Ellen Stewart, the founder, artistic director and de facto
producer of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, a multicultural hive of
avant-garde drama and performance art in New York for almost half a century,
died Thursday in Manhattan. She was 91.
Ms. Stewart had a history of heart trouble and died at Beth Israel Hospital
after a long illness, said Sam Rudy, a spokesman for La MaMa, where she had
lived for many years in an apartment above the theater, on East Fourth Street.
Ms. Stewart was a dress designer when she started La MaMa in a basement
apartment in 1961, a woman entirely without theater experience or even much
interest in the theater. But within a few years, and with an indomitable
personality, she had become a theater pioneer.
Not only did she introduce unusual new work to the stage, she also helped
colonize a new territory for the theater, planting a flag in the name of
low-budget experimental productions in the East Village of Manhattan and
creating the capital of what became known as Off Off Broadway.
She was a vivid figure, often described as beautiful — an African-American woman
whose long hair, frequently worn in cornrows, turned silver in her later years.
Her wardrobe was flamboyant, replete with bangles, bracelets and scarves. Her
voice was deep, carrying an accent reminiscent of her Louisiana roots.
Few producers could match her energy, perseverance and fortitude. In the decades
after World War II her influence on American theater was comparable to that of
Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, though the two
approached the stage from different wings. Papp straddled the commercial and
noncommercial worlds, while Ms. Stewart’s terrain was international and
Her theater became a remarkable springboard for an impressive roster of
promising playwrights, directors and actors who went on to accomplished careers
both in mainstream entertainment and in push-the-envelope theater.
Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis,
Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler, Diane Lane and Nick Nolte were among the actors
who performed at La MaMa in its first two decades. Playwrights like Sam Shepard,
Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Maria Irene Fornes and Adrienne Kennedy
developed early work there. So did composers like Elizabeth Swados, Philip Glass
and Stephen Schwartz.
La MaMa directors included the visionary Robert Wilson; Tom O’Horgan (who helped
create the rock musical “Hair” at the Public); Richard Foreman, who founded the
imaginative Ontological Theater Company; Joseph Chaikin, who founded the Open
Theater; and even Papp, before there was such a thing as the Public Theater.
Meredith Monk, the composer, choreographer and director, presented her
genre-bending pieces there regularly.
A few La MaMa plays, like the musical “Godspell,” moved to Broadway, and others
had extended runs in commercial Off Broadway houses.
“Eighty percent of what is now considered the American theater originated at La
MaMa,” Mr. Fierstein once said in an interview in Vanity Fair, perhaps
exaggerating slightly. His play “Torch Song Trilogy” was developed there.
La MaMa became the quintessential theater on a shoestring. Salaries were
minimal, ticket prices were low, and profits were nonexistent. For decades Ms.
Stewart often swept the sidewalk in front of the theater herself.
But an adventurous theatergoer would be rewarded there. More than 3,000
productions of classic and postmodern drama, performance art, dance and chamber
opera have been seen on La MaMa’s various stages. For Ms. Stewart a vast number
of them were leaps of faith, arising from her instinct and belief that what
artists need more than anything else is the freedom to create without
interference. She would typically appear onstage before a performance, ring a
cowbell and announce La MaMa’s dedication “to the playwright and all aspects of
During the earliest days of her theater she supported her family of artists —
her children, she called them — with the money she continued to earn designing
clothes. She installed a washer and dryer in the basement for the performers,
and many a visiting artist slept in her apartment or in the theaters themselves.
She didn’t begin directing shows herself until relatively late in her life. She
often said she didn’t read plays; she read people. Her gifts, as affirmed by a
MacArthur Foundation award in 1985, were intuitive and hard to pin down.
“If a script ‘beeps’ to me, I do it,” she said in an interview with The New York
Times. “Audiences may hate these plays, but I believe in them. The only way I
can explain my ‘beeps’ is that I’m no intellectual, but my instincts tell me
automatically when a playwright has something.”
Her programming stretched far wider than the American theater. It was at La MaMa
that Andrei Serban, a Romanian director transplanted to the United States,
refought the Trojan War with his reinvention of Greek tragedy, “Fragments of a
Greek Trilogy,” incorporating “Medea,” “The Trojan Women” and “Electra.” La MaMa
became a magnet for the most adventurous European and American companies,
including Peter Brook’s Paris group. Playing there now is “Being Harold Pinter,”
a politically charged production by the Belarus Free Theater, based in Minsk,
some of whose members were arrested and others forced underground by an
La MaMa’s range of activity was kaleidoscopic and multicultural, embracing an
Eskimo “Antigone,” a Korean “Hamlet” and a splashy re-creation of the golden
days of the Cotton Club in Harlem, directed by Ms. Stewart herself.
She was a theatrical missionary, scouting new talent abroad and planting La MaMa
seeds wherever she went. She produced site-specific performances all over the
world — a “Medea” created by Mr. Serban and Ms. Swados, for example, at the
ruins in Baalbek, Lebanon, in 1972. Satellite La MaMa organizations sprouted
from Tel Aviv to Tokyo. With the $300,000 MacArthur grant she bought a former
monastery in Umbria, Italy, and turned it into an international theater center.
Even when her network of theaters was reduced for economic reasons, she remained
the avant-garde’s ambassador to the world.
“If the play is good, then it’s good,” she said when asked about her devotion to
experimental work. “If it’s bad, that does not change my way of thinking about
the person involved. I may be disappointed in production values, but I’ve never
been sorry about anything I put on.”
