Spooky Season at La MaMa ETC

There have been no shortage of ghosts, vampires, monsters and ghouls who have walked the boards of La MaMa’s stages. Here are just a few of La MaMa’s spookier productions, in honor of the holiday.

Sam Yip in Nosferatu, 1991. Photograph credit: Martha Swope/Carol Rosegg

Nosferatu was a production of Ping Chong and Company; “an interdisciplinary performance piece that combines elements of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic vampire film and original text, choreography, sound and mask work. The production examines Reagan-era America at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. Set in a modern upscale apartment, Nosferatu portrays the lives of a shallow, affluent couple and their friends who are unaware of the changing world around them.”pingchong.org  Praised as “theatrical magic on the highest level” by critic Bert Wechsler, Nosferatu shares similarities with Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death as both use horror as a genre to explore the disquieting image of decadent revelers who celebrate in the midst of a plague. Nosferatu was staged twice at La MaMa, once in 1985, and again in 1991.

Poster for Alma, The Ghost of Spring Street, 1976. Poster design by Ozzie Rodriguez

From vampires, to ghosts! Based on extensive research done by writer and director Ozzie Rodriguez, Alma, the Ghost of Spring Street tells the story of the Manhattan Well Murder case. Drowned in a well located at 129 Spring Street in Manhattan, Alma (or Elma) Sands’ ghost has been said to haunt Spring Street, appearing as a lady in white to many over the years. This production also included the story of the dramatic trial that followed Alma’s death. The accused was supposedly her lover, a man named Levi Weeks who, thanks to the connections held by his wealthy brother Ezra Weeks, landed Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr as his lawyers. Burr, however, owned the company that held the well in which Alma was drowned, and there were many accusations of conflict of interest and bias when Hamilton and Burr successfully got Weeks acquitted. Even more dramatically, it’s said that Alma’s cousin Catherine Ring cursed Alexander Hamilton as he left the courthouse, shouting, “If thee dies a natural death, I shall think there is no justice in heaven!” And we all know how Hamilton died. Burr didn’t fare much better. He was ostracized after killing Hamilton, tried for treason, lost his daughter to cancer, and died broke in a boarding house. The judge who presided over the case also disappeared mysteriously. The well itself still exists as a remnant, standing anachronistically in the back of the clothing store that now inhabits 129 Spring Street.

Nancy Heikin and Margaret Benczak in Carmilla, 1971. Photo credit: Alex Agor

After a ghost story, we’re going to return to vampires! Carmilla, first produced at La MaMa in 1970, and many times since then, was written and directed by Wilford Leach and based on the 1872 gothic novella by Sheridan le Fanu, an Irish author famous for his ghost stories. Leach created a chamber opera from the novella, telling the story of Laura, the teenaged protagonist and narrator, who receives the mysterious Carmilla as a guest after her carriage crashes in the countryside near the estate of Laura’s father. The two girls become very intimate, and it is slowly revealed that Carmilla is, in fact, a vampire who has been draining the life out of Laura. With all the action taking place on the unique love seat seen in the photo above, the chorus emerging through the loveseat, and a surrealist film created for the show projected on the wall behind the actors, Carmilla is an eerie and suspenseful story.

For those looking for something weird and fun to do for Halloween, there was always Tom Murrin’s Alien Comic series, which had holiday specials for Christmas, April Fool’s, and Mother’s Day as well. Murrin was one of La MaMa’s early playwrights and wrote important plays like Cock-Strong, Son of Cock-Strong, Hung, and Roommates, some of which were staged by John Vaccaro and Playhouse of the Ridiculous. Alien Comic was a stage name of Murrin’s, as was “Tom Trash”, which spoke to his habit of using found objects in his frenetic experimental performances; “The shows were often determined by the detritus he picked up on the street; hence the early stage name Tom Trash. A broken umbrella might become an antenna to listen in on another world. A dish drainer might suggest a prison cell. He made masks and other types of headgear — some elaborate, some consisting of simple, suggestive drawings on cardboard — and whipped them on and off with breathless abandon in performances.”New York Times, 2012 The above programs are from his Halloween shows at La MaMa, running from 1990 to 1993. Artists like Stuart Sherman, Joey Arias, and the Blue Man Group joined Murrin in celebrating the holiday. Equal parts spooky, absurd, sexy, and strange, the Alien Comic hosted shows full of comedy, song, and dance, ensuring that Halloween at La MaMa would always be worth the ticket.

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A Brief Look at the Early History of “The Club”

In May of 1983, The Club at La MaMa opened in what had been a basement storeroom at 74A East 4th Street. This was a cabaret space, originally named “11 p.m. at La MaMa,” and the production schedule was curated by Rick Richardson.

Clipping from Contact Sheet of Denise Rogers performing at “11 p.m. at La MaMa,” June 10, 1983.

The space, in essence, was an experimental Club inside an already Experimental Theatre Club. Productions had small budgets and their runs were usually very short, many single performances or limited to one weekend. Shows often were solo performances or featured small casts. From the 1980s right up until the closing of 74 E 4th for refurbishment, the Club was home to a host of avant-garde and experimental performers. As described below, they were “…interesting performers interested in cabaret.”

Clipping from the Spring/Summer ’83 La MaMa Newsletter

The Club at La MaMa was an intimate space that rewarded personality and innovation. Whether it was comedians testing out material, new music festivals, theatrical works-in-progress, avant-garde performance art, or unorthodox concerts; performers had the freedom to make bold choices and take big swings. Nicky Paraiso, a frequent performer at The Club in its early years who would go on to become the Director of Programming in 2001, described its early days thus, “There was a kind of renaissance of performance of people who were rebelling. Again. It was the 80s version of what had happened in the 60s.”

