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Newly arrived out of the warm womb of Off Off Broadway's La Mama Experimental Theater Club is director Tom O'Horgan, the first of the Off Off Broadway people to make it on Broadway. O'Horgan, whose flamboyant staging transformed Hair from a mildly successful Off Broadway musical to a Broadway hit, zaps into the slick, uptight world of big time show biz with the New Thing - Total Involvement, East Village Love and Tribalism, sensuous communication, the turned-on, tuned-in electronic age sensibility. Represented by the "tribal love-rock musical" "Hair" on Broadway, Paul Foster's biographical drama "Tom Paine" Off Broadway and Rochelle Owens's dramatic poem, "Futz", to open Off Broadway next month, director O'Horgan delivers a high voltage infusion of new juices into the theater. Things will never be the same after this season.
O'Horgan, a veteran of many years of experimentation and frustration in his search for The Way in theater, successfully incorporates a number of strands coming on strong in the rapidly evolving post-Miller-Williams-Albee and post-absurdist theater. Those trends, growing partly out of the intimate Off Off Broadway movement and partly out of the visceral political drama of be-ins, sit-ins and demonstrations, include the use of improvisational techniques, vigorous ensemble playing, a more physical style of acting, greater use of dance, music, and puppets, and Pop-camp comedy - plus the Total Theater concept in which the audience becomes more closely involved in the work.
"I think of my work of my work as kinetic sculpture," said O'Horgan over a sandwich one night last week at Sardi's. "I'd like to use the whole theater as much as possible. The audience should be able to move, to see what's going on all around them. There's a theater in Stockholm where people can swivel around and the performance can take place throughout the house. All theaters should be like that. But i can't complain. I was given free rein to do everything I wanted in Hair. Of course, there were some limits. I wanted to dress the ushers as hippies, but that posed some problems. I compromised and put the hippies in the aisles with the ushers. Ideally, I would have liked more than that. I would have liked the hippies to actually live in the theater, so that when the audience walks in, they come into this other world inhabited by a new kind of people. Their laundry and things might be hanging around and there might be garbage in the aisles....."
O'Horgan, who brought total nudity to the Broadway stage in Hair, smiled wistfully at what might have been. he didn't seem comforted when I mentioned soothingly that the middle aged, harried ticket seller in the box office was wearing a string of colored beads over his stiff white collar and business suit. However, he admitted he was impressed with the wide acceptance the show has received. "after all, the kids are talking their won language. They're expressing their real sex attitudes any they're laying it on the line about race and miscegenation. The kids on stage are authentic and people sense this. We couldn't use professionals who aren't part of this scene. It just wouldn't work. Most of the kids in the cast were picked up in the streets. By the way, I've just been seeing kids for out of town productions. It's been wild. The boys are a little nutty, but the girls are absolutely insane. They throw off their clothes!"
About half a dozen members of the cast, including Hair's authors and lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado, have been with the production since it's opening last fall at Joseph Papp's Public Theater on Astor Place. Since that time, a weak and clumsy plot line has been eliminated and new songs added making the show almost 100 per cent musical. "I see it as a singspiel, a popular opera." said O'Horgan.
The director has been working almost exclusively with the cafe La Mama Troupe for more than four years, during which period he has toured Europe with the troupe three times, building up a sizable foreign audience for Off Off Broadway playwrights still unknown to most Americans. His switch from the intimacy he has known with the La Mama repertory actors, in which "we feel we are all part of one organism" to the cast of Hair posed no special problems for O'Horgan. "I understand these kids. I feel closer to them than to my own generation." in his well tailored Nehru jacket, blue turtleneck shirt ("just ordinary nylon, I guess"), a buffalo nickel chain necklace, and well brushed, moderately long black hair, O'Horgan looked more like a bohemian-artiste of the pre-hippie era than a member of the love generation. "Yes, I'm over 30 - uh, considerably over" he said, a little abashed. But, he continued, he shares with the new generation a belief "in putting more emphasis on the emotional, the sensuous element in life - the nude scene expresses that. I've been to be-ins where the kids have done just that, thrown off their clothes because they felt that way - they just wanted to break that barrier. To me that scene is very tasteful and innocuous. Incidentally, Elizabeth Hardwick, the critic, told me she enjoyed the show, but where was the nude scene? It had just escaped her. It wasn't put in to shock."
The fact is that O'Horgan has a rather shrewd eye for the right shock in the right place. For example, a scene in which a hopelessly square tourist couple visits the hippies was limp and cliche-ridden in the original version. O'Horgan left the clichés, but speeded the tempo and added a touch - the mink-coated lady tourist turns out to be a boy in drag. The scene is transformed from pure banality to wicked camp.
