Digital Collections Treasure Hunt

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Maybe you’re thinking: I want to search La MaMa’s new digital collections site, but I don’t know where to begin. Or maybe you’re a history buff dying for some clues to the fascinating secrets of downtown New York’s past. Or maybe you just like a good challenge. Whatever your needs, we got you covered – with our new Digital Collections Treasure Hunt! And its a pretty rewarding challenge: there are hundreds of amazing, little-known stories buried in La MaMa’s archives.

So far, no one–even La MaMa’s most knowledgeable insiders–have been able to answer all of these questions without turning at least once to a keyword search in our Digital Collections.

Email rachel [at] lamama [dot] org for the answer key.

1. How many times did La MaMa move between 1961 and 1969?   

  • Never
  • Once a year
  • 4 times

2. Which playwright dedicated a 1969 La MaMa production of his work to the Stonewall Rebellion?

3. Which member of the Black Panthers staged several plays at La MaMa in the 1970s?

4. Why did the American Indian Theatre Company change its name to the Native American Theatre Ensemble? (Hint: the answer is in a program for a 1973 La MaMa production)

5. Who performed alongside “The Mell-o White Boys” at La MaMa in 1984?

6. What was the first La MaMa show to feature Nicky Paraiso (Programming Director/Curator for the Club and La MaMa Moves!) as a performer?

7. Which of the following was not one of the plays that the Great Jones Rep performed?

  • “The Iliad”
  • “As You Like It”
  • “Medea”

8. Name two Japanese theater makers whose work appeared on La MaMa’s stages before 1985.

9. Which actor from La MaMa’s 1969 production of Adrienne Kennedy’s a “Rats Mass” (directed by Seth Allen) went on win a Tony Award?

Be Kind Rewind: Setting Up A Film Rewind at La MaMa

       This Spring I have been interning at the La MaMa Archives while I complete my first year in NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program. When I first met Rachel, we discussed a few potential projects for the semester. One idea involved La MaMa’s collection of 16mm film, which had been catalogued by previous intern Genevieve Havemeyer-King. Unfortunately, the films couldn’t be inspected thoroughly at that time because La MaMa didn’t have a film rewind. But the archives needs a better record of the content of the films, how the images look, and which films should be prioritized for more long-term preservation. I thought the project sounded perfect for me.

        Very early on, Rachel warned me that working in community archives comes with its own special set of challenges. Unsurprisingly, funding is at the top of that list, and with La MaMa’s limited resources, I was tasked to get a rewind set up at virtually no cost to the archive. There are many little things that go into properly inspecting film. Ideally, I would need lint-free gloves, cloths to remove dust, isopropyl alcohol for cleaning, a spring clamp to keep the reel secure on the shaft, a light box to illuminate the film, and a loupe to magnify it. Most of these are inexpensive items, which we purchased from online retailers. And I found that I could just use my iPad as a light box. But we still needed the most important film-inspection equipment: the film rewind bench. Kelly Haydon, a Preservationist at Bay Area Video Coalition, had donated a pair of rewinds to La MaMa Archives last year. Rachel and I planned to make our own bench by screwing these rewinds into a wood plank, then clamping it to a table. But when I got a look at the set, it was clear they weren’t ready – they were missing handles and shafts (Shafts are the rods that the film reel slides onto for viewing).

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The donated pair of rewinds

        So I began my search for the missing parts. The rewinds we had were produced by the Hollywood Film Company, which is still in business, but multiple requests for a quote on spare parts were never returned. I spent a lot of time browsing eBay, but when you have no money, sometimes the best option is to ask your friends for help. I don’t yet know that many people in the archiving community, but an email sent out to the AMIA Listserv garnered several kind responses. One man actually sent us a pair of shafts free of cost (Thanks Danny Kuchuck!). I am quickly learning the benefit of having a community of archivists to turn to.

        As I worked on this project, I also spent time on other tasks in the archives, but after several weeks, I still hadn’t had any luck acquiring the right kind of handles for the rewind. It was admittedly turning into a frustrating situation. I took a week off to go on a class trip to the Library of Congress’s Audiovisual Conservation Center, and everywhere I looked I saw perfectly good film rewinds. I must have seen fifty of them, each one taunting me, reminding me that I didn’t even have one to work with. Then I got an email from Rachel:

“OK you’ll never believe what just happened- i found a pair of handles for the rewinds. apparently Kelly DID give me handles when she gave me the rewinds. and, er, she also gave me (wait for it): SHAFTS. i found all the hardware hidden in a secret location i had forgotten about.

ACK! so this is exciting and also annoying. sorry! and hooray!?”

        I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, but I ended up laughing. I wish that I could have been there to see her reaction when she realized we had the missing parts.

        As soon as I got back to La MaMa, Rachel and I got to work. The two pieces of the rewind needed to be secured to a flat surface, roughly two feet apart, so Rachel and I went down to the basement, found four screws, and drilled the rewinds into a plank of wood. We brought it back up to our office and clamped the board to a table using a pair of C-clamps. This has become my workspace.

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Our imperfect, but functioning rewind bench

After a month of ups and downs simply trying to set up a rewind, I can’t believe how quickly everything came together when I returned from my trip. I couldn’t be upset that we had the parts the whole time, because that time turned into a valuable learning experience. My first internship could have gone a variety of ways, and I feel so grateful to be in a place where my ideas and opinions are welcome, and where the work I do will actually matter. The final result of our rewind isn’t perfect, but it will do the job, and I couldn’t be happier. 

Now let’s look at some film.

– Caroline Roll

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It works!

