Remembrance of Obies Past

Judges from the last five decades pay homage to the productions and artists they'll never forget

Signal breakthroughs

I inherited responsibility for the Obies from Jerry Tallmer in 1962, when a handful of professional Off-Broadway producers were presenting a rather literary alternative to Broadway. Two or three years later I enlisted Gordon Rogoff and Richard Gilman as fellow judges, and we broadened the awards to embrace Off-Off-Broadway, which after a modest start in a few downtown coffeehouses and churches was exploding into dozens of lively scenes. It was a revolutionary moment, as artists in Greenwich Village and in Europe proposed a radically new theater, hands-on and do-it- yourself, more immediate and frank than the polished displays behind the fourth walls of commercial practice.

Plays live not just in the moment but in a particular place, and I count myself lucky to have been there, charged with paying attention and reporting on my experience. A theater critic's perspective is crazily distorted, of course: I absorbed four or five plays a week year after year, as many as I could cram in. The domain of the Obies was limited but I traveled the world seeing theater, and much of the world came to New York. What lingers in my mind, the context of my continuing work as playwright and director, goes far beyond the purview of the Obies. The sizzle of Seth Allen and Marilyn Roberts in Futz, directed by Tom O'Horgan at La MaMa, jostles with Joan Littlewood's The Hostage and Oh What a Lovely War on Broadway and The Threepenny Opera at Brecht's theater in East Berlin. Olivier in The Entertainer, Merman in Gypsy, Albee's breakthrough Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Sam Shepard's first plays at Theatre Genesis, Neil Flanagan in Lanford Wilson's The Madness of Lady Bright at the Cino, everything at the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, The Serpent, van Itallie's Motel, the Ridiculous, my own plays The Next Thing, Country Music, Prussian Suite. . . As time went on I wanted to participate, to be responsible for my own work, not other people's, and in 1974 I walked away from being a critic, moved away, did other things for a while, then gradually returned to theater, presently in Oregon.

Refugees of convention (above): Andrei Serban's Trojan Women (1974)
photo: Amnon Ben Nomis courtesy of the Ellen Stewart private collection
Refugees of convention (above): Andrei Serban's Trojan Women (1974)

It is against the nature of theater to be fixed in memory, but theater is food, the choicest of impressions, and everything I saw became part of my substance. Go often to the theater, it is always rewarding. MICHAEL SMITH


Destructive honors

Serving as an Obie judge was never more pleasing, never more fun, than the two years in which the judges—Michael Smith, Richard Gilman, and I—decided that orchids alone could scarcely be understood without some form of equal time given to raspberries. And so, to crown the seasons ending in 1964 and 1965, we awarded "Anti-Obies for outstanding disservice to the American theater," the first to the Kazan-Whitehead Lincoln Center Theater, then producing scandalously rotten productions of Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling and O'Neill's Marco Millions, and the next to the drama critic of the New York Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr. If there were competing contenders, I've long since forgotten them, just as I'd still like to forget the early death throes of what was meant to be a model for an American National Theater and Mr. Kerr's abstention as an Obie judge in 1962 from the award given to Samuel Beckett's Happy Days as Best Foreign Play.

The three of us met many times over each season, setting the rules as we went along, trying to distinguish in all categories between the transcendent and the merely good. Never far from our thoughts, however, were the cross-over upstarts at the time playing both sides of the Broadway/Off-Broadway divide, Kazan suddenly bereft of a play he could rewrite and Kerr bereft of a play he could understand. Gilman was the "elder" among us, already the author in 1962 of an essay commissioned by me (then editing Theatre Arts Magazine) about what he called "the necessity for destructive criticism." Surely the Obies had to be a cut above the slap-happy standards of the Oscars and Tonys. Gilman, especially, was famous in a small circle for his despair about crimes against the English language perpetuated by reviewers sounding barbaric hype across the rooftops of Broadway's anti-intellectual world, and for his astonishment that Kerr, for one, could take a pass on Beckett while hollering about the latest musical hit, "Mama, Mama, Mama, what a helluva good show!" Hindsight tells me that we were simply ripe for mischief after suffering so many hapless nights in theaters on and off Broadway. But more than that, we were unwilling to let the awards escape that necessity for a little destruction, if only to set the "Pro-Obies" in more startling relief.