Ms. Stewart was born in Chicago on Nov. 7, 1919 and spent her childhood years
there and in Alexandria, La. She was never eager to speak about the part of her
life before her arrival in New York, and details about it are scarce. She was
married at least once and had a son, Larry Hovell, who died in 1998. Her
survivors include an adopted son, Duk Hyung Yoo, who lives in South Korea, and
What is known is that she studied to be a teacher at Arkansas State College and
worked as a riveter in a defense plant in Chicago during World War II. In 1950
she moved to New York with the intention of going to design school, but ended up
having to support herself with a variety of jobs. At one point she was a porter
and operated an elevator at Saks Fifth Avenue.
According to a story she often told, on a visit to Delancey Street one Sunday,
she met a fabric shop owner who encouraged her dream to become a fashion
designer. He gave her fabrics to turn into dresses, and when she wore her own
creations to work at Saks, she created such excitement that the store made her a
Her theater career began as a good turn. Her foster brother, Frederick Lights,
wanted to be a playwright but had difficulty getting his work staged.
Sympathetic to him and to Paul Foster, another aspiring dramatist, she began a
theater in 1962 in the basement of a tenement on East Ninth Street.
Everyone already referred to Ms. Stewart as Mama, and one of the actors
suggested La MaMa as a name for her space. The theater was called Cafe La MaMa,
and later La MaMa E.T.C. (for Experimental Theater Club).
At first people were sometimes literally pulled in off the street to see the
shows: Tennessee Williams’s “One Arm,” Eugene O’Neill’s “Before Breakfast,”
Fernando Arrabal’s “Executioner.” Ms. Stewart would sometimes present a play —
like “The Room,” by Harold Pinter — without authorization.
Neighbors initially tried to close the theater down. They thought she was
running a brothel, she said in interviews. Otherwise, why would so many white
men be visiting a black woman in a basement?
But the shows went on. La MaMa was one of New York’s first coffeehouse theaters
and became a pillar of Off Off Broadway, which sprang up as alternative theater
when Off Broadway began pursuing a more mainstream audience. As word of La MaMa
spread, artists flocked to it.
Gradually federal and foundation grants came in, giving added certification to a
theater that became an important New York cultural institution.
In 1969, with the help of $25,000 from W. MacNeil Lowry and the Ford Foundation,
the company moved to a former meatpacking plant at 74A East Fourth Street, where
it created two 99-seat theaters and office space. Ms. Stewart lived above the
theaters. In 1974 she opened the Annex, a 295-seat theater a few doors down the
street in a converted television studio. It was renamed the Ellen Stewart
Theater in a gala celebration in November 2009. La MaMa also has an art gallery,
a six-story rehearsal and studio building nearby and an extensive archive on the
history of Off Off Broadway theater.
Ms. Stewart virtually never stopped working. Despite a variety of ailments, she
had been putting on about 70 new productions a year. The shows will go on. The
theater said it would continue to present its schedule without interruption, and
Mia Yoo, who has been co-artistic director since September 2009, will continue
in that capacity.
“When I think about the fact that she is in the last part of her life, even
though I’ve been there a lot of her life, I can’t bear the thought of this world
without her,” Elizabeth Swados said in a 2006 article in the theater journal
TDR: The Drama Review. “I can’t imagine La MaMa without her. There may be a
place called La MaMa that somebody brings good avant-garde international theater
to, but it will not be La MaMa. La MaMa is her.”
Mel Gussow, a theater critic and reporter for The Times
who contributed to this
obituary, died in 2005.
This article has been revised
to reflect the following
Correction: January 14, 2011
An earlier version of this obituary
mistakenly listed Adrienne Rich
those who developed early work at La MaMa.
Stuart W. Little, whose many newspaper articles and books chronicled
developments in the theater from the 1950s to the ’70s, died last Sunday in
Canaan, Conn. He was 86.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Christopher Little.
A tireless theatergoer and fervent theater supporter, Mr. Little wrote a theater
news column for The New York Herald Tribune from 1958 to 1966, when the paper
folded, and then turned to longer-form writing. In the early 1970s he wrote two
well-received books. “The Playmakers” (W. W. Norton, 1970), which he wrote with
Arthur Cantor, a theater producer, was a thorough explanation of how Broadway
shows were produced, built and managed, and a lament that the theater was losing
its cultural influence, having yielded its primacy in the entertainment world to
television and the movies.
“This is the fabulous invalid’s story, told in multitudinous detail by two
sympathetic friends,” The New York Times Book Review said.
In 1972 Mr. Little published “Off Broadway: The Prophetic Theater” (Coward,
McCann & Geoghegan), which brought the same scrutiny to the varied universe of
small and experimental theaters that had emerged and multiplied around New York
City during the previous two decades.
For his 1974 book, “Enter Joseph Papp: In Search of a New American Theater”
(Coward, McCann & Geoghegan), he accompanied Papp, the impresario and leader of
the New York Shakespeare Festival, for a whirlwind year of furious fund-raising
and producing. It was not reviewed well, largely because critics thought Mr.
Little had been seduced by Papp’s charm and had become less an observer than an
Stuart West Little was born in Hartford on Dec. 12, 1921. His father was a
Mr. Little graduated from Yale in 1944 and served in the Office of Strategic
Services, the World War II progenitor of the Central Intelligence Agency, for
which his duties included writing psychological profiles of high-ranking Nazis.
He began his journalistic career in 1946 at The Herald Tribune, where he rose to
assistant city editor before taking on the theater column. For a time he worked
in television news at NBC. From 1986 to 2001 he edited the quarterly newsletter
of the Theater Development Fund, an advocacy organization. Earlier this year he
published “Home in Fenwick: Memoir of a Place” (iUniverse).
