Raw, Scrappy, and Full of Possibility
Starting in 2010, inspired by Joe Cino and his Caffe Cino—one of the original birthplaces of Off-Off-Broadway theatre and early home to such writers as Doric Wilson, Robert Patrick, John Guare, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and William M. Hoffman—Rising Phoenix Rep has commissioned over two dozen playwrights to write new, full-length plays for the intimate back room space at Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village.
Rising Phoenix Rep artistic director, Daniel Talbott, described the series as a place to tap into the raw, inspired, inventive, and pioneering work of the Caffe Cino, where the love of theatre and new plays was joined with a scrappy, do-it-yourself work ethic. All shows are rehearsed for a week and then fully mounted and produced, warts and all, for one night only with free admission. The Cino Nights series celebrates the spirit of indie theatre as a home for new plays and theatre artists, as well as hopefully honoring what has been said of the Caffe Cino: “the first studio of theatre where playwrights can experiment as painters and poets have done for a century, free from the tyranny of audience, box office, church, and criticism.”
This introduction to the second volume muses about making theatre now.
I’m laying in our bed. It’s almost two in the morning in Brooklyn, my back’s been out for the past week, and I’m trying to gather my thoughts and figure out what I want to say about the Caffe Cino, Cino Nights, and our second book of Cino plays.
Here’s some of what’s running through my head. I believe that theatre 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, theatre is free in the most perfect and truest sense of the word, no matter how much or how little was spent on it.
Cino Nights came out of poverty. None of the folks at Rising Phoenix Rep had any amount of money to toss into the air and make the work we wanted to do possible. We also didn’t want our life as a company to be about constantly raising money for one or maybe even two shows a year. 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 theatres 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 theatre 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 theatre of sand, water tanks, and real sharks.
But in the end, what makes a theatre artist is action; it’s the work. Theatre is in the doing and the creation of theatre. 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.
What makes us theatre artists is not whether or not we work at a theatre with a million dollar plus budget, but that we’re working and making theatre, and through our work and work ethic, creating theatre professionally.
I’ve seen gorgeous, alive, ferociously vital theatre that cost millions, and also equally as extraordinary theatre 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 theatre anywhere, and anytime, and there’s nothing stopping any of us except our own limitations about what professional theatre should or should not be. What makes us theatre artists is not whether or not we work at a theatre with a million dollar plus budget, but that we’re working and making theatre, and through our work and work ethic, creating theatre 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 theatre, and I was reminded that all you really need to create theatre is action, space (or as Robert might say, “a floor’”), courage, a play, heart, and someone to show it to or share it with.
I’ve been told that Joe Cino never really read the plays that were being considered for the Caffe Cino, and I love that.
The Caffe Cino is legend in the theatre. 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.
I’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 theatre doesn’t happen without honesty and trust, without belief. I also think theatre 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.
Cino Nights for us was a mental shift. We stopped worrying about how we were going to get money to do theatre, and started thinking about what we could do with nothing. And then when some money came, we thought about how much we could do with what we now had. And then when it was gone again, how we could do even more with less.
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 theatre. Whether you’re on Broadway or in a LORT B house, or struggling your heart out in a small back room in Queens. Theatre is theatre, 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 theatre, 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 theatre 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. Theatre is always possible; it’s infinite in its possibility. The commercial, institutional theatre is wonderful, but those theatres 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