Sadly, the Anti-Obies expired in our subsequent absence, and even as I served on larger (and therefore unwieldy) committees in later years, I was never able to make the case I should have made for their revival. It's always the same: older, maybe wiser, but far too reasonable for our own good. It shouldn't have surprised me—but it did—that most official Obie accounts have quietly omitted those Anti-Obies as if they had never happened. So if I'm complaining about this minor instance of doctored history, it's because we surely have learned in the past four years that a reasonable opposition is the enemy of the good. Those Anti-Obies were our version of speaking truth to power, and surely that is never out-of-date. GORDON ROGOFF


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Lifetime achiever: Joe Chaikin at work (1966)
photo: Fred McDarrah
Radical silences

In the mid '70s we gave what someone on the Obie committee labeled a Special 20-Year Obie citation. The awards went to a handful of disparate people. I remember the award to Judith Malina and Julian Beck, but there were other citations: to Ted Mann, Joseph Papp, and Ellen Stewart. I can't imagine Judith Malina and Joe Papp ever having had much of an exchange, or Judith and Ted Mann for that matter. In the eyes of the Living Theatre, Papp and Mann must have represented the Downtown establishment. I worked with Judith and Julian as a press representative for what we called the General Strike for Peace, a radical group of Peaceniks, and the Becks shut down their theater during Strike Week. Joe Papp was a shoot-from-the-hip presence who would take no guff from anyone, but it's hard to see him closing down his major operation for anything less than the 9-11 attack.

I recall Julian's manner of accepting the citation. He bowed in his courtly fashion but said—nothing. He was in fact too ill to speak. Some years earlier, when the Becks received an Obie, he did speak and said that the Living Theatre must have been doing something pretty awful, otherwise why would these straight-arrow Obie guys be so pleased with them?

Let me simply add that when Joe Chaikin received an Obie some years ago, he had already suffered his stroke and said nothing as Nancy Gabor went up to the podium with him. Joe and Julian had worked together and been close friends for years. Joe had sat on Julian's bed when Julian was hospitalized at Mount Sinai. Julian was still speaking then. They were radicals in the best sense of the word: They believed that theater ought to tunnel into the deepest part of oneself, into what Jung termed the collective unconscious where we come in contact with one another. One thinks of the work of Artaud and Grotowski in this context. Now one might say the two silent Americans were being called home, hopefully to heaven, to wait for the rest of us radicals so we could raise hell together, in joy and in silence. ARTHUR SAINER


Ritual visions

When I hear a director speaking glibly of serving the author, of letting a play speak for itself, my suspicions are aroused, because this is the hardest job of all. If you just let a play speak, it may not make a sound. If what you want is for the play to be heard, then you must conjure its sound from it.

Peter Brook

Greek tragedies in particular demand conjuration if they are to speak in the theater. These plays are the oldest we have, the farthest from us in time, and in other ways as well. There is tremendous power locked up in them—but it is power that only extreme methods can release. Perhaps that is why experimental directors have found them so fascinating. Fragments of a Trilogy, directed by Andrei Serban, with music by Elizabeth Swados, consisted of The Trojan Womenand Medea by Euripides, and Electraby Sophocles, performed in repertory, employing magical modes developed by Brook and others. It was a tremendous act of conjuration.

