Friday, April 18, 2014

The Message of The Archive

An interview with the Director of the Archive at La MaMa, Ozzie Rodriguez


What is the importance of the archive?

We have a cabaret. We have three theatres; two smaller ones and one large one. We have seven floors of rehearsal space. We also have a gallery and a reading series. We have touring companies. All of these things needed to be documented. Not only are we recording the history of the company, but we are chronicling the development of the artists and Off-Off-Broadway theatre and how all of that influences American culture and contributes to our shared history.

You know we started at a critical moment. We started at the nexus of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of feminism, and we had the gay liberation movement all happening simultaneously. It was not accidental that Off-Off-Broadway was born from that. There was no place in commercial theatre to discuss these topics. La MaMa and Off-Off-Broadway have always been a reflection of the time.

For the first time artists were given the platform to address the ideas of the day and to experiment. Commercial theatre only presented traditional, familiar fare. The disenfranchised artists were the ones reflecting what was really happening. In the 1960’s La Mama had women directors and women playwrights, which did not exist at major commercial theatres at the time. You had playwrights suddenly deciding to incorporate sound or dance or poetry. There was nothing to lose. There were genuine experiments to find a different way to communicate with the audience.

There was a time when putting comic books on stage was a trend and that was something that started in the Caffe Cino by Robert Patrick. “What do we have this evening? We’re going to enact this comic book.” The very idea that you could do that and infuse a serious, creative, theatrical presentation with pop culture was groundbreaking. That kind of freedom gave license to things like performance art and one innovation inspired the next. Playwright Patrick went on to write Kennedy's Children.


Tom O'Horgan and Ellen Stewart circa 1968

Tom O’Horgan use to host happenings. When we arrived, we each got an instrument and we all played. Somebody rang gongs and somebody hit bells. He had tapped into the energy of the time and those gatherings informed his work and became more formalized and eventually became HAIR, which revolutionized Broadway. When it opened in 1968, HAIR violated every commercial theater taboo that existed at that time. It was agitation propaganda. It included rock-and-roll for the first time on Broadway. There were no stars. It addressed issues like unwed mothers. It talked about black girls finding “white boys so pretty.” It was psychedelic and went in every direction and no one expected it to be a success, but it struck a chord that reflected that young generation. When that wave hit, it changed not only  Broadway, but the theatrical audience, which had become a staid and older demographic. HAIR appealed to a whole new young audience and destroyed the proscenium once and for all.

Something that La MaMa did right off the bat was to completely change the relationship between the audience and the performer. By virtue of the fact that the environment was what it was, the relationship with the audience had to change. We had brick walls because we were performing in tenements or lofts - before it was fashionable. Ellen looked at these spaces and saw what she could do as far as theatre was concerned. No one was thinking we were starting a trend. This is what we had. We did not need gold flocked angels on the ceiling or anything like that.

This was a time when it wasn’t about what you CAN’T do, it was more about HOW CAN you do this? And Ellen was fearless. I mean I equate Ellen with Isadora Duncan; with Martha Graham, Madame Curie. Just think, a black lady in the 60’s in New York, doing things that were literally unheard of at the time.

All of these events were literally historic and that is why the archives are so important.

We are losing a lot of our artists. I mean in the 1980’s we had devastating losses, but we have those artists work represented here in the archive. And because so many of them were instrumental in developing something new, it is even more important to have it cataloged and available to young people. The number of artists who we present is ever growing – it is growing exponentially. The more we produce, the more we do, the more of a responsibility we have to document their contributions and the contributions of La MaMa and the Off-Off-Broadway theatre movement.

Andrei Serban, the head of the School of Arts at Columbia University was one of our artistic directors. Ellen, Elizabeth Swados and Andre created The great Jones Repertory Company of La Mama.  Wilfred Leach, another of our artistic directors,  went on to get a Tony for The Pirates of Penzance and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Mary Alice Smith started here and received a Tony for Fences. Tom Eyen wrote Dream Girls. Harvey Fierstein wrote Torch Song Trilogy and currently has two Broadway shows running and is preparing a third. If they hadn’t had the freedom to explore and experiment and the opportunity to collaborate here, they wouldn’t have had those successes. There is a direct line and the archive demonstrates that. That inspires people and ultimately that is most precious thing the archive can do; inspire you not to give up, inspire you to follow your own dream, and inspire you to take the goddamn risk! Fall on your face. It’s okay. This is the place where you can. Fall on your face, pick yourself up and do it again and do it better this time. And really that is the message of the archive.