This blog post is a quick look at the Club in its first decade. While not comprehensive, the posters, flyers, mailers and brochures shared here will hopefully give you a sense of the compelling work done in the early days of La MaMa’s cabaret space.

From the start, the design of The Club space allowed for mobility and flexible seating, so the space could be used for a number of different events. Early images from the very first shows in the repurposed basement storage area reveal an inviting space that brought performers and patrons together, with a bar at one end, a central piano, and tables and chairs throughout.

Photo by Jerry Vezzuso (1983)

This snazzy outer program cover enveloped the show programs and shared information about production team for both La MaMa as a whole and the cabaret program specifically.

11 p.m. at La MaMa Program Covers (c1983-1986)

Over the years, the Club hosted several series of note, particularly the One Night Stands. This release describes the performance series for Fall 1986 which were held on Mondays. Mondays are when most theaters are dark (meaning they do not have performances scheduled); allowing performers a night off to rest, to see their friends perform, or…a night to perform somewhere else themselves.

In 1987, the basement space was officially converted from a performance space into the La MaMa Archive. “11 p.m. at La MaMa” had moved upstairs into a newly designated cabaret space. Shows were also no longer only at 11 p.m., and so the new performance space gained a new moniker: The Club.

The Club: Metal Membership Badge

A “Welcome to THE CLUB” program insert from 1988 notes that shows are BYOB. A page from the same program lists upcoming Club shows and includes a list of production staff, notably a Sommelier (presumably because state liquor licensing rules required that those “brought bottles” be opened by the establishment and not patrons.)

Program Insert: “Psyche’s Crib” (1988)
Program: “Psyche’s Crib” (1988)

To quote a La MaMa press release from the time, the Club was “a turntable for talent … with a special series of premieres sneak previews, holiday celebrations, and fresh works by name and new talent.”

Festivals were a feature of the space, including a New Music Festival which ran annually from 1988-1990, 1989’s Next Wave series “Speaking of Music: Exploritoriums”, and the Gallatin at La MaMa Festivals (playwriting festivals of One-Acts written by NYU Gallatin students and alums.)

Many notable artists appeared in the Club in that first decade; including David Sedaris, The Talking Band, Ethyl Eichelberger, Steve Buscemi, Frank Maya, Michael Chiklis, Penny Arcade (Susana Ventura), Nicky Paraiso, André de Shields, John Heys and many more.

Trifold Club Brochure/Mailer (1986) [INTERIOR]

Themed Club shows were something of a staple. Celebrated performance artist, Tom Murrin, as The Alien Comic curated many, many, many holiday variety shows in the Club: from Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Columbus Day, St. Patrick’s Day to Christmas and New Years. In a quick scan of the Club’s performance records, he appears at least 30 times.

The Club embraced new and developing artists in its programming. The first play of celebrated poet and storyteller, Edgar Oliver, which he wrote and starred in with Hapi Phace, “Seven Year Vacation,” was produced in the Club in 1989. More of his works quickly followed. The Club schedule in just the next few years included “The Ghost Of Brooklyn,” “The Lost Bedroom,” “The Poetry Killers,” “Motel Blue 19,” “Coney Island Horror Show,” and “Mosquito Succulence.” Oliver would return to the Club many times, significantly at Halloween performing themed shows.

The Blue Man Group performed in the club, both as part of Murrin’s Alien Comic shows and then on their own. Their show, “Tubes,” which opened at La MaMa and was extended, eventually moved to Lincoln Center and then to Astor Place in November of 1991, where they still remain (among other locations globally.)

These early years of the Club were eclectic and inventive and featured many performers whose work might not have found an easy fit elsewhere. That so many of those performers went on to prominence proves that their work just needed the chance to find an audience. The Club continued to foster and feature so many noteworthy artists throughout its 34 years that it would be impossible to list them all here, but I have linked some additional La MaMa resources about those mentioned in this post below.

Related Resources:

The La MaMa Archives: Catalog search for ‘The Club’

The cataloging work done at La MaMa is possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

La MaMail

Theatrical posters have long been celebrated for their artistry and use as a promotional tool. La MaMa’s own production history can, and has, been charted through its extraordinary posters, notably in Cindy Rosenthal’s book, Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La Mama Experimental Theatre (University of Michigan Press, 2017). The book used the medium of posters to share the history of La MaMa, and featured many beautiful images of the posters themselves (a blog post about which can be found here).

What has not been studied to any extent (as far as I can tell) is the history and variety of theatrical postCARDS which can be discovered in the La MaMa Club and Show files. These small yet significant mailers were an important part of the promotion of shows, and while they may lack the grand scale of the posters, they pack in a lot of information, in miniature.

Promotional Postcard: 4″x 6″

The images shared here are a selection from a single year, 1991, and highlight another way that performances can be documented and discovered – through these small slips of paper.

The frequency and quantity of postcards in the La MaMa Show and Club files highlight the importance of their use in audience building. This was an audience generated not just by La MaMa’s publicity office or a marketing team, but by the individuals involved in the productions themselves.

 

Before artists relied on social media, websites, and email to promote their work, these approximately 4” x 6” cards (or 5” x 8” if you were willing to pay the extra postage) were an integral promotional tool and instrumental in audience cultivation.

La MaMa frequently supported work by up-and-coming companies, artists blending different forms, and hosted companies from across the country and around the world. For the up-and-coming artists, these postcards were especially important. They were sent to agents and casting directors by members of the company seeking representation. Names and addresses of industry professionals could be found in publications like The Ross Report (later The Call Sheet), in Back Stage, or through networks of friends who already had representation.

