Theater stereotypes die hard. Consider the cliché of Off-Off-Broadway in its early days: sweaty actors, skimpily attired, babbling polymorphous perversity in front of a small, like-minded crowd. This ’60s image has hung on despite the crazy variety of the scene. Not that there isn’t an identifiable thread of serious experiment and iconoclasm (to say nothing of raunchiness) running through the Off-Off-Broadway tradition. After all, the movement was born out of frustration with the vapid commercialization and conformity of mainstream theater. But the dearth of noteworthy histories on the subject suggests the inherent challenge in constructing a narrative out of this unwieldiness. The story of Caffe Cino, Judson Poets’ Theater, La MaMa E.T.C., and Theatre Genesis—those four originating institutions of the burgeoning Off-Off scene—may make a good yarn, but it requires uncommon agility to keep pace with the dizzying plot.
David A. Crespy’s Off-Off-Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960s Ignited a New American Theater (2003) provides a handy sketch of the first decade. That book has been followed by Stephen J. Bottoms’s more comprehensive and rigorously analytic Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement. Bottoms, a theater professor at the University of Glasgow who’s written books on Shepard and Albee, has done the legwork, researching a period that for him begins with coffeehouse culture in the late ’50s and ends with the closing of the Open Theatre in ’73. Sifting through old reviews in The Village Voice (the underground theater’s paper of record), interviewing every available survivor (from the Judson’s Al Carmines to the Living Theatre’s Judith Malina), and hunting down texts, photos, films, and recordings, Bottoms clears a path through what was always a wildly overgrown grove.
The discoveries he makes along the way force us to rethink our understanding. For example, academics of a postmodern bent have given the Living Theatre’s Paradise Now and the Performing Garage’s Dionysus in 69, two ensemble-created productions, pride of place. Yet in the early Off-Off days, the play was the thing. Writers such as Lanford Wilson, H.M. Koutoukas, Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes, Rosalyn Drexler, Megan Terry, Murray Mednick, and Ronald Tavel were routinely counted on to supply the script; without them there was no show. Scholars have ignored the bulk of this work, focusing instead on figures like Shepard and Wilson while devoting themselves (and their deconstructionist paradigms) to the directors’ theater of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The result is that the underground has been unjustly eclipsed by the avant-garde.
But then the qualities of the underground were patently not those of academia. On the Village’s pocket stages, experience trumped theory, while artistic community often meant more than artistic standards. Nights at the Caffe Cino, with its junk sets, queeny ambience, and compelling amateurism, didn’t seem an appropriate subject for the tenure-hungry crowd. TDR (formerly the Tulane Drama Review) couldn’t get enough of Grotowski, but the journal’s commitment to “professional standards” meant, as Bottoms points out, that “anything as ‘illegitimate’ as off-off-Broadway simply failed to register on its scanners.” As playwright Robert Patrick put it, “One of the most American things about the off-off-Broadway movement was that there was no movement—no manifesto, no credo, no criteria. It just happened.”
Nonetheless, within a 10-year span, the art of the stage would be forever changed. From the Judson Poets’ production of Gertrude Stein’s What Happened to the dawning of the Play-House of the Ridiculous (later the Ridiculous Theatrical Company), from Jeff Weiss’s singular presence to the Open Theatre’s staging of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s America Hurrah, conventional realism was rendered, if not obsolete, then at least embarrassingly out of style.
But obviously the tale isn’t one of mere triumph over fiendish odds. The radical tumult of the ’60s left many casualties, none sadder than Joe Cino, who apparently stabbed himself to death while strung out on grief, penury, and uppers. Ironically, the success of the underground movement helped contribute to its own downfall, as grant money, New York Times coverage, and Actors’ Equity ushered in a new era of professionalization that marked the close of freewheeling possibility.
The Off-Off scene may be more extensive than ever, but the pervasive packaging of the theatrical landscape makes the old distinctions between Off and Off-Off fuzzier than ever. Still, Bottoms’s book, written with enormous intelligence, dexterity, and passion, should be read by the current generation of radical theater makers—intrepid souls like Richard Maxwell, Rinne Groff, and David Herskovits, along with Radiohole, the Civilians, and ERS, who, in the service of innovative theatrical truth, once more dare to go against the cultural grain.