List of the items we acquired for the film rewind bench:

Rewinds – Donated ($0)

Shafts – Donated ($0)

Handles – Donated ($0)

Spring Clamp – eBay ($25)

Wood – Found at La MaMa ($0)

Clamps – Found at La MaMa ($0)

Microfiber cloth – B&H, purchased used ($3)

Lint-free gloves – B&H ($5)

Loupe, B&H ($5)

Split reel – found in La MaMa archives ($0)

iPad – used my own ($0)

Total Cost: $38

The Little Elephant Is Dead (La MaMa, May 1979)

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In spring 1979, cities across the United States celebrated “Japan Today,” an international symposium on Japanese culture organized by The Japan Society with grants from the National Endowment for Humanities and the Japan Foundation, among other organizations with an interest in cultural exchange between the US and Japan.  The Japan Society coordinated the events held in New York, which included panels, film screenings, exhibitions of Japanese art, courses on traditional Japanese art, and performances of Japanese plays, dance, and music. These events included a production at La MaMa—the Abe Studio’s (listed as “The Kobo Abe Theater Troupe” in “Japan Today’s” promotional materials) An Exhibition of Images: The Little Elephant Is Dead from May 14th to 18th.  (New York Times C24)

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Both sides of a flyer advertising The Little Elephant Is Dead. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0103).

Given La MaMa’s history of showcasing Japanese directors, the venue was a natural fit for the Abe Studio. La MaMa hosted about one experimental Japanese play every year throughout the 1970s, beginning in 1970 with The Golden Bat (by Higashi Yutaka) and La Marie Vision (by Terayama Shūji). Little Elephant was performed at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center (May 8th-12th) before relocating to La MaMa for the next week of performances.

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Uncredited production photograph. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105).

The “Japan Today” celebration tour of Little Elephant marked a shift in how Abe was understood as a writer and artist in the States. Following the translation of his novel The Woman in the Dunes to English in 1964 and the success of its film adaptation directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi, Western readers and critics quickly recognized Abe’s significance in contemporary Japanese literature. The Little Elephant Is Dead, however, marked the first performances of Abe’s theatre in America. Visiting six cities that were a part of the “Japan Today” celebration, the Abe Studio introduced American audiences to the theatrical method Abe had been honing since his playwriting debut The Uniform (New York Times Magazine 33). Perhaps conscious of audiences’ expectation of complex characterizations and dialogue from reading his novels, the press materials for The Little Elephant Is Dead seem to dispel these expectations and preface Abe’s theatre as an entirely different genre of work. A press release written on behalf of “Japan Today” from March 12, 1979 sells the performance on its dream-like images rather than emphasizing Abe’s literary prowess:

In the play, Abe fully uses the bodies and language of his actors, which together with his own synthesized music and projections makes for a satisfying expression of unique art form…The accompanying dialogue, which is sparse, also suggests a series of merging and dissolving images through the poetic association of one phrase with the next. The ultimate effect is one of a dream which communicates intense vitality.

Abe’s first play to tour in the US was also the last of his playwriting career. Without knowledge of how Abe’s playwriting had evolved in the decades prior to Little Elephant, the contrast between Abe’s literature and his theatre must have been shocking to his American fans. While his novels frequently use dream-like imagery to immerse the reader in the bizarre and nightmarish situations his protagonists face, the imagery of his plays occupied a much more important role in the work in lieu of a traditional narrative to drive the performance. Accordingly, in the press lead-up to Little Elephant‘s NYC run, Abe presented the play as a focused exercise in image creation. “My intention is that the play’s dream images—like the image of the little elephant in the play–remain mysterious and unexplained,” Abe told the New York Times Magazine in an article published two weeks to the La MaMa performances (New York Times Magazine 84).

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Men carry “the dream” onto the stage. Uncredited photograph. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105).

To create the images of Little Elephant, the Abe Studio primarily used fabric to create dynamic set pieces and characters. In the opening scene, a large cloth spread across the stage rises and undulates. The exact mechanisms of this movement are unclear due to Abe’s commitment to describe images in his script rather than explain how they were to be made. Because of his writing style, imagining the stage using the script and limited photograph documentation is a considerable task. Abe’s script, translated by Hideo Levy, provides insight into how Abe might have intended audiences to understand his cloth creations. As much as the script is an instruction on how to perform Little Elephant, it is also a document of Abe’s process. Rather than an object of physical manipulation by actors, Abe describes the cloth is a living being:

The cloth dreams. Lifting an orange-gleaming face, it rises and, panting, grows supporting pillars and turns into a great curtain. The curtain breathes, giving off a flourescent [sic] light, and dreams of the shadows cast by the many lives which have passed before it. Yes, it dreams of the many visions seen inside it.

As the play progresses, both anthropomorphic and cloth-like characters converse about the nature of dreams while the clothed-over stage shifts around them. Elephants and dreams of elephants are repeatedly mentioned and analyzed by the play’s characters as they confront tangential obstacles and enigmas. These scenes include a hunt for a suitcase filled with light, a plant called shellweed that makes you dream of fish, a “pseudo-fish” dying and coming back to life, and a wrestling match that results in the wrestlers losing their desire to fight and revolting against their referee. Each individual scene introduces new combinations of characters working toward reaching an abstract philosophical conclusion about the situations they face. In the last few scenes which take place in a mock court, the motif of the little elephant becomes the center of conversation:

Cloth E: Something like that could only be an illusion! It would never be in Japan in the first place.

Cloth F: But elephant fossils have been found in Japan too.

The dream: Three to six!

Cloth E: It was extinct before man ever lived here. It’s none of our responsibility.

The dream: Seven to eight!

Cloth F: But the elephant as an idea arrived in Japan along with Buddhism.

Cloth E: So you’re telling me you recognize it—the way it hangs about like that?

Cloth F: I don’t recognize it, but I can’t ignore it either.

Cloth E: It’s started to rot.

Notably, this exchange is the only scene in which Abe attempts to connect our reality to the dream world that his characters inhabit. While the play is filled with allusions to earthly animals, it is devoid of proper nouns and places. As far as I can tell the events of Abe’s dreamworld do not serve as an allegory for a real world crisis. In my opinion this is one of the text’s greatest strengths. Because the play lacks a coherent message, the bizarre turns of the script do not read as forced. Instead, Little Elephant uses these turns to thoroughly explore the slipperiness of dreams and human concepts for its own sake. Abe comes closest to expressing an explicit message in the penultimate scene, when the words “DON’T FEED THE ANIMAL” are projected upon the ground-cloth (this time inflated into a spherical bulge).

