La MaMa at #AMIA15

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

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.

Find of the Day: Harvey Milk’s NYC Acting Career

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Flyer for “Three New Plays Directed by Tom O’Horgan” (1965) [La MaMa Catalog UIN: OBJ.1965.0047]

His Wikipedia page doesn’t mention it, his official biography on the Milk Foundation website doesn’t mention it, but the La MaMa archives has proof: Harvey Milk was an actor in New York City before moving to San Francisco and beginning his political career.

These biographies do mention that Milk worked as a production associate on Broadway shows like director Tom O’Horgan’s Hair, but what they miss is that Milk starred in several of O’Horgan’s productions off-off-Broadway at La MaMa, including Changes (1968) and The New OP-ra (1965). Amusingly, on at least one occasion he performed under the pseudonym Basil Farckwart, according to a handwritten note on the flyer to the left.

Below is a photo of Milk (second from left) on stage during the July 1965 production of Three New Plays Directed by Tom O’Horgan.

Harvey Milk (with Marie-Claire Charba, Marlene Fisher, Tom O’Horgan (?) and others) on the set of “…And Now The Weather,” in July, 1965 at La MaMa’s 122 Second Avenue location. Photographer unknown.

Harvey Milk (with Mari-Claire Charba, Marlene Fisher, Tom O’Horgan and others) on the set of “…And Now The Weather,” in July, 1965 at La MaMa’s 122 Second Avenue location. Photographer unknown.

Live from the Vault

Among the many theatrical events that La MaMa is hosting this Fall, one holds special interest for those of us working on our archival catalog project: a play reading series called “From the Vault: A Celebration of Classic La MaMa Scripts.” The series is the brainchild of longtime La MaMa-ite George Ferencz (a resident director from 1982-2008), and presents plays from La MaMa’s earliest years—the years that we are focusing on in our Pushcart Catalog. This series has, so far, showcased Julie Bovasso’s “Schubert’s Last Serenade” (which premiered at La MaMa in 1971) and Maria-Irene Fornes’ “A Vietnamese Wedding” (which appeared here on a double bill in 1969). This weekend (Nov. 21-24), however, it goes into overdrive: over the course of one long weekend, it will present readings of four classic plays. For a full schedule of these readings, click here.

These are plays that we, here at the La MaMa Archives, have spent a lot of time talking about, researching, and cataloging. Each play represents a world of theatrical experimentation, and a community of theatrical practice, that was important to the transformations the early off off-Broadway movement helped bring about. But unless you were there—or unless you’re a scholar of theatre history—they might not be familiar to you.

Color Photograph: "Miss Nefertiti Regrets" (Bette Midler in Leotard + Fishnets)

Bette Midler, “Miss Nefertiti Regrets,” La MaMa 1965. Photo by James Gossage. (UIN: OBJ.1965.0161)

Tom Eyen’s “Ms. Nefertiti Regrets” might be best remembered for having featured Bette Midler in what appears to have been her New York stage debut: she was initially cast as “Naomi and Assorted Virgins” in the 1965 La MaMa production. But soon after the show opened, Eyen re-cast her as Nefertiti. One reviewer called the production, a musical, “wild,” “swinging,” and “hilarious”: a “pure camp” take on “Queen Nefertiti’s true love for both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.” Eyen staged the play several more times over the course of La MaMa’s history (including twice in 1966, and once in 1973), over time changing the honorific in the title from Miss to Ms. At one point, a theatre columnist named Leonard Lyons printed a rumor that Midler was in negotiations to bring the play to Broadway; this never happened (though Eyen’s work finally did get to Broadway with the musical “Dreamgirls”). La MaMa’s Archives holds a great deal of material related to this and subsequent productions, including programs, fliers, press clippings, and dozens of photographs.

H.M. (Harry) Koutoukas “Medea at the Laundromat.” When this production premiered at La MaMa in October 1965, its was officially titled “Medea; or Maybe the Stars May Understand; or Veiled Strangeness: A Ritualistic Camp.” (Once, when asked about his “plays,” Koutoukas explained, “They’re camps—I call them camps. Plays are things of the Fifties.” [NY Native 10/29/90]). The show’s plot is based on Euripides’ Medea, but the action takes place in a contemporary laundromat—and somehow, the title just got shortened over time. Although the Village Voice would award Koutoukas an Obie the next year “for the style and energy of his assaults on the theatre in both playwriting and production,” its initial review of his Medea was perplexed—“Some of the language is beautiful, some of it is unintelligible,” the reviewer wrote. “The play is violently anti-logic, anti-Greek” and, (in part because its Medea was played, in drag, by a “six-foot-three man”) “grotesque.” [10/21/65]. There are only a few objects related to this production in the La MaMa Archives– but we do have a great many records documenting the life and work of the historically under-appreciated Harry Koutoukas. (I didn’t know him personally but, after cataloging a lot of these materials, I admit I have a big queer history crush on Harry.)

Paul Foster‘s “The Silver Queen Saloon.” Originally titled just “The Silver Queen,” this play premiered at La MaMa in April 1973. The production was packed with downtown luminaries, including playwright Paul Foster (who had been around since the founding of La MaMa), director Robert Patrick, and lighting designer Johnny Dodd. It also featured, as performers, Diane Lane (did you know she started her career as a child actor at La MaMa?) and, even more surprisingly, Meat Loaf. It featured “a wonderful grab bag of country, gospel, honkey-tonk, and ballad belting” music, and was “the most commercially viable production” of La MaMa’s 1973 season, according to Robb Baker, writing in After Dark July 1973. The show moved off-Broadway to the Mercer Arts Center in October 1973. La MaMa Archives holds several copies of the showbill created for this production, but not much else.

Flyer for "Bluebeard" (La MaMa Record OBJ.1970.0001)

Flyer for “Bluebeard.” La MaMa, 1970. (UIN: OBJ.1970.0001)

Charles Ludlam’s “Bluebeard.” It is hard to briefly summarize the history of this seminal play, which in its short run at La MaMa in March 1970 featured legendaries Lola Pashalinski, Black-Eyed Susan, and Mario Montez, as well as Ludlam himself in the title role. The official Ludlam chronology notes that this “Melodrama in Three Acts” was originally staged at Christopher’s End, and then ran “briefly at La MaMa before an extended run at the Performing Garage”; and that it was the Ridiculous Theater Company’s “first critical success.” La MaMa Archives holds very little documentation of this production– just a program (which indicates that the show had two intermissions), and a star-studded promotional flyer (at right).

–Rachel Mattson

The readings series is free, but you do have to reserve a spot.  Come on down!