Postcards were both an invitation and a reminder that could be personalized. Actors could staple them to a headshot and resume, write a quick note to an agent reminding them of a connection (“you spoke at such and such workshop I attended”), or an offer of comp tickets could be included. Unlike press releases sent out by a marketing team, postcards allowed creatives and performers to directly circulate information about the show, and indicate that they were part of it.

Actors might highlight or circle their names on a postcard before sending it out.

The postcards were also often, though not always, printed on only one side and would double as handbills/flyers. Small enough to fit in a purse or a pocket, an upcoming show’s cards could be left in La MaMa’s lobby to entice an outgoing audience member to return, as well as be mailed to a cast member’s personal contacts to bring in new theatergoers, widening the audience reach. 

The postcards were, first and foremost, informational and promotional tools, but they also were works of graphic art in their own right; utilizing images, photos, and bold typography to grab your attention.

Club shows, which were generally of shorter durations and smaller budgets, often had postcards that were fairly simple; something that could be mass printed on brightly colored card stock. Eye-popping bright pinks and purples were popular, though fluorescent greens also make a showing throughout the archive’s collection. Anything that might stand out and get a second glance in a large pile of mail was popular.

Shows in the Annex or First Floor Theatre might have their higher budgets and longer runs reflected in their postcards; with professional printing, sharp and provocative images, and high gloss coating more common.

This selection of cards from 1991 is in no way comprehensive and yet, even within this small grouping, we can learn a lot about the productions they represent. Particularly within the Club files, for shows that might have only been one night events and may not have posters, the images and text presented on the postcards let us know today what the production team thought was important for a potential audience member to know then.

Postcards are often treated as ephemeral, created for a moment in time and then discarded. Saved within this archive, however, they endure; adding greater context to our production records.

The cataloging work done at La MaMa is possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Conrad Ward, Amnon Ben Nomis, and Jerry Vezzuso: The Photographers Who Captured La MaMa Theater on Film

The photographs made by La MaMa ETC‘s resident production photographers have documented the many shows produced on La MaMa’s stages since the theater’s beginnings in the basements of the East Village. Many prolific resident photographers have come through La MaMa, including James Gossage, Jonathan Slaff, Carol Rosegg, and Martha Swope. I’ve chosen to explore three production photographers here– Conrad Ward, Amnon Ben Nomis, and Jerry Vezzuso– who have been vital members of the La MaMa family, helping to shape the public image that La MaMa has put forward over the decades since Ellen Stewart began nurturing playwrights in 1961.

Conrad Ward

Conrad Ward took production photographs for both La MaMa and Caffe Cino throughout the ’60s, putting him at the heart of downtown New York’s underground arts scene. He primarily worked in black and white, and his photographs are marked by the use of a fogged lens to create a hazy effect, and by his experiments in composites and collage.

“The Maids” (1965), photograph by Conrad Ward.

Conrad Ward’s collage experiments were sometimes used to create visually dynamic show posters. In addition to their frequent use in publicity and press, the work of La MaMa’s production photographers often overlapped with La MaMa’s poster design. 

Poster for “Futz” (1967) featuring a photograph by Conrad Ward

Amnon Ben Nomis

Like Ward, Amnon Ben Nomis worked at the heart of the downtown New York arts scene, and at the heart of La MaMa. Nomis approached Stewart in the late ’60s as an NYU student hoping to record shows using a Portapak camera. Stewart said yes, on two conditions: that she be given copies, and that the videos were used for educational purposes only. These tapes became the foundation for the archives’ audiovisual collection. In addition to documenting productions, he worked with directors to create slides and set designs for the stage, and made video and film projects both in and outside of La MaMa. 

With the support of Stewart, Nomis developed a prolific career as a photographer, videographer, and filmmaker, and was responsible for some of the earliest video documentation of landmark La MaMa productions such as Carmilla (1970) and Andrei Serban and Elizabeth Swados‘s Trilogy. He stayed on as a photographer for La MaMa through the 1990s.

The City: Motorcycle Musical (1974), photograph by Amnon Ben Nomis.

The subjects of his photographs range widely, including productions and actors at arts and culture institutions like the Circle Theatre and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. La MaMa Archives holds a wealth of his black and white prints which have yet to be processed, including a photograph of the writers of Saturday Night Live in the show’s earliest days.

It’s hard to pin down a style in Nomis’s production photography, which is the mark of a good stage photographer. His wide angle framing foregrounds the actors, or places them in stark contrast to the theater’s darkness.

“Medea” (1972), photograph by Amnon Ben Nomis.

Jerry Vezzuso

Beginning in the mid-1960s, La MaMa’s reach became increasingly international– Throughout the 1970s, Stewart drew directors from around the world to her East Village stages, or facilitated the far-reaching tours of the theater’s resident companies. Playwrights, directors and actors who had been present in La MaMa’s early days were bringing home award-winning performances, and Jerry Vezzuso was capturing it all with cinematic shots.

“49” (1982), photograph by Jerry Vezzuso.

Vezzuso began photographing productions at La MaMa in the late seventies. He continues to teach as a working artist at universities in New York. His collection of oversize color prints is currently being digitized at the La MaMa Archives. Many of his photographs are available to view in the archives’s online catalog and in person, along with the work of Conrad Ward and Amnon Ben Nomis.

The production photographs of Jerry Vezzuso, as well as those by all of La MaMa’s production photographers, tell a visual story of avant-garde theater in the East Village. Each actor centered in the lens is part of a fabric of artists and theater makers, part of Ellen Stewart’s living vision for a global theater community, part of a neighborhood, part of a city.