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The La MaMa Archives
is a not-for-profit organization sustained by La MaMa E.T.C. The Archives are made available to the public as an educational service to the performing arts community, the press, scholars, historians, emerging artists, and students of theatre the world over. The Archives are open to the public Monday-Friday, Noon to 5PM and is located at 66 East 4th Street on the Mezzanine level.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fully Realized History

An interview with the Director of the Archive at La MaMa, Ozzie Rodriguez


How do people use the archive?

It’s heartwarming to see the different ways that the archive is used and how the artifacts help to make the history more fully realized for people.

Every year we get scholars or people writing books about this community that can’t find the information that is essential to their endeavor.

We get students from all over the country and from other countries as well. I mean we will have a group from Montreal this week. In addition to people from Columbia, Fordham and NYU and Sarah Lawrence who visit, there are people from many cultures who are researching or seeking information. Some just want a general overview. Others are looking for something very specific. We did a thing on John Jesurun and Sam Sheppard. We had two students, one from Brussels and the other from Russia. They were exploring the evolution of these two artists and their contributions to the contemporary theatre.

Ellen wanted the young people to have a hands-on grasp of how things developed. If you wanted to see Sam Sheppard’s early work, you could look at his script and see his hand written notes and scribbling and everything else. She wanted that kind of availability. The more thorough and well rounded the education is for the student, the better off he is; the more choices he’ll have.

We have worked with so many international artists. There is a validation for those artists because they performed in New York and at La MaMa, which is known internationally, and it gives them a kind of credential that allows them to continue to develop their work. Being able to provide them with the documentation of their contributions is important to their artistic development.

By the same token, Ellen traveled widely and sought out a tremendous number of ancient techniques that she then introduced to American artists. We had artists from the Kabuki, from the Ramayana, from the Kathakali coming here to give workshops to the American actors. The American actor was growing in a way that was unprecedented, utilizing techniques that had here-to-fore not really been available to American artists because it was not a part of our education. There was nothing to be lost in being exposed to these influences and there was everything to be gained. We are able to show how these techniques were introduced and took root. In that way the archive demonstrates how the theatrical art form evolved.

There are also personal connections. We had a man here this morning who said, “My aunt was in a play at La MaMa in 1962. Can you tell me if there are any photographs of her?” That kind of connection is very interesting to me because, in a direct way we are responsible for the history of the artists who work with us and we contribute to their heritage and bare witness to their accomplishments. It shows that people still consider their time at La MaMa to be important and that their work here represents a milestone of sorts for them.

The greatest thing about this archive - and I am constantly rejuvenated by it and it does my heart good - is to see the same reaction from a 17 year old or a 70 year old. It is the same kind of awe. One could come from a school in New York and one could come from a country far away like Croatia. They are amazed by what they find here.

Theatre is an ongoing, living art. There is an evolution; without the work that we did, way back when, what’s happening now would not be possible. There is a lineage; a direct line. Through logistical information and the collection of artifacts, the archive demonstrates that lineage.

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The La MaMa Archives is a not-for-profit organization sustained by La MaMa E.T.C. The Archives are made available to the public as an educational service to the performing arts community, the press, scholars, historians, emerging artists, and students of theatre the world over. The Archives are open to the public Monday-Friday, Noon to 5PM and are located at 66 East 4th Street on the Mezzanine level.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Heirlooms of Off-Off-Broadway

An interview with the Director of the Archive at La MaMa, Ozzie Rodriguez


How do you decide on what sorts of things to archive?

We will often ask ourselves, “What are we going to use this material for?” And that influences what we decide to preserve. Having this archive gives us a foundation for when we are applying for funds or when we are working with new collaborators. They can see how we developed and that we have a track record. We can pull these files and say, “Look, we’ve been doing this for many many years.” They can immediately see that we have a strong infrastructure, a backbone and a kind of strength. Its not that La MaMa is not known, but sometimes much of our work is taken for granted and the archive demonstrates the enormity of the work we’ve done. Also, Ellen foresaw that there was a time when our history and everything that she had accumulated would be relevant to the education of young artists and scholars. All of that informs what we preserve.

Our files contain all kinds of information and no file is the same. We definitely collect: programs, press releases, reviews, letters (personal and public), photographs, VHS tapes, CDs, articles from magazines, articles from magazines from other countries. You could find receipts. You could find corrections to texts. You could find personal correspondence written between the author and the director or between the director and Ellen. These items give you an incredible sense of the immediacy of the moment.

We have files for our tours – and we’ve been to over 50 countries – this is so incredible because the Resident Companies - some of them are based here in America and some are visiting - are all producing new works of art. We have records for all the tours.

We have show posters that were painted by people who weren’t even artists at the time but later went on to became very important. They slapped together collages because they had seen something from Basquiat or Warhol and decided, “Oh, I can do something like that.” These posters were supposed to last a week and were put outside of a basement door. No one thought, “This is art that will one day be important.” That’s what it became because it was an evolutionary time and we were all evolving. The archive helps to preserve that. It preserves that kind of immediacy. It’s an appointment in time aside from information that you could glean from a book.

