By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The theaterthe Downtown one, the only one that really means anything in New York's cultural lifewas born at roughly the same time as The Village Voice, and the two grew up together, two reckless runaway kids nurtured by the all-embracing foster mother, Manhattan. For 50 years they've alternately struggled against and courted each other, locked in a relationship that's half sibling rivalry and half symbiosis. For 50 years, they've learned from each other, swayed each other's feelings, and bickered shamelessly over matters small and large. And as they head toward middle age, both a little careworn and a little adrift in the flood of new technologies that surrounds us, their love-fight is still going on. They may cling wishfully to their memories of a less troubled time, when they were among the few things that New Yorkers thought mattered, but they're both still herestill hopeful, still feisty, still ready for a brawl or a lovefest with each other.
I should know: I've been here for 34 of those 50 years, sometimes in the thick of the fighting but more often on the sidelines, laughing and refereeing. I like to think I'm part of the reason these unheavenly twins remember to have memories at all. My multiple roles guarantee a good overall view of the situation, but absolutely no objectivity; these recollections are purely mine: If you think the theater and the Voice aren't, or weren't, what I say, get your own critical gig and write your own version of the tale.
Both the Voice and the theater, of course, long predate my arrival here. Off-Broadway had existed well before the generation of artists that vitalized it in the 1950s. They brought to it a consciousness of war, the Holocaust, and the atomic future's potential for global destruction. They brought an education that, thanks to the G.I. Bill, had spread across a wider class spectrum, plus a prickly sense of needing to defend themselves against an era of conformity, McCarthyite witch hunts, and corporate anonymity.
Off-Broadway was a land of crazy kids with a Mickey-and-Judy desire to put on a show and a few bucks to rent an empty storefront or unused church basement. And the Voice, operating out of an old store-front on Sheridan Square, was another such operation: The paper's flamboyant Mickey Rooney, as it were, was its co-founder Norman Mailer, not only a theatrical figure himself, but the inaugurator of the double game that would become a byword for Voice critics: being both a practicing playwright and a commentator who used the paper to sound off on theatrical issues. He also established the longtime Voice tradition, now regrettably in abeyance, of making an important production the subject of multiple reviews from differing viewpoints: Jerry Tallmer, the Voice's first designated drama critic, reviewed the New York premiere of Waiting for Godot; Mailer weighed in on it a few weeks later.
It was Tallmer, however, who established that mark of theater critics' abiding love for their subject, the Obie awards, first given in the very first year of the Voice's existence. The prize events of that year, interestingly, were revivals of shows Broadway had sloughed off in earlier decadesThe Iceman Cometh and The Threepenny Operaplus the founding of what was then called the Shakespeare Workshop, by a blacklisted TV stage manager named Joseph Papirofsky. Both Papp, as he renamed himself, and his organization would soon loom very much larger in New York's theatrical life.
Because the Downtown theater scene was burgeoning so rapidly, Tallmer soon found himself not alone in what was, for the next decade and a half, often the largest single section of the paper. (I've been told that market research in the '80s found that people bought the Voice for want ads and theater reviews, in that order.) Because it struggled to cover everything, the Voice became a byword with insiders as the place to look for the scoop on what was happening in theater. I have no space to name the floods of intelligent, outspoken, artistically percipient souls who've reviewed for us over the decades, but the list includes, besides eminent theater practitioners and educators, any number of artists playing hooky from other fields like music and the visual arts. We've famously bickered in print with each other as well as with those we were reviewing. And it's virtually a tradition that no Voice critic, when working in the theater, ever gets a good review in the Voice; logrolling ain't us.
That so many Voice critics have been, openly, practitioners has often given uptown journalists pause. But it had to do less with the long-standing tradition of the critic-playwright than with the communal nature of what had evolved, by the early 1960s, into the Off-Off-Broadway movement. While Off-Broadway itself became more upscale and commercial minded, the Downtown theater had burgeoned into a large, loose pool of extraordinary talents that was a community in itself. Not to participate actively would have marked one as hardly more than a tourist in an audience where, it sometimes seemed, everyone was a practitioner, and usually a multitasker at that. For critics to expose their own work to criticism established not only their bona fides but their empathy with the people they were reviewing: You couldn't say that a reviewer didn't know what it was like to have his work criti-cized when he was as likely as you to be the next target of a Voicepan.
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.
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.