The Last of The Mohican Bohemians (or What Drove Stephen Bottoms to Chronicle the Off-Off Broadway Movement) An article in performanceby Michelle Memran
Steve: Stephan J. Bottoms: Senior Lecturer, Glasgow University’s Department of Theater, Film and TV Studies. Author of Playing Underground, as well as books on Sam Shepard and Edward Albee. He also regularly directs for the stage.
Irene: Maria Irene Fornes: playwright. A pinnacle writer, director and producer of the Off-Off Broadway movement of the ‘60s and far beyond, Irene began her theater career at Judson Poets Theater. In 1971, she founded the New York Strategy, as an agency to help produce plays by fellow Off-Off Broadway alumni.
Bob: Robert Heide: Also a seminal playwright of the OOB scene, who had plays produced at Caffe Cino, Café LaMama, Theater for the New City and New York Theater Strategy (see above), to name a few. He has co-authored several books with JOHN (see below) on topics ranging from Greenwich Village to cowboys to Mickey Mouse.
Michelle: Michelle Memran: At-large-artist and writer who currently spends most days researching and following the life of IRENE (see above), which will sooner than later become a documentary film. She is the one with the questions and the camera.
John: John Gilman: writer, photographer, actor who appeared in Village productions at Caffe Cino, Café LaMama, and Theater for the New City. He has co-authored several books with BOB (see above) on topics ranging from Popular Art Deco to the mystique of New Jersey.
Trio: FRANKENSTEIN’s SWEETHEART, AMELIA EARHART and DEBORAH KERR are women IRENE thought should make cameos in our play, of only for a moment.
Notes: If there is any action, it takes place primarily in the West Village, mostly around Bleeker and Christopher Streets. The action, if there is any, is centered around the publication of Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off Broadway Movement by Stephen J. Bottoms- a momentous chronicling of artists during a time (the sixties) where coffeehouses and churches dominated the only theater scene worth seeing in New York. With the exception of Irene’s TRIO and the slide show, all of the dialogue and staging below is taken from actual chance encounters and interviews conducted with THE PLAYERS. The STEVE monologues are taken from a Trans-Atlantic phone interview during which he was not doing a slide presentation, but rather was preparing himself a sausage sandwich. The actor playing STEVE should speak in a steady stream of enthusiasm for Off-Off Broadway artists and their motivations. Actors should be encouraged to improvisationally erupt into song. All costumes and casting are left to the director’s devices.
The audience will be seated in pews. A torn green projection screen faces the audience. In front of this sits a small slide projector atop a cardboard box. Throughout the presentation, it would not be unlikely for the projector to break down or sputter out or make absurdly loud noises. The sound system is a tape recorder with a very small speaker. A Café table with five chairs sits center stage. As the lights go up, we hear “THE PASSING OF TIME” from IRENE’s production of Promenade at Judson Poets Theater in 1965, which begins…
It’s to age
That we owe
What we are
In fact we’re grateful
For the passing of time
Its only fitting
We should be grateful
For the passing of time
Cause its to age
That we owe
What we are
We’d not be
What we are.
As the music progresses, the TRIO: (AMELIA EARHART, FRANKENSTEIN’s SWEETHEART AND DEBORAH KERR) enter in a kickline with BOB. When the music fades they all sit, except for AMELIA EARHART who ties on a leather apron and serves coffee while IRENE and JOHN, arm-in-arm, wend their way from the back of the house to the stage. JOHN has a Mickey Mouse coloring book folded under his arm. MICHELLE follows the duo with a camera.
IRENE: (To camera) See. I told you. Everyone lives in the Village.
JOHN: Never leave the Village.
MICHELLE: (To John) Can I leave the camera on?
JOHN: (To camera) Certainly. You know Irene is featured in this book Playing Underground…
IRENE: WE created the underground, the above ground, the oxygen. WE created the chairs people sat on. WE created breathing. Didn’t WE? Didn’t WE? Before us who knew how to breathe? Not breathe on stage. How to breathe period.
JOHN: You still do Yoga?
IRENE: I did when I was young. (She laughs)
JOHN: Lets go in here. (He leads IRENE to the table on stage and motions for MICHELLE to follow).
BOB: (Stands and kisses Irene) Irene, we were just talking about you. You remember…(He point to the TRIO. IRENE nods and waves and kisses. They sit.)
JOHN: (To IRENE) I’m reading about you in this new book that came out called Playing Underground and it mentions the New York Theatre Strategy and it’s over 400 pages. Harry Koutoukas has a poem in it. Everybody’s in it.
BOB: (To camera) Are you doing a documentary?
MICHELLE: Yes. Hi. We met at the Obies.
BOB: (To camera) Can I saw “I love you, Irene” on camera? Is that allowed?
IRENE: That’s allowed. (They laugh).
MICHELLE: How long have you known each other?
BOB: Oh, shall we say since 1965? That’s when Irene came to see my plays at Caffe Cino, and I went to Judson Church to see hers…
IRENE: Yes, yes, yes, yes…
BOB: And Irene started New York Theatre Strategy so we could produce our own plays-
IRENE: The New York Theatre Strategy was in my living room.
BOB: We were all producing our own plays.
