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Robert Patrick’s Children|
Interview with a Playwright
by Michael Dale
March 04, 2004
If that cute boy Robert Patrick noticed walking the streets of Greenwich Village in 1961 had wandered into a different coffeehouse…
If Joseph Cino wasn’t so good at performing a certain sexual act…
If Lanford Wilson’s first play didn’t require a fold-out bed…
The history of Off-Off-Broadway and theater in America might have been very different.
But he didn’t… and he was… and it did.
The following is a conversation with the soft-spoken yet colorfully opinionated Robert Patrick — a founding member of the Off-Off-Broadway movement and the spark that started gay theater in America — on the eve of the premiere of his Hollywood at Sunset, presented by the TOSOS II theater Company in New York on March 4, 2004:
You grew up in Texas during the 1940s and 50s as the son of migrant workers. Did you have any theatrical ambitions as a boy?
No, I wanted to be a cartoonist. There was no theater where I came from. theater was something that Betty Grable and Judy Garland did in movies.
So how did you find yourself in the middle of the creation of Off-Off-Broadway?
I was a dishwasher in a summer stock theater in Kennebunkport, Maine in 1961 and I stopped off in New York to see a college friend. He wasn’t home, so I wandered down to Greenwich Village and within 30 minutes of hitting Manhattan I followed a boy into Caffe Cino which turned out to be the first Off-Off-Broadway theater. I stayed there until it closed in 1967.
Why was there a need for Off-Off-Broadway?
To understand the 60s you have to understand the 50s. The 50s were not Happy Days and Grease. The 50’s were much more like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Americans were automated. All thought was suppressed. No one was honest with anyone. It is possible that during the entire 1950s not one true word was spoken in the United States. You have to understand how suppressed we were to understand how we rose up in the 60s.
And Joseph Cino was looking to change all that?
Joe Cino never intended to start a theater or a theater movement. He was a failed dancer who retired in his early 30s to run a coffee house on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village. We wandered in, we refugees from 50s America. People like me wandered in and Joe showed us his floor and said “Do what you have to do.” People had done folk singing and poetry readings, then a woman named Phoebe Mooney asked if she could do scenes she was doing in class at HB Studio and Joe said “sure.” That’s how modern theater started. theater was the only art that had never moved into the 20th Century. Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry and the novel had all entered into the 20th Century at the end of the 19th Century, but theater requires money, skills, material and cooperation. Joe Cino allowed us to do theater that we didn’t charge for so we didn’t have to please an audience. We weren’t reviewed so we didn’t have to please critics. We weren’t noticed so we didn’t have to obey laws. And he let loose the 60s. We had so much in us that we had no way to express and we invented theater on that floor.
Who was already there when you arrived?
A genius named Doric Wilson was the star player at the Cino when I arrived. And we were all in love with him, by the way. He wrote what I regard as the first gay play, Now She Dances!, in which John the Baptist is a gay crusader. The first one ever depicted on stage and practically before there were any in real life.
Who was your audience?
People who just happened to find us. There were a lot of ex cons and future cons. There were what I call the Art Ladies who haunted the Village. Actors, actresses, and eventually writers. And a lot of gay people looking to get laid. It was a gay milieu before there was such a thing outside of bars. There were bars, the baths and The Cino. There were the odd straight playwrights like John Guare, Sam Shepard, Oliver Hailey and Leonard Melfi. But mostly it was white young gay men. Most of us had never seen any, or very little theater, because it was America. Some were very experienced; Lanford Wilson had actually gone to theater school at Northwestern. So had Marshall Mason, the director. But most of us learned theater on that stage.
Did any of you have dreams of Broadway?
If you saw the list of plays we did you’d know commercial success was the furthest thing from our minds. One playwright, Tom Eyen, who later wrote Dreamgirls, had actually been writing review skits for uptown nightclubs. But once Tom got hooked on the freedom of The Cino his career took a ten year delay. Never before in the history of the world had there been a theater with no repression. At the Caffe Cino theater entered the modern era because we took full responsibility and authority for our work. We were like The Impressionists in the 1890’s or the Cubists in the 1910s. We fed off each other’s ideas like vampires. We wrote for each other and it turned out there was an audience that, without knowing it, had been dying for personal, political, philosophical theater. And a few years after The Cino began doing original plays there were over 300 Off-Off-Broadway theaters.
But you didn’t start off as a playwright.
I was a doorman, a waiter, a sex slave, I acted, I did lights, I washed dishes and after three years there, one day I was helping move scenery in for Lanford Wilson’s first play. The scenery for an Off-Off-Broadway play at this time was usually a bed. It’s evocative and it’s easy to move. Lanford had a fold-out sofa bed and I suddenly had an idea for a play about two men unfolding a sofa bed. And so I wrote The Haunted Host, which drama anthologist William M. Hoffman called “the first gay play.”
And I understand you acted in the play yourself because you couldn’t find an actor willing to play a gay man. In The Haunted Host you write of a parasitic relationship between straight men and gay men, as well as the same type of relationship between Joe Cino and his writers.
