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  • Hey there!

  • I'm Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash Course Theater, and today we're going all the way

  • from Broadway to Off-Broadway, which Yorick reminds me isnot very far from Broadway.

  • Why are we going to Off-Broadway at all?

  • Look, mid-century Broadway is great.

  • It has incisive social dramas and dancing girls!

  • Though not usually in the same show.

  • But in the middle of the twentieth century, Broadway only had thirty-some theaters, which

  • was not nearly enough for producers to take a chance on all that avant-garde goodness.

  • So, today, we'll look at the history of Off-Broadway and the genres, styles, and troupes

  • it supported, including the Black Arts Movement.

  • Lights up!

  • Unless lights are too normal for your weird show.

  • INTRO Off-Broadway theater had actually been around

  • for a long time before anyone started calling it that.

  • It is the natural continuation of the Little Theater movement that we explored in our episodes

  • on American moderns and the Harlem Renaissance.

  • In New York that meant theaters like the Provincetown Players, the Washington Square Players, the

  • Neighborhood Playhouse, and the Krigwa Players.

  • After World War II, new theaters and companies appeared and this movement became known as

  • Off-Broadway.

  • If you want to get technical, Off-Broadway used to refer to theaters outside the Broadway

  • Box, a stretch that ran from 40th to 54th Streets in Manhattan.

  • That leaves a lot of city!

  • Originally, most Off-Broadway theaters were located in Greenwich Village, often in the

  • same spaces that the Little Theaters had occupied.

  • Eventually, Off-Broadway became an Actors Equity designation concerning theater size,

  • referring to theaters in Manhattan that have between one hundred and four hundred and ninety-nine

  • seats.

  • But Off-Broadway is also a mindset.

  • It's against shallow, big-budget entertainment and in favor of ensemble-driven, noncommercial

  • work.

  • Of course, plenty of Off-Broadway stuff ends up transferring to Broadway and turns out

  • to be very commercial.

  • So

  • I mean, you might be surprised to know that this bit about theater is complicated.

  • In the early days, a lot of Off-Broadway theaters were interested in producing the European

  • avant-garde because America was apparently not absurdist enough on its own!

  • But Off-Broadway theaters also helped to develop a new American avant-garde, and were supportive

  • of works by queer writers and writers of color.

  • Let's look at a few significant theaters and troupes: The Living Theater, Jose Quintero's

  • Circle in the Square, and Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater.

  • The Living Theater was founded in 1947 by Judith Malina and Julian Beck.

  • They started out producing Brecht and Cocteau and Pirandello.

  • But in the late 1950s, they began producing new American work, like Jack Gelber's “The

  • Connection,” an immersive play about drug addicts,

  • and Kenneth H. Brown's “The Brig,” a brutal play about a military prison.

  • The Living Theater then relocated to Europethis was partly because of an unfortunate tax thing;

  • anarchists do not like to pay taxes!

  • The company reinvented themselves as a devised theater company, meaning a company that creates

  • its own original works through rehearsal and exploration.

  • Artaud was a big influence.

  • The Living Theater created a bunch of pretty shocking, occasionally nude, and very participatory

  • pieces likeParadise NowandMysteries and Smaller Piecesand brought them back

  • to New York.

  • These shows are basically where all of our clichés about experimental theater come from:

  • long hair, loincloths, naked screaming, naked rolling around on the floor, naked screaming

  • and rolling around on the floor with long hair...

  • But try to remember these weren't cliches when the Living Theatre did them.

  • The Circle in the Square Theater was founded in Greenwich Village in 1951 by Jose Quintero,

  • the son of Panamanian parents.

  • It was sort of a theater-in-disguise, because it was originally housed in a former nightclub

  • and licensed as a cabaret space.

  • This meant that the actors, a bunch of whom lived on site, also had to serve drinks.

  • Circle in the Square made some gestures toward the European avant-garde, but under Quintero's

  • passionate direction, it's best known for cementing the legacy of Tennessee Williams

  • and rehabilitating the work of Eugene O'Neill, who had fallen way out of favor.

  • The consummate Circle in the Square work is probably Quintero's 1956 revival of O'Neill's

  • The Iceman Cometh,” which had pretty much flopped the first time around.

  • It starred Navy veteran, almost EGOT, and awesome actor Jason Robards, who at the time

  • was still driving taxis.

  • The New York Times wrote that since Circle in the Square had originally been a nightclub,

  • it was the perfect place to house O'Neill's waterfront dive.

  • It seems not like something written, but like something that is happening,” wrote

  • the critic.

  • Take that, Broadway!

  • Circle in the Square became known for an intense acting style, introducing audiences to influential

  • actors like Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst, and George C. Scott.

  • The theater moved to the South Village in 1960.

  • And then in 1972, it movedsurprise!—to Broadway.

  • Joe Papp was born in Brooklyn to Yiddish-speaking parents.

