Volume 75, Number 51 | May 10 - 16 2006

Photo by Ray Neufeld

The founders of Peculiar Works, Ralph Lewis, Catherine Porter, and Barry Rowell, organized a year-long series of readings at Downtown venues to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Off-Off Broadway.

Celebrating Off-Off Broadway in a Peculiar Works Way

By Bonnie Rosenstock

“How do you get to the Old Reliable Theater Tavern?” In the East Village of the 1960s, the knowing response would be, “Just turn left at the burning automobile,” related playwright/director Michael McGrinder, quoting a fellow survivor. Back then, getting to East 3rd Street between Avenues B and C was an act of bravery, desperation or foolhardiness, as anything past Third Avenue was the Wild, Wild Dangerous East. However, from roughly 1967 to 1972 or 1973, the back room of the tavern, a sticky-floored, stale smelling Polish/Ukrainian neighborhood “ball [highball] and beer” joint, served as an experimental training ground for young playwrights, directors and actors. For McGrinder, “It was the most exciting theater venue I’ve ever worked in. It had no agenda, and we were free to do whatever we wanted. The audience wasn’t even required to buy a drink. It was free, and we didn’t pass a basket.”

McGrinder was reminiscing about the Old Reliable on a recent Sunday following the reading of one of his plays, first produced at the legendary theater. Since May of last year, vanguard works like his have been staged in new venues like the cozy Backroom Lounge of the pleasantly upscale Telephone Bar and Grill on Second Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets. The year-long series celebrates the approximated 50th anniversary of the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway and will culminate this September with a three-weekend long, “performance heritage trail” walking tour that will traverse historic Village streets East to West. Short scenes from over a dozen landmark plays from the 1950s and 60s will be performed in close proximity to the actual sites in which they first debuted.

The OFF Project, as the free series of works, workshops and talk-back dialogues is called, was conceived a few years ago by the Peculiar Works Project, an East Village-based performing arts group founded in 1993. Its three co-artistic directors, forty-somethings Ralph Lewis, Catherine Porter and Barry Rowell, came up with the idea following a performance at the parish house behind Judson Church. Shortly after their production, the house was torn down and sold to NYU.

“It got us looking at some of the other buildings,” said Rowell. “Circle in the Square on Bleecker Street, the Sullivan Street Theater, Variety Arts, all gone. The Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street, the Perry Street Theater, in danger. Your heart’s breaking.”

They point out, however, that most of the Off-Off Broadway theaters were never theaters in the sense of the Provincetown or the Variety Arts. Caffe Cino, for instance, was a café, and there were three different incarnations of La Mama, all storefronts or loft spaces, before it took up permanent residence on East 7th Street. “In a lot of the spaces, the building may still be there, but it hasn’t been a theater since the late 60s,” noted Rowell. “They didn’t start out as theaters and didn’t continue as theaters, but they had these brief intense periods where they put out a lot of really incredible work.”

OFF Project readings also pair emerging and established younger directors with older playwrights as a way of fostering an intergenerational, collaborative exchange. “These [younger] people would have been doing this work in the 60s and 70s,” said Rowell. “It’s not that we don’t want to work with the older directors, [but] we believe the same spirit is still here.”

OFF’s long-term mission is to persuade the city to install permanent plaques at each historic Village location in order to commemorate its artistic legacy. “It’s impossible to stop all the change,” acknowledged Lewis. “The reason you have to do these sorts of events is to remind people that when you do change, don’t forget that there used to be these important places and events here. It’s also a way to draw attention to some of the material that influenced our desire to be part of this community as well as [to] draw attention to all of these old spaces that no longer exist.”

On Sunday, May 14, at 2 p.m., “Plays of Protest” will include plays by Kenneth Brown, Megan Terry, Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard and Grant Duay, read at Judson Church, 55 Washington Square South. On Sunday, May 28, at 2 p.m., “Outside Underground,” will be held at the Jefferson Market Garden, Greenwich Avenue below West 10th Street, and will have plays by Sam Shepard, Ruth Krauss, John Guare and Jean-Claude van Itallie and the Open Theater. In early June, “Plays in Cafés: Café La Mama” may or may not take place at La Mama. “Rather than do it at the exact site, we thought it would be fun to do it at a similar today’s version of what La Mama was then,” said Porter. “We’re more interested in finding parallels.”

A most peculiar parallel for “Rites and Rituals,” which will highlight works by Murray Mednick, Tony Barsha, the Living Theater, Susan Yankowitz and The Open Theater, on Sunday, June 18 (rain date, Saturday, June 24), is the New York Marble Cemetery on Second Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets. The 1831 landmark, the first privately owned, non-sectarian cemetery in New York City, is concealed behind an imposing wrought iron gate and a long alleyway that opens onto a secret garden safeguarding 156 underground vaults. Some chairs will be provided, along with drinks and snacks, but guests are also encouraged to bring folding chairs, blankets and a picnic lunch.

Since last year, Caroline DuBois, a trustee of the cemetery, has made it available for rentals like weddings, fundraisers and parties to help pay for the 12-foot crumbling masonry wall restoration project. “We’re delighted to share the garden with such an exciting group,” said DuBois. “This is our first play reading, and we’re looking forward to hosting many other artistic events. As we get more known in the community, we want to make ourselves a community site.”

Explaining their unusual choice, Porter stated, “We like to do our work in non theater sites if possible. There’s a big group of plays from that time period that are very ensemble based and ritual in form. We thought it would be fun to do that theme here. It’s big, spacious and an oasis of greenery.”

To confirm dates and times of The OFF Project events, call 212-529-3626, or visit www.peculiarworks.org.

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