As Harvey Fierstein put it, for thousands of years gay people provided the culture, art, literature and music for the human race. That’s what happens in The Haunted Host. All of us were feeding off of Joe Cino, so I made a plot out of it. I made the character straight to make the parasitic relationship more vivid. I’m happy to say it was one of Joe Cino’s favorite plays and he saw every performance.
And he knew exactly what you were doing?
No, I don’t think he did. People just flocked to it. It was done a dozen times in various Off-Off-Broadway theaters before it finally had an Off-Broadway production in 1969. It’s been used to open more gay theaters than any play in history.
And in 1975 it gave Harvey Fierstein his first male role.
Look what I loosed on the world! And two years later I wrote the first known nude play, Camera Obscura. Before then there had been flashes of ass in a couple of plays and I believe that Sally Kirkland had already sat with her naked back to the audience for the whole play Sweet Eros, but in Camera Obscura we kept trying different costumes for the boy and the girl to fit the science fiction setting of the play and finally the designer, Andy Milligan, just said “You know, to take them out of any particular time and space, they ought to be naked.” David Gallagher and Zita Litvinas played three performances nude and were quite happy except the stage at The Cino was so small they were literally touching the audience, so they asked if they could wear something. So Andy took transparent vinyl and made bikinis for them. But for three performances they were nude.
And eventually the rest of New York started discovering The Cino.
At first there was a show at seven on weekends. Then it got to be at seven and nine. Then we started doing shows on Thursday, and Wednesday, and Tuesday… Then it was two shows a night except for Friday and Saturday when it was three. As doorman I learned to pack a hundred extra people into that tiny place. Eventually people were coming from Europe and Asia to see us and many of them went back to form Caffe Cino type theaters in their cities. I went to Capetown, South Africa in 1975 to The Space theater. They had three floors, three theaters. They were doing a play by Paul Foster in one, a play by Sam Shepard in the other and a play by me in the third. The Fringe in London was started by Americans who had been to the Caffe Cino. It was the fountainhead of modern theater.
And while all these Off-Off-Broadway houses were springing up in Downtown Manhattan, Phebe’s became the central watering hole.
Phebe’s became to us what the French cafes were to the Cubists. I could walk into Phebe’s any time I needed money and somebody would offer me a production, a publication or an article to write. It was like the Algonquin Round Table. My play Kennedy’s Children took place in Phebe’s.
[At this point in our conversation, Mr. Patrick explained how Caffe Cino closed very quickly after Joe Cino’s death in 1967. It seems Mr. Cino had been keeping the place running illegally as a theater though various activities including bribes, protection and well-placed sexual favors. As this is a family web site I’m afraid I can’t go into details here, but trust me … it’s good.]
So after the closing, did other theaters seek out Cino playwrights?
We were the elite. Sam Shepard was already famous, having his plays done at The Genesis and La Mama, but he couldn’t rest until he got a Cino production. Melfi did one play there, John Guare had two one-acts. They were already well-known but they wanted that Cino pedigree. In my novel, Temple Slave, which is a highly fictionalized and romanticized account of the Cino years, I tried to describe the feeling of it; “It was Oz, it was Hollywood in the silent days, it was Paris in the Impressionist era, it was Athens at its height, it was Baghdad, baby!”
But it pretty much ended with the 60s?
By 1973 Off-Off-Broadway as I knew it was dead. It had been taken over by people auditioning for uptown productions. Very sad. I went into Phebe’s one day with posters for a show. Friends of mine were sitting isolated from one another at the bar and in dark booths. They were not friendly. They were sulking and moping. I sat at the bar watching them and realized this was my next play, but I didn’t know how to write it. Then I saw the bartender had the TV on with the sound off. He began to click from channel to channel and I realized that was the play. I would let the audience read the minds of people in the bar, clicking from mind to mind in a series of alternating monologues.
And the play, of course, was Kennedy’s Children, which was first produced where?
At Playwright’s Horizons in 1973. Nobody came, nobody reviewed it. But the man who played the silent role of the bartender wanted to be a producer. He flogged the play around the world for three years. No one would produce it. Finally he told me that a theater in the back room of a bankrupt pub in a slum in London had agreed to do the play and to bring me over. I went over and I slept in the room where they stored coal and potatoes, and I helped out at the bar. It opened and the next day I signed contracts for its translation into sixty languages. I went all around the world to see it or direct it. I loved the money, I loved the travel. I hated being famous. I’m not made for it.
And it soon premiered on the West End, which was followed by a Broadway production. Was it odd to suddenly find yourself a success in commercial theater?
Julie Newmar hurt me. In the lobby of the Golden theater Julie Newmar, who is bigger and stronger than I am, grabbed my arms and said “I want you to fire Shirley Knight and put me in that role.” And she dragged me to 8th Avenue to a taxi she had waiting, obviously intending to take me home and use her charms to make me cast her. My boyfriend was pulling on my other arm. He won, but he and I fell down in the middle of 8th Avenue. Julie slammed the door and drove away. That crystallizes what success was like.