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The ground-cloth swells. Uncredited photograph. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105).

Reading the script for The Little Elephant Is Dead, I wondered about Abe’s process and how he put together such an eclectic set of images. Thankfully, I discovered an interview that answered some of my questions. A year before the “Japan Today” festival, the Japan Society asked Donald Keene, one of the world’s most prolific scholars and translators of Japanese literature, to interview Abe Kōbō for their newsletter. They met at the Keiō Plaza Hotel in Tokyo, where Keene observed “not only the sound of Abe munching peanuts but the celestial strains of a harp being played in the distance, a feature of the elegant club.” (Keene 190) The transcript of the interview was later reprinted in Keene’s anthology, The Blue-eyed Tarōkaja. Keene opened the conversation by asking Abe what led Abe to start writing plays, to which Abe replied “it was an accident” (190). His first play The Uniform was written the night before the deadline for a short story requested by a magazine. Desperate to complete the story, Abe admits,”it occurred to me that it might be easier to work out something if all I had to do was write dialogue, and I didn’t have to go to the trouble of writing descriptions and the rest.” (190)

As Abe became more comfortable writing for the stage he began to focus on the images he presented on stage rather than dialogue: “Basically I had come to feel that writing a play and staging it were almost the same thing.” (191) By the time Abe started writing plays, he had already published several novels and a number of short stories. Experimenting in this new format, Abe desired to present experiences that he could not express effectively in prose. In my view, his desire to experiment with wordlessness and breathtaking images is directly related to his familiarity with words and how to use them effectively to produce emotions. The scarceness of words in his later plays can be understood as a reaction to the strength and volume of his literary work. He told Keene:

The dialogue of a play is also a kind of action and movement. Words that are not movement I can employ in my novels, and there is no special need for them on the stage. I don’t like plays, whether by myself or by other people, the meaning of which can be communicated in the form of fiction. Novels do that sort of thing much better. The dialogue of a play must be related to the action, and within the words themselves there must be action. The words must be part of the action. Words without an element of action have no place in the theater. (193)

Abe’s commentary on dialogue in plays brings into question whether or not Little Elephant should be categorized as a work of experimental theatre. In comparison to the Western theatrical canon with which his New York audience was most likely familiar, the prioritization of image over dialogue was definitely shocking. From Abe’s perspective, however, his process is the Occam’s Razor approach to eliciting reactions from an audience: Among competing hypotheses, he seems to be telling his audience, select the one that relies on the fewest assumptions.  By employing non-human characters, Abe cuts out the responsibility of characters to establish connections with the audience and embraces the simpler and more immediate approach of using them as aesthetically compelling creatures.  As Abe contextualized Little Elephant, “Some people may feel on first seeing this play as if it is rather far removed from theater, but I believe that structurally it consists of a groping for the very origins of theater.” (193)

In press reviews of The Little Elephant Is Dead, critics of New York generally praised its visual spectacle while acknowledging the lack of cohesion inherent to its format. Comparing Little Elephant‘s use of visual imagery to Tadeusz Kantor’s Dead Class (which ran at La MaMa earlier that season) Mel Gussow of the New York Times applauded Abe for the play’s ambition and scale:

The Little Elephant is Dead…has a script–one that is poetically descriptive, but not fully suggestive of the sweep of the experience. In the case of Mr. Abe, the play is the performance… a sequence of impressions, both visual and aural. The world is illusory; watching it, we enter Mr. Abe’s fantasy. In a sense, the author is like an action painter, drawing from a palette of light, sound, film, props and actors…this is experimental theater with a sense of humor… (New York Times C24).

Some critics were understandably frustrated with the way Little Elephant’s blunt, conceptual dialogue worked against its strong images. While Abe’s dialogue is entertaining when read on the page, I can imagine that some audience members might have disliked the play’s attempt to provide commentary on a visual spectacle that speaks for itself. Eileen Blumenthal of the Village Voice succinctly expressed this frustration, writing that “while the work suffers from both expressed lack of and pretensions toward ‘meaning,’ its individual images range from funny to unnerving to exquisite…” (Village Voice 89)

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Promotional photograph of Abe by Thomas Haar. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105)

The Little Elephant Is Dead encapsulates Abe’s unique contribution to Japanese theatre.  He crafted his plays with an utmost respect for the visual and performative components of theatre that distinguish it from the novel. Theatre provided Abe a way to painstakingly recreate the dreamy images that inspired the prose of his greatest written works. In selecting Abe’s piece for the “Japan Today” celebration, the Japan Society deliberately offered American audiences a work with an unabashedly modern theatrical vision to compliment their plurality of traditional performances. By providing a venue for The Little Elephant Is Dead, La MaMa continued its legacy of showcasing works by Japanese artists that expanded on the limited representations of Japanese theatre in America, which exposed audiences to a great deal of and kabuki while largely excluding contemporary Japanese artists. The American tour of The Little Elephant Is Dead was a significant theatrical event that contributed to the international recognition of Abe as a playwright in addition to the diversification of representations of Japanese art in America.

—Jameson Creager

 

Published Works Cited

Blumenthal, Eileen. “Animal Dreams.” The Village Voice [New York] 28 May 1979: 89. Print.

Gussow, Mel. “Stage: ‘Little Elephant Is Dead,’ a Japanese Play; Action and Imagery.” New York Times [New York] 16 May 1979, The Living Section sec.: C24. Print.

Scott-Stokes, Henry. “JAPAN’S KAFKA GOES ON THE ROAD.” New York Times Magazine [New York] 29 Apr. 1979: 33, 84. Print.

Keene, Donald, and J. Thomas. Rimer. The Blue-eyed Tarōkaja: A Donald Keene Anthology. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Print.

