - Mister Softee's insistent little ditty, screaming babies, giggly teenage girls, winos with Terets Syndrome, the works.

In the height of the Great Depression, Mayor Laguardia created a Portable Theatre Drama program that produced plays through the Department of Public Welfare. Imagine that - theater for public welfare - bread and roses! During the summer of 1934 and 1935, five portable stages toured thirty parks six days week, becoming the precursor for the Federal Theatre Project and Hallie Flanagan's aim to bring "theater mindedness" to the greater American public. The following photo is from The Federal Theatre 1935-1939: Plays, Relief and Politics by Jane De Hart Mathews and shows a street theater in Saint Mary's Park in the Bronx - it looks like UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, which was their first production. TNC's street theater performs at Saint Mary's too.

Though the Federal Theater Project succumbed to anti-Communist hysteria in 1939, Street Theater became a staple of the experimental theater movement in the 1950s to 1960s with Bread and Puppet Theater and the Public Theater most famously taking shows to the street. The Public might be better known for the Shakespeare productions they performed on a flatbed truck throughout NYC but they also did more experimental plays like a musical adaptation of TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA written by the team that wrote HAIR with danceable salsa and funk. It was at the Delacorte a few years ago and I thought, wow, what it must've been like to have seen that in a housing project in the Bronx in the early 1970s.

Now, besides TNC, there's Circus Amok's amazing gender-bending campy vaudeville circus led by hirsute wonder Jennifer Miller who worked at TNC years ago. There's also the various free Shakespeare groups - Gorilla Rep, Drilling Company's Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, and Kings County Shakespeare, though I am not sure if they still perform in parks. Last summer, Waterwell toured their THE/KING/OPERETTA to parks in the Bronx, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. TNC is the only theater I know, though, that actually erects a stage right smack dab in the middle of the street. With the latest financial debacle heralding a possible new depression plus the isolation of all our lovely 21st Century innovations, maybe it's time to bring back this tradition. Who's street? Our street! Free theater for all!

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