Were there any pressures to change the play for Broadway?
In Boston the play was a runaway hit. They begged us to run it there for a year because we were filling the huge Wilbur theater. I wanted to stay, but the producer had already booked the Golden on Broadway. The Boston PBS station fell in love with the play and had me on every program they could. During a break in one of the programs the primary theater critic in Boston turned to me and said, “Of course, I assume you’ll take the homo out before you go to Broadway.” Not only that, the Boston PBS station’s logo is on every mini-series that comes from England. I said, “Well, since you all love it so, who don’t you film it and put it on PBS?” They said, “Bob, for what it would cost us to film Kennedy’s Children we can bring over seven British mini-series.”
As I recall, the play was tremendously popular among acting students. The monologues were so rich and vibrant that in the late 70s it seemed every actor in New York was auditioning with a piece from Kennedy’s Children. It got so that you’d see casting notices requesting that actors prepare monologues not from Kennedy’s Children.
I understand many acting teachers have signs on the walls of their studios: “No Kennedy’s Children.” Also, I’m told it’s the most imitated play since Oedipus Rex. Everyone thinks it’s easy to write a play of monologues. Baby, it ain’t! Kennedy’s Children is a musical. All my plays are musicals. Take a deep breath and do it like you’re singing it. Let the rhythm and the imagery carry you along. It has a complex musical construction, and if you try and play it realistically you’ve got two very boring hours. As Shelley Winters and her Actors Studio friends learned when they did it in Chicago and ruined my American career.
What did they do?
They said hardly a word I wrote. They thought since it was monologues they could just improvise. Sometimes the show was an hour shorter than it had been in London, sometimes an hour longer. The tour was slated to run in ten cities, but when the reviews came out Shelley realized what she’d done and skipped the country, and I had no American career.
And that’s when you tried promoting high school theater.
In 1975 I tied up with a high school theater organization called International Thespians. For the next ten years I traveled to over a thousand high schools trying to promote high school theater, which is most of the theater in America. After ten years I realized I had not made a single advance in high school theater in America. It’s considered inessential. People are killing themselves trying to do it and they’re just being let die. So I quit that and opened the first year-round gay theater in Los Angeles, The 5th Estate. Equity was threatening to close all small theaters in LA at that time and they went down on us big. So I went back to New York and worked with a company called The 4th E until one day in 1990. At the age of 53, twenty-six years to the day after The Haunted Host opened at the Caffe Cino, I found myself trudging down Second Avenue between Houston and Fourth carrying on my back a discarded sofa I wanted as a set-piece for my new play at La Mama. A world-famous playwright was carrying yet another couch on his back for scenery and I said “No more.” I said to myself “Lanford Wilson doesn’t have to carry couches. Sam Shepherd doesn’t have to carry couches. I’m not going to carry any more couches.”
You were America’s most prolific major playwright with over 50 published plays produced and you just stopped.
But then in 1994 I met two enchanting young men, Penn and Aron, who seemed to me to crystallize the situation of the world at that moment the way Joe Cino and his playwrights had in 1964, and I couldn’t resist writing Hollywood at Sunset. There they were — profoundly in love, profoundly ambitious and profoundly conflicted. Penn wanted to stay in the closet. Aron didn’t. And in them I saw in small the conflict that’s tearing this country apart right now. The actual idea of equality for queers. It’s going to tear America apart the way the quarrel over icons tore Byzantium apart. You might also mention that it’s the funniest play I’ve written. They are profoundly witty and articulate young men and have both endorsed it as a perfect portrait of them.
Who do you admire nowadays, as far as playwrights and theater companies are concerned?
I don’t go to theater anymore. To me that would be like watching somebody else have sex. I live a very quiet life alone and I love it. But I think Lanford Wilson and Paul Foster were the two greatest playwrights of my generation, besides myself. Tony Kushner, obviously, is the heir of Off-Off-Broadway. He uses freedoms that we fought for and discovered magnificently. He’s the Rafael of Off-Off-Broadway. Paul Foster was the Leonardo Da Vinci and Lanford Wilson the Michelangelo. People wonder why the gay revolution is so important. It’s because straight males have become a problem. Men made cities out of the jungles. They are now making jungles out of the cities. They cannot stop it. Their creative ambition, aggression and bonding created civilization — and they don’t get enough credit for that. But their destructive ambition, aggression and bonding is now destroying the civilization they made. They can’t stop it. Something must replace them.
Looking back on such an eventful and accomplished career, is there anything that stands out above all else?
Above all, I was doorman at The Caffe Cino, of which I am very proud. I let Lanford Wilson into The Cino for the first time.
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com.
Reprinted with permission.
To purchase Robert Patrick’s novel “Temple Slave” and his autobiography in the
form of movie critiques, “Film Moi,” contact him at email@example.com