Archival Objects (from La MaMa Archives) Cited

Program: “The Little Elephant Is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0102)

Promotional Flyer: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0103)

Press: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0104)

Production Photographs: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0105)

Booklets about “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0107)

Promotional Material: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0201)

 

The Moving Images of La Mama: Cataloging the Film Collection

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Cataloging and rehousing “C.O.R.F.A.X (Don’t Ask)” production footage.

Guest Post by Genevieve Havemeyer-King

Last summer, I dusted off and dove into La Mama’s small but rich film collection – a project that unearthed exciting documentation of performances from the late 1960’s and 70’s. La Mama’s film collection includes various reels of footage related to Wilford Leach’s 1974 production of, “C.O.R.F.A.X. (Don’t Ask)” and some rare recordings of Andrei Serban and Elizabeth Swados’ “Medea.” Other gems include shorts and features gifted to La Mama over the years such as a 1973 film titled “Ta’zieh” (Persian for “condolence theater”) and one reel that is likely a recording of the Ruth Escobar Theater’s 1970 production of Genet’s “The Balcony” in Sao Paulo, Brazil– a production directed by Victor Garcia that was well known for having been staged under the military regime of Garrastazu Médici. Other productions that are documented in some way by the collection include Tom Eyen’s “The White Whore and the Bit Player,” Jeff Weiss’s “How the Rent Gets Paid,” an early staging of “The Maids”, The Playhouse of the Ridiculous’s “The Magic Show of Dr. Ma-gico”, and Wilford Leach’s “Carmilla,” to name a few. The collection also contains numerous unidentified rolls of camera original footage captured by La Mama’s in-house documentarian, designer, and playwright – Amnon Ben Nomis.

As Rachel noted in a previous blog post about the trials, tribulations, and joys of archiving performance documentation, I have found the work of cataloging and inspecting this collection of films to be both exciting and frustrating. La MaMa’s collection of film materials suggests the complexity of archival attempts to capture accurate representations of the history of performance art. Some of the 16mm films in La MaMa’s collection were shot during rehearsals and performances that used dramatic lighting; as a result, in some cases, barely anything can be seen on the film itself. This is especially true for “Medea,” which was often lit only by candle and fire-light! These obscured records often conjure up memories of productions, without which the details of their history would be lost, but contain little information in and of themselves. In piecing together the materials more cohesive pictures of the productions are formed, but at the same time this process poses questions around the collection’s preservation and place with La Mama’s history.

The Archival Mysteries of C.O.R.F.A.X. (Don’t Ask)

“C.O.R.F.A.X. (Don’t Ask)” flyer, 1974

“C.O.R.F.A.X. (Don’t Ask)” flyer, 1974

A large percentage of La MaMa’s film footage relates in some way to C.O.R.F.A.X.–approximately 16% of the collection, or eleven film cans out of the 67 in La MaMa’s collection. (The next most-documented play is “Medea”– four cans definitely contain camera original footage of “Medea”; another 17 cans contain multiple rolls of unidentified film, which might include additional “Medea” documentation.) Cited by critics in the 1970s mainly for its “theatrical effects, surprises, and pursuits” (including its use of film projection as an element of the performance) “C.O.R.F.A.X” was a science fiction tale “about a tribe of humanoids who invade middle America and camp out in a veterinarian’s office.” The play continues to reveal itself as a mysterious production with a multitude of audiovisual components.

Because La MaMa does not have a working film-rewind, I relied on visual inspection in cataloging their film materials. Many of the film rolls labeled “C.O.R.F.A.X” appear to be production elements – work prints and original trims of audiovisual components of the performance, rather than documentation of rehearsals or performances. These records are creative works in themselves, with their own scripts, performers, and histories. Does this fact present the need to expand the scope of La Mama’s archival mission, to include the conservation of these experimental film works in addition to documentation of theatrical performance?Is it possible to hold a complete archival record of a production like C.O.R.F.A.X –that relied so heavily on multi-media elements– without preserving those multi-media elements as works in themselves? Similarly, the collection contains a number of films, some of which are mentioned above, that do not depict La Mama productions but are linked to La Mama through connections and relationships among performers, venues, and the history of the experimental theater community as a whole. What is La MaMa custodial responsibility toward these films? How would we tell the story of La Mama without these film materials?

–Genevieve Havemeyer-King

New additions to our team

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I’m thrilled to be able to introduce, now, several new additions to the La MaMa Archives cataloging team. This great crew is helping us successfully complete the final quarter of our CLIR-funded Hidden Collections cataloging project.

Michael Grant joined the team as a part-time Cataloger back in September. Michael graduated from New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Masters program last spring. In addition to contributing to La MaMa’s cataloging projects, he works at NYU Libraries reformatting and preserving critically out of print VHS and audiocassette titles, ensuring their accessibility for use and study in the future. He is also a member of XFR Collective. At La MaMa, Michael has been working on a describing video materials from our Pushcart Collection.

September was also the month that Deborah Shapiro began what is becoming a yearlong archives internship here at La MaMa. Deborah is in her final year of the master’s program in Archives/Public History at New York University. As an intern at the La MaMa Archives, she is currently working on a digital exhibit about xerographic reproductions in La MaMa’s holdings. This exhibit will investigate questions about archival practices related to photocopied materials, and will offer (she hopes) a few ideas about what kind of information and evidence photocopied materials might provide to researchers.

In November, we welcomed two additional part-time Catalogers to the team. Jameson Creager  is a recent graduate of Princeton University where he studied East Asian Studies and worked at the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. In addition to cataloging at La MaMa, he currently works in the archive department of the news program Democracy Now!  Amilca Palmer comes to La MaMa with 10+ years of experience in the world of documentary filmmaking. She has worked as a researcher and producer on a wide range of documentaries, including Koch (2012), African American Lives II with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (2008), and Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice (2004).  At the moment, Jameson and Amilca are working to catalog materials from La MaMa’s Director’s Files.

For more about each of these (amazing) folks, see About the Team.