The boldest choice was to perform all three plays in ancient Greek, mixed with Latin and other languages, none of them understood by the audience. We were forced to listen in a new way, to meaning created not by words as words, but by words as sheer sound—something, of course, that opera has been doing for centuries. (Of course opera was invented, accidentally, by Renaissance intellectuals who were trying to reinvent Greek tragedy.) The actors sang, chanted, keened, whispered, moaned, shouted: not at random, but with disciplined expressiveness. After 30 years I remember the chorus at the end of The Trojan Women, backs bent, singing their mournful anthem—"Tro-i-as"—as they marched into exile. I remember Priscilla Smith, magnificent as Medea, spitting hatred at Jason with sounds that perhaps never before came from a human throat.

Ritual theater was all the rage in the '70s, and produced a great deal of solemn nonsense. But Greek tragedy is genuine ritual theater, written for presentation at religious festivals. We no longer worship Dionysus, not literally anyhow. But within the vast and funky darkness of the La MaMa Annex, Serban and Swados and their dedicated actors conjured something hieratic and primal, and with it a sense of awe seldom found nowadays in the theater or anywhere else. JULIUS NOVICK


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Politics as drag: Ron Vawter in Roy Cohn/Jack Smith (1992)
photo: Tom Brazil
Real presences

Joe Chaikin was mostly delighted to get the first Obie for Lifetime Achievement—but he had reservations. The problem wasn't his usual wariness of success and the "bribes" it brought. After all, the recognition came largely from the Off-Off community he had helped to create. And announcing the award, Ross Wetzsteon had described Chaikin not only as "the only imaginable choice" but as the "conscience of us all." Chaikin was moved by the tribute. The problem was the name: "It sounds like I'm already dead."

This first Lifetime Achievement honor, in 1977, was more a milestone for the Obies than for Chaikin. The awards, after 22 years, were a grown-up institution. Judges could look back over a body of history to recognize "lifetime" accomplishments. Chaikin tended to look in the opposite direction. He cared less about surveying his past work than about tackling new challenges. In fact, four years earlier he had disbanded his decade-old Open Theater at the height of its game to see what creative possibilities might lie outside it. Then in 1984, when a devastating stroke blasted his use of language, he explored that, trying to communicate his own skewed ability to communicate.

For me, Joe Chaikin's theater made a lifetime of difference. He found ways to speak of the fiercest, deepest, most fragile parts of our lives, levels of experience that I'd not known people could communicate. I loved the work. I wrote about it and started to attend workshops and rehearsals. Over three decades Joe Chaikin became one of my closest, most cherished friends.

Now Joe is dead. So are scores of other Obie winners and judges. The Obies are not just grown-up, but multi-generational. But much that Joe invented remains alive and has even seeped into the mainstream. So it turns out the name of that award is still a bit off: The "Achievement" has extended way past his "Lifetime." EILEEN BLUMENTHAL


Imaginative complicity

When I think back over the Obie-winning productions that have lodged themselves in my memory as powerfully as recurring dreams, I recall moments of theatrical wonder and simple surprise. It makes sense that the scenes that would stick, inviting the mind to engage them again and again, are those that enlisted the imagination in the first place, that required the spectator's imagination to complete them. They include: Sheila Dabney in Maria Irene Fornes's Saritastanding on a flat stage gazing down while a few feet away, standing on the same flat surface, her boyfriend gazes up, urging her not to jump. Jasper McGruder and Pamela Tyson in Suzan-Lori Parks's Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom tracing the distance of an ocean with the wave of a hand. Karen Kandel in Mabou Mines's Peter and Wendyturning a majestic galleon into a humble home by unclipping a piece of cloth representing a sail, folding it up, and placing it in a laundry basket. Peggy Shaw dismantling the gender order by flexing and preening her way through "I'm a man, ow, ow, ow" in Belle Reprieve, the Split Britches-Bloolips deconstruction of A Streetcar Named Desire. Anna Deavere Smith layering disparate experiences and analyses into Fires in the Mirror. Ron Vawter revealing drag as politics and politics as drag in the astonishing juxtapositions of Roy Cohn/Jack Smith. A dirging bus (Chuck Cooper) delivering the news that JFK has been assassinated in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's Caroline, or Change. Though different in style, point of view, and temperament, these works share a profound trust in the most elemental tools of theater—presence and language, body and voice. And, in quintessentially theatrical ways, they share the urgent demand that the spectator sit forward and engage. ALISA SOLOMON