However, the director says that his true objective in theater is " just getting the vicarious joy of turning people on, making them respond, turning them on to their own sensual powers that are buried under layers of cement. When you see how people in the streets will run to see a fire or an accident or a fight, hoping against hope to see something really happen, something that will prove that the people walking beside them are more than mere mannequins, you realize how much they want to break out of all their emotional rigidity."
Frankly and happily a "neoromantic", who favors "fantasy, the emotions, rituals, ganglionic responses, tactility over the hang up on words" O'Horgan feels that people in commercial theater are "hung up on chandeliers because they insist that the one-dimensional, verbal Ibsenite theater is the only theater. But this is an aberration of the 19th century. If the ideas are the primary thing, it's not theater. Theater has always meant music, dance, art. That's what the Greek theater was. That's what opera is. To me, hair is closer to The Magic Flute than anything we've had for a long time.
However, O'Horgan insists he doesn't wish to do away with words or with playwrights. "I realize it's possible to destroy the word with too much flamboyance, but words in out theater today have become something to hide behind. There is a need to physicalize words, to get at their emotional underpinnings." O'Horgan's staging of Futz at La Mama last season, in which bodies seem to speak and voices accompany them, vividly illustrates this conception. "The stage needs to be expanded - rigid conceptions broken through, a little blood allowed to flow through." He feels that some of this rigidity is loosened through the improvisational element in Tom Paine, in which the actors drop their roles and invite the audience into discussion.
O'Horgan's theatrical history id illuminating.
"I've been involved in theater ever since I can remember - writing plays, acting, singing in churches. I think I've sung in every kind of church outside of a Buddhist Temple. My father was a newspaperman in Chicago, where i was born. he was a frustrated actor, and he encouraged me in all of this. I studied music at St. Paul University, and i started out as a harpist with symphony orchestras. have you any idea what that life was like?" O'Horgan asks rhetorically. "Boring! I kept dreaming up fantastic theatrical ideas. Finally I devised an act with my harp, a sort of absurdist humor thing. I got involved with Second City, played for them, did improvisational things. And I went on the nightclub circuit - Bon Soir, the Blue Angel, the Village Vanguard, the Waldorf-Astoria. Also I went to the Coast and and performed at the hungry i when Lenny Bruce was there. he was very helpful to me. I think his kind of vicious humor kind of prepared the way for this present period. It washed away a lot of things that needed washing. Lenny, and Mort Sahl, and Nichols and May were all part of that very verbal period. I admired it a lot, but I never really felt part of it.
"At any rate, after several years of the nightclub thing, I became pretty disgusted. I felt I wasn't getting anywhere and I just dropped out. Out of sheer frustration I got myself involved with creating this crazy apartment on the lower East Side - well, it was really wild. I constructed all kinds of things, a jungle hallway with parakeets in it, and you had to open a bookcase to get to the john, and the john, well, there were parachutes and stuff. It's a good thing I got out of there. Anyway, at that time i did a few things at Caffe Cino and the Judson Church, things I wrote myself with my own music and weird acting experiments. At Judson I did a masque with about 50 musicians. And then I did Genet's The Maids at La Mama.
This was the turning point in O'Horgan's career. His 1964 production of The Maids, following Genet's instructions, had males in the female roles. It was one of the big events in the Off Off Broadway circuit in a period when Off Off Broadway functioned in obscurity, getting no attention from the general press or potential producers and grant-givers. However, Ellen Stewart, La Mama's energetic heart and soul, was so impressed that she decided to involve O'Horgan in a long cherished plan. "I had all these unknown playwrights and I felt that if I could get a group to Europe to show their work there, they might be able to get published there, and that would help them to get published here." she said. "So I sent out two groups - Tom Eyen took one to Paris, and Tom O'Horgan took his to Denmark. The Paris tour wasn't so successful for various reasons, but the Danish one was very successful. We took plays by Sam Shepard, leonard Melfi, Lanford Wilson, Jean Claude van Itallie" (All four writers have since been published and are very active. van Itallie's "America Hurrah" recently completed a two year run Off Broadway and Shepard is working with Italian film director Antonioni on his first American movie "Zabriskie Point".)
From these beginnings the La Mama troupe expanded it's activities. The tours became more extensive , and la Mama earned grants and a creative arts award from Brandeis University. Miss Stewart is now thinking in terms of a Japanese tour next season. And starting next month la Mama will be working from a new home - it's own building on East Fourth Street. O'Horgan will continue working there and in July he will take the troupe to Brandeis University for a six week summer workshop.
"I'm really looking forward to that," he said. "I haven't
had a chance to work out anything new since Futz - everything I've done
recently has come out of that impulse. I need time to retool. In the fall
we're going to work on a film of Futz. I haven't made any definite commitments
after that. Sure, I've been sent scripts from Broadway offices, but so
far I haven't seen anything that i could possibly be interested in. Of
course, I'll continue working with La Mama. Where else can you work things
out? Certainly not on Broadway where the meter is always running."
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