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.


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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.”


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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.

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

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

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

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. 

Billie Whitelaw at La MaMa in Beckett’s “Rockaby”

Samuel Beckett in 1977

Samuel Beckett in 1977

Last week, La MaMa’s Hidden Collections team finished cataloging Show Files materials through 1981, a year that marked the 20th Anniversary of the theater’s founding. In those first 20 years, La MaMa hosted a dozen stagings of work by Samuel Beckett—including a 1971 Mabou Mines performance of two pieces in conjunction with “Red Horse Animation”; “Endgame” and “Krapp’s Last Tape” in the early 1970s; and “A Piece of Monologue”—a piece that Beckett wrote for David Warrilow—which premiered at La MaMa in 1979. We have cataloged documentation from each of these performances.

But I was particularly excited the other day when I came across materials documenting the premiere, in 1981, of Beckett’s “Rockaby.” The materials in La MaMa’s files bear witness to the remarkable nature of this production. Commissioned for a festival and celebration of Beckett’s 75th birthday at SUNY Buffalo, the piece moved to La MaMa for three performances in April 1981. What first caught my attention was that the play starred the famous English actress Billie Whitelaw. Whitelaw was Beckett’s muse for over 25 years, inspiring and performing his works until the playwright’s death in 1989, and was called the “supreme interpreter of his work.”  She once said: “Sam knew I would turn myself inside out to give him what he wanted… I felt as though I was a medium, and very much a part of his creative process.”(1)

1981Rockaby001

Whitelaw’s appearance in the April 1981 production of “Rockaby” would have been a definitive performance, since the role of the Old Woman was written for her. But I was also shocked to learn (via her bio, as printed in the La MaMa program) that this marked her New York stage debut. This surprised me; I’d have thought that such an internationally renowned and influential actress would have made her New York debut much earlier in her career.  Further, the production was directed by Alan Schneider, a personal friend of Beckett’s whose long and storied career included the direction of the premieres of many of the great playwright’s works.

In addition to the show’s Program, La MaMa’s “Rockaby” Show File also contains newspaper reviews, and a program from when the show returned to New York City in February 1984. That production was produced by Lucille Lortel and performed at the newly-renamed Samuel Beckett Theater on 42nd Street. Sadly, the 1984 production ended up being the last Beckett play Alan Schneider would direct. A month later, in what has been called a “Beckettian” twist of fate, Schneider was in London, on his way to mail a letter to Beckett (commending him on the success of the “Rockaby” production in New York), when he was struck by a motorcycle and killed.

(1)  Gussow, Mel. “An Immediate Bonding With Beckett: An Actress’s Memoirs” New York Times, April 24 1996. nytimes.com/books/97/08/03/reviews/whohe.html

Find of the Day: Meat Loaf!

At least once a week, as we catalog materials from the La MaMa Archives’ “Show Files,” we run across the name of a famous actor who appeared at La Mama early on– not just blockbuster actors like Billy Crystal or downtown stars like Andy Warhol (both of whom Suzanne Lipkin recently wrote about on this blog), but also people you don’t expect to appear in this kind of collection. This was the case with Michael Lee Aday, listed in a 1973 program by his more recognizable stage name: Meat Loaf.

silver queen

The actor appeared in a relatively minor role as “William” in Paul Foster’s “Silver Queen”(which was staged at La Mama in April 1973).  “Silver Queen” was a fast-paced, unabashedly theatrical tale, an “enjoyable country-Western musical with a rock beat” (according to Martin Oltarsh, writing in Show Business).  The music, which was composed by John Braden, was “a wonderful grab bag of country, gospel, honky-tonk and ballad[s]” (Robb Baker, After Dark).

When I first began cataloging the object, I was unsure as to whether this was THE Meat Loaf, or someone else’s idea of a good stage name.  But a little IMDB research revealed that this was indeed the famous singer. The “trivia section” of Meat Loaf’s IMDB bio notes that he “was starring Off-Off Broadway in Paul Foster and John Braden’s ‘Silver Queen’ at La Mama E.T.C. when he was offered the role of ‘Eddie’ in the American stage premiere of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. He had to leave ‘Silver Queen’ a week before closing. His role was taken over by ‘Silver Queen’s’ director Robert Patrick, who had to wrap Meat Loaf’s costume’s trousers around him twice” (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001533/bio).

It’s amazing how many talented people have graced the La Mama stage over the years, and how many of those performances have been forgotten.  Being part of the archival excavation team is fantastic… and even more so when you discover Meat Loaf!

–Julie Sandy