Ellen received more awards than you can imagine and we have all of those. She wasn’t pretentious about all of this stuff. It had happened and she carried it with her, but the tangible proof of these things happening is the legacy that she passed down.

This is a living archive because our work is still going on. You can learn about La MaMa’s history here and then go upstairs and see the work that is currently being done.

We’re doing a series called the Coffeehouse Chronicles where some of the surviving original members of La MaMa and the Off-Off-Broadway movement come in and talk. We just did Richard Schechner and then we had Adrienne Kennedy, and then Elizabeth Swados. Through this series, the archive can capture their experiences and it becomes a part of our heritage. Artists have ancestors. We are on the shoulders of very talented, bold, fearless and important people. They have given you the license to create and it is your responsibility to take it further. That is the heirloom that they are passing down to this generation.

Ellen’s last, great project was this archive. We had the space and we were finally able to display all of the: costumes, set pieces, props, scripts, scores that she had collected. Every time we had a little larger space, she would find more things. Really, it’s remarkable. But she was thrilled to see it come to fruition.

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The La MaMa Archives is a not-for-profit organization sustained by La MaMa E.T.C. The Archives are made available to the public as an educational service to the performing arts community, the press, scholars, historians, emerging artists, and students of theatre the world over. The Archives are open to the public Monday-Friday, Noon to 5PM and are located at 66 East 4th Street on the Mezzanine level.



Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Archiving & Ever Expanding Technology

An interview with the Director of the Archive at La MaMa, Ozzie Rodriguez



What role has technology played in the work you’ve done with the archive?

There is this ever expanding technology and we are racing to preserve and to capture both current and historic performances.

La MaMa started a half of a century ago. You have to imagine a time when the phone was on the wall and you could not take pictures with it. There was no internet. You could not send selfies. You could not do tweeting. You could not do Facebook. All you could do was talk to one person on the phone. I'll say this to students sometimes and they look at me as though I’m talking about cavemen. It’s true. The Xerox machine was a godsend to all the playwrights because it meant that instead of having carbon copies or mimeograph machines that faded, they could make 25 copies of a script.

When the archive first started we had a computer that you wound with a crank, as far as I was concerned. The archive has always been the stepchild and we got hand-me-down technology. I’ve never had top-of-the-line, industrial equipment. But, with our first computer, I was able to make the first spreadsheet and start to organize things. When we got a slightly better computer, I was able to add more information and we become a little more sophisticated.

You never know what was coming next with technology. However, if the information is preserved now, then it can be transferred to whatever technology is coming down the pike and made available for future generations.

We have original art work and ephemera, scores, photographs, et cetera and all of that now needs to be scanned and digitized. It is a never ending process. Look, because we work in a living art medium, there is never going to be a homogenous situation in terms of the kind of media that theatre will generate or in terms of the kind of technology it needs to be transferred to. Unfortunately the archives’ ability to do this really depends on how well funded we are. We’re doing the best we can but, contemporary technology is continually newer and better and smaller. What is popular today may not be so useful in the future. For example, we have reel-to-reel videos, which at the time were an innovative way of capturing our work and those are becoming more-and-more expensive to save and salvage.

In the late 60’s / early 70’s a group of students from NYU came to La MaMa and said, “We’re shooting film / video about New York City, but the machinery is so heavy that we can’t just walk around with it.” So they wanted to shoot our shows. Ellen said “Yes, with two conditions (1) it can not be used for anything other than for your studies and (2) you give us a copy.” So we ended up videoing a lot of the early La MaMa works that were being performed in the late 60’s and 70’s.

Ellen opened the door to the possibility of filming those performances. If people like Tom Eyen or Sam Sheppard, had something they could look at, they could improve upon it. Having a copy of a video was invaluable to playwrights who could scrutinize their work in a way that wasn’t available to them before. They could look at their own work and say, “you know, this one-act could be a full-length play” or “I could expand that idea because it was successful, but it needs more.” And I won’t even mention the value it was for dance and choreography where videos can be used to show or teach. The artists had this resource available to them so that they could improve or build upon their work. So this kind of documentation became very important to the people here at La MaMa.

And that has continued for many years. Now, Equity and other unions have rules against this, but those rules were not in place when we started. Once again we were at the forefront of using this medium that had not yet been employed by theatre artists and had not been codified.

As we grew, Ellen became more-and-more aware of the need to communicate on a global level. Many of our most important pieces suddenly required a presentation that was not based on the English language alone, but also needed sound and visuals to fully understand it and the recordings were invaluable for that. A lot of that is reel-to-reel and we are desperately trying to find a way to preserve that now.