  • After a stint in the Navy and some time out in California with former members of the Group

  • Theater, he returned to New York and began to stage free Shakespeare plays in a Lower

  • East Side church, insisting that Shakespeare could and should be for everyone.

  • In 1956, the Parks Department gave him permission to use the East River Amphitheater.

  • Robert Moses, then the parks commissioner, told him that he would have to charge admission

  • fees, but Papp refusedShakespeare should be free for all.

  • The courts supported him.

  • A permanent theater was built for him in Central Park.

  • It opened in 1962, and free Shakespeare is still performed there every summer.

  • Show up early; it gets crowded quick.

  • In 1966, Papp moved into what had been the Astor Library on Lafayette Street and transformed

  • it into the Public Theater, which you can visit today.

  • It's adjacent to another music, theatre and nightclub venue called

  • JOE'S PUB.

  • Some of the Public Theater's hits includeHair,” “A Chorus Line,” “For Colored

  • Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” “The Normal Heart,”

  • and yes, “Hamilton.”

  • which rumor has it is VERY good...

  • Papp's legacy is really important.

  • He insisted on staging the classics with diverse casts.

  • He championed queer writers and writers of color.

  • And he demanded that theater could and should be available to everyone.

  • Theater,” he said, “is a social force.

  • Not just entertainment.”

  • Off-Broadway also helped foster the Black Arts Movement, the cultural wing of the Black

  • Power Movement.

  • The Black Arts Movement has its roots far from Broadway, mostly with the Free Southern

  • Theater, which toured plays likeWaiting for Godotaround the Deep South.

  • But the Black Arts Movement was specifically about encouraging African-American artists

  • and suggesting that their work was part of a tradition separate from the cultural work

  • of white artists.

  • The movement allied itself with postcolonial independence movements in Africa and around

  • the world.

  • One of the movement's leaders was the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, who began his

  • career as LeRoi Jones.

  • His 1965 poemBlack Art,” written after the assassination of Malcolm X, became a manifesto

  • for the movement.

  • In one section, he wrote:

  • We want a black poem.

  • And a Black World.

  • Let the world be a Black Poem And Let All Black People Speak This Poem

  • Silently Or LOUD

  • Baraka's most famous play is probablyDutchman,” which opened at Off-Broadway's Cherry Lane

  • Theater in 1964.

  • It's set on a subway car, where Lula, a white woman, meets Clay, a black man.

  • Lula mocks Clay and tempts him, finally goading him into admitting the anger he feels toward

  • white people, even though he says he would never act on that anger.

  • Lula then stabs Clay, and with the help of the other passengers, she throws his dead

  • body out of the car.

  • She then waits for the next black man.

  • The most important playwright to emerge from the Black Arts Movement and one of the greatest

  • living American playwrights is Adrienne Kennedy.

  • Let's take a look at her breakthrough play, “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” which opened

  • Off-Broadway in 1964 at the East End Theater.

  • Funnyhouse is another word for a carnival funhouse or a madhouse, and the play explores

  • the devastating effects of racism on a young woman.

  • It filters the style of the European avant-garde through the spirit of the Black Arts Movement.

  • Help us out, ThoughtBubble: “Funnyhouse of a Negrois set in the

  • bedroom of a young African-American woman named Sarah.

  • But it's also immediately clear that we're inside Sarah's mind.

  • The daughter of a dark-skinned father and a light-skinned mother, Sarah doesn't feel

  • that she belongs anywhere.

  • She is refracted into separate selves by race.

  • You can feel this even in the stage directions: “in the middle of the Stage in a strong

  • white LIGHT, while the rest of the Stage is in unnatural BLACKNESS.”

  • The action is often interrupted by a harsh, frightening knocking at the door, the sound

  • of Sarah's father trying to come in.

  • After a prologue in which a woman in a white nightgown crosses the stage carrying a bald

  • head in her arms, the play begins with a conversation between Queen Victoria and the Duchess of

  • Hapsburg about whiteness.

  • The woman in the nightgown interrupts: she is Sarah's mother, distraught.

  • She says she should never have let a black man touch her.

  • The scene shifts to Sarah's landlady who tells us that Sarah's father killed himself

  • when Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader, was assassinated, and that Sarah hasn't

  • left her room since.

  • Also, Sarah's hair is falling out.

  • Sarah says that the landlady is wrong.

  • She killed her father, clubbing him with a black skull.

  • But we later learn that he may have actually left the family and married a white woman.

  • The Duchess has a conversation with a character named Raymond, the proprietor of the funnyhouse.

  • They talk about how Sarah's mother is in an asylum, how her hair has all fallen out,

  • and how Sarah is the product of rape.

  • Patrice Lumumba gives a speech, and then the Duchess talks with Jesus.

  • The scene changes to a jungle, and the characters reappear, haloed and screaming.

  • The scene returns to Sarah's room, and Sarah is discovered hanged.