A Brief History of Stage Photography

A set of photographs documenting a single production resembles a photo essay– the images follow one another along the timeline of a play’s performance, and through the lighting design, costumes and the actors’ faces, the ambience and feeling of the play comes through. As part of an effort to digitize the catalog of Jerry Vezzuso’s stage photographs, I gently handle and scan each oversize color print that documented the plays and performances at La MaMa E.T.C in the 70s and 80s. Photographs made by the theater’s resident stage photographers play several overlapping roles: They document singular moments in a durational, collaborative work for the stage, they appear in critics’ reviews and continue to be studied by scholars, and they are also beautifully composed images in themselves. But how do they fit in the larger history of the use of photography in the theater? How did we end up documenting the dynamic nature of theater with still photographs?

There is a small amount of scholarship on the history of theater photography. The terms used to describe photographs that depicted actors on stage mid-production might include “stage photography,” “production photography,” and “performance photography.” Theater photography is often treated as a small part of the larger history of photography, which traces the development of photographic processes through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Theater photographs usually make an appearance in these histories in the form of actors’ carte-de-visite portraits. There are a handful of out-of-print or untranslated histories of theater photography, including Chantal Meyer-Plantureux’s L’Histoire de la Photographie de Théâtre (1992).

Several scholars, including David Mayer and Bruno Forment, have published academic articles studying the relationship between Victorian theater and early photography. By the time contemporary stage photographer Peter Moore was interviewed by theater scholar Ronald Argelander about the technical points and challenges of contemporary photo-documentation in the latter half of the twentieth century, the form of stage photography that we are familiar with today had become a common practice, with methods developed ad-hoc out of necessity, and as the technology developed.

Production photograph by Jerry Vezzuso depicting “Blue Margaritas” (1987)

In “Quote the Words To Prompt the Attitudes”: The Victorian Performer, the Photographer, And the Photograph, David Mayer describes the burgeoning relationship between the theater industry and the photography industry. Resident theater photographers made photographs of actors posed in a studio, which looked similar to what we know today as publicity photos. Actors also brought their costumes to independent photo studios to have portraits made. These images were less expensive than paintings, allowing the middle classes to consume these mass-printed pictures as a new part of an old pastime, going to the theater. They are examples of photography in relation to the theater in European and American culture, but they were not photographs of a performance on the stage.

Production photograph by Georges Mareschal and Georges Balagny depicting “La Chatte Blanche” (1887)

In Bruno Forment’s article on 19th century stage photographs, Reconnecting the Romantic Opera Repertoire: The Forgotten Stage Photographs of the Grand Théâtre de Gand, he notes the challenges photographers faced in their work process while making some of the first production photographs. With the innovation of faster exposure times, more portable materials, and chemical developers, photographs could be made in the theater during performances. However, in dark theaters, the use of flashbulbs was limited due to their flammability and the smoke they produced, and long exposures of several seconds had to be timed well to capture actors during a pause mid-action. Mayer dates the first stage photograph to 1887: taken by photographers Georges Mareschal and Georges Baragny, the image shows the stage during a performance of La Chatte Blanche in Paris. Baragny had used a gelatin-coated paper he developed, called pellicle paper. The theater in which the photograph was taken, the Théâtre du Châtelet, was likely the only theater in which stage photography was possible in the late nineteenth century– the theater manager had outfitted the stage with the latest electric arc lights. Within decades, the emergence of faster, more reliable, more sensitive camera equipment and film made photography in the theater, in the midst of performance, easier and less intrusive.

Production photograph by Jerry Vezzuso depicting “Damnee Manon, Sacree Sandra” (1983)

Writing in 1974, theater scholar Ronald Argelander describes how contemporary photo-documentation had come to be defined as capturing “as much of the total visual experience of an actual performance as possible” from the point of view of the audience. Stage photographers incorporate wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups, as well as documenting the set design when needed. Stage photographs may provide at different times a visual sense of the work, a record for historians, and a visual aid for critics, as well as supplementing other forms of documentation such as notes, correspondence, and audiovisual materials. In his interview with Argelander, Peter Moore, a photographer of the New York underground art scene in the 60s, in the same cultural milieu as La MaMa, describes capturing the ambience of a scene before narrowing focus to close-ups, as well as the necessity of a quiet shutter, of choosing the appropriate camera and lens, and the challenge of keeping track of the sequence of events during a performance, across several rolls of film and hundreds of frames.

Contact sheet by Jerry Vezzuso depicting “Cotton Club Gala” (1985)

Methods used by production photographers have become more streamlined with the development of digital photography, but many of the challenges of low light and capturing movement in a still image remain the same. With a more complete understanding of the history of stage photography, the production photography that appears in theater archives gains clarity– the development of photographic processes over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is reflected in the development of the craft of stage photography.

Looking Back on 250 Reels and Two Years of Collaboration

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One of 250 half-inch open reels

In 2017, the archive at La MaMa was awarded a $100,000 grant by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to digitize 250 reels of half inch magnetic video tape. These reels contain footage of La MaMa performances from the 1970s – shows like Miss Nefertiti Regrets, written by Tom Eyen, Rat’s Mass, written by Adrienne Kennedy; shows from the Native American Theater Ensemble, the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, the Great Jones Repertory Company and much more. Some of these performances haven’t been viewable for decades, and represent much of La MaMa’s most important early work. The generally accepted life expectancy for magnetic media is 10-30 years and that is really only if the tape is held in ideal environmental circumstances. With the oldest reel dating from 1970, we were already past that expected lifespan for these important reels, which is why it is so exciting to be able to say that the 250 reels in this collection have now all been digitized. More than that, this grant provided for the opportunity and resources to make sure that the digital masters are held in proper storage to ensure their longterm preservation. In two days, this two year grant project will be over, and I’m thrilled to call it a success.

