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