Stage Beauty

Downtown theater and the 'Voice' grow up together.

The contentious, wildcat time of Off-Off-Broadway was inevitably followed by a period of stabilizing and consolidating, in which many of the freewheeling theaters became nonprofit corporate institutions. Actors' Equity's adoption of the Showcase Code (extensively debated in the Voice) put a stop to some abuses in Off-Off's treatment of performers, but also, to some degree, hampered the scene's flexibility. Inevitably, a newer, younger wildcat scene emerged further Downtown to escape it. The Voice had always been divided critically between those who valued experiment for its own sake, as a principle, and those, like myself, who preferred theatrical value to principle on any ground. This conflict still flares up occasionally, though nowadays, as the world goes to hell in a Republican handbasket, we are all so united against the prevailing political situation that aesthetic disputes have mellowed considerably.

It's hard, after all, to fight aesthetic battles after they've been won. The Off-Broadway generation was reared on the idea of theater, and on a tradition of great acting and great playwrights; its dual ambition was to build the American equivalent of a European subsidized theater and to make the most meaningful new plays visible as part of that tradition. The first Off-Off generation, raised in the era between Broadway's shrunken touring circuits and the national explosion of resident theaters, had mostly derived its idea of theater from old movies; it built a theater of Busby Berkeley and Cocteau visions on a Mickey- and-Judy scale. The current generation moves in two directions, one wing pushing further toward abstraction and deconstruction, while the other struggles to climb back toward a renewed mainstream. But they interpenetrate, living in each other's world and making free use of each other's tactics. And my younger colleagues move freely among them.

Norman Mailer receiving an Obie award in 1959
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Norman Mailer receiving an Obie award in 1959

I came to The Village Voice 34 years ago, because it was the place where the theater seemed most exciting, most gripping, most meaningful, and most delightful. I think that was true when Jerry Tallmer started writing in 1955. And, however disheartened I may get over a show, a season, or a trend, I think it's still true today. Along with the lengthy list of Voice critics for whose names this essay has no room, I wish I could add the miles-long list of all the superb artists whom working for the Voice has allowed me to discover. If I had a penny for each of them, I'd be a millionaire.

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