Theatre Genesis was an Off-Off-Broadway theater founded in 1964 by Ralph Cook. Located in the historic St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery in New York City, it produced the work of new American playwrights, including Lanford Wilson, Murray Mednick, Leonard Melfi, Walter Hadler and most notably Sam Shepard. It is regarded as one of four theaters responsible for the explosion of New York's off-off-Broadway movement, along with Joe Cino's Caffe Cino, Judson Poets Theatre and La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club.
Known for its anarchistic, heterosexual and machismo energy, Theatre Genesis produced gritty and political plays that often attracted the post-Beat Generation street poets of the 1960s. Between the volatile and socially charged environment of New York City's East Village, and the rejection of the city's off-Broadway commercial producing model, writers and actors flocked to Theatre Genesis to create an extremely fertile and experimental period in American playwriting.
A Theatre's Genesis
- ' Theatre Genesis is a place apart, going its own way with cool Western Machismo, implacable concentration, and no interest in any other theater. '
- --Michael Smith, critic for the Village Voice
Rector Michael Allen marries religion with art
Theatre Genesis finding a home in a church may seem an odd partnership, if it weren't for a forward-thinking young rector named Michael Allen. The progressive Episcopalian took the helm of the church in 1963, and quickly opened his parish to all of the neighborhood's constituents, mounting a large-scale outreach effort to include all demographics and all ethnicities from the surrounding streets. At that time the east village was a melange of artists, young counterculturists, immigrants from more expensive Manhattan neighborhoods as well as the homeless. Allen's mission was to fund the arts and education initiatives in order to make its programming a microcosm of the neighborhood outside the church. Unlike its counterpart, Judson Church in the west village, St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery had less initial resistance from its older wealthier and therefore more conservative members, and Allen's arts programming quickly amplified the restless voice of a neighborhood. What resulted was an artistic questioning of New York's and the country's status quo.
Plays, poetry readings, underground films and political gatherings all started occurring on church premises with the help and blessing of Rector Allen, but it soon became clear an arts curate would need to be hired in order to spearhead Allen's vision of arts integration.
Ralph Cook: Prophet/Curator
After a short-lived first arts curate named Tom Pike, Allen serendipitously met Ralph Cook, an actor who had stumbled into a Sunday service to listen to Allen's sermon. Cook was so moved by the Rector's presence that he returned week after week, and the two men struck up a friendship. Being well-connected socially in the downtown arts scene, Cook's many friends - including Sam Shepard - were already poised looking for a theater to showcase their emerging talent and insatiable creativity. Steeped in the jazz and poetry scene below 14th street, Cook rubbed shoulders with the more language-based playwrights who wrote in the unpredictable rhythms of New York City street life. In addition to Shepard, writers like Murray Mednick, Leonard Melfi and Tom Sankey were frustrated young artists, writing from a place of isolation and alienation from the political and social maelstrom around them. Their work was angst-driven and testosterone-fueled, which fit less in Caffe Cino's and La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club's more loose structure and perceived camp aesthetic. In an intimate 70-seat blackbox with sixteen lights and nine dimmers, spare sets, minimal props and a focus on hard-driving language and nihilistic themes, Theatre Genesis became a sharp-edged testing ground for new work.
- 'Here, now, in lower Manhattan, the phenomenon is taking place: the beginning, the Genesis, of a cultural revolution. It is taking place out of utter necessity. Out of the necessity to survive....Personally I have little hope for the survival of our civilization. But whatever hope we have lies with our artists. For they alone have the ability (if we do not continue to corrupt them) to withstand the onslaught of the mass media and the multitude of false gods. They alone have the ability to show us ourselves. '
- --Ralph Cook.
The Early Days
Sam Shepard: Western Rebel
As the newly appointed 'lay minister of the arts', Ralph Cook soon began the six-year-long routine of reading scripts. He read incessantly, and soon instigated a more diligent and thorough selection process than any other off-off-Broadway theater of the time. He created a two-pronged production track: a self-selected season of up to six new plays, and then a Monday night workshop series where writers could hear their work aloud for the first time. Cook believed it was his job to give a large degree of exposure and continuity to writers early in their career, in order to develop the artist instead of just the play. Despite his nurturing of individual artists and their potential, Cook never commissioned work or guaranteed a future production, instead basing his programming decisions purely on his opinion of each play. While this often led 'Genesis playwrights' to be produced elsewhere, it developed a great deal of trust in Cook to be honest and objective in his programming, which created a closeness and camaraderie with the playwrights who frequented there.