In addition to his son, who lives in Norfolk, Conn., Mr. Little is survived by
his wife of 62 years, Anastazia Lillie Marie Raben-Levetzau; a brother, Edward
H. Little of East Haddam, Conn.; a sister, Virginia L. Miller of Bloomfield,
Conn.; two daughters, Caroline Larken of Pewsey Wiltshire, England, and Suzanne
Little of New York City; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
“He was proudest of the fact that he never became a critic,” Christopher Little
said. “He wanted to be liked by people.”
April 1, 2008
The New York Times
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The schisms in American society, both macro and micro, were
on vivid display at this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at the
Actors Theater of Louisville. The divisions between the religious right and the
secular left, the tech-fueled widening of the generation gap and the
ever-relevant question of what makes a modern marriage function smoothly were
among the themes explored by playwrights at the festival.
Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw,” an absorbing comedy-drama about a blind date
that threatens to become a marriage-devouring black hole, was the festival’s
heat-generating event, surely destined for New York and beyond. Ms. Gionfriddo’s
“After Ashley” had its debut at the festival in 2004 and was later seen in New
York, while her lively if contrived black comedy “U.S. Drag” just concluded a
run Off Broadway. The new play marks an impressive stride for a writer with a
saw-toothed wit and a seductive interest in exploring the rewards and
responsibilities of emotional interdependence.
Devoted yentas and their grateful customers beware: “Becky Shaw” depicts an
innocuous set-up gone spectacularly awry. We do not meet the toxic title
character until midway through the first act, which begins in a New York hotel
room where Suzanna (Mia Barron) listlessly mourns her father’s death, while Max
(David Wilson Barnes), more or less adopted by Suzanna’s parents when he was 10,
tries to shake her out of it.
He is also trying to plug the holes in the family’s financial affairs, left in
disarray by Suzanna’s father, possibly because his business manager was also his
lover. Suzanna’s mother, Susan (Janis Dardaris), an imperious woman whose
multiple sclerosis has not stopped her from taking up with a much younger and
disreputable man, remains as impervious to Max’s warnings of dire economic
straits as Suzanna is to his tough-love approach to healing her grief.
Max’s role as the family fixer takes an unexpected turn at the end of this
crackling first scene. Ms. Gionfriddo, a writer for “Law and Order,” has
acquired a savvy aptitude for the deftly sprung plot twist. Firecrackers of
revelation explode every few minutes in “Becky Shaw,” which is almost as
quotably funny as Broadway’s scabrous “August: Osage County” — and that’s saying
Most of the choicest aperçus come from the superciliously pursed lips of Max,
played with chilly, magnetic allure by Mr. Barnes in the festival’s standout
performance. (It would be a shame if he were not allowed to reprise it should
the play have a future life; Mr. Barnes was also in “The Scene” by Theresa
Rebeck at this festival two years ago, a play in a similar vein that was mostly
recast with higher-profile actors — to deleterious effect — when it came to New
Max is cynical about all things romantic, and defines marriage as “two people
coming together because each has something the other wants.” Suzanna, who is
studying to become a therapist, at least likes to believe that she’s a true
believer in love. By the second scene she is happily married to Andrew (Davis
Duffield), a good-hearted would-be novelist scraping a living by working at a
law firm. There he meets the lovely but lonely title character (Annie Parisse),
whom they hope to pair off with the likewise single Max.
This is a bit like suggesting that a snake mate with a mouse, or so it first
appears when the nervous Becky arrives for their first date glaringly
overdressed and emotionally naked. But Ms. Gionfriddo keeps us guessing about
the character (ditsy or wily? victim, manipulator or a little of both?) as
divided allegiances — Suzanna’s to Max, Andrew’s to Becky — put a strain on the
marriage and expose unexpected vulnerabilities.
Intricately plotted and studded with scathing one-liners, “Becky Shaw” also
burrows into the ideas it engages about moral, intellectual and financial
compatibility in romance, as well as the level of emotional commitment various
relationships require. On the down side, virtually every scene would benefit
from some pruning, and the title character is the least convincing in the play,
at this point more a plot device than a credible woman. (It does not help that
the director, Peter DuBois, and Ms. Parisse, who may simply be too gorgeous for
the role, don’t seem to have settled on a consistent style for the performance.)
Still, “Becky Shaw” is a thoroughly enjoyable play, suspenseful, witty and
infused with an unsettling sense of the potential for psychic disaster inherent
in almost any close relationship.
The other significant show at the festival this year was “This Beautiful City,”
an ambitious, talent-stretching production from the New York troupe the
Civilians. Written by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, directed by Mr. Cosson, and
with songs by Michael Friedman, this collagelike revue addresses the rise of the
evangelical Christian movement.
Fans of this gifted troupe may be surprised at the sincerity — and generosity —
of the company’s approach to material that a hip New York theater company might
be expected to put across with a wink and a wry smile. The production is close
kin to “The Laramie Project,” the affecting documentary drama from Moisés
Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Company about the cultural repercussions of the
murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming.
As in their previous shows “Gone Missing” and “(I Am) Nobody’s Lunch,” the text
is largely drawn from interviews conducted by the company. The timing of the
Civilians’ visit to Colorado Springs, where mega-churches are as numerous as
McDonald’s franchises, was propitious. They were apparently on the scene when
Ted Haggard, pastor of the New Life Church and a leader in the movement, was
forced to step down after he was linked to a male prostitute.
But “This Beautiful City” is not a polemical exposé in the Michael Moore mold.
It is a thoughtful, exploratory foray into a world that, as the interviews make
clear, was alien territory to the show’s creators. Voices of faithful believers
are juxtaposed with those of critics of the movement’s power and its
prerogatives. The history of the evangelical explosion in Colorado Springs is
presented from various perspectives, as is the controversy over the powerful
sway evangelicals supposedly came to wield at the Air Force Academy there.