La MaMa at #AMIA15

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I don’t travel to all that many conferences, but when I can, I try to make it to the meeting of Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). This annual event brings together a cross-section of scholars and practitioners, and offers a wide range of workshops, panel discussions, screenings, and networking events. Attending AMIA conferences has made me a far more competent and thoughtful archivist.

At this year’s conference, I had the opportunity to give a 5-minute “lightning talk” about La MaMa at a panel that was part of a daylong stream devoted to “Access, Outreach, and Use.” Below is a slightly edited version of this talk, which was entitled “Candy Darling and Copyright: Expanding Access to the Videotaped Record of 1970s-era Experimental Theatre.”

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Hi, and thanks to the organizers of the Access, Outreach, & Use stream for all their hard work. I’m here at this pop-up/lightning talk session to very briefly discuss the approach that one community-based performing arts archive is taking to access, use, and preservation of its analog moving image materials.

Specifically, I’m here to talk about work that’s happening in the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. Sometimes called the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway theatre, La MaMa was founded in 1961, in a basement in Manhattan’s East Village, and it quickly became an important site of theatrical experimentation. I don’t have time in this lightning talk to detail the long list of artists who found a creative home at La MaMa over the past five decades, but as Harvey Fierstein notes, the theater has played a critical role in shaping American theater and culture for half a century.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.28.13 PM.pngOne of the most infrequently noted of La MaMa’s many remarkable features is its archive. Occupying 5000 square feet in a building on East 4th Street, this archive holds over 30,000 unique objects–photographs, posters, flyers, masks, puppets, costumes, set pieces, and audiovisual materials. The archives has been run on a really small budget for years, but in the past decade, La MaMa has taken steps to make its collections more accessible. In 2014, we received a CLIR Hidden Collections grant, which supports the creation of a searchable catalog of materials from La MaMa’s earliest “pushcart” years (1961-1985).

Among the most vulnerable and valuable of materials in this collection is a set of ½ inch open reel video—which document approximately 170 Off-Off-Broadway theater performances staged between 1972 and 1980. They comprise the most complete audiovisual record of the early Off-Off-Broadway experiments in existence.

Productions documented in this collection include: A half a dozen experimental theater productions staged by the Native American Theatre Ensemble in the early 1970s in the aftermath of several high profile confrontations Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.29.49 PM.pngbetween the American Indian Movement and the US government;

A recording of a March 1976 performance of playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s “A Rat’s Mass,” directed by Jazz musician Cecil Taylor (Kennedy was a key figure in the 1970s-era black arts movement. One critic called “A Rat’s Mass” “a kind of black spiritual” in which brother and sister rat “gnaw and nibble…on the standards of life that Americans use to hold themselves together”); 

Three early works of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre; two performances by Grand Union dance company; an early performance by the all-male Trocadero Gloxinia Ballet; a dozen productions staged by the Playhouse of the Ridiculous;  collaborations between composer Elizabeth Swados and director Andrei Serban;

And a bilingual (English/Spanish) production of Tom Eyen’s “The White Whore and the Bit Player” featuring Warhol superstar Candy Darling in role of White Whore.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.30.33 PM.pngAmong the many challenges we face in making this collection accessible are five core issues:

1)Format obsolescence: Playback equipment for ½ inch open reel video is fragile and rare–the last machine of this kind was manufactured in the 1970s, parts are difficult to replace, and only a handful of living technicians know how to repair them. In 2011, Bay Area Video Coalition’s then-Director of Preservation, Moriah Ulinskas, wrote that she informed clients and partners “that they have 5, maybe 10 years left” to digitize their ½ inch open reel video–after which time “these recordings are gone for good.” As a result: digitization is a critical piece of our access strategies. Without digitization, no access to this material is possible.Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.32.57 PM.png

2)Copyright and Actors’ Equity regulations: Audiovisual materials documenting live performances require consideration of two sets of rights: 1)rights to the recording itself and 2)rights to the underlying performance. Additionally, if members of Actor’s Equity appear in any of these productions, the recordings are also subject to Equity code regulations.

3+ 4) Preservation infrastructure + Resources: La MaMa has limited financial and staffing resources. As a result, collaboration has been critical—with NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program, for instance; and with Bay Area Video Coalition.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.36.02 PM.png5)We also face several issues that make cataloging these materials to facilitate access challenging.

On one hand, there is no well-established controlled vocabulary to assist in the description of theater materials. The Art and Architecture Thesaurus, which is may be the most likely, offers only very limited terms to describe theatrical performances.

Meanwhile, Library of Congress Subject Headings and other, more general controlled vocabularies, offer very limited terms for describing avant garde theatre artists, productions, and archival materials. Take, for instance, the ½ inch open reel video documenting Candy Darling and the production of “The White Whore and the Bit Player” in which she appeared. Is this queer theater? It is not about queers. More importantly, the term “queer theatre” is, in this context, anachronistic; or, at least, it wasn’t used by the people making this work. And anyhow, queer theater isn’t a Library of Congress subject heading.  And yet, to my mind, it is critically important to offer user-findable access points to help artists and scholars interested in the history of theatrical work created by LGBT people and communities locate related materials.  Similar descriptive issues arise in relationship to many of the other artists and productions documented by these videos.

OK: my five minutes are up! Read our blog, tweet at me, and tune in next year when (hopefully) more of this collection will be in the process of being digitized.

-Rachel Mattson

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Archiving My Time at La MaMa: A Goodbye Note from Suzanne Lipkin, La MaMa Cataloger

Suzanne, The Chairs

For the past year and a half, I have had the joy of cataloging many of the programs, flyers, letters, brochures, clippings, contracts, receipts, photographs, and the occasional Frisbee residing in the La MaMa Archives. From 1962-1985, La MaMa’s “pushcart” years, Ellen Stewart’s vision propelled a generation of theatre artists to launch the off-off-Broadway movement. Starting from a basement in the East Village, by 1985 La MaMa had grown to a campus of several theatres in the neighborhood and sent many of its productions and artists well beyond it, to Broadway, to the silver screen, and around the world.