We are in a process of digitizing everything to making it available online. The list of La MaMa productions on our website is growing; continually growing. That is an important resource, but I also think that the ever encroaching technologically creates gaps between generations, which I guess is inevitable. You have to be technically savvy to access many materials now. That is another reason I feel that the physical archive is so important. You can’t put everything in to a computer.

It is a constant question of how you can retain as much as you can. And you don’t always know the answer to that. You do the best you can with the tools that are available right now.


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The La MaMa Archives is a not-for-profit organization sustained by La MaMa E.T.C. The Archives are made available to the public as an educational service to the performing arts community, the press, scholars, historians, emerging artists, and students of theatre the world over. The Archives are open to the public Monday-Friday, Noon to 5PM and are located at 66 East 4th Street on the Mezzanine level.




Monday, April 14, 2014

La MaMa at the Forefront

An interview with the Director of the Archive at La MaMa, Ozzie Rodriguez



When did the La MaMa archive first begin and what was the reason it was initiated?

La MaMa is currently in its 52nd season and the archive first started in or around 1966 when Ellen started documenting everything La MaMa had done. Paul Foster, one of La MaMa's original playwrights, made a list of all the plays that had been presented. Files for every show were being kept in order to justify the moneies that were being spent and to report back to funders. Also everyone started to become aware of La MaMa and its cultural impact. So the initial beginnings were to document the growing influence of La MaMa and to keep track of all of our work.

All of these files were kept in the office upstairs along with all the contracts and all of business works and everything else. We had a cabaret in the basement of La MaMa and around 1987 the Buildings Department decided that that was not a suitable space for audiences. So we could no longer use it as a cabaret. One day Ellen asked me what I thought we should use the space for. I looked around and said, “Well, why don’t you make some room in the office upstairs by sending all the past records down here and we’ll call it The Archive.” At that point we had done about 1,460 original productions so it was a lot of material. She thought it was a wonderful idea.

I went off on tour – I think it was to Japan – when I came back, she had had all of those files for those years brought down and she asked me if I would curate it. I was a resident director for La MaMa – I still am – so I would be around and so I said that I would monitor it. Having initiated it, she immediately started emptying out all of her closets, and things that were under the bed, and everything that she had saved for all of those years. And this included unbelievable amounts of things from all over the world because we’d been touring internationally. I had no idea of the kinds of things that Ellen had stored or where she had stored it; the ephemera, the costumes, the bits and pieces of information, et cetera that she had gathered.

We had a rudimentary computer. I thought, at least if I enter some of this information into a computer, I can search it. I can more easily look up when a show was done, what the title was, who the playwright was, who the director was, who the composer was, who the choreographer was, do we have a poster, do we have photographs? It was a very basic spreadsheet, but it was the best way to organize the material. Because the aim was - if someone needed to know all of the plays of Sam Sheppard, or all the shows that Tom O’Horgan directed, or how much of Lanford Wilson and Marshal Mason’s work we had on record, you could sort the material and at least get an idea of the amount of work and have some of the details. You could get a picture of the evolution of things. If someone wanted to know when Bette Midler first appeared here, we could look up Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets in 1964. Having access to that kind of information became very very important.

We had always been at the frontier of something; legally, illegally or by accident. Ellen was always at the forefront. We weren’t supposed to have an archive. No one had an archive. Theatres, especially of our size didn’t have archives. She did it because she was a visionary and she could see the value of it.


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The La MaMa Archives is a not-for-profit organization sustained by La MaMa E.T.C. The Archives are made available to the public as an educational service to the performing arts community, the press, scholars, historians, emerging artists, and students of theatre the world over. The Archives are open to the public Monday-Friday, Noon to 5PM and are located at 66 East 4th Street on the Mezzanine level.

Osvaldo (Ozzie) Rodriguez is a native New Yorker. A Resident Director of Ellen Stewart’s La Mama Experimental Theater, since the early 1970’s, Ozzie has also been the Director of the La Mama Archive since 1987.  A bilingual playwright and actor, Ozzie is Founder and Artistic Director of two experimental theatre companies; Long Island’s first in 1973 and the Sol/Sun Experimental Theatre Company of San Antonio, Texas in 1981. His plays, written and adapted, include The Beauty and The Beast, The Phantom Ruin, Quincas / King of the Vagabonds, Alma /The Ghost of Spring Street, and Madre Del Sol / Mother Of The Sun, for which he received the Distinguished Contributions to Hispanic Culture Award. He has toured throughout the world as a member of the Great Jones Repertory and La Mama Umbria Company’s.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Argument for Archives



"The great use of a life is
   to spend it for something that outlasts it."  

                 ~ William James, 1842-1910