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Cry in the dark (left): Charlayne Woodard in In the Blood(2000)
photo: Michal Daniel
True fakery

From my five years as Obie chairman (1998-2003), two of my favorite plays: Richard Maxwell's House (1999) and Edward Bond's Saved, in its 2001 revival by Theatre for a New Audience. House won a Special Citation and solidified Maxwell's New York avant bona fides; Saved earned a design Obie for Douglas Stein and the Ross Wetzsteon award for TFANA.

I'd like to now further honor each with an emeritus Obie for "Best Fake Violence." Among theater's manifold failings is the insult to one's intelligence proffered by the typical act of stage mayhem. Maxwell and Bond overcame the blood-pack and retracting-knife crap in two different—but essentially hyper-fake—ways. The fight scenes in Maxwell's stylized domestic comedy were deeply phony by traditional standards—just as Maxwell intended. His fisticuffs and killings took place with a knowing awkwardness that offered little regard for verisimilitude—a corollary to Maxwell's purposefully underacted dialogue tactic. The violence was played for laughs, but also as a direct challenge to stage convention. It pleasingly corrupted the staleness of the stage fight, which—for some unknown reason—most directors think audiences believe.

And what could be less believable than a group of actors stoning a baby to death, as they do in Saved? (Bond's 1965 play is a portrayal of the emotional oppression engendered by class structure.) Who in the audience really believes there's an infant in that carriage on the business end of the actors' hurled rocks? Yet during the performance I attended, the almost ritual-like scene was met with excruciated cries of "No!" and "Stop!" from some audience members. There was no baby, no doll even, just agitated imagination triumphing over what reason knew to be false—false not just because of its theater setting, but because of its sheer extremity. It was a deeply arresting sequence, the highlight of the best production of my Obie tenure. BRIAN PARKS


Reverberations

If criticism, as Oscar Wilde says, is the highest form of autobiography, then why pretend that my Obie favorites are anything but personal? I remember June and Jean in Concertat the Signature Theatre (hosted that year by the Public) as much for James Houghton's movingly ethereal production as for the way my then boyfriend sobbed quietly throughout Adrienne Kennedy's wounded fragments of memoir, a work that left us (for a time) saner and closer together. I recall Elizabeth Marvel's desperate, throaty, brutalized Blanche in Ivo van Hove's unjustly derided A Streetcar Named Desire, partly for hearing the raw vulnerability and savagery of Tennessee Williams's play anew, and partly for the seismic enthusiasm running through my self-exiled Yugoslavian director friend who craved boldness and urgency onstage the way other New Yorkers crave expensive food and wine. I can still hear the shriek of injustice toward the end of Suzan-Lori Parks's In the Blood, a harrowing cry unleashed by Charlayne Woodard as a welfare mom victimized by a cartoonish system that brought me and my only African American NYU student that term to our feet in stunned applause. And, perhaps most memorably, I remember seeing I Am My Own Wife for the third time on a fateful date last year, marveling at Jefferson Mays's virtuosity in Doug Wright's play (a deceptively straightforward work about a survivor of 20th-century history that grew more poetically impressive with each viewing). And there, in the company of someone whom I would come to love, I found myself feeling for the theater, as I had so many times before, a single overwhelming emotion: gratitude. CHARLES MCNULTY

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Memorable Obie Moment: Ellen Stewart and Joe Cino receive the first Obie given for Off-Off Broadway work, 1965. Left, Gloria Foster. Right, Michael Smith. Photo, Fred MacDarrah, collection Robert Patrick. 

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