Playing several roles each, the half-dozen leading performers — some Civilians
regulars, some not — are all superb. None stoop to caricature, even when
portraying characters on the far side of religious fanaticism. The fresh-faced
Stephen Plunkett is a natural as a New Life pastor leading a youth group, and
later as Mr. Haggard’s son Marcus, who addresses his father’s troubles in a
speech that is surprisingly moving and eloquent. Marsha Stephanie Blake brings
down the house as a fiery preacher who takes over a major black church when its
pastor is forced out after he discloses his homosexuality.
“This Beautiful City” could use some editing too. The scenes set at a small
church called the Revolutionary House of Prayer consume excessive stage time,
and the ending is seriously flat. Mr. Friedman’s pleasant but unexceptional
songs don’t add as much as they usually do to Civilians shows, perhaps because
most of them are straightforward imitations of bland, folk-inflected Christian
pop. You naturally miss the Cole Porteresque wordplay and sardonic humor of his
The rest of the work at the festival varied from respectable to — well, to quote
an irresistible assessment from a man I overheard fleeing one show at
intermission, “not good is much too generous.”
On the respectable front Lee Blessing, the elder statesman among the
participating playwrights, provided a solid if sleepy two-hander in “Great
Falls.” Directed by Lucie Tiberghien and starring Tom Nelis and Halley Wegryn
Gross as a stepfather and his stepdaughter on a road trip, the play is a
well-observed but unspectacular voyage into familiar territory, perhaps fixated
a little too exclusively on the sexuality of the young woman, a glib wiseacre in
the “Juno” mold (and facing a similar problem).
If the title “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” sounds like something you’d
fire up on a PlayStation, that is entirely intentional. This play by Jennifer
Haley uses a kill-the-zombies video game as a template for a thriller about the
growing distance between distracted, self-absorbed parents and indulged,
alienated teenagers in suburban America.
Ms. Haley writes credible dialogue for her younger characters — a delicate
mission often bungled — but this material ill suits the stage. When worlds
virtual and real eventually must collide, the result is a dramatic fizzle,
although the production, directed by Kip Fagan, was convincingly acted and
sleekly if simply designed.
The divided soul of a black man is exposed in “the break/s,” written and
performed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and directed by Michael John Garcés. Mr. Joseph
is a naturally captivating dancer, moving with transfixing grace at any number
of speeds. The performance is gloriously eloquent in its physicality, but less
engaging when Mr. Joseph stops shredding the air with his limbs and simply
delivers the opaque and meandering text about his various cultural travels.
I have been casting about for something charitable to say about “All Hail
Hurricane Gordo,” a comedy by Carly Mensch (still a playwriting fellow at
Juilliard) about two kooky, emotionally stunted brothers (Matthew Dellapina and
Patrick James Lynch); one kooky, emotionally stunted young woman (Tracee Chimo);
and a refreshingly well-adjusted white rabbit (name unavailable).
Perhaps I’ll just say that I loved the rabbit, and leave it at that.
February 21, 2007
The New York Times
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
BALTIMORE, Feb. 18 — Urban theater — or what has been called over the years
inspirational theater, black Broadway, gospel theater and the chitlin circuit —
has been thriving for decades, selling out some of the biggest theaters across
the country and grossing millions of dollars a year.
In the last two years, however, the tenor of the business has changed,
especially since Tyler Perry, the circuit’s reigning impresario, took in $110
million at the Hollywood box office with “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and
“Madea’s Family Reunion,” movies that were based on his plays; they cost less
than $7 million each to make.
The bigger players are developing television series, and veterans who have been
part of the circuit for years suddenly have movie deals. The word in the
industry is that urban theater is about to go mainstream.
“A year and a half from now, if you’re not coming with a play, film script and
sitcom spinoff, you’re not going to be able to go anywhere in this business,”
said Gary Guidry, one of the founders of I’m Ready Productions, based in
Houston, another of the circuit’s big producers.
But the sight of crowds of theatergoers slowly streaming into the Lyric Opera
House here on Saturday and Sunday, continuing to walk through the door
throughout the first act and eventually filling just about every one of the
2,564 seats for a performance of “Men, Money and Gold Diggers,” prompts the
question: If this is not already mainstream, what is?
As white theatergoers were lining up for “Wicked” at the France-Merrick
Performing Arts Center across town, the audience filling up the Lyric, a
slightly larger theater, was almost exclusively black, mostly middle-aged women.
Many said they had heard about the play through the traditional lines of the
circuit’s promotion: radio ads, fliers in local business and church parking lots
and an astonishingly effective word-of-mouth network that precedes the show from
city to city.
Some aspects of urban theater are set in stone. Top tickets average about $30
less than those of touring Broadway shows. And it has become standard practice
to sell DVDs of the plays after the tour; Mr. Perry has reportedly sold more
than 11 million.
The plays, which typically take place in contemporary settings, are often
sprinkled with R&B solos and duets, and tend to be a mix between melodrama and
farce, with clownish archetypes, like churchy grannies and two-bit
entrepreneurs. And they all have uplifting plots, usually about a woman torn
between a glamorous philanderer, whose speech is laden with double-entendres,
and a humbler, more dependable man, whom she eventually chooses. (The more
muscular actors also have a tendency to take off their shirts.)
More than a marketer’s demographic description, urban theater is a genre like
the sitcom or courtroom thriller, and experiments tend to fare poorly. David E.
Talbert, a 15-year veteran of the circuit, said he once wrote a pure comedy
without an inspirational message and was bluntly advised by audience members not
to try it again.
Mr. Talbert, 40, is the other powerhouse on the circuit, along with I’m Ready
Productions and Mr. Perry. By Mr. Talbert’s own estimate, he has grossed $75
million over the last decade and a half with 12 plays, and counting. He likens
himself to Neil Simon as a playwright who tries to cater to his audience’s wants
and tastes rather than hew to some establishment idea of high art.