After an initial off-key production of the didactic Study in Color by Michael Boyd, Cook produced a double-bill of one acts by his friend and recent co-worker Sam Shepard. Cowboys and The Rock Garden were homages to the writing of Samuel Beckett, and reflected Shepard's aimless wanderings both physical and psychological with then comrade Charles Mingus III (son of the jazz legend Charles Mingus). The plays harnessed a youthful energy of playful language, but were also a representation of a raw voice—a voice from the streets. Cook's decision to support Shepard was an instinct that would launch the career of the most celebrated child of off-off-Broadway, while setting a tone for Theatre Genesis works to come.
Shepard describes the energy behind mounting those first productions: 'We were in rehearsal for [two plays] within that week," Shepard recalls. "We had no money. I can remember getting props off the street. We'd take Yuban coffee cans, punch a hole in them, and use them for lights. We did it all from scratch, which was pretty incredible.'
Cowboys and The Rock Garden were largely dismissed by critics, who could not see past the similarity to Beckett's style, until Michael Smith of The Village Voice prophesied,
- 'I know it sounds pretentious and unprepossessing: 'Theatre Genesis... dedicated to the new playwright' But they have actually found a new playwright, [and] he has written a pair of provocative and genuinely original plays... Shepard is feeling his way, working with an intuitive approach to language and dramatic structure and moving into an area between ritual and naturalism, where character transcends psychology, fantasy breaks down literalism, and the patterns of ordinariness have their own lives. His is a gestalt theater which evokes the existence behind behavior (1964).'
This review bolstered the theatre's attendance in just enough time for the public to take real notice of Shepard and for other emerging playwrights to know the look and feel of a Genesis production.
Writing as an Act of Rebellion
Shepard's career was all but launched. Although he would receive productions in other off-off-Broadway theaters, he considered Theatre Genesis his true artistic beginning. In 1965 his one-act Chicago was produced alongside The Customs Inspector in Baggy Pants by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and due to its success was transferred to a larger venue. This proved to be a misstep for shows such as Chicago, for numerous reasons. First and foremost, Theatre Genesis plays were often written or conceived in violent response to the increasingly consumerist/commercial off-Broadway machine. In other words, 'selling out' was sacrilege. The plays were written for the gritty intimacy of Theatre Genesis, and for the motley crew of the lower east side. Transplants uptown presented so foreign an environment that many productions floundered. As Sally Banes has argued, 'For off-off-Broadway, graduating to off-Broadway—leaving the alternative home and the alternative community—was a fate to be avoided, for it altered the relations of production, turning the artists into alienated labor'. Ralph Cook is even quoted as saying, 'We couldn't care less about Broadway. We are aware that it exists somewhere uptown, no more.'
Aside from the ego or alienation of transferring a show out of its beloved community, there were practical concerns. Due to union restrictions in off-Broadway houses, every transfer meant that most of the 'unprofessional' cast had to be replaced. With Chicago, Shepard and his actors were frustrated to no end, as many of them had helped create the roles. The off-off-Broadway community's tensions with Actors' Equity Association would continue to mount over the years, until the 'showcase code' was created as a means to allow union members to participate in more experimental non-profit-seeking work in exchange for travel compensation to and from rehearsals. However, some in the community regard the compromise as 'too-little-too-late', and they consider Equity's crackdown in the late 1960s as the eventual nail in the coffin of the off-off-Broadway movement.