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Suzanne at her desk at La MaMa.

My journey through the material treasures saved from this era has followed a similar trajectory. In the early days, I cataloged documents from the very first year of La MaMa’s existence. Some of these shows had only a single program or flyer remaining to mark their place in theatre history. As time went on, the files became more complex. La MaMa and its personalities garnered more press clippings, business and personal correspondence piled up, and productions extended their runs or went on tour, leaving behind an extensive trail of administrative and artistic documents.

I have had the cataloger’s privilege of deep engagement with these documents: I have felt the texture of the papers upon which La MaMa’s history is printed, I have come to recognize Ellen Stewart’s scrawled handwriting upon any blank space in any kind of document, and I have glimpsed the nature of the relationships between some of La MaMa’s most beloved and influential figures. At the same time, these materials cannot fully capture the essence of witnessing an early La MaMa production or, behind the scenes, the countless telephone calls exchanged in the course of artistic creation.

The purpose of this project is to reveal what has been hidden. Through our Collective Access catalog, which will be accessible through a public website in the next few months, our cataloging team has striven to bring La MaMa’s history in an accessible manner to anyone who seeks it. While much of La MaMa’s story lies in the people who lived it, this project has, for the first time, given thousands of archival materials unique classification and description, and it has linked La MaMa people, productions, and objects to one another in clearly denoted relationships. In my time with the project, I was able to contribute over 2,000 object records to the catalog.

This month, I embark on a new stage of my professional journey as a staff member at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. My time at La MaMa has immersed me invaluably in theatre history, the off-off-Broadway community, and the triumphs and tribulations of archiving and cataloging. I am immensely grateful for this experience, and I look forward to continuing to bring theatre history of all kinds to the researchers, artists, and enthusiasts who pursue it.

Preserving the Videotaped Record of 1970s-era Experimental Theatre*

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We had a packed house on October 19 for “Preserving the Videotaped Record of 1970s-era Experimental Theatre: A Screening and Panel Discussion.” More than fifty people gathered in La MaMa’s newest venue, The Downstairs, to screen newly digitized clips documenting La MaMa’s 1972 and 1973 seasons– and to discuss the challenge of preserving this kind of legacy video material.

The event had its origins in a collaboration in which La MaMa Archives was fortunate enough to participate last year. In late 2014, faculty from NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program (MIAP) asked us to serve as a host site for a Spring 2015 student project designed to introduce new archivists to the challenges of planning and overseeing a video digitization project. After inspecting a subset of our obsolete video collection (5-15 objects), students would be required to draft an RFP for the digitization of these materials, select a vendor, and then ensure the successful completion of a preservation-level digital migration of these materials. NYU would cover the cost of the transfers, and at the conclusion of the project we would receive a)a set of preservation-level digital copies of our materials and b)recommendations that might inform future migration projects. Meanwhile, participating students would learn how to apply their knowledge of archival best practices in the context of an actual collection.

We jumped at the opportunity.

MIAP Student Erica Gold inspects La MaMa's half inch open reel video collection.

MIAP Student Erica Gold inspects La MaMa’s half inch open reel video collection.

The invitation to participate in this project came at an auspicious moment in the life of the La MaMa Archives. In 2014, we received a Hidden Collections Cataloging Grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources to support the creation of a digital catalog describing materials from our earliest collections (1961-1985). That grant enabled La MaMa to hire one additional full-time and two part-time Archives staff. (I’m the full-timer.) A year and a half later, we’ve cataloged roughly three-quarters of all the material in this earliest collection.

Among the most important results of this cataloging project is that we can now very clearly see which elements of our collection are most in need of conservation and migration. At the top of this list is a cache of rare video, shot between 1972 and 1980 on a Portapak camera, documenting 170 early Off-Off Broadway productions. These videos represent what is likely the most extensive video documentation of the theatrical experiments of the early Off-Off Broadway theatre movement in existence. But video shot on Portapak cameras—a format known as half inch open reel video—is obsolete and at-risk, in large part because the equipment required to play these materials back is scarce. The last machine of this kind was manufactured in the 1970s, parts are difficult to replace, and only a handful of living technicians know how to repair them.

So when MIAP asked us to collaborate on this project, we were extremely receptive. We had already begun developing a strategy for migrating these videos to digital. But we were not yet ready—logistically or financially—to undertake a wholesale project. Partnering with MIAP presented a low-risk opportunity for us to gather information that will enable us (we hope!) to mount a large-scale half inch open reel video migration project in the near future.

A still from digitized video of

A still from digitized video of “Short Bullins” at La MaMa (1972).

The official collaboration concluded successfully in May 2015 when students returned to us our original reels along with a harddrive containing a set of digital files. But we didn’t want to the collaboration to end there. So last week (October 19, 2015) we revved up our video projector, opened up our doors, and invited all comers to a post-game roundup. The discussion featured comments from Peter Oleksik (Assistant Media Conservator at MoMA and professor of MIAP’s Video Preservation II course); Genevieve Havemeyer-King, Ethan Gates, and Michael Grant (students who worked on this project); Rachel Mattson, Suzanne Lipkin, and Ozzie Rodriguez (members of the La MaMa Archives team); and Bill Seery (Director of Preservation Services at The Standby Program, who performed the transfers of our video). How, we asked, can small organizations meet the challenge of preserving historic, live performance captured on video formats that are now obsolete? What specific preservation concerns do half inch open reel videos present? And how are we educating a new generation of archivists to handle these challenges?

And then we screened excerpts from the videos—material that had not been publically viewed in over 40 years. These clips showcased four productions: “Short Bullins”—an evening of non-naturalistic one acts written by Ed Bullins (an important figure in the Black Arts movement); Tisa Chang’s Peking Opera adaptation “Return of the Phoneix”; Paul Foster’s “Silver Queen”; and Tom Eyen’s “Three Drag Queens from Daytona” (a queer satire based on Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame”). The response from the audience was extremely positive—so much so that we’re thinking of organizing an upcoming series featuring screenings of the full-length videos.