Mr. Guidry, 33, and his producing partner, Je’Caryous Johnson, 29, the author of
“Gold Diggers,” are not so content with the status quo. They have departed from
the form somewhat by adapting popular romance novels to the stage; like many
younger people in the business, when they first began attending the plays, they
felt the quality was, well, not great. Granted, they added, theatrical
distinction has never really been the main point. That point, in the view of
many, has been simply to have theater by, for and about contemporary black
Antonio Banks, who was snapping and selling souvenir photographs in the lobby of
the Lyric, summed up a prevailing attitude among theatergoers: “Not much is
offered to them,” he said. “If they can find an outlet, even if it’s not really
good, it helps them escape from reality for a while.”
That attitude has been changing. One reason, said Laterras R. Whitfield, a
28-year-old from Dallas who broke into the field four years ago with “P.M.S. —
It’s a Man Thang,” is that the market is becoming saturated.
“It appears to be so easy,” he said, “that a lot of people say, ‘Hey, I can do
this,’ and they just write a play and find somebody silly enough to promote it,
and then people go see it and say, ‘What is this mess?’ ”
The target audiences, in general, do not have much disposable income, and having
been burned too often with bad plays, they are more discriminating. The
excitement of going to see theater made explicitly for them, Mr. Johnson said,
is no longer enough. Without the equivalent of a Broadway imprimatur to
guarantee a certain level of production quality, though, reassuring theatergoers
is not easy.
“If I tell you ‘Les Miz’ or ‘Cats’ or ‘Hairspray,’ you immediately know what I’m
talking about,” said Brian Alden, whose North American Entertainment Company
promotes Mr. Johnson’s plays. “In urban theater, we’re marketing an unknown
product, so generally we’re marketing a name.”
But outside of Mr. Perry — who has also acted in many of his plays, most notably
in drag as the vigilante grandmother, Madea — there are no writers or producers
everyone knows by name, except for some of the older gospel impresarios, who no
longer have the buzz they once did.
So active producers are now heavily casting recognizable film and television
actors and singers.
At a recent, crowded performance of Mr. Talbert’s new play, “Love in the Nick of
Tyme,” at Newark Symphony Hall, none of the dozen or so audience members
interviewed knew Mr. Talbert. They did, however, know the name of the male lead,
Morris Chestnut, the heartthrob film and television actor. Mr. Chestnut and
other familiar faces in the circuit are not in the top ranks of fame; former
sitcom stars tend to be particularly well represented. But they are celebrities
of a caliber that would have been unheard of in a gospel play 10 years ago.
Increasing star power and the box office success of Mr. Perry, who is now
developing three television series and a few more movies, are signs of the
circuit’s move into big business.
But there are still few signs of acceptance by the cultural establishment.
Reviews of Mr. Perry’s first two movies, which were based on his plays, were
For now, critical disregard can be a selling point. On Feb. 13, the day before
the opening of “Daddy’s Little Girls,” Mr. Perry’s latest film, he sent an
e-mail message to the members of his database, complaining of the skepticism
from Hollywood insiders and journalists.
“It is as though we are all so unsophisticated that we won’t support a great
movie about a good father,” the message read. “We know the truth, so let’s show
them at the box office.” (The first weekend grosses were estimated at a robust
Mr. Perry declined to comment for this article.
The circuit’s position in the universe of black theater — particularly as
distinct from the work of black playwrights presented in literary theater — is a
topic that has long been discussed. While some scholars and theater
professionals have criticized gospel plays for trafficking in stereotypes,
others see it as another kind of drama, even finding, as Henry Louis Gates Jr.
put it in a 1997 article in The New Yorker, “something heartening about the
spectacle of black drama that pays its own way.”
Kenny Leon, who is directing the Broadway-bound production of August Wilson’s
last play, “Radio Golf,” works in the same building as Mr. Perry in Atlanta. “I
look at theater that is produced at some of the regional theaters and theater
that is produced on that circuit as two different things,” he said. “We
shouldn’t try to make them be the same things.”
No figure attracts more conflicting opinions than Mr. Wilson, who died in 2005.
Mr. Talbert, being almost hypnotically unflappable, is not shy about his view:
if the audiences who go to Mr. Wilson’s plays are predominantly nonblack, he
asked, then how significant could he be to black people?
But Mr. Guidry and Mr. Johnson, the young Turks, think the genre can continue to
develop while still staying true to its traditions. In 2002, when they produced
an adaptation of Michael Baisden’s “Men Cry in the Dark,” they did not advertise
its basis as a best-selling romance novel, fearing it would alienate the
church-based audiences. Now a play’s origin as a novel is a selling point.
And as for Mr. Wilson, Mr. Guidry said that “Fences,” Mr. Wilson’s Pulitzer
Prize-winning play, could do perfectly well with some judicious trimming, a
little more comedy and, of course, a savvy marketing campaign.
“Man, if it were called ‘Big Man, Stronger Woman,’ ” Mr. Guidry said, “this
thing could tour.”
October 31, 2006
The New York Times
By BEN BRANTLEY
Richard Gilman, the drama and literary critic
whose elegant, contentious voice resonated through four decades in American
letters, earning him both admirers and enemies of partisan fierceness, died
Saturday at his home in Kusatsu, Japan. He was 83.
His death, after many years of illness, was announced by his daughter Priscilla
Gilman, who said he was originally found to have terminal lung cancer in 1997.
Mr. Gilman, a professor at the Yale School of Drama and the author of five books
of criticism and a memoir, resisted pigeonholes, both in describing himself and
the playwrights he wrote about.