Finding the Playwright's Voice
- ' Theatre Genesis is a mix of counterculture ingredients; a coolness that can explode like liquid oxygen, a dropout hipsterism, a polymorphous perversity of language and feeling, a Zap Comix mocking of straight heads. '
- Jack Kroll --Newsweek
Melfi, Koutoukas & Mednick
Fueled by the successful productions of Shepard, Ralph Cook quickly began programming more new and experimental young talent. Cook's metabolism was running high between 1964 and 1966, when he produced debut productions of numerous playwrights, including two one-acts from a then-unknown Charles L. Mee. One production worth noting due to its sheer audacity, is a version of Medea by H.M. Koutoukas. Its notoriety lies not in the fantastical setting (a laundromat), nor in how Medea kills her offspring (in the washing machine) but because Koutoukas was pursuing simultaneous productions at both Theatre Genesis and Caffe Cino, unbeknownst to the other. The Cino and Cafe La MaMa (La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club) productions had Medea played by a man, Charles Stanley in drag, and when Koutoukas submitted the script to Genesis—partly as a subversive joke—the role was played by a woman, Linda Eskenas. Although the Genesis production was a respectable one, Cook was outraged at the prank. The Theatre Genesis production opened the last weekend of the production's run at Caffe Cino, October 31, 1965. It is also worth noting that the critical and artistic community far favored the campy Cino version. Playwright Paul Foster describes the effect of the play's climax: 'Medea was there for you to reach out and touch, forming the unspeakable crime of infanticide in her mind. Then she threw her baby into a laundromat and washed it to death with Oxydol. She slammed the lid down and set the dial on HEAVY LOAD. How can you forget things like that?" Whether the dual (a third production with the Caffe Cino cast opened the series at Cafe La MaMa E. T. C. on October 13, 1965) production was a byproduct of overactive zeal or intentional subversion, the litmus test of this particular play and its success with Joe Cino further solidified the divide between a free-wheeling camp of the west village and the 'good-old-boy' persona of Theatre Genesis.
Leonard Melfi was another playwright hot on the heels of Shepard, and one who would become Theatre Genesis' most-produced writer. In 1965 alone, Melfi had five of his one act plays produced by Cook, but it was his short play Birdbath for which he received the most success. Written specifically for Cook, who would later direct, Birdbath (previously titled Coffeecake and Caviar) was a well-crafted piece of stage realism. The plot centers around the protagonist Frankie, who has a tumultuous one night rendezvous with a waitress named Velma. The two drink and talk into the night, getting deeper and deeper into one another's hidden past, until Velma reveals through a fit of hysterics that she has murdered her mother earlier that morning. Due to the play's intense subject matter and heightened emotions demanded of its actors, Birdbath remained a staple of the off-off-Broadway circuit, receiving productions at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, later being published by Ellen Stewart in her volume Six From La Mama.
Perhaps the most experimental and enigmatic of the Theatre Genesis playwrights was Murray Mednick. Mednick, who would later co-run Theatre Genesis after Cook's departure, made full use of the theatre's development process—often workshopping his scripts repeatedly with Genesis actors before finalizing the text. His plays The Hunter, Willie the Germ, and most notably The Hawk were careening, grungy and ritualistic interpretations of life on the streets. The Hawk is particularly interesting formally, because Mednick developed the script through improvisation with a group of actors over the course of two months. An exploration of drug addiction, The Hawk employed both the ritual elements and the poetic language emblematic of Theatre Genesis. The freeness of form is something that would appear with greater frequency throughout the off-off-Broadway and the avant garde (such as in The Living Theater and Joseph Chaikin's The Open Theater) and was a notable side-step from the historically script-based programming of the Genesis. Michael Smith from The Village Voice championed, The Hawk is convincingly detailed, yet mysterious...sharply contemporary, the form strange but not obstructive; it is performed with exceptional immediacy and authority; its ultimate intent remains veiled or vague, but the other levels are so rich it doesn't matter.' Smith goes on to opine that 'in moving beyond the documentary realism of the world of heroin addiction, The Hawk and Theatre Genesis had gone a step beyond gritty poetic realism, and for that reason, it was perhaps the most daring venture yet attempted by Genesis and perhaps its single most important achievement.'
Mednick describes his blending of poetic language into a new theatrical form:
- 'There was a kind of presentational quality to the language which I think we were very influenced by. We had a similar attitude toward language, which has to do with a feeling about the spoken word as an almost shamanistic act, incantatory, ritualistic, as opposed to the theatrical dialogue tradition... We had a very high estimation of the idea of the word itself coming through the medium of the actor.'