Lights fade slightly on stage as STEVE enters and makes his way to the slide projector. Those on stage turn their seats to see the screen. STEVE starts speaking over the following slides:
Picture of Caffe Cino and its interior on Cornelia Street from 1965, Joe Cino, Edward Albee, Doric Wilson, the façade of Café LaMama on East 4th Street, Ellen Stewart…
STEVE: (To Audience) In Bristol, the space that I loved more than the proper theater in the Drama Department was this studio space in the Students Union which was a converted reading room with a really low roof- kind of a sweat-box atmosphere- where they could cram up to 80 people.
Rosalyn Drexler, Robert Heide and John Gilman, Lanfod Wilson, Charles Ludlam, Gertrude Stein’s In Circles, HM Koutoukas’ Medea…
STEVE: That kind of theater really made a permanent impression on me because so often theaters just seem so lacking that kind of intensity and intimacy of atmosphere. It had something to do with the sense of community in that context. The people watching the plays were the friends of the people in them as well. There’s a kind of energy that emerges from that, and I supposed you can look at it like well that’s just amateur theater- everyone’s going to see it because of their friends- but there’s more to it than that. It has something to do with theater’s ability to be located in a particular time and place. And to create an immediate connection between people.
Robert Wilson, Sam Shepard…
DEBORAH KERR: (Interrupting, to AMELIA) I love Sam Shepard! Don’t you?
AMELIA EARHART: (To FRANKENSTEIN’s SWEETHEART) Yes. Don’t you?
FRANKENSTEIN’s SWEETHEART: (To AMELIA) Yes. Don’t you?
A picture of Tom O’Horgan, followed by the production of Hair…
STEVE: Tom O’Horgan, who directed Hair and a lot of plays for LaMama in the sixties- he still talks about theater as an appointment in time and space between an audience and performers. The idea of an appointment or an invitation I think is really interesting. Too often you get a sense of theater which is not a meeting. You’re watching a stage and you might as well be watching a movie because those people on the stage somehow have been separated from you in a way that it doesn’t really matter.
Lights up on stage.
BOB: We all went to see one another’s work. We were all part of a community. And this community in 2004 is no more. There are remnants of it but with a lack of funding and with an escalating of rents. All of our rents were under 100 dollars. There’s a song written by Paul Simon called Bleecker Street.
Thirty dollars pays your rent
On Blee-----ker Street.
I call myself one of the last of the Bohemians or one of the last of the Mohicans of you want to look at it that way. (Turning to Irene) Irene, are you one of the last of the Mohican Bohemians?
IRENE: I am the first Mohican and the last Bohemian. I’m each of them.
BOB: (To camera) We had no money. When we did a production we would do it for 100 dollars or less.
IRENE: Not only that, if I had seen a costume in a play of his that I Could use in the play I was doing I would call him on the phone and say, “Do you still have that red costume with this and the that?”
BOB: And we would go out on the streets to find our sets and our props. All night we would forage in the garbage-
IRENE: It was incredible.
BOB: It was better than all those expensive sets because you had to use your imagination. Imagination. Remember that?
Lights fade out on stage and up on STEVE. He continues with the slide show.
Al Carmines in the choir pit playing piano…
STEVE: For them it was about the idea of creativity. For Al Carmines (Revered/Composer at Judson Church), I quote him talking about the two great doctrines of Christianity being salvation and creation, and there’s been far too much emphasis on the first and not enough on the second.
… Irene Fornes, Amiri Baraka, the Open Theatre, Theatre Gensis, Murray Mednick, Julie Bovasso, Julian Beck and Judith Malina at a production of the Living Theatre…
STEVE: The first thing Irene said to me when I said I want to ask you about the Off-Off Broadway movement was, “Well you need to understand there were four venues- two cafes and two churches.” They way she put that so simply tells you something also. And what is a cafe? It’s a place where people get together to socialize, to share, to chat, to feel at ease and intimate with each other; and what is a church but a place of a different kind of community sharing a sense of meditation and reflection?
Lights stay on Steve, who changes the slide reel as BOB and IRENE speak.
BOB: I get tears in my eyes longing for NY Theatre Strategy and Julie Bovasso and “Let’s just do that.” “Let’s just do that.” Now we can’t “just do it.” It’s going to cost a lot of money.
IRENE: But that’s nonsense. If we did it then for nothing we can do it now for nothing.
Steve begins second slide show. We see slides of modern troupes: goat Island, The Riot Group, Elevator Repair Service, The Wooster Group…
STEVE: There’s an American troupe called Goat Island. They got together originally at Padua Hills, in fact. And they’re based in Chicago and they don’t expect to be funded because they’re an American group and they’re like “Ok, its not going to happen. Lets get on with it,” And they spent literally two years developing a piece and letting it develop over real time because they all have other jobs and they do the work in evenings and weekends around everything else. It’s a different kind of economics which is much more similar to Off-Off Broadway economics. And the result is when you see their work, the kind of complexity and density of it is just utterly amazing.
IRENE: (interrupting STEVE) The thing is we don’t have the general enthusiasm for theater we had then.
BOB: I still have it. John has it. Harry Koutoukas still has it.
IRENE: (to ALL) So lets do it.
(She stands and motions for BOB and the TRIO to join her. They form a kickline. STEVE and MICHELLE link on).
IRENE: But not for one night. That’s like killing the baby before it has a chance to breathe.
The theme song from Promenade escorts the kickline off the stage.
MICHELLE MEMRAN is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.