In an article in The New York Times in 1970 — an account of his experiences
directing a play at Yale — he wrote: “I don’t think of myself as a critic or
teacher either, but simply — and at the obvious risk of disingenuousness — as
someone who teaches, writes drama criticism (and other things) and feels that
the American compulsion to take your identity from your profession, with its
corollary of only one trade to a practitioner, may be a convenience to society
but is burdensome and constricting to yourself.”
That elaborate sentence, with its self-conscious detours and its jump from the
personal to the didactic, is vintage Gilman. The novelist D. M. Thomas described
him as “one of the least self-effacing critics one could imagine.” Mr. Gilman
was indeed, as he suggested, something of a hybrid, and not only in his
profession. His distinctive style as a writer was poised between academic
erudition and popular journalism.
His greatest fame, however, undoubtedly came from his association with the
theater and his combative definitions of what it should and shouldn’t be. As a
drama critic at Commonweal and later at Newsweek, he typically championed the
iconoclastic and the cryptic: the directors Jerzy Grotowski, Joseph Chaikin and
Peter Brook; the playwrights Harold Pinter and Peter Handke. And he consistently
dismissed the more naturalistic, commercial fare found on Broadway.
“People still go to the theater to identify with characters, not having been
apprised of their death,” he once wrote, with sardonic wonder, of mainstream
theater audiences. Plays, he said in “The Making of Modern Drama” (1974), his
most ambitious and arguably his finest work, should be “enactments of
consciousness” that free the mind from traditional perceptions. What he opposed,
he said, was “the turning of dramatic art into culture — something to use as a
storehouse of ‘higher’ feelings and recognitions.”
Mr. Gilman was one of a breed of philosopher-critics, including Robert Brustein
and Eric Bentley, who came to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s. They located in
modern drama the elements of abstraction, alienation and absurdity that had long
been at the core of discussions of other forms of art and literature. For many
of these writers, the essential history of the theater since the late 19th
century was, as Mr. Gilman wrote, “a record of attempts to work free from the
morass of illusions.”
But few of Mr. Gilman’s peers were as extreme as he in insisting that the genre
transcend the representational. Rather than imitate reality, he said, theater
should offer alternatives to it. Art, Mr. Gilman argued, should put its audience
“in the presence of a life our own lives are powerless to unearth.”
This search for the ineffable was more than a professional pursuit. In his most
personal work, “Faith, Sex, Mystery: A Memoir” (1987), the Jewish-born Mr.
Gilman wrote eloquently of his conversion as a 27-year-old from atheism to Roman
Catholicism. He left the church after eight years, though he refused to reduce
this episode in his life to psychological solutions.
“The point about the spiritual that I both start with and want to inquire
further into is that it isn’t coterminous with the psychological, it isn’t
simply an archaic term for it,” he wrote. “Something mysterious spills over.”
Mystery, he believed, was also what most defined greatness in art, and that
insight inevitably led him to write as much about what a work wasn’t as about
what it was. He said, for example, that Georg Büchner, the 19th-century German
playwright and author of “Woyzeck,” “gave form and expression to what had not
been allowed to happen, what still remained to be said.”
Chekhov, he wrote, “stripped art of all purposes of consolation and
Richard Martin Gilman was born on April 30, 1923, and grew up in Brooklyn, the
son of Jacob Gilman, a lawyer, and Marion Wolinsky Gilman. After graduating from
James Madison High School in Brooklyn in 1941, he enrolled at the University of
Wisconsin. From 1943 to 1946 he served in the Marine Corps in the South Pacific,
rising to the rank of staff sergeant, then returned to Wisconsin to complete his
studies and graduate in 1947.
In the 1950s, living in Greenwich Village, he wrote literary criticism and
reviews as a freelance writer before joining Commonweal as a drama critic, a
profession he said he had never aspired to. “I had no background in theater,
nothing but an amateur perspective,” he recalled later.
Yet it was precisely this outsider’s perspective that made Mr. Gilman stand out
both at Commonweal and then at Newsweek, where he was the drama critic from 1964
to 1967. His approach was more often literary, or even philosophical, than
strictly performance-oriented. As the critic Walter Clemons wrote, “the surface
of a theatrical event occupies his attention less than the core of its meaning.”
(Mr. Gilman, accordingly, had little use for critics like Walter Kerr and
Kenneth Tynan, who were celebrated for their immediate and sensory descriptions
of actors and acting; he preferred the cerebral self-consciousness of Susan
This perspective drew heated responses from some of Mr. Gilman’s intellectual
peers. Describing his experience as a drama critic, Mr. Gilman wrote, “The only
effect I could discern, apart from the few minds I might have taught to see
drama a bit differently, was that I had gained a reputation for being sour,
hypercritical, an outsider ranting against the party to which he hasn’t been
Indeed, his first book, “The Confusion of Realms” (1970), a collection of essays
on subjects from Eldridge Cleaver to the Living Theater, was attacked by Gore
Vidal in Commentary and Philip Rahv in The New York Review of Books. “Mr. Gilman
has through the years shown an almost immodest taste for conversions,” Mr. Rahv
wrote, “and at present he is evidently straining at the leash to launch himself
into the role of a leading exponent of the New — of the New at all costs, at
that — and as a Now exponent of the arts.”
Others found a cause for rejoicing in that same point of view. In a review of
“Realms” in The New York Times, John Leonard, who described Mr. Gilman’s writing
as “confrontation criticism,” wrote that “to grapple with his perspective is to
grapple with one’s own flaccid preconceptions; to be roused from torpor for a
cultural wrestling match.”
Mr. Gilman was a professor at the Yale University School of Drama from 1967
until his retirement in 1998. Among his students were the budding playwrights
Christopher Durang, Wendy Wasserstein and Albert Innaurato. He was also a
lecturer or visiting professor at Columbia and Stanford and at Barnard College.
Mr. Gilman was the president of the PEN American Center, the largest of the 82
centers of the international association of writers, from 1981 to 1983, and he
was the 1971 recipient of the George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism. He
was also the author of “Common and Uncommon Masks” (1971) and “Decadence: The
Strange Life of an Epithet” (1979).
Two previous marriages — to Esther Morgenstern, a painter and dancer, in 1949,
and to Lynn Nesbit, the literary agent, in 1966 — ended in divorce. In 1992, he
married Yasuko Shiojiri, who had translated his books into Japanese. She
survives him. In addition to his daughter Priscilla, of Manhattan, he is also
survived by another daughter, Claire Gilman, also of Manhattan; a son, Nicholas,
of Mexico City; a sister, Edith Axelrod, of New Jersey, and four grandchildren.
A collection of Mr. Gilman’s essays, “The Drama Is Coming Now: The Theater
Criticism of Richard Gilman, 1961-1991,” was published by Yale University Press
in 2005. But his last original book, “Chekhov’s Plays,” a work-by-work analysis
of the Russian dramatist, appeared in 1996.
Reviewing it for The New York Review of Books, Aileen Kelly said that Mr.
Gilman’s “exposition of the relation between Chekhov’s ideas and his dramatic
techniques should be required reading for the producers and critics who persist
in interpreting the plays as studies in failure and despair.”
Its subtitle reflects what Mr. Gilman sought throughout his career: “An Opening
October 15, 2006
The New York Times
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
“THE COAST Of UTOPIA,” Tom Stoppard’s sweeping
three-part epic that will be populating Lincoln Center for the next six months,
contains, among other things: 35 years of 19th-century Russian intellectual
history; more than 70 roles; discussions of Hegel, Schelling, Pushkin and Kant;
adulterous affairs, both secret and permitted; the revolution of 1848; scenes in
Moscow, Paris, Nice, London, under a large chandelier, at a picnic, beside an
ice skating rink. It examines the lives, public and domestic, of five
forefathers of the Russian Revolution: Alexander Herzen, a writer and pioneering
socialist; Mikhail Bakunin, an aristocrat turned anarchist; Ivan Turgenev, a
poet and novelist; Nicholas Ogarev, a poet and close friend of Herzen’s; and
Vissarion Belinsky, a brilliant literary critic. It also includes their lovers,
families, colleagues, antagonists, hangers-on and one ominous, cigar-smoking
If writing all that was a colossal undertaking, however, it may pale in
comparison with the effort of getting it onstage. This play, the first part of
which begins previews at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater on Tuesday,
will be one of the biggest in Broadway’s recent history, up there with the Royal
Shakespeare Company’s eight-and-a-half-hour “Nicholas Nickleby” in 1981.
Overseeing it all is the director Jack O’Brien. He has staged two Stoppard plays
(“The Invention of Love” in 2001 and “Hapgood” in 1994, both at Lincoln Center)
as well as “The Full Monty,” “Hairspray” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” But he
was daunted by “Coast,” which he saw with the designer Bob Crowley at the
National Theater in London in 2002 . “Crowley and I looked at each other,” he
recalls, “and said, ‘No way, José.’ I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
The New York production is, if anything, more complex.
Part 2 of the trilogy begins performances in early December, when it will play
in repertory with Part 1 while Part 3 is in rehearsal. At the end of January the
first two are joined by the third. After that, all three — “Voyage,” “Shipwreck”
and “Salvage” — rotate in repertory through mid-March, including three
eight-and-a-half marathon days when all three parts are performed together. And
Mr. O’Brien had to line up a cast and crew that could remain available for that
Scheduling for any theater project is hard, and only getting harder. Directors
shoehorn productions in between movies, musicals and road tours; and what with
television series and movie deals, booking a top actor is like fitting in time
with the Dalai Lama.
All of this is exponentially harder when you’re talking about six and a half
months of constant rehearsals — full days and part days — and 115 performances,
including the three marathon performance days. Even harder when it’s an ensemble
piece, where the actor’s name will appear somewhere in the crowd below the
title. And harder still when it’s at a not-for-profit theater, with its
do-gooder pay scale.
But for Mr. O’Brien it wasn’t simply a case of finding willing actors: they had
to be top-shelf, the kind that can pronounce the word “Premukhino,” and
convincingly. So like the mastermind in a heist movie recruiting his own
crackerjack team, Mr. O’Brien spent the spring and winter cajoling and
persuading his first choices. The result of that long process is a glittery
41-member cast full of marquee names and six of the top designers in the
Age was another challenge. The principal characters in “Coast” start the play in
their teens and 20’s and end up in late middle age. After seeing “Brokeback
Mountain,” Mr. Stoppard told Mr. O’Brien that he preferred younger actors who
would eventually play old, as they did in the film, rather than older ones who
would initially play young.
That was welcome news for Mr. O’Brien; with younger actors, the play would be
sexier and more vigorous, less susceptible to the “snob hit” stigma that dogged
the London production. But it often also means performers with young families
and less financial security; in other words, actors who might not have the
luxury to take on this kind of project.
“These people work all the time,” Mr. O’Brien said, “and that they would give us
eight or nine months of their lives in the prime sort of moneymaking period.
...” He trailed off, but the meaning was clear.
Ethan Hawke, who was in Mr. O’Brien’s 2003 production of “Henry IV” at Lincoln
Center, was the first actor on the list. At a series of lunches, the director
gave him the hard sell. But even Mr. Hawke, a Hollywood star, has a family and a
new house to support. “I hadn’t made any money in a long time,” said Mr. Hawke,
who had been involved with a chain of artistically fulfilling but less than
lucrative projects. “So I said, ‘I need to find a job that can happen this
summer.’ ” After a few months of working in a Sidney Lumet film, “Before the
Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and a little rejiggering of the rehearsal schedule,
Mr. Hawke was on board as Bakunin.
