Portal to Off Off Broadway’s Early Days

The Hostage, Brendan Behan

“Joseph Cino didn’t set out to be a pioneer. He began presenting plays at his Cornelia Street cafe on a whim, as an offshoot of the poetry readings that expressed his desire to create a place where artistic types would want to spend time. A dreamer and newcomer to Manhattan by way of Buffalo, he opened that establishment, Caffe Cino, in 1958 and over time became a veritable spokesman for the intimate and uncommercial productions mounted on its shabby, makeshift stage. Throughout the 1960s playwrights like Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, John Guare, Robert Patrick, Robert Heide, H. M. Koutoukas, Tom Eyen and Doric Wilson presented their earliest works at the cafe, now commonly considered the birthplace of Off Off Broadway theater. ‘It was so exciting and so necessary and fed so many people,’ said the playwright Edward Albee, who, despite gaining success on his own in those early Cino years, spent a lot of time there. Though books like ‘Caffe Cino: The Birthplace of Off Off Broadway,’ by Wendell C. Stone, and ‘Playing Underground,’ by Stephen J. Bottoms, have chronicled what went on at 31 Cornelia Street from 1958 to 1968, a recent gift to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts will make more Cino memorabilia available to the public. Magie Dominic, a writer and artist who performed and directed at the Cino, donated an assortment of programs, scripts, photographs and other items. The collection, part of the library’s Billy Rose Theater Division, will be available for public viewing early next year. An after-hours photograph from 1967, above, with Ms. Dominic, second from left, captures the spirit of the Cino: a tiny place where actors could easily step on the toes of audience members if they weren’t careful, and where props and pictures from previous shows crowded the walls. The library has collected other Off Off Broadway memorabilia, including posters by the artist Kenny Burgess, photographs by James Gossage and papers from Mr. Patrick, but Ms. Dominic’s meticulously organized trove solidifies the holdings, said Karen Nickeson, the curator of the theater division. The eight binders stuffed with items, carefully arranged chronologically, will allow a viewer to peruse the Cino decade. Here are three pieces of memorabilia in the library’s collection that capture the cafe’s origins and its ties to the wider theatrical world. …”
NY Times
review: Playing Underground
Off-Off-Broadway, Way Back When
Voice: A Brief History of Off-Broadway, 1955–1985
amazon: Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement, Off-Off-Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960’s Ignited a New American Theater

Caffe Cino

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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