The name Mabou Mines has become a kind of totem in today’s theatre. To their peers, this New York-based company represents a model of avant-garde theatricality—in writing, in acting, in directing, in production, in technology and in collaboration. To mainstream theatregoers and critics, Mabou Mines remains a curiosity, by turns fascinating, puzzling and infuriating. Since its beginning almost 20 years ago, the group has accumulated a powerful, almost magical aura despite the fact that (or very possibly because) it’s unbelievably difficult to say exactly what Mabou Mines is.
Mabou Mines is a world unto itself, a nine member “theatre collaborative” which defies all expectations of what such a group should be. It has no leader or artistic director and no group aesthetic. Almost all the members perform, but they also direct, design, or function in other technical or administrative capacities. Members work outside the company, and non-members work in company pieces. They pay themselves a minimal base annual salary (ideally $200 a week for 26 weeks, enough to qualify for unemployment) and they mