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  • Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement
  • Michael Paller (bio)
Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement. By Stephen J. Bottoms. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004; 432 pp.; 38 photographs. $35.00, cloth.

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"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," [End Page 194] the playwright Robert Patrick told Stephen Bottoms in Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement (15). Viewing off-off-Broadway historically, through interviews with surviving playwrights and directors, detailed descriptions of the main theatres' founders, significant productions, and physical spaces, Bottoms reproduces Patrick's observation through a narrative that recounts "what happened" during the rise and eclipse of this important episode in American theatre. ("What Happened" was also the book's original title, a reference to Al Carmine's OOB landmark musical version of Gertrude Stein's play [viii-ix].)

The book is organized chronologically from 1958 through 1973, and is devoted primarily to discussions of four major venues: the Caffe Cino, La MaMa E.T.C., the Judson Poets' Theatre, and Theatre Genesis. Bottoms also devotes considerable space to the Open Theatre and the Play-House of the Ridiculous. OOB was a downtown phenomenon, and each theatre, Bottoms reminds us, had its distinct audience and purpose, although in practice these often overlapped: The plays at Caffe Cino were in part a reflection of the tastes and interests of the gay patrons who formed a large segment of its West Village audience. The Judson Poets' Theatre was a logical extension of the Judson Memorial Church's policy of inviting local artists—poets, choreographers, writers—to create new Sunday liturgies. La MaMa, in the East Village, had an international outlook, evidenced by the many foreign artists who worked there (and still do) and its commitment to touring. Theatre Genesis responded to the needs of its East Village audience, many of whom were street people and drug addicts already familiar with the many social services of St. Mark's Church, where Genesis was located (and which was conceived as one of those services).

What united these theatres—besides a constant lack of material resources—was an outsider ethos that manifested itself in several ways. In content, the plays could be far more outrageously sexual and political than uptown theatre: Rochelle Owens's Futz and Paul Foster's Tom Paine (both 1967), at La MaMa, for example, or the cross-gender casting of Ron Tavel's plays at Judson and the Play-House of the Ridiculous. The physical layouts of the theatres proclaimed a new attitude toward audience and performance. The Broadway theatres' gilded proscenium arches and orchestra pits, which separated actors from audience, created a very formal event, as did the plush red velvet seats—each one assigned to a specific audience member. The off-off-Broadway theatres had no such formalities. Audiences and actors usually inhabited the same, often tiny, space (in a loft, a storefront, or church), sitting on folding chairs, benches, or on the floor. Most important was off-off's rejection of uptown "professionalism": they strived to express viewpoints of both audience and artists as directly as possible, without the mediation of conservatory-trained actors, slick production values, or the imprimatur of uptown critics. These were the rarest of theatres, true community theatres, where local artists created work in visual and textual languages in and for their neighborhoods. Yet that language would eventually be heard in places as unlikely as Chicago, in the plays of David Mamet; London, in the work of Neil Bartlett; in Glasgow, at the Citizens' Theatre.

Using a few productions from each venue as exemplars and describing them in detail, Bottoms effectively demonstrates the ways in which the OOB spaces informed dramaturgy. The Cino's postage-stamp stage, for example, accommodated only two or three actors at a time, forcing playwrights to use small casts—unless, like Doric Wilson, they utilized the audience space. In Babel Babel Little Tower (1961) Wilson used the Caffe itself...


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pp. 194-196
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