Mr. O’Brien then used him as bait with which to recruit other actors, as well as
a benchmark for the age range (mid-30’s) of the other principals. But many
actors that age have more lucrative opportunities in Hollywood.
Robert Sean Leonard, for example, was an obvious choice, having worked with Mr.
Stoppard, Mr. O’Brien and Lincoln Center in 2001 on “The Invention of Love,” but
he was booked with his role on the TV show “House.”
Jason Butler Harner said that the night before his scheduled audition of “Coast”
he was walking around Greenwich Village in tears. A well-regarded Off Broadway
actor, he had been trying to take the next step in his career, and he knew that
a trilogy about Russian intellectuals was not necessarily the best way to do
that. “In order to get work in New York it’s easier if you’ve had a series on
the now-defunct WB,” he said.
So he skipped the audition. A few weeks later he was very close to landing a
role on a television show, a respectable one with good writing, he said, for
which he would receive more money than he had ever seen. He also kept hearing
that “Coast” was still interested. In the end he picked the role of Turgenev
over the TV series.
“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” he said.
As each actor agreed, others followed. Mr. O’Brien got just about everyone he
asked for, including Billy Crudup, Martha Plimpton, David Harbour, Richard
Easton, Josh Hamilton and Jennifer Ehle, who is playing three different roles in
the plays. (“At first, until I saw the schedule,” she said, “I thought that it
was really inconceivable that I could do this.”)
Casting the more prominent roles, however, was only part of the challenge. The
play is being understudied from within, meaning backup actors are drawn from the
cast itself. In a typical production, actors would rehearse their understudy
roles once performances were under way. But because of the repertory rehearsal
schedule of “Coast,” the casting had to be done in a way that minimized the
instances where understudies appear in the same scenes as the actors for whom
they may substitute, since understudies need to rehearse separately. But with
sprawling party scenes, in which almost every character has at least a few
lines, the puzzle became incredibly convoluted.
Daniel Swee, Lincoln Center’s casting director, called it the hardest show he’s
worked on. “I’ve cast a fair number of very large-cast shows, but this is
definitely it,” he said.
“There are people I haven’t even had a conversation with yet,” Brian F. O’Byrne,
who plays the central role of Herzen, said at one point several weeks into
The actors, a handful of whom took an informal trip to Russia in late August,
came together as a whole in early September. A read-through of the play with Mr.
Stoppard took a couple of weeks. Rehearsals for “Voyage” are now well under way,
but work on “Shipwreck” won’t really begin until November.
“Usually there’s a place where you get to leave the interpretive process, after
opening night, where you kind of go, ‘Now, we’re on to the next phase,’ ” Mr.
O’Byrne said. “With this, we’re going to have opening nights, and they’re going
to be like, ‘Yeah, boy, this is opening night, I’ll see you in the morning” to
start it all over again.
Finding time for this project was hard for Mr. O’Brien too. Andre Bishop, the
artistic director of Lincoln Center, knew right away that he wanted both Mr.
O’Brien and Mr. Crowley, who had worked together on “Hapgood” and “The Invention
But Mr. O’Brien, who is about as serene as a bag of crickets, wasn’t available,
so the project stayed in limbo for the next few years. From time to time Mr.
O’Brien and Mr. Stoppard discussed the trilogy, including once in 2003, when
they happened to cross paths in Australia and spent a few days reading and
re-reading the play in a Melbourne hotel room.
But about a year ago Mr. O’Brien’s date book opened just enough (in the spring
of 2007 he’ll be directing a trilogy of one-act operas by Puccini for the Met),
and the board at Lincoln Center Theater was satisfied with a $7.5 million price
tag for “Coast.” So the play was on.
Lincoln Center’s plan, to stagger the openings a month and a half apart, with
all three rotating in repertory in the last few weeks — “folding them in like
egg whites,” Mr. O’Brien calls it — is a departure from the approach Trevor Nunn
took at the National, where all three opened more or less simultaneously.
The rollout plan fit Mr. O’Brien’s conception of “Coast” as an orchestral piece,
with three very different movements. That three-separate-plays-in-one idea, in
turn, ended up complementing the schedules of the designers.
Mr. Crowley, who is also designing “Mary Poppins” this fall, was generally
hesitant about designing another huge trilogy — it would be his third — and
decided he needed an equal partner. He reached out to Scott Pask, a friend with
whom he had never worked before. Mr. Pask agreed to split the trilogy: Mr.
Crowley would focus on the first part and Mr. Pask on the second, and they would
collaborate on the third.
For the same reasons the production will be using three lighting designers:
Brian MacDevitt, Kenneth Posner and Natasha Katz, with each responsible for one
play. (Their visions can’t diverge too greatly, because the plays will
eventually be performed one after another.)
There will, however, be only one person on costumes. Asked if this was her most
daunting project to date, Catherine Zuber, a veteran Tony winner, said that in
1999 she designed 6,000 costumes of varying historical periods for an 18
day-long festival in Switzerland.
But for most of those involved it’s the biggest project they’ve ever attempted.
And if the commitment is remarkable, well, there’s a reason for it.
“When does anyone get a chance to do this, in this country, on the Broadway
stage?” asked Mr. O’Byrne. “This is a dream job. I mean, I don’t think I’ll
understand that this is a dream job until March, when we’re not rehearsing and
we’ve just started playing it. But that period is only a couple of weeks at the
end. So, until then it’s just, like, head down and O.K., we’re getting through