Playwright broke ground from Village to West End, seeded US with his theater philosophy
BY ANDY HUMM Almost 50 years after being one of the primary creative artists who launched the Off-Off-Broadway movement, playwright and actor Robert Patrick, now 74, is being given the 2011 Artistic Achievement Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation.
The group will formally bestow the honor on Patrick at its annual ceremony honoring the best in OOB theater on September 19 at the Cooper Union, 51 Astor Place, at 7 p.m.
“Since 1964, Patrick has had thousands of productions of dozens of plays on six continents from ‘The Haunted Host’ at the first Off-Off-Broadway theatre, the Caffé Cino, to ‘Kennedy’s Children’ on the West End and Broadway,” the group said in its citation.
In response to the selection, Patrick said in the release, “The freedoms which Off-Off-Broadway helped win for the performing arts have changed theatre, movies, and television worldwide. Off-Off and the environments physical and spiritual which it created are more important than ever to teach and remind people that art can be personal and interesting, political and unaffiliated, creative and reconstructive, and that consciousness can exist uninterrupted by advertising. To know that my work is remembered is a staggering and humbling experience.”
Gay City News spoke to Patrick from his Los Angeles home, and the interview began with a discussion of the statement on his blog, robertpatrickpersonal.wordpress.com/, that he is available to “write, ghost, teach.”
I understood the “write” part from this author of 60 plays, whom Samuel French, the play publisher, once called “New York’s most-produced playwright of the 1960s.”
We talked about the “teach” part; he worked for the American Thespian Society, traveling for ten years to more than a thousand high schools, where, he said, he would “lecture, judge, speak on the history of playwriting and history of Off-Off-Broadway. I visited every state but Hawaii.”
But his availability to be a “ghost” intrigued me, and that credential has nothing to do with his first play, “The Haunted Host,” a gay-themed hit in 1964 before there was much of a gay movement.
No, he ghostwrote TV scripts because producers didn’t want to look at anything from someone his age — that is, over 50 when he migrated to Los Angeles in the early 1990s.
“When I first moved to LA, I ran into young screenwriters who were getting jobs because they were young — but they couldn’t write,” he recalled. “They learned what I had to teach them and don’t need me anymore. I have trunks full of wonderful TV scripts” that were never produced.
Robert Patrick O’Connor (he later dropped the surname) was born in Kilgore, Texas and grew up in Roswell, New Mexico, where he got beat up not for being gay, which he was, but just for reading books.
“You’re making us look bad,” his tormentors would say.
His inspirations in those days were “Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Jean Kerr,” and later English playwright Christopher Fry, “the last in my Pantheon.”
But once he moved to New York and got involved with Joe Cino’s legendary Caffé Cino, he got to interact with young dramatists who would redefine the American theater in the latter 20th century.
“Role models? Try living with Lanford Wilson and Tom Eyen and Sam Shepard and Claris Nelson and Irene Fornes and seeing them everyday,” he said.
Patrick shared digs with all of them at one time or another, including the bunkhouse of Ellen Stewart, the founder of La MaMa Experimental Theatre who died this past January.
“We lived in each other’s back pockets, exciting each other,” he said, adding they would use each other’s lines in their plays.
“Lanford took a line from ‘Haunted Host’ and put it in ‘The Madness of Lady Bright,’ and Paul Foster took a line from ‘Lady Bright’ and put it in ‘Heimskringla,’” Patrick said, comparing the group to Matisse and Picasso, borrowing from one another and, in doing so, paying homage to each other.
The height of Patrick’s commercial success in the theater was when his “Kennedy’s Children” got to Broadway, where I saw it in 1975. Set in an East Village bar in 1974, a lost generation of habitués ruminate over the ‘60s, particularly the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy — still as raw a memory then as the catastrophe of 9-11 is today.
The play ran 72 performances on Broadway, but won Shirley Knight the Tony for Best Actress. It was a hit in London just before that run, where Clive Barnes of the New York Times hailed “Mr. Patrick’s uncanny ear for the way people talk, and his equally uncanny ability to transmute that into the small yet totally convincing traffic of the stage.”
The play has been translated into 60 languages and performed all over the world. Go to his blog and see “Hello, Bob,” a multipart video of the hilarious play he wrote about his experience getting “Kennedy’s Children” produced.
The disillusionment Patrick reflected in his play in the 1970s is nothing compared to his view of what America has become today. He attributes our decline to “a generation raised from infancy by TV” that was told incessantly — especially by commercial advertisements — that “it smelled bad, its breath was foul, was ugly, and teeth were gray. Everything was wrong with it!” As a result, Patrick said, “They grew up hating themselves,” leading to a nation of “self-absorbed and self-hating people with no time or concern for others.”
He found younger colleagues impossible to work with, with some exceptions.
To continue the life in the theater that had been so promising in the 1960s, “I did lights, stage managed, did costumes, sets, sound, and promotion,” he said. “By the end, I had no place to live and was sleeping in the lighting booths of theaters. It all became ridiculous.”
When Patrick moved to California to live with his sister, “I found the degradation of average Americans even worse. All the revolution of the ‘60s did was to make them afraid of everything — afraid of air, water, food, each other, rich, poor, powerful, and powerless.”
That perspective has not mellowed. Asked if there is a way out, Patrick replied, “I think we’re doomed.”
When he was getting started in the theater, Patrick had no fear — even of exploring gay themes.
“I didn’t set out to write gay theater,” he said. “Joe Cino didn’t set out to form a new kind of theater. He just told the kids to do what you have to do.”
That’s the message he tried to convey when he was on the lecture circuit to high schools for a decade: “You can do it, need to do it, and it’s important to do it.”
Patrick now does what he has to in order to survive. He would welcome a renaissance for his plays and is still open to ghosting, but he said that work ran out in 2003. He next started reviewing porn for AVN — Adult Video News, which he said has “gone Christian and dropped gay reviews.” He now writes for an online outlet.
Patrick can’t afford to travel cross-country and pick up his award in person from the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation, but he will be sending a video message that should be worth the price of admission — $25, available at nyitawards.com/shop/.