East Fourth Street in New York City, in the neighborhood called the Lower East Village, certainly would have been called run down, a slum even, by anyone who walked down it ten or 20 years ago. To the untrained eye, in fact, it’s a slum today. It’s lined with out-of-repair buildings with sagging fire escapes, and during the daytime it looks deserted.

East Fourth Street is the Great White Way of Off-Off-Broadway theater. A good many of its rotted buildings hold theaters (too grand a word for what they are, maybe; anyway, spaces where plays are put on). In a converted hot dog factory near the Bowery on East Fourth is the oldest and most famous Off-Off-Broadway theater, La Mama E.T.C. (for Experimental Theater Club), which moved there after a nomadic career in East Village and Lower East Side lofts and cellars. On the corner is Phebe’s, a bar that Wilford Leach, artistic director of La Mama, calls “the Sardi’s of Off-Off-Broadway.” On any given weekend, as many as a dozen plays might be put on in a two-or three-block stretch of East Fourth Street. For all the unimpressiveness of its appearance, the street is the center of a burgeoning movement that has been a watershed in the history of the American theater, a movement into which foundation money flows freely, in which words like genius and legend are bandied about, to which the most serious sort of attention is paid.

Off-Off-Broadway has become far more than just another Lower Manhattan avant-garde theater movement of the sort that has existed fairly continuously (except during World War II) since before 1920. It is more avowedly experimental and, flouting of convention than past movements, although they were experimental too; it is the object of more critical and scholarly attention than its predecessors, although they got some attention too; and it is far bigger than any non-commerical theater movement in America has ever been.

The magnitude of Off-Off-Broadway is what is most obviously new and unusual about it. It is so diffuse and fluid now that nobody can say for sure exactly how big it is. Most estimates put the number of Off-Off-Broadway companies and theaters (all playing to audiences of less than 100, none having the faintest hope of breaking even on box-office receipts) at 150 to 200. Each one puts on a certain number of plays a year, usually between three and ten, so that the number of different plays performed in a year on Off-Off-Broadway seems—one can only guess—to be between 500 and 1,000. On a Saturday night in October, the schedule of the Off-Off-Broadway Alliance, a somewhat selective coordinating organization, lists 40 different performances. It is probably safe to say that never has the total number of plays produced in New York City in a year been higher. By comparison, in the busiest season of Broadway, 1927-28, there were 264 productions, and at that point Broadway was basically it, since there was no Off- or Off-Off. In 1950-51, a more typical year, there were 87 Broadway shows.

All this growth has taken place during the last 20 years, and the preponderance of it within the last ten. The adversity—cultural, political, and especially economic—that kept anything like Off-Off-Broadway from developing for years and years also attended its birth. The movement remains outrageously disobedient of the laws of economic rationality. At a time when most areas of American life are thought to be ossifying and losing their creativity, the non-commercial theater has flowered. There’s nothing comparable to it in business or government today, and the only analog that comes to mind in the arts is rock music, which is far less concentrated, more commercial, and better known. The rapid and, in most of America, unnoticed growth of Off-Off-Broadway stands in sharp contrast to the general trend in our national institutions. The reasons Off-Off-Broadway has flourished are, in reverse, the reasons everything else hasn’t, and the story of Off-Off-Broadway’s rise is an object lesson in what most areas of American life sorely lack. In some ways what has happened to the New York theater in the last 20 years could have happened only to the New York theater, but in some ways it could have happened everywhere, and it didn’t.

A Central Institution

Off-Off-Broadway grew up in response to deficiencies in Broadway, and its roots lie there. Like most of the great bureaucratic institutions in America today, Broadway began in the early years of this century, in response to the increasing accumulation of people and money in cities, especially New York. There was always theater in America, of course, but in the early decades of the 20th century a series of great theaters was built in and around Times Square in New York, and all the major talent in the country began to be concentrated there. Early Broadway had no artistic pretentions, and consisted of simple and entertaining melodramas and comedies and reviews, but it did attract a great deal of attention and audiences. It grew steadily until the mid-20s.