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Still from “Renard” (1972)

In order to document our work, publicize the newly available collection, and hopefully share a project model for other institutions like us, the archive has produced a white paper: Expanding Access to the Videotaped Record of the 1970s-era Experimental Theater. As a small archive serving an arts institution, we wanted to share how we went about preserving these reels in a way that would make them accessible without having to give them up. Community archives, particularly ones documenting marginalized histories, often find themselves between a rock and a hard place: how they can preserve their material when they don’t have the funds or infrastructure, without giving that material over to a larger institution? Do you preserve your collections, or do you retain control of your own history? This is not an easy choice, and our solution is not one-size-fits-all, but we do believe that post-custodial models, as outlined in the above white paper, can serve community archives well, and should be more commonly adopted as a solution to that choice of preservation or control. In fact, we believe that it is a choice that shouldn’t be necessary at all, and certainly not so common.

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Ellen Stewart, in a still from “Play by Play” (1972)

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Still from “Heimskringla” (1974)

If the desire strikes you, share this white paper widely. If something in it catches your eye and you would like to know more, don’t hesitate to contact us here. La MaMa’s success was a collaborative one – the partnership with the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and the Bay Area Video Coalition made this project possible in the first place. I want nothing more than to keep that spirit of collaboration and resource sharing alive. Fostering mutually beneficial relationships between archivists, artists and institutions is the only way to make sure collections like this remain accessible and in the hands of the communities who created them. This white paper was written with that spirit in mind, and I prefer to think of it as a living document, rather than a finished product. As this project ends, I find myself asking more questions: what’s next? How can we use this footage in the same spirit of experimentation and collaboration? How can artists, archivists, students and educators work together and what could be possible as a result?

I specifically want to thank all the wonderful people who have helped make this project a reality. Rachel Mattson, who got everything started, and gave me a shot at being a part of it, Amy Sloper, Morgan Morel and Jesse Hocking, who did so much and did it so well, Lousia Lebwohl and Kate Philipson, who were not only incredible metadata specialists but amazing teammates, Ozzie Rodriguez and Shigeko Suga, who have built the La MaMa archive into the amazing resource it is today, and to the NHPRC for seeing the value in our collection and in taking the collaborative path.

Pride at La MaMa Archives

What does Pride Month look like at La MaMa, where queer artists of all kinds have always found open doors? What does Pride mean, when queer artists have been the foundation of the experimental work that has made La MaMa, La MaMa? What it means in the archive is an atmosphere of queerness – it’s all around us, every day, in the material we handle, in the footage we watch, in the catalog records we create. It just is – a natural part of our ecosystem, which is, perhaps, a vision of the world we could be living in.

This ecosystem reflects Ellen Stewart’s vision, the one she developed as she took her touring companies all over the world, then returned with the artists she’d met on those travels, and provided time, care, and resources for them here at La MaMa, enriching the theater and the city with new voices and stories. Today, as we hear endless talk of inclusivity and diversity, I often find myself thinking of Ellen’s vision, of La MaMa, and the way I can see what diversity really means here in the La MaMa archive. It is not a matter of tokenism, or political correctness, but rather a naturalization of what it really means to be a human being – which is to say indefinable, innumerable and multifaceted.

In some ways, this means that trying to do something special for Pride at the archive feels a little redundant. I’m working with and celebrating queer artistry in my every day, for which I’m very grateful. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t fun to take the opportunity to show off a few of my favorites in the La MaMa archive – and there are so very many.


Belle Reprieve Flyer

Belle Reprieve Flyer, Split Britches 1991

First up is Belle Reprieve, a send up of A Streetcar Named Desire that was staged at La MaMa in 1991, after a run in London. Split Britches is a lesbian theater company founded by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, who both starred in the show. It was a joint production with Bloolips, which was an all male drag performance group, the mirror to Split Britches’ lesbian theater. Less adaption and more parody, Belle Reprieve treats Streetcar as a kind of modern myth, employing drag and masquerade to fuck with gender identity and sexuality; in the words of the OUT Magazine review, “a gender melee of an already gender confused play.” Perhaps the best summation of the play comes at the very top of the script, with the cast list:

“MITCH, a fairy disguised as a man (Paul Shaw); STELLA, a woman disguised as a woman (Lois Weaver); STANLEY, a butch lesbian (Peggy Shaw); BLANCHE, a man in a dress (Bette Bourne).”


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Ekathrina Sobechanskaya, 1982

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Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, 1982

In 1972, three members of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre Company formed the Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, often headlined by co-founder Larry Ree, who performed under the name Ekathrina Sobechanskaya. A loving parody of classical ballet forms and traditions, this particular Trockadero performance happened at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A, and took place in October, in honor of the October Revolution.  Of a show in May, the Villager wrote, “[Ree] has always been quite precise in insisting that the Trocks are not a drag group…” Instead, Ree insists they dance “en travestie”:

“It is a very sophisticated approach to material by which a kind of wry humor is achieved that is not at all the ‘travesty’ that the English implies. Properly understood, [en travestie] does rather exactly describe what the troupe does, for though their dancing on point is often humorous, it is never cheap, never happy, never broadly satirical. It is not a joke about ballet, but a joke inside ballet — one made through great knowledge and great love.”


