When Theatre is Poor in Cash But Rich in Spirit, Passion and Imagination

window moonby Daniel Talbott

I’m laying in our bed. It’s almost two in the morning, my back’s been out for the past week, and I’m trying to gather my thoughts.

Here’s some of what’s running through my head. I believe that theater at its heart is a peasant’s art form. It’s an art form of the dirt, the ocean, fire, air, and animals. It grows out of the elements and the very active nature of life, as well as the hearts, imaginations, and even magic of the group of folks who are coming together and making it. It’s universal. And when it’s at its best, theater is free in the most perfect and truest sense of the word, no matter how much or how little was spent on it.

Money is not a bad thing. We all have to live and feed our families, and there’s also some extraordinary theatricality that can be bought. There are theaters that want to create work in a certain way, and within a certain model of growth, and they need a particular type of financial support in order to do that. There’s incredible theater being made on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, regionally, and everywhere in between. We all have our dream shows, productions that absolutely would require a large budget to fulfill our intended vision. I have about five of them in my head as I type this, including a Twelfth Night with an entire theater of sand, water tanks, and real sharks.

Daniel Talbott

Daniel Talbott

But in the end, what makes a theater artist is action; it’s the work. Theater is in the doing and the creation of theater. I don’t believe you can ever sit around waiting and complaining about why you or I can’t do these “dream” shows, or why you or I don’t have enough money to be making work. If one day the money’s there, great, let’s do them (and hopefully they won’t be a total disaster). But if the money is never there, and there’s a good chance it won’t be, we’ll all hopefully have worked on hundreds of other shows in the time in between, even if we never raise another cent for our companies.

I’ve seen gorgeous, alive, ferociously vital theater that cost millions, and also equally as extraordinary theater that cost a subway swipe downtown and a few days of a talented group of folks’ time. What I’m trying to say is that you can make theater anywhere, and anytime, and there’s nothing stopping any of us except our own limitations about what professional theater should or should not be. What makes us theater artists is not whether or not we work at a theater with a million dollar plus budget, but that we’re working and making theater, and through our work and work ethic, creating theater professionally.

I’ve talked about walking into La MaMa on a day when I was heartsick and broken down. I watched a clip of a documentary by the wonderful Robert Patrick about the Caffe Cino. I did not know much about the Cino at the time and I sat in that beautiful, alive, raging theater, and I was reminded that all you really need to create theater is action, space (or as Robert might say, “a floor’”), courage, a play, heart, and someone to show it to or share it with.

Caffe Cino, 1960's. Fountain Theatre's Deborah Lawlor sitting far right.

Caffe Cino, 1960’s. Fountain Theatre’s Deborah Lawlor sitting far right.

The Caffe Cino is legend in the theater. If you’ve ever been to what’s there now—the restaurant called Po on Cornelia Street—you’ll know exactly how beautifully tiny it was. Yet giants jumped, hollered, roamed, pushed, fought, fucked, whispered, and then fell out the door late at night there. Giants like Robert Patrick, Doric Wilson, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Harry Koutoukas, and John Guare, to name a few of many. And how did these giants figure out the secret password and then squeeze through the door and into that profanity-strewn, sacred, glitter canon of a space? They simply asked if they could put on a play. And if Joe liked you, or thought you were the right astrological sign, you were given a few nights, and the Caffe Cino became your Olivier.

Joe CinoI’ve been told that Joe Cino never really read the plays that were being considered for the Caffe Cino, and I love that. He chose them based on any number of other considerations, but for me what it all boils down to is that he trusted. He trusted the artists to have their own unique voice and take on the world, even when those were not his voice or take, or taste. He trusted them to do their work and get the show up. He trusted.

I think great theater doesn’t happen without honesty and trust, without belief. I also think theater doesn’t happen without failure. Without that wonderful sense of getting thrown off a horse onto hard dirt and getting back up, laughing about it, and no matter how broken or sore you are, getting back on the fucking horse again.

The New York Times reprinted a reminiscence from Harry Koutoukas about the early days of the Cino: “We used to get together a play in a weekend, rehearse on a rooftop, rummage through the garbage for our props and, if we needed extra cash, we hustled our bodies in the streets. We men, that is—we didn’t think we should ask the women to do it.”

You can always create theater. Whether you’re on Broadway or in a LORT B house, or struggling your heart out in a small back room in Queens. Theater is theater, and we’re all equal on the boards. I don’t think anyone would call the work that Lanford Wilson or John Guare did at the Caffe Cino insignificant or unprofessional, simply because they weren’t paid and the budgets were tiny (if there were any at all).

Tons of money or none at all, the work on each play is always different but also the same, and in the pure theater, there’s no tier system, no one is better than anyone else. There’s just the story, the “unworthy spirits”—your collaborators, exploded imagination, and physical action in space. No amount of money will make your heart bigger, your fight hotter, or your imagination the size of a solar system and beyond. Belief in yourself and others will lead you down that path much further and more surely.

Somehow Joe Cino, I think innately, understood that. He understood how beautifully simple great theater is and can be. He created a home and space for it. Nowadays if you can’t afford the rent on your own Cino, build one in your bathtub. Or on your roof, or under a lamppost on a corner in Harlem, or in the flatbed of your grandma’s truck. Build it. Trust. Open your heart and start working with others, and they will come. Theater is always possible; it’s infinite in its possibility. The commercial, institutional theater is wonderful, but those theaters are only a few of the restaurants in this wonderful city of many. If you’re starving, and for whatever reason those restaurants won’t let you in, you are starving—find a restaurant that will let you in, or learn to grow your own food and make your own dishes, and invite everyone over to eat together.

“Give everything. Expect nothing. Move on.”—Harold Pinter

Daniel Talbott is an actor, director, playwright, producer, a literary manager of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and the artistic director of the Lucille Lortel and NYIT Award-winning Rising Phoenix Rep. This post originally appeared on Howlround.

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One response to “When Theatre is Poor in Cash But Rich in Spirit, Passion and Imagination

  1. So true. I don’t remember any discussions about money at the Cino…where the phrase “Isn’t that FABULOUS” most often filled the air. In 1962 or 3 Joe instigated a series of plays for which no script & no director were needed: they were literal renditions of comic books – both “Classic” and otherwise – the pictures provided the stage directions and the dialogue. I won’t forget Harry Koutoukus playing “Wonder Woman….”

    Like

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