In the late 20s and 30s, Broadway even began to take on some artistic merit. The musical comedy became fully developed as an art form, as at the same time did the first great American drama. George S. Kaufman and Eugene O’Neill were writing, the Barrymores acting, the Shubert brothers producing, and great sums of money being made. The middle and upper classes, from New York and elsewhere, flocked to Broadway. Times Square became the nerve center of New York City; the theater was one of the central institutions by which the city and the culture defined themselves.

The movies and the Depression hurt Broadway’s size, if not its quality, in the 30s; and it lagged, as did everything else in the arts, during World War II. But shortly thereafter Broadway picked up and flowered again. It continued to produce new talent, and to draw sizable audiences into the early fifties. Broadway was aesthetically and commercially successful and was essentially the only theater in New York. Then it began to die.

The reasons for the decline of Broadway are many and varied, and it is hard to single out one as being of overriding importance. Television hurt a good deal. The middle class began to move to the suburbs, and its journeys to Broadway became more and more sporadic. Crime in New York City began to rise, particularly in Times Square, which became a truly unpleasant place to go. The fire code prevented building offices over theaters, so theaters that were in operation only several nights a week, nine months a year, became an inefficient way to use increasingly valuable Manhattan real estate. Many of the finest old theaters, particularly the ones on 42nd Street, began as early as the thirties to be sold and converted into movie houses, which could make money virtually around the clock; and after the war those houses turned more and more to porno films. Today people watch movies like Fantasex and The Joy of Letting Go in the crumbling remains of what were once the greatest stages in the world.

Perhaps most important, however, was the changing economics of producing a Broadway show. As audiences were drawn off, the price of mounting a production skyrocketed, from about $10,000 in 1920 to as much as $500,000 for a play and $1 million, or even more, for a musical today. The huge rise in costs was the result of many factors, including dwindling audiences, but unions certainly played a major role. In 1920 there were no really effective unions in the theater; in the fifties they grew to power, even dominance; and now, to stage a Broadway show, a producer has to sign 13 different union contracts, all replete with featherbedding.

For seven minutes of music, he has to hire a full orchestra; to move some sets across the street, he has to call in the Teamsters to work full crews full days, at enormous expense. The depths of Broadway’s decline came in the late sixties. In 1967-68 Broadway lost $5 million. In 1969 there were 36 Broadway theaters, and ten of them were unused. In 1969-70, the worst season, there were only 62 productions, and the theaters sold 46.5 per cent of their capacity.

The enormous expense of a Broadway production severely hampered whatever creativity existed on Broadway. Because of the size of the investment that went into it, a show had to be a huge success or its producer would lose his shirt. Anything less than rave reviews, big stars, lavish production, and already proven formulas made a new Broadway show wildly risky. So the producers tended to stick with glossy, formulaic material, particularly revivals of past musical comedy successes. Since the break-even rate on Broadway was something like one in ten, it was hardly prudent economically to try anything else, any new material or techniques or talent. As a result, ironically, Broadway fell even further, since audiences tired of remake after remake and ever increasing prices; but still, playing the percentages, there was little else a producer could do. Broadway had become another oversized, overbudgeted, stagnant, dying institution.

Its ills created substantial pools of disaffection—among audiences to some extent, but much more so among two crucial groups of people. One was fairly small and its members might be called intellectuals. They were playwrights, critics, directors, and actors who wanted to see the theater move in new, creative directions, and were frustrated by its artistic stagnation. The second group, much larger and made up chiefly of actors, was frustrated because it wanted to work in theater and, since Broadway was so small and so reliant on established talent, couldn’t. The two groups are not mutually exclusive, of course, but they are fairly distinct. Each has played a major part in the Off-Off-Broadway boom, but each group’s side of Off-Off-Broadway has been quite distinct from the other’s, so that now Off-Off-Broadway is really two movements in a strange symbiotic relationship.

A Whole New Ball Game

Before Off-Off-Broadway there was Off-Broadway, but that was hardly the same. Off-Broadway began in the early fifties, in response to the blindnesses of Broadway; and it was centered in Greenwich Village and concerned with new and different material. But Off-Broadway generally bought the basic premise of the American theater—what was good was to put on a play on a stage and to make money at it. Off-Broadway has always gone on in medium-sized (100 to 500 seats) theaters, with traditional rehearsal and staging times; it has always been reviewed by the critics, and has depended on those reviews for its success. Nowadays, aside from size and location, Broadway and Off-Broadway are practically the same thing: commercial theater that rigidly divides plays into successes and failures usually according to box-office receipts.