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Harvey Fierstein in “One Man’s Religion”, 1975, photograph by Amnon Ben Nomis

Harry Koutoukas was an Off Off-Broadway founder, legend, and icon who put up shows at La MaMa and Caffe Cino, injecting surrealism and the absurd into the lifeblood of American Theater. One show in particular was a set of two monologues; “One Man’s Religion/The Pinotti Papers”, performed by Harvey Fierstein, debuting his first time out of drag on stage.

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H.M. Koutoukas, 1974, photograph by Irene Vilhar

The first monologue, One Man’s Religion, takes place in a “burned-out writer’s apartment in NYC – mid 1970s” and the Pinotti Papers was “set in the heart of a dead Alcholic-Cocaine Addict”. Koutoukas was wildly prolific, turning out 3 plays a year during the 60s and 70s, many of which were produced at La MaMa, including “Medea in the Laundromat,” which Koutoukas called “a ritualistic camp.” An early adopter of camp in theater, Koutoukas flouted convention and obeyed no law but, in his own words, “the ancient law of glitter.” According to the reviewer from the SoHo Weekly News who went to see Fierstein perform “One Man’s Religion/The Pinotti Papers,”:

“There are shows, good and bad, that I feel I have things to say about. And there are other shows that are their own review, their own entirety. These are very special. They deserve their own unrefracted existence, in their own words. These Koutoukas ‘plays’ are such shows. To be seen, heard, experienced, in their own right. Just go.”


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That’s How The Rent Gets Paid Poster, 1966

Describing Jeff Weiss‘ series of one-man-shows, that were performed as recently as 2015, is no easy task. This first performance in 1966 was a chaotic series of monologues in which he assailed the audience with, “a cascade of fantasies, reminiscences, meditations, poetry-readings, and miscellaneous schticks…” Many years later, theater professor Alisa Solomon observed that, “critics didn’t yet have the language for the queer interventions of Weiss’s confounding yet compelling work, which addressed subjects like racism, liberal hypocrisy, sadistic parenting, and sexual violence.” With this 1966 kick off, Weiss began the artistic journey that would cement him in Off Off-Broadway legend, disrupting not only notions of gender and sexuality, but the conventions of theater and performance, leading reviewer Ross Wetzsteon to call Rent, “one of the most moving and harrowing experiences I’ve ever had.”


Tom Eyen Festival

Tom Eyen Festival Flyer, 1965

I’m ending this very brief glimpse into La MaMa’s rich queer legacy with Tom Eyen, one of La MaMa’s earliest and most celebrated playwrights – someone whose work should have been mandatory viewing for any celebrity who thought they had a good outfit for the Met’s 2019 Gala. A prolific La MaMa contributor, Eyen did 35 plays at La MaMa between 1964 and 1974, including Miss Nefertiti Regrets (Bette Midler’s New York City stage debut), Why Hanna’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down, The White Whore and the Bit-Player, Sarah B. Divine, and Frustrata. Eyen would go on to win the Tony for best book for Dreamgirls, but his roots were in Caffe Cino, in La MaMa, and in camp. One of his most famous, and perhaps most notorious camp plays was Women Behind Bars (1975), which featured long-time Eyen collaborator Helen Hanft, and would be revived a year later with Divine starring.

His dual shows happening at La MaMa and the Cino, seen above, earned a review from the Village Voice that managed to work the words “loud”, “crude”, “appealing” and “vulgar” into a glowing review – exactly the kind of praise that a queer artist might dream of.

La MaMa at #AMIA18

This year was my first time at AMIA! Otherwise known as the Association for Moving Image Archivists. It’s a wonderful conference full of archivists and AV geeks of all kinds, and a great place for someone who is managing a collection of media on all sorts of nhprc-logo-lformats. Resources galore! Friendly colleagues, eager to help out! And of course, informative panels that will give you a taste of what the professionals in the field are cooking up.

I consider myself doubly lucky, since I also got to present on our National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) funded project with my predecessor Rachel Mattson, as well as my colleagues from BAVC and the WCFTR. It was actually my first time meeting Morgan, from BAVC, and Amy and Jesse, from WCFTR in person, and it was a joy. Working with all four of them on this panel was gratifying – a chance to show off all our hard work to a room full of people who will appreciate it better than anyone. My only regret was that I didn’t get a photo with my co-panelists.

Multnomah Falls

I did, however, get a photo of Multnomah Falls

In fact, we were asked to share some of our documentation. An audience member pointed out that the Memorandum of Understanding designed by Rachel and Amy at the start of the project is quite unusual, and that other institutions might benefit from having it as an example. Anyone interested can find it here! (The only info I edited out are email addresses.)

Below, you’ll find the slides from our presentation:

 

 

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If you’d like to save the slides, download it here.

I was very happy with how we approached the panel. Rather than break the presentation down into individual sections, we were able to do more of a round robin discussion with all of us addressing each step of this two year long collaboration. After all, the theme of the panel itself was collaboration! We wanted that to shine more than anything else – that the solution to the problem of deteriorating, valuable material and no digital preservation infrastructure was to collaborate with like-minded institutions. We all benefit – La MaMa preserves and makes accessible important material, WCFTR expands their collections, and BAVC tackled the challenge of a large scale digitization effort that helped them streamline their workflows. You can read and download our project narrative here, although keep in mind some aspects of the project – like the staff involved, and a couple technical details – have changed.

I was so grateful for the positive response to our presentation. It meant the world to have other archivists engage with the work we’ve done, and it was especially meaningful to have students come up after to talk. AMIA was a treat – I can’t wait for next year – and I hope the documentation here is helpful. My inbox is always open to questions and ideas!

