As the value of West Village real estate continues to rise, Off Stage: The West Village Fragments, a site-specific effort from the Peculiar Works Project (www.peculiarworks.org), reminds us of a time when the area sported coffeehouses by the score, cheap apartments, and a seemingly infinite pool of experimental, boundary-breaking artists.
Fragments, explains co–artistic director Catherine Porter, is a two-hour tour consisting of 15 to 20 people per jaunt. At each stop, a snippet of a play by one of Off-Off-Broadway's early playwrights is acted—in the street, near a doorway, even in a window. "We've created characters and scenarios based on our research [of the 1960s]," says Porter. "One thing we discovered is how much trouble early Off-Off-Broadway venues had with the authorities. So there's a precipitating event to get the tour going: the arrest of important artistic leaders. The idea is that the tour is raising bail money and has to spread the word." There are three tours nightly—at 7, 7:30, and 8 p.m.—so each snippet is performed three times. Fourteen directors and more than 50 actors are involved.
And then there are the ghosts: 31 Cornelia St., the site of Caffe Cino, where Off-Off-Broadway was born; 99 Seventh Ave. South, now the Garage Restaurant & Café, but once home to Circle Repertory Theatre and earlier the Sheridan Square Theatre. Real estate nostalgia aside, the snippets themselves evoke the heyday of the West Village in the early '60s, when a fearless crop of new playwrights wrested the American stage from its dependence on commercial producers and into the welcoming arms of the unapologetically avant-garde. It was a time when Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and Maria Irene Fornes were upstarts, when many scribes who continue to toil Off-Off-Broadway, like Paul Foster, Robert Heide, and Doric Wilson, began their singular journeys.
Peculiar Works' works are, well, rather peculiar. Founded in 1993, the company's core program, Peculiar WorkSites, assembles teams of cross-disciplinary artists to create performances in odd settings like landmark buildings and gutted storefronts. Yet Fragments, says Porter, is a whole other story: "Most of our events have been a little different in that this is the first one that's completely outside, so we're learning things like planning for rain dates. When you have actors performing on the street, there are also, let's just say, interesting lighting and sound challenges."
Not only that, but the West Village's broad avenues and narrow warrens are a mixed bag, sometimes clogged with foot and car traffic, sometimes eerily quiet. Fragments will rely on "staffing people to facilitate pedestrians around the activity," as Porter characterizes it. "We're encouraging directors and performers to be aware that they're outside: Clearly the world of New York is going on around them, so use it."
For Porter and her co–artistic directors, Ralph Lewis and Barry Rowell, 1972's The Off, Off Broadway Book: The Plays, People, Theatre by Albert Poland and Bruce Mailman serves as Fragments' spiritual bible. It is the seminal study of the age, the first comprehensive examination of Off-Off-Broadway's plays and players. Yet it took Peculiar's 2000 production, Judson House Project—a site-specific tribute to another site integral to downtown arts in the 1960s—to catalyze the triumvirate into action. "We considered doing an Off-Off-Broadway festival there at Judson—at the rectory behind the church on Washington Square South, where ours was the last event to happen there before it changed hands and NYU demolished it to build its law school," says Porter. "But the more we discovered about the space, the more we decided it was best to keep it open to dance, visual arts, and happenings, so we put the festival idea down for a while."
Then, she says, "books about the history of Off-Off-Broadway came out, and we started thinking again. We started doing some marathon readings, letting directors choose the pieces that interested them." Doric Wilson, whose career began at Caffe Cino, was the first playwright the trio met with; through him they met Heide and director Robert Dahdah, and soon Fragments began to come together. "New York may be changing, but we think there's an opportunity here to reinvigorate interest in the work of this time period," Porter says, assuming a tone that isn't defiant so much as it is, very simply, definitive. "People just have to know what happened here."
Off Stage: The West Village Fragments runs Sept. 21–Oct. 7. The tour begins on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Ninth Street. Tickets: (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com.