Off-Off-Broadway is a different story entirely, a whole new ball game, and its origins are now appropriately shrouded in myth. People disagree on when it started, who started it, and what they were trying to do, but here is their chief inspiration, whoever they were: If a group of people really wanted to put on a play, they could just put on a play. They didn’t need much money. They didn’t need backers. They didn’t need the unions. They didn’t need name actors, writers, or directors. They didn’t need to get reviewed. They didn’t need sets, lighting, or costumes. They hardly even needed audiences, and it didn’t matter much whether or not whoever came paid. All they needed was a place to stage whatever it was they were staging, and even that certainly didn’t need to be, in fact couldn’t be, a theater.

What is striking about Off-Off-Broadway is that it took until roughly 1960 for somebody to think it up. All along, there were thousands of actors, directors, and playwrights dying t0 put on plays, but it simply never occurred to anyone that this could be done without having at least a good sum of money and a real theater, two prerequisites that just in themselves severely limit what can be staged. So deeply ingrained was this prejudice in the minds of everybody in the theater that Off-Off-Broadway was in fact invented almost by accident, by people who had no right to be starting a new theater movement, who in fact were almost completely unfamiliar with the theater. They were the only ones who didn’t know Off-Off-Broadway couldn’t be done, so they were the ones who did it.

The Founding Mother

There is argument about when the first, official beginning of Off-Off-Broadway was, and about what the motives behind it were. Some say the first Off-Off-Broadway production was Alfred Jarry’s King Ubu, which opened at the Take Three coffeehouse in Greenwich Village on September 27, 1960. Some say Joe Cino, who came from Rochester to the Village to start a coffeehouse and held poetry readings that evolved into dramatic reading that evolved into plays, started Off-Off-Broadway, perhaps just as a way of drumming up business. Some say Ellen Stewart, a clothing designer from New Orleans, who opened her first La Mama coffeehouse on East Twelfth Street in 1960, was the dominant figure. All the versions of Off-Off-Broadway’s genesis do, however, agree that it began in coffeehouses and not theaters, so perhaps that was the movement’s chief distinguishing characteristic.

Ellen Stewart has emerged, anyway, as Off-Off-Broadway’s official founding mother. Wilford Leach, La Mama’s artistic director, says Stewart decided to start a theater after her brother had a disastrous experience trying to direct a play on Broadway (The Vamp, starring Carol Channing, 1959, one of the worst of flops). “Ellen Stewart is one of those people who thinks, ‘I want one of my own if they don’t want me,’ ” Leach says. “She rented a basement that could seat ten people. The stage was large enough for a bed. She invited people she met on the street to come, and to write plays. Her philosophy was, if you want to do it, do it. Just do it. And they did it.”

They did. People started to come to Ellen Stewart, wanting to put on plays, wanting to act, wanting to help. Everything was very ad hoc in those days. Everybody was broke, and they drove a lot of cabs and waited on a lot of tables to make ends meet. La Mama kept having to move, because city fire inspectors kept kicking it out of wherever it was; for years, Stewart had a running battle with Robert Moses, and she decided to append Experimental Theater Club to La Mama’s name (the name was a reference to herself, of course) because someone told her that Moses couldn’t meddle with clubs.

Other theaters were starting to spring up, and a circle of Off-Off-Broadway actors and playwrights and directors began to develop, but the movement was still practically unknown. All of it, the beginnings of what some people now think of as one of the great periods in the arts in America, went on in slums and near-slums below and east of Greenwich Village, in commercial lofts, and leaky basements, unadvertised and late at night, masterminded by a bunch of cab drivers and dishwashers.

No respectable critic, or theater-goer for that matter, would go near Off-Off-Broadway; the Village itself was far enough. Nobody but the Village Voice would review Off-Off-Broadway productions, and at that point nobody uptown read the Voice. Legend has it that Joe Papp, now the undisputed emperor of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway simultaneously (and another person Robert Moses tried to destroy), once got so frustrated that no critics would come to his free Shakespeare in Central Park that he lay in wait outside The New York Times building in a pickup truck, intending to kidnap the venerable critic Brooks Atkinson and force him to watch a Papp production. Whatever progress Off-Off-Broadway had made, the old Broadway. Mindset persisted among the theater establishment.

An Ideal Climate

Toward the middle of the sixties the tide began to turn, not least because of the general temper of the times. Suddenly Bohemianism in America was not something confined to a few blocks in Lower Manhattan; but a huge nationwide movement. It attracted, in its various political and cultural forms, millions of people and lots of attention. Somehow, perhaps because of the Vietnam war, the message had gotten across that the Broadway way of doing things wasn’t necessarily the right way, that in fact it was usually wrong, that the truth lay outside of it. The people who planned Vietnam were the Broadway of politics, and in rebellion against them the Off-Off-Broadway attitude spread throughout the society. Experimentation was widely tolerated; encouraged, even revered. It was the ideal climate for Off-Off-Broadway to flourish.

Some more concrete things began to happen. In December 1965 The New York Times Magazine ran an article on Off-Off-Broadway by Elenore Lester, a writer, teacher, and key figure in the movement; it was the first time the Times had paid Off-Off-Broadway major attention. Around that time Ellen Stewart decided that since nobody in New York would review La Mama, she would take it on a European tour. She brought home all the rave reviews La Mama had gotten, got friends to translate them, and took them around to the New York critics, who began to review La Mania. (To this day, Off-Off-Broadway is far better known and more honored in Europe than in America; particularly in academic circles there, all Off-Off-Broadway’s principals are regarded as great heroes and enduring geniuses, people who have boldly re-shaped the theater.) One day shortly thereafter a man showed up at La Mama and took Ellen Stewart out to dinner at a deli on Second Avenue. He turned out to be with the Ford Foundation, which from then on has been La Mama’s principal support. La Mama bought and renovated its East Fourth Street building, and the government and foundations started to give money to Off-Off-Broadway regularly.

Off-Off-Broadway was not just in coffeehouses by this time. It had begun to develop ensemble groups—actors and directors who put on productions in close collaboration, very experimental and avant-garde, very serious and important artistically. The ensembles took the Off-Off-Broadway idea one step further: if there was no need for a theater or money to put on a play, then there also was no need to stick to the conventions of drama. Economic inspiration began to be joined by artistic inspiration. Directors started to explore different approaches to audiences, to lines, to characters, to staging. They tried a lot of wild stuff, on the old theory that if you want to do it, do it, and although some of it was junk a lot of it was something else entirely.

Pure Genius

In the spring of 1968 a director named Andre Gregory arrived at the New York University’s new School of the Arts to give a workshop tor the school’s first graduating class of actors, and at the end of it he asked five people to join him in starting an ensemble called the Manhattan Project. At that point Gregory was regarded as a very talented man, but down on his luck. He had had a flop on Broadway, and had been fired as director of a theater company in Philadelphia. He had lost all interest in traditional theater.

Gregory’s group went into rehearsal. At first they had no idea what they were going to perform, and spent their time getting to know one another and doing a strange set of exercises called the Plastiques, which had been devised by the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. Eventually the group decided to do an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, which they sort of made up as they went along, throwing in a lot of humor and very physical movement and sordid details from Lewis Carroll’s life. They rehearsed for two years before putting on a single performance—this was absolutely unheard of; rehearsals even in elaborate Broadway musicals lasted maybe five weeks. When Alice was finally staged… Pure Genius! Two years of sellout performances, ecstatic critical acclaim, followed by more success in other productions. Foundation money flowed in.

By this time the ensemble groups were getting the most serious critical attention imaginable. Not only were they reviewed, not only did they regularly and triumphantly tour Europe and America, but they were studied in universities, were the subject of books and Ph. D. dissertations. Even at its height Broadway hadn’t had this kind of intellectual credentials. The five or six leading ensemble groups, although a tiny numerical minority of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, were the most instrumental in putting Off-Off-Broadway on the serious-drama map. They took barren sets and wild innovation past the level of poverty-stricken adolescent enthusiasm and elevated it to Art. They made Off-Off-Broadway truly avant-garde.

In 1969 the Performance Group, another ensemble whose guiding spirit was an NYU professor named Richard Schechner, put on a play called Dionysius in ’69, which, whether for its artistic merit or its profuse nudity, attracted a great deal of attention. Also that year an Ellen Stewart protege named Tom O’Horgan brought the first Off-Off-Broadway production to Broadway, a play called Hair, which was a huge success. By 1970 the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and many others were putting a good bit of money into Off-Off-Broadway—not enough, God knows, to take it out of the East Village, or to give it plush seats and elaborate sets, or even to relieve everyone of driving cabs, but enough to guarantee that if it maintained its original pluck it would survive.

The Villain of the Piece

There has been only one serious and concerted threat to Off-Off-Broadway since the mid-sixties, and that has come from the Actors’ Equity Association, the running villain of the piece. Equity is the only theatrical union that has had anything to do with Off-Off-Broadway, since the movement has never come near a set designer or an orchestra, and from the start it seems to have had trouble figuring out exactly what was going on.

Equity was founded in 1913 and grew to power in the 1920s because actors were being exploited. Supply so wildly exceeded demand in the theatrical job market that actors would work under any conditions a producer could dream up, as long as it was work. Equity was supposed to protect actors from the rapacity of producers, and incidentally from their own weakness for being willing victims of that rapacity. So when Off-Off-Broadway came along, it seemed to fit right in to the old scheme: here were actors, working for nothing, being exploited again. Equity assumed actors are economic beings to a greater extent than they really are, so it figured the reason they were acting on Off-Off-Broadway was in hopes of being spotted by an agent or producer who would put them on Broadway.

Equity dealt with Off-Off-Broadway by writing something called the Showcase Code, which says Equity actors can work for less than regular scale only in a non-Equity theater, with no admission charge, no advertising, and no more than 12 performances. The code sounds a little crazy, but the idea was to make sure that nobody was making any money off of unpaid actors. A showcase production that was good would move to Off-Broadway, in which case the actors would go up to regular union scale. Otherwise, as far as Equity was concerned, there was no point in having Off-Off-Broadway. The showcase model was the only explanation of why the damn thing went on that made any sense.

But acting is not something that people will only do for money or the promise of money, like most kinds of work. Through last year, Equity and Off-Off-Broadway fought a bitter battle over the Showcase Code. The actors turned against Equity, siding with management instead of labor. Generally the more serious the Off-Off-Broadway actor or director, the more he scorned Equity. The Manhattan Project and its ilk, for instance, have always steered far clear of Equity, since, according to Equity’s way of thinking, someone like Andre Gregory, who put actors, through two years of rehearsals unpaid, was nothing but a greedy boss out to maximize his own profits. Now, after a series of bitter and complex battles running roughly from 1966 to 1975, Equity and Off-Off-Broadway are at relative peace. Equity is beginning to loosen up its showcase code to allow for the occasional charging of admission, taking out of advertising, and other things that make the staging of low-budget productions less than impossible.

As a matter of fact, Off-Off-Broadway has been a godsend to actors, for reasons having to do partly with art, partly with showcasing, and not at all with money. Actors make up a strange, driven subculture in New York. There are perhaps 10,000, maybe more, and in any given year 80 to 90 per cent are unemployed. Something like 95 per cent are on federal unemployment compensation for at least part of every year, and only a tiny fraction actually have steady work all year long. The number of jobs that are considered both desirable and remunerative is practically non-existent. Even on the off-chance that success comes to an actor, it’s not like success coming to a professional of another sort, because likely as not it will one day evaporate as quickly as it materialized.

Insecurity and Dues-Paying

The average New York actor lives something like this: He comes to New York from college, drama school, summer theater, or even a farm in Kansas or a soda fountain in North Carolina, determined to be either a star, a great artist, or, usually, both. He finds a cheap walk-up apartment near the Lower East Side, which he furnishes with a telephone and not much else. He gets an answering service, some 8 by 10 glossy portraits, and what’s called a shopper’s ticket, which lets you ride the buses all day free. He goes out and buys a trade paper like Backstage, and takes off.