A new face in the archive

The most common question I get when I tell people what I do for a living is how I ended up working in archives. The story I usually tell is a fairly boring, circuitous one: studying history, not wanting to be a professor, but also wanting to use my degree; discovering the power of archives as an undergrad, internships and volunteerIMG-8049 (1).JPG positions, all leading to an eventual masters degree. The version that is a bit more involved and a little harder to explain is a story more about a feeling than a career path. It is a feeling that came on strong when I first set foot in the La MaMa Archive to interview for the position of Project Manager. For those of you who have never visited, the experience of entering the La MaMa Archive is a unique one. Immediately, you are surrounded by artifacts of all sizes, from the small hand drum from Korea, to the ten-foot tall wooden puppet, the largest of three Pinocchios, that was used in a 2016 production of Six Characters (A Family Album). It is cool and quiet, and each time you sweep the room with your eyes, you spot something new, strange and wonderful: an elaborate headdress, a large bird hanging from puppet strings from the ceiling, a lion’s head, a winged horse. These are the objects, but the feeling I’m referencing, and attempting to describe, is the sensation these objects impart. The air is suffused with their history and the mesmerizing stories they carry with them – not only about the performances in which they were used, but the people who built them, the time and care and creativity it took to bring them to life, and their lives since then.

I walked into this truly magical space on the footsteps of Rachel Mattson, my predecessor who is responsible not only for the creation of this blog, but for the catalog that has brought the La MaMa Archive into a future where its materials are not only preserved and processed, but used, loved, and remembered by the world beyond La MaMa’s doors. Over the course of an hour long conversation, Rachel’s obvious devotion to La MaMa’s collections would contribute to the sensation of creative magic. I told her, on our way back out to the street, that I’d felt a thrill when I stepped inside. She seemed to know exactly what I meant by that.

Part of this thrill is the physical magic of the objects themselves. Who could walk into a room full of larger-than-life puppets and beautiful costumes and not feel some awe? Another part is the magic of La MaMa and its place in history. I started my professional archives career at the Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU, where the Downtown Collection documents the kind of wild, revolutionary, magical art that was being created in New York City from the 1960s on. There, I learned to love the brilliant, sometimes nonsensical, often obscene, work of artists like David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, Mabou Mines, John Vaccaro, and Maria Irene Fornés. The world of the East Village at the time of La MaMa’s founding was immeasurably expansive and exciting, challenging and tender. The theater became a vital part of that world, providing space and resources to artists who were shaping the future in ways we’re only just beginning to see and understand. At Fales I fell in love with that world, and joining the team at the La MaMa Archive has been a return to it.

My name is Sophie, I’m the new Project Manager at La MaMa, and I’m beyond excited to have the chance to continue Rachel’s work here. We’re halfway through our NHPRC funded project to digitize 250 half-inch open reels, expanding access to a treasure trove of performances from the 1970s. We’re working to digitize performances from the 1980’s and 90’s that have been accessible only through onsite VHS viewings. We continue to build our catalog on CollectiveAccess, and we’re eager to connect and work with our fellow performing arts archives in the city and beyond. Places like La MaMa, and the feeling you get walking through its collections, are absolutely why I work in archives. The doors, physical and virtual, are open for visitors to come see what I’m talking about.

La MaMa + Wikipedia

In fall of 2017, La MaMa’s Archives received a $100,000 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to digitize and expand access to our collection of half-inch open reel videos. The collection documents over 150 productions that represent the enormous diversity of work being made at La MaMa during the 1970s. We have partnered with the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco, where the videos are being digitized, and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, where the digital preservation masters are being preserved in perpetuity. At the conclusion of the project, researchers will be able to view access copies of these videos at both La MaMa and WCFTR. The project will enable the public to gain unprecedented access to information about the early Off-Off-Broadway movement through an audiovisual record of work by artists ranging from John Vaccaro and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous to Hanay Geiogamah and the Native American Theatre Ensemble.

In addition to digitizing and preserving these audiovisual materials, the project aims to expand access to these materials through multiple portals. Each of the productions documented on these reels is already described on La MaMa Archives’ digital collections site, but La MaMa’s catalog is not as heavily trafficked as other websites. In order to increase the discoverability of these materials, the project is supporting shared metadata across several platforms. We are augmenting the metadata about these materials on La MaMa’s digital catalog, and then porting this metadata to the Digital Public Library of America; we are also sharing this metadata with the staff at WCFTR, who are creating a detailed finding aid that will be accessible through the University of Wisconsin’s OPAC as well as WorldCat.  Additionally, we are editing Wikipedia, creating links to La MaMa’s digital catalog from Wikipedia articles about the artists and works represented on these half-inch open reel tapes. By linking from relevant Wikipedia articles to La MaMa’s digital collections site, we intend to simultaneously enhance the information available on Wikipedia about the early Off-Off-Broadway movement, increase access to La MaMa’s materials, and improve researchers’ ability to discover and learn about the artists whose work is documented by this collection – many of whom are underrepresented in the historical record and online.

MoMA

Screenshot of MoMA’s event page for the edit-a-thon (https://www.moma.org/calendar/events/3941)

As the metadata/access intern for this project, one key part of my job is to develop workflows and best practices for linking the collection to relevant Wikipedia articles. Before joining this project, I’d had very little experience editing Wikipedia. This project has given me the opportunity to learn about the best practices for Wikipedia editing that have been developed by librarians, archivists, artists, activists, and others in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) community. A number of GLAM-based groups are working to enhance visibility and discoverability of underrepresented people and communities on Wikipedia. One group that’s been working for several years to develop and share best practices for Wikipedia editing, in an effort to diversify the content on Wikipedia, is Art+Feminism. The group hosts Wikipedia edit-a-thons focused on improving Wikipedia’s representation of cis and trans women, feminism, and the arts. Art+Feminism’s fifth annual edit-a-thon was held at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan on March 3rd of this year, which was, fortuitously, one month after I joined the project at La MaMa. I attended the MoMa edit-a-thon with Rachel Mattson, the project’s Principal Investigator, and Alice Griffin, La MaMa Archives’ metadata/digitization assistant.