A still from digitized video of

A still from digitized video of “Return of the Phoenix” at La MaMa (1973).

From La Mama’s perspective, this collaboration was important for a few key reasons. On one hand, it offered us a low-risk opportunity to consider and experiment with what we wanted from a vendor. We chose, for instance, not to ask for mezzanine-level digital files. We requested only 10-bit uncompressed preservation-level files and Mp4 access copies. But as I prepared video clips for the big screen, I regretted that decision because mezzanine-level files would have made my editing process easier. This collaboration also offered us the opportunity to teach new archivists something about what it looks like to work with a small, community-based archive. Valuable, at-risk video is as commonly found in small arts and community-based organizations as in large university or government repositories. But the needs of small repositories are distinct from the needs of larger institutions. We’re going to need a new generation of archivists who understand these distinctions, and who believe in the importance of small organizations’ collections.

Finally, this collaboration made it possible for us to begin to share these videos with researchers and members of our communities for the first time in 4 decades—and to plan for future migration projects. We still have approximately 245 half inch open reel videos that haven’t been digitized at the preservation level. So our work in this area is far from over.

We hope to make video of the October 19 event available soon, so keep your ears peeled for details.

*This blog post originally appeared on the website of the Theatre Library Association. Photograph at the top of this post: a still from digitized video of Tom Eyen’s “Three Drag Queens from Daytona.” The videos discussed in this post were most likely shot by Amnon Ben-Nomis. 

Medea (and More Medea) at La MaMa

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This month, Dario D’Ambrosi brings Medea back to La MaMa. D’Ambrosi, an Italian theater-maker whose connection with La MaMa extends decades, has devoted much of his career to making theater with and about people with psychiatric disabilities. His Medea (which uses both English and “Attic Greek”) builds on this legacy, and features actors with a range of “diverse abilities” (including epilepsy, neurological disabilities and down syndrome).

Promotional Flyer: "Medea" (1963) (OBJ.1963.0008)

Promotional Flyer: “Medea” (1963) [OBJ.1963.0008]

D’Ambrosi joins a long list of artists who have brought Medea to La MaMa’s stage. La MaMa artists have found inspiration in this iconic tale about the righteous anger of a woman scorned since the earliest days of Off-Off-Broadway. Our Archives contains documents going back to the first appearance o Medea on the La MaMa stage–which was in 1963, when Donald Julian directed a version of Jean Anouilh’s Médée. (Anouilh [1910-1987] was a French dramatist best known for his adaptation of “Antigone,” which critiqued the Vichy government.)

In Anouilh’s version of the classic tragedy, the title character lives in a trailer park and dies in flames. Staged at 321 East 9th Street, the production starred Ellen Maris as Medea, Steve Merrick as Jason, Mary Boylan as the Nurse, and Robert Altman as Creon, Boy, Guard, and Narrator.

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Program: “Trilogy” (1974) [OBJ.1974.0157]

 

Two years later (1965) Harry Koutoukas staged his “Medea, Or, Maybe the Stars May Understand, or Veiled Strangeness” (also known as “Medea in the Laundromat”) at 122 2nd Ave. The production starred Charles Stanley in the title role. The Village Voice called this version so “eccentric as to be nearly unthinkable. The play is an enactment of the final terrible scene when Medea murders her child to avenge herself on Jason….Medea is the very heroine of old–fanatical, hideous, wronged, ecstatically suffering. But the action is set in a laundromat.”


In the 1970s, Medea was a mainstay of the work of The Great Jones Repertory. It premiered at La MaMa in 1972, and  formed a part of the company’s core repertory for many years after that, featuring in their tours to Germany, France, Lebanon, Iran, and elsewhere.

And in 2005, La MaMa hosted Jay Scheib’s reinterpretation, which starred former Great Jones Rep member Zishan Ugurlu, and told the story backwards. As Scheib explained, “What I hope to achieve in reversing the story—by running it in reverse—is to reveal a gripping examination of the process leading to Medea’s slaughter of her two sons, a king and his daughter, and her brother. Medea is a play about passionate ambition and irreversible decisions. The details of these decisions are what interest me…We all know how Medea ends. We barely remember how it starts…Suspense and her great accomplice—broken expectation—these are the tools of our experiment.”

Join La MaMa and D’Ambrosi and his cast October 8-18 to see what this new experiment reveals.

Jeff Weiss, “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid,” and the Dilemma of Archiving Performance

ACTOR: JEFF WEISS

I’ve been thinking, this week, about the trouble with archiving performance. The essay I’ve started writing about it — in my head, at least — is called “Community, Presence, and the Dilemma of the Performing Arts Archivist.” For me, the importance of preserving and facilitating access to documentation of performance events is driven by my own sense of the power of live performance, and a few exquisite experiences I’ve had as a performer, producer, and audience member– experiences that have shaped my sense of what is possible, and what’s important about our personal and collective struggles, and how we might live more electrically. The trouble is that the archival record rarely offers anything at all that can reproduce, convey, or document those experiences. We can learn a lot by reading correspondence related to, or watching a videotape of, a performance– but what we learn there has very little to do with what happens when you are gathered together with other live bodies in a room, telling each other stories.

This dilemma gains new depth as I mull the epic 3-day revival (or whatever you call it; revival is not really the right word) of Jeff Weiss’s “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid,” that ran at The Kitchen last week. As anyone who’s ever had the good fortune to see or participate in Weiss’s work will tell you, no archive will ever be able to capture the power of Jeff Weiss or “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid.” This is theatre that relies, for its power, on live presence; theatre that makes, and solemnifies, community. How to archive that? Why bother trying?