Masculinity and Heterosexism of the Genesis
There was no denying the 'boy's club' atmosphere of Theatre Genesis. The work was fueled by testosterone and drugs, and the close-knit 'membership quality' of artists created a perceived machismo around the theatre's persona. Tony Barsha, a playwright who admits that the predominantly heterosexual character of Theatre Genesis made it the only off-off venue he would have felt comfortable working at, is quoted as saying the theatre consisted of 'a bunch of guys, and their babes, and their drugs'.
However, many women did work at the Genesis in its later years, most notably María Irene Fornés. Her analysis of the theatre's machismo is as such:
- ' [Theatre Genesis] was not macho in the usual way, but something very kind of defeated... Not 'macho macho', but 'macho drug', which is different. These were straight men but from the street drug world. Macho drug has this kind of undercurrent of anger, disappointment, possible violence. '.
By 1967, the delineation between the homosexuality of the Caffe Cino and its west village counterparts, compared to the straight macho Theatre Genesis, began to dissolve. More work was directed towards social and political issues in the world at large, namely America's involvement in Vietnam as well as civil and gay rights issues. One particular Genesis production that interwove social and political commentary was Grant Duay's Fruit Salad (1967). Duay's play juxtaposed film footage containing a woman making fruit salad with depicted scenes of soldiers in warfare. Each soldier had a name such as 'Banana,' 'Melon,' & 'Cherry' and the seriousness of their situation was meant to play against the triviality of the dish. What is most notable in this production, vis a vis the changing sexual politics of the time, is the character 'Cherry' very clearly being homosexual. Throughout the course of the play, Banana throws homophobic epithets at Cherry, only to succumb to his own gay urges in a climactic fit of passion between the two men.
Although the play includes homosexual themes—a departure for the material of Theatre Genesis—many critics and historians have noted that the overall aesthetic and tone of the piece was consistent with the Genesis precedent. Ironically, Tony Barsha directed the non-camp production, and Michael Smith from The Village Voice praised it as being 'vivid, simple and arresting... A bitter, painful, almost despairing vision presented with lightness, fluidity, conciseness and cunning'.
End of the Fervent Years
Fueled by the success of the mid-to-late-sixties, Theatre Genesis soon found itself on the slippery slope to mainstream. Many off-off-Broadway theaters were being more closely scrutinized both by industry insiders looking to turn a profit, as well as by outside funding organizations; In short... by the system it was trying to subvert. In 1966 St. Mark's accepted a $185,000 federal grant brokered by The New School to support the church's art and educational outreach programs, which meant that each Theatre Genesis production could now have a budget of $200. Artists were all of a sudden awarded fees; a first for off-off-Broadway. As much as this benefited all the artists involved, the grant proved to be a 'canary in the coal mine' of Theatre Genesis' troubled relation to outside funding. Later that year Cook and Rector Allen turned down a large Ford Foundation grant on matters of principal, yet later severed the New School funding deal citing 'excessive entanglement with the government'. Cook now had no other choice but to solicit funds from the Ford Foundation, making the organization reliant solely on a foundation. When that cash flow was reduced in 1969, Theatre Genesis had no other choice but to cut their season from six shows down to three.
Ralph Cook withdrew from the theater in 1969, leaving Genesis to be co-run by Murray Mednick and Walter Hadler. The men kept the company running as a cooperative for a few more years, but Cook's exit left the theatre changed forever. The Village was morphing around them as well... Jazz was being replaced by psychedelic rock, and the long-haired counterculture of 1969 was bringing a less angst-driven energy'. Activism downtown was still in full force, but with the death of Joe Cino on April 2, 1967 the rare breed of off-off-Broadway experimental theater was moving out of the coffeehouses and into other venues.
- Orzel and Smith, Eight Plays from Off-Off-Broadway New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc, 1966
- Soloski, Alexis. “True East: Sam Shepard Returns to New York.” Village Voice. Village Voice, 24 June. 2008. Web. 15 Dec. 2010.
- Banes, Sally. "Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body". Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.
- Davis, Douglas M. "The Expanding Arts: Success for Off-Off-Broadway". National Observer, April 10, 1967
- Crespy, David A. Off-Off-Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960s Ignited a New American Theater. New York: Back Stage Books, 2003