Gus Mitchell writes about the notion of ‘experimental’ theatre: Where this idea stands in 2019 and how looking back to 1960s Off-Off Broadway definitely explains a lot.

It seems sometimes like the very idea of ‘experimental’ theatre is passé. The idea of the non-traditional, the strange, the daring and new have never been so thoroughly imbibed and disseminated throughout theatre-culture: from the hyper-mainstreamed Fringes to the huge demand for immersive, experiential shows by the likes of Punchdrunk.

As many have observed in different ways, the avant-garde, the experimental, the ‘dangerous’ can become a ‘style’ or genre unto itself, and many times, in many different artistic scenes, it has done just that. Any artist or group is vulnerable to self-imitation or self-importance and the danger increases as time goes on. Maybe it is inevitable.

Sometimes I wonder – probably too often, I wonder – whether anything these days could start a riot. Not that riot-starting should be a desirable goal for anyone trying to make good theatre, or anything else. But isn’t the goal of waking an audience up, jolting them into a deeper awareness of reality (or alternatives to it) exactly what you’ll find plastered all over the mastheads on the websites of many an earnest and Arts Council funding-hungry company?

I sometimes feel that audiences are in a post-exhaust period of jadedness, subconsciously confident that now we are all of us wised-up equals to any kind of dangerous avant-something that might be thrown at us. In these odd moods – when thinking about how you could possibly start a riot – one of the inspiring experimental explosions I look back to is that of creativity in New York’s theatre scene in the late 60s and early 70s. 

New York in the late 1960s was almost the definition of what Brian Eno has dubbed the ‘Scenius’: a cultural environment so full of communal spirit and exchange in ideas, collaboration, inspiration, influences that it forms a sort of artistic ecosystem which can spawn extraordinary work or individuals. The city was depressed, and rents were cheap: artists could live and work. The Fluxus ‘happenings’ were blurring lines between theatre and what we now know as ‘performance art’; meanwhile a red-hot political atmosphere, including opposition to the Vietnam War and loudening voices for racial, sexual and other equalities, seemed to dissolve those between artistic and political passions. The time was therefore ripe for a belief in the revolutionary contribution which only fearless and radically new theatre could make.

Theatre’s experimental explosion in New York has come to be known widely as Off-Off Broadway, and several critics after the fact have focused their attention on four major venues: Caffe Cino, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Judson Poets’ Theatre and Theatre Genesis. There isn’t time or space to go into any deserved level of detail on any one of them, although I’m dropping names here so that everyone might do just that – it’s worth it.

These were theatres which were conceived, run and sustained by the efforts of extraordinary men and women. By rights, they should each have their own Hollywood biopic someday. There was Joe Cino, of Caffe Cino, a gay Italian-American, an ex-dancer and a social lion who gradually expanded his Greenwich Village café, opened in 1958, to include more and more artforms and attract a wider and more socially eclectic set of clients. Cino was in no sense a director or traditional man of the theatre but he discovered his vocation in running the theatre as a social meeting-place. He refused to charge admission and celebrated the collective transformation experienced on the café floor with his introduction: ‘It’s magic time!’

In Greenwich village also was the Judson Poets’ Theatre, located in the sanctuary of the Judson Memorial Church and co-run by the inspiring young assistant minister, Al Carmines. Carmines, a talented composer who began turning his hand to musicals on subjects from gay relationships to Gertrude Stein while simultaneously teaching at Union Theological Seminary and helping to resist the backlash of older, wealthier and more conservative parishioners. Theatre Genesis, in the East Village, was again the child of a progressive young minister, Michael Allen and his collaboration with Ralph Cook, a churchgoing actor who programmed the first plays by, most famously, a young Sam Shepard.

Finally, there was La MaMa E.T.C, the most famous – the only still thriving – venue of Off-Off Broadway, opened in 1961 by Ellen Stewart, an Africa-American fashion designer, after she experienced a revelation in Morocco about the importance of community. Stewart, who died in 2011 aged 91, was a similarly outsized personality, the ‘guts’ of the place as one critic said. Beginning only with the idea of supporting her playwright foster-brother and a couple of his friends, La MaMa continues to survive over 50 years later and, as they still state on their website, pursue giving ‘our support with free theatre and rehearsal space, lights, sound, props, platforms’ for artists to make work in ‘theatrical language that can communicate to any person in any part of the world.’

Charles Ludlam, playwright, actor and another major extraordinary figure in the Off-Off Broadway scene, called it ‘the last stronghold in a corporate society.’ As Al Carmines, the composer-impresario-priest of JPT put it: ‘If you want to know how to live, go to church. If you want to know how your life is in its deepest roots, go to the theater.’ For these producers and makers, all working in a deeply small, intimate, incestuous and buzzing feedback loop of a ‘Scenius’ centered around churches, cafes and tiny box-stages in the West and East Villages, theatre was the most vital of unifying factors. Audience and artists were truly linked. From folding-chairs in basements to performances in lofts, boxes or cramped café floors, space was centralized and democratized, as was, vitally, content. Caffe Cino’s origins as a homosexual meeting-place matched its pioneering role in queer theatre. Theatre Genesis was bound up with the social services of St Mark’s, ministering to the addicts and street-dwellers of the East Village with plays of modern, brutal, sometimes macho realism.

Professionalism, polish or comfort was the last thing on many people’s minds. Rather, in the words of Genesis’ Ralph Cook, it was ‘taking place out of the utter necessity to survive [… We] couldn’t care less about Broadway. We are aware that it exists somewhere uptown, no more.’ These were real community theatres. These venues and these oddball leaders were not organised, and the account I’ve started a little sketch of is just that, a sketch, almost a false attempt to organise the wonderful chaos of that short period. There was no identifiable movement or core of values, other than the expression and passion of mostly young people. Work varied massively, from social explorations of identity and oppression to the most anarchistic, surreal expressions of the ridiculous and absurd – often simultaneously. It was a universe away from Broadway.

I haven’t even touched on the explosion of New York’s experimental companies, later on in the 60s. Their innovation and influence can be felt, if not always realised, in the work of a whole plethora of English-language companies and practitioners from the last few decades. But looking at New York’s uncontrolled explosion, across four different, gritty venues, of a radical spirit of experiment, with wild theatrical creativity arising as a response to restrictions, repressions and deprivations, I find an inspiring example of a theatrical spirit arising, in Ralph Cook’s phrase, out of an ‘utter necessity’. We can’t recreate the atmosphere or conditions of that time, but we can recognise the problems and injustices which necessitated this creative response. Those injustices are just as present, if mutated, in our own time, and there will always be a braver, crazier, more unexpected way of challenging them in art. I have found that studying up on 60s New York is a great place to begin.