And yet, I still find utility in the archive. Its true that no collection of documents will ever replace the experience of sitting in the audience while Weiss and his co-conspirators make us laugh and laugh and burst out with a longing we can’t describe and then cry. But maybe the archive can help us make sense of those feelings, those longings, and the possibility we glimpsed in the confusing dark. Maybe the documentary record of Weiss’s life and work can tell us different kinds of stories to help us make our way. Maybe the archive can also help us understand how people and events came to take the shape they took, or transmit at least a hint of these histories to new generations. Weiss has been making disarmingly powerful theatre for decades; there’s precious little scholarship or writing about his life and work; and far too few members of younger generations know anything about this legacy.

Its not that there’s no writing about Weiss and his work; theatre scholar Stephen Bottoms, among others, has written about Weiss’s life and work: “Weiss wrote and appeared in his own material under the direction of his lover, Ricardo Martinez, with whom he shared a close personal understanding,” Bottoms writes in Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement (2006). “The results were extraordinary, as the superlatives showered on Wess by interviewees for this book demonstrate: ‘He’s just the greatest’ (O’Horgan); “A dazzling virtuoso, a consummate theater craftsman in every area’ (Patrick);…. ‘The best things ever done at La MaMa were by Jeff Weiss’ (Kornfeld). Very much his own creation, Weiss was untrained as an actor, having quit Stella Adler’s class–which he saw as an ‘offensive lesson in group therapy’…–after just one session” (p. 330).

Its just that this isn’t enough.

And so that’s why, as I came down from the high of experiencing “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid” last week, I turned back to La MaMa’s archival holdings for– well, for whatever we’ve got about Weiss and his work. There’s a lot here, too much to share in one tiny blog posting. But I do want to share some of it (especially material from the 1960s and 1970s), so that those you who are already Weiss fans can enjoy the inadequate delights they provide, and so that those of you who have never heard of him can begin to wonder about this incredible artist, his work, his legacy, and his worlds.

Below, a selection of items from La MaMa’s Archives documenting Weiss’s work. (Click on any image to see an enlarged version.)

1)The earliest object La MaMa’s Archives holds to document Jeff Weiss’s work is a postcard invitation to Robert Sealy’s “Waiting Boy.” This 1964 production marked the first of many times that Weiss performed at La MaMa. Sealy supposedly cast Weiss after seeing him waiting tables at La MaMa, earlier that year. “Weiss was” Bottoms writes, “an instant hit.” These were the days when La MaMa was still known as Cafe La Mama, and occupied a space at 82 Second Ave.

Invitation to Robert Sealy’s “Waiting Boy” (1964), Weiss’s first performance at La MaMa. Sealy supposedly cast Weiss after seeing him wait tables at Caffe Cino.

2)The archives also holds several objects that document early versions of “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid.” Among these objects is a photograph of Weiss performing the piece at La MaMa in August of 1966. This version of “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid” featured Weiss onstage solo. As Bottoms writes: “Welcoming the audience into his ‘home,’ [Weiss] regaled them with tales of his attempts to raise the cash to pay his back rent, while indulging tangentially in a ‘cascade of fantasies, reminiscences, meditations, poetry-readings, and miscellaneous schticks’,” (Playing Underground, p. 330). The photographer who created this image is unknown.

Weiss performing

3)We also have the poster created to advertise this production. The poster indicates that show was directed (of course) by Ricardo Martinez, with sound by David Walker. (Poster designer unknown.)

Poster for Weiss’s solo “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid,” (La MaMa at 122 Second Avenue, Aug. 1966)

4)The repository also holds a range of profiles of Weiss and reviews of his work. The clipping below, a February 1967 World Journal Tribune piece called “Talented Young Actor Chooses Poverty to Easy Compromise,” was written by critic John Gruen. The article offers a brief overview of Weiss’s life and work to date — Weiss was still only 24, but he had already written and starred in several well-received off-off-Broadway productions — as well as praise for the work. Gruen quotes Weiss, who had already come to understand his desire “to engage the audience– their role is as important and meaningful as ours. I insist on their involvement. I sweat up there for them. They’ve got to do some work, too.”

Profile of Weiss, titled “Talented Young Actor Chooses Poverty to Easy Compromise,” published in the World Journal Tribune in Feb. 1967.

5) The Archives also holds several photographs of Weiss’s performance in Harry Koutoukas‘s “When Clowns Play Hamlet” (La MaMa, September 1967). Below, a photograph of Weiss with his fellow performers Mary Boylan and Beverly Grand.  Set backstage at a circus,”When Clowns Play Hamlet” tells the story of three sad clowns. Joyce Tretick (critic for the publication Show Business) called Weiss’s portrayal of Pancho, a hermaphrodite clown who used to work at the freak show, “remarkable”: he was “totally in character with his role” and “his use of mime [was] both inventive and ingenious.” (Photographer: Ted Wester?)

Weiss with Mary Boylan +Beverly Grand in

6) Material in our collections also chronicle the changing nature of “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid.” In June of 1979, the Villager published a review of the latest iteration of the piece, mounted in May at La MaMa. In the piece, entitled “Jeff Weiss: Portrait of the Artist as a Sane Genius,” writer John S. Patterson explains that, in this version of the play, “Weiss tells the story of Mike, Jerry, and Dwight Deifendorfer, brothers awaiting the probate of their father’s will…These brothers follow an inevitable and illuminating path to the cooling unit of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant….[There] the power of their lust, [and] the insatiability of their greed…precipitates the disaster with which the nation lived for that nightmare week of incomprehensible terror.” But, of course, plot summary offers only a partial view of the power of Weiss’s work. “Weiss,” Patterson notes, “has created a structure which soars, arches, and blasts its way through this family with an inventiveness, wit, and perception rare enough in themselves but unusual indeed when subjected to Weiss’ theatre of extremes.”

Villager review of

7) But “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid” wasn’t the only show Weiss wrote and produced at La MaMa in the 1960s and 70s. Below, for instance: a promotional photograph for Weiss’s 5-hour long “Dark Twist” (March 1979), which co-starred a young Nicky Paraiso (pictured at far right), among others. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Weiss and the cast of

These documentary fragments might be inadequate representations of Weiss’s monumental theatrical legacy. But I’m still really glad they exist.