Having spent the month of February familiarizing myself with the collection by creating metadata and records in La MaMa’s digital collections catalog, I came to the edit-a-thon with ideas of several articles I wanted to edit. I’d been keeping a running list of the “notable” people represented in the videos and whether each had an existing Wikipedia article. Many, if not most, did not. The first production I researched when I joined the project was “Shekhina,” which was directed by Israeli theater artist Rina Yerushalmi at La MaMa in December 1971. “Shekhina” was Leon Katz’s adaptation of “The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds,” a Russian/Yiddish-language play written in 1914 by S. Ansky. Katz, an American playwright and scholar, had a brief Wikipedia article. Yerushalmi did not. I arrived at the edit-a-thon with the intention of creating a article for Yerushalmi.

The daylong event began with a panel discussion “about the relationship between structures of inequality and structures of the Internet, the affective labor of Internet activism, and creating inclusive online communities,” as listed on MoMA’s website. This discussion was followed by a training on Wikipedia editing led by Siân Evans, a founder of Art+Feminism and an Information Literacy and Instructional Design Librarian at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. For me, as a beginner, this hour-long training was enormously helpful.

Among the most important things I learned was that there are established best practices for editing Wikipedia, and that adherence to these practices improves the strength of a article and decreases the likelihood of its being deleted. This knowledge has proved very valuable to me in my Wikipedia editing; because many of the artists in La MaMa’s collection are so sparsely documented, their articles are especially vulnerable. That being the case, it is crucial to adhere to the following practices as closely as possible. Art+Feminism summarizes the core best practices for editing Wikipedia as:

  • stay neutral
  • maintain verifiability
  • no originality
  • don’t be messy
  • use reliable sources
  • test notability, and
  • know your stub (a Wikipedia article that is too short and needs to be expanded).

Of these, I was most concerned with maintaining verifiability, using reliable sources, and testing notability. (For more on rules of editing, Art+Feminism has a PDF guide on their site.) To maintain verifiability is to attribute each piece of information to a reliable source. Wikipedia defines reliable sources as books, journals, magazines, and newspapers published by mainstream presses. This definition is reasonable, though there is a useful point to be made about the absence of underrepresented people and communities in mainstream sources and the way in which this definition of reliability can reproduce and further this underrepresentation (both on Wikipedia and elsewhere). Notability also mandates that secondary sources must be available to be cited within the article. This practice guides Wikipedians to determine whether a given person, for example, merits their own article. (Wikipedia offers more on guidelines and policies for editing here).

Yerushalmi

Screenshot of Yerushalmi’s Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rina_Yerushalmi)

I’d noticed, as I compiled my list of people and productions represented in La MaMa’s half-inch open reel video collection, that many did not have an existing Wikipedia article. Of those people without articles, some were notable by Wikipedia’s definition, and others were not. After Siân’s training, I began looking for secondary sources to determine whether Rina Yerushalmi would be considered notable. I did find a number of sources, primarily newspaper articles and websites, about her life and work. I spent the rest of the day creating Yerushalmi’s article. (Even after several hours of editing, the article remains far from complete, and I hope others will contribute.)

Yerushalmi 2

Screenshot of references and external links on Yerushalmi’s Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rina_Yerushalmi)

Since the edit-a-thon, I have edited several existing Wikipedia articles for artists whose work is documented by La MaMa’s half-inch open reel video collection, including Ed Bullins, Candy Darling, Paul Foster, Tom Eyen, Hanay Geiogamah, Geraldine Keams, Elizabeth Swados, the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, Basil Anthony Wallace, and Ahmed Yacoubi. In so doing, I’ve developed a strategy that I believe maximizes the impact of my edits and citations to increase the discoverability of La MaMa’s archival collections and to support researchers’ efforts to learn about the artists represented in this collection. I make minor edits to the text of the article itself (where necessary) and link out to La MaMa’s catalog records as references for either new or existing information on the article. When editing an individual’s article, I also link out to their artist article on La MaMa’s catalog, placing this link in the “external links” section that’s often included at the end of a Wikipedia article. For example, on Rina Yerushalmi’s Wikipedia article, I linked out to “Yerushalmi’s article on La MaMa Archives Digital Collections”.

La MaMa

Screenshot of Yerushalmi’s page on La MaMa Archives Digital Collections (http://catalog.lamama.org/index.php/Detail/Entity/Show/entity_id/2817)

Additionally, because Wikipedia’s power as an encyclopedia is partially due to the links that editors create between articles, I’ve made sure to enhance inter-textual linking between the articles I’m editing. For example, I linked Rina Yerushalmi to Leon Katz, as well as to “The Dybbuk” and to S. Ansky. I linked playwright Ed Bullins to actor Basil Wallace, who performed in a production of Bullins one-acts at La MaMa in February/March 1972. I also linked playwright Ahmed Yacoubi to White Barn Theatre, where La MaMa produced his play “The Night Before Thinking” in July 1974, and through White Barn Theatre linked Yacoubi to Lucille Lortel, who founded the theater space in a horse barn on her Connecticut property in 1947. Through these and other links between Wikipedia articles, we hope to create more opportunities for artists and researchers to discover and access the videos in this collection and to learn about the diversity of experimental theater that was being made at La MaMa during the 1970s.