The aspiring actor spends virtually all day riding the buses around New York. On his rounds, he stops in at agents’ offices and tries to persuade them to represent him. He goes to auditions and casting calls (known to actors as cattle calls), which are announced in Backstage and other papers. He goes to an acting class, mostly because it gives him a rare chance to act. He stops by advertising agencies, to see if there are any commercials or print jobs (posing for newspaper and magazine advertisements) available. He checks out the modeling agencies, and he tries to wangle auditions for movies and soap operas. Everywhere he goes he drops off a resume and some glossies, and when he’s done with his rounds he dashes home and calls his answering service to see if anyone wants him to audition. If they do, he gets to stand around for hours with a bunch of other actors waiting to do one-minute speeches that have almost no chance of winning them a part. At night, he’ll drive a lot of cabs and wait on a lot of tables.

Maybe after a while the actor will get a lucky break: work in a commercial, or a bit part in a movie, or a place in the chorus of a musical, or a more sizable part on Off-Off-Broadway. If he does, he may take out an ad in Backstage saying that he’s appearing in a play, and hope there are agents and producers in the audience.

Virtually everybody in the theater started out this way, and insecurity and dues-paying are universal experiences. God knows why they keep doing it, given the hustle and poverty it entails, but they do. Almost none of them are consciously ascetic; almost all, when asked, say sure, they’d rather be on Park Avenue than Avenue A. But their primary motive in life is to act, and it overrides all the other motives, like security and materialism. There continue to be just enough phenomenal success stories in the acting profession to keep everyone fueled up. Almost everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who made it big, and, actors not being overburdened with modesty, each one seems to think he’ll be the one to beat the terrible odds and make it.

When Off-Off-Broadway began to draw a good deal of attention and respect, this ravenous horde descended on it. Some actors, like the elite crew in the ensembles, wanted to try new and daring things that they couldn’t do in the traditional theater; most just wanted to act before an audience, which before Off-Off-Broadway was an incredibly difficult thing to do. (Hence acting classes; which people joined not so much to learn as to be on stage, are now in a decline.) Now that others had shown that you could put on a play for practically no money and that you could lure agents, critics, and producers below Fourteenth Street, the great mass of actors—leading ladies, stand-up comics, character actors, crooners, child stars—started working on Off-Off-Broadway. They are the ones who make up the numerical boom. They are the ones who put on the showcase productions that make up most of Off-Off-Broadway.

The line between artists and showcasers isn’t all that distinct, of course. Most actors in the showcase productions probably consider themselves artists, and most in the ensembles get a thrill out of looking across the footlights at an enthusiastic packed house. Still, the two groups are distinguishable, and the hierarchy of motivations in their members is different, and one is much bigger than the other. The groups are not bosom companions, exactly; the ensembles seem to see the showcases as hack work, and the showcases seem to see the ensembles as weirdos. Still, both groups are important in lending Off-Off-Broadway its vitality, albeit in quite different ways. Both keep the movement active, disorganized, and receptive to practically anything.

An Anarchic Product Testing Lab

Just recently, Broadway has started to make a comeback. The number of shows and of paying customers is up, and there’s more work; and although there are still a lot of revivals there’s been some new stuff too. Joseph Papp now has two big hits on Broadway, both of which according to the traditional formulas should have been abysmal flops. Neither show—A Chorus Line and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf—has a name star, and neither is by a name writer. Colored Girls was first put on by total unknowns in the Henry Street housing project in lower Manhattan. Papp has scouts out looking at plays in all sorts of obscure places, and when he finds something good he nurses it along gradually, bringing it first to his Off-Off-Broadway Public Theater and then, if it has potential, on to Lincoln Center or Broadway. That way Broadway becomes enriched by appropriating the best ideas from Off-Off-Broadway, so that Off-Off-Broadway becomes something like a giant, anarchic product-testing lab; and, since Papp pours his Broadway profits back into the Public Theater, Off-Off-Broadway benefits too. It’s safe to say that whatever renewed success Broadway is having it owes in part to Off-Off-Broadway.

Breaking Down the Barriers

There’s a certain mindset to which, notwithstanding all the other circumstances, Off-Off-Broadway really owes its success. The people who are involved in it, although mostly college-educated and of middle-class origin, are different in basic ways from most middle-class Americans. They live for different things, and judge themselves differently. A lot more people enter the theater than stay in it, and the ones who think it sounds glamorous, who want to lead the theater life, are usually the ones who leave.

It’s not that those who stay are saints, above compromise—most compromise themselves all the time when they do commercials and soap operas and the like. But they have found something that they overridingly want to do, and they have decided to rearrange their lives accordingly. It’s like a disease; it takes over and destroys the normal middle-class super-ego and becomes overpowering, this desire to do something in the theater. “For me,” says Wallace Shawn, an Off-Off-Broadway playwright who has been very successful indeed as these things go, “there’s no question of making a living. I’ve never made a living. There’s no question of it. There are just all these people, including me, who’ll do anything to see their work done. They’ll pay people to do it.” If there’s a single thing that has made Off-Off-Broadway, it’s that attitude. For most people in Off-Off-Broadway there may be no question of making a living, but despite the discouraging numbers and dollars, there’s really no question of doing anything else seriously either.

Once a substantial pool of people like this exists in any profession, the likelihood of continuing creativity and innovation greatly increases. If, for instance, people have already broken through the barrier of worrying about a secure job and a secure income all the time (assuming, of course, that family responsibilities and the like aren’t pressing too heavily), they’re much more likely to break through other barriers as well. They become less tolerant of doing things the way they’ve always been done, to be more inclined to try what’s new and risky institutionally and artistically as well as personally. The stranglehold of the way things have always been done is so strong that even actors had a hard time thinking up Off-Off-Broadway in the first place, but once it was there they took enthusiastic part and kept thinking of new ways in which the conventional wisdom might be wrong.

The Steep and Narrow Path

The success of Off-Off-Broadway need not be limited to only the theater; analogous movements could spring up anywhere, and it’s too bad they don’t. In American industry today, with its huge, well-financed research and development departments, the major inventions still come from outsiders who either sell their patents or start their own companies. The federal government, for all its size and money, hasn’t been the major source of new ideas on how to govern.

Off-Off-Broadway’s specialness is in large part a byproduct of a series of breaks that are, unfortunately, now possible only for an endeavor in the arts. Only in the arts is innovation so readily bankrolled by foundations and government; only in the arts can resisting the occasional crushing effects of unions be respectable, even liberal; and only in the arts can people live in poverty and still be considered not only worthy but even glamorous. A lawyer on the Lower East Side isn’t smiled upon as graciously by society as an actor, and as a result, the pressures to remain conventionally successful are far greater on people outside the arts. In most parts of the American meritocracy people are hamstrung by a fear of economic and professional failure. They imagine themselves to be treading a steep and narrow path toward success, so that one false step might throw them off and consign them forever to some lower rung of society.

So in a sense it’s money—or the desire for the kind of respectability that boils down to money—that holds back people who aren’t in the arts, that encourages them to stay on the path and play it safe. Money is all too often the measurement of status and self-respect, particularly if one’s work does not provide those things to the extent it should. Too often it’s also a major part of the way we size up others; it’s hard to avoid, somehow, thinking of the lawyer on the Lower East Side as a failure.

The antidote to all this, as Off-Off-Broadway so clearly reveals, is the joy of doing. The New York theater is full of object lessons in the kinds of sacrifices people will make to do something they really love. Certainly there are a lot of carpenters and doctors and cooks and diplomats who genuinely love what they do, but even they lack the actor’s confidence that that love alone is all one needs. And so they often keep the unbridled desire to do what they want in check, as if that restraint is one of the marks of adulthood and responsibility. Ellen Stewart’s great discovery—if you want to do it, do it—isn’t applied more widely because the joy of doing hasn’t yet achieved the primacy it deserves, and is still held in check by other, competing desires. It’s easy to imagine a world where Off-Off-Broadway could exist anywhere, with only a slight reordering of priorities. There’s some of the actor in all of us, and we need only let the impulse take its natural course.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.