Off-Off-Broadway: A Background & a Catharsis
While attending the IT Awards Nomination ceremonies on July 20, 2009 as a cast member of Miss Evers’ Boys, I happened into a conversation with a lady New Yorker, of some age, who encouraged me into speaking to her about the wonder of the existence of such awards and the Off-Off-Broadway Industry as a movement itself: where it was and what it has become over the years. She suggested I write a note on this wonderful history that too few have even an idea existed. And maybe find someone willing to set up a mike for such interviews.
I spoke to her of how, in my experience and memory, the Off-Off-Broadway Movement had as its Godfather Joe Cino (whom I never met) and his Caffé in the West Village in the 1960’s, and possibly as far back as the late fifties. That was where I and my cohorts attended inventive, innovative theatre. In those days we ersatz theatre people would then congregate at such bars as the old White Horse Tavern, McSorley’s, and even Barrymore’s in the Theatre District. The Caffé Cino seemed to me to be the first among other fledgling bars, lofts, and building basements to provide for the masses an alternative theatre to Broadway and The Great White Way.
When I entered the profession in 1968 (in a play Fridays on the 14th Floor, directed by Steven Zacharias, who had since become a well-known actor, writer and film director in Hollywood), there seemingly was only the enjoyment of learning and being part of a production: there was no pay or even carfare allowance. We got there, rehearsed and performed the best we could – and did! I performed in Antigone in the back room of an East Village bar with a sawdust-covered floor. Out of this experience and atmosphere was sprung such venerable spaces as La Mama, Etc., Woodie King’s New Federal Theatre Co., and many others I can remember only if the names are recalled.
In the year 1980, I founded and was the producing director, as well as instructor of acting, at PSW Studio (Performers’ Seminar Workshop), a loft on West 55th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Below me was the renowned Serena’s Belly Dance Studio. I made my space into a 50-seat Off-Off-Broadway house with seat risers and an elevated stage (by that time the term “Off-Broadway” was being taken over by commercial theatre interests). We provided acting classes, performances by our theatre company “The PSW Players”, and rentals to outside people and production companies. Virtually all money I made from my personal outside professional performances went back into PSW.
We lasted 3 years. The building was shortly converted into a “one-lot convenience hotel”.
Three years was the survival goal I intended to reach in order to successfully apply for grants and such, but the City had other ideas. In the 1980’s the City went on a rampage to close down all “illegal loft and space usage” so as to turn them into viable commercial properties. Among the many victims who suffered was a wonderful woman who for many years had a small and popular basement theatre also on West 55th Street across 8th Avenue. They closed her down as well. We drowned our sorrows in a couple of beers – and left.
I’d like to think that the wonderful IT Awards and the Off-Off-Broadway movement, including The Audelco Awards, is what has risen out of the ashes of our struggles and will bring to light all of those beautiful histories and memories. Just think – awards and all! Unbelievable!!
Update:Among the several successful alumni of The PSW Studio family are included:
1. Mr. Lawrence Evans, Billy Holiday Theatre; Casting Director, New Federal Theatre Co.
2. Ms. Marjorie Johnson, Audelco Award winning Actress; Major commercials
3. Ms. Susan Settles, Promotions Manager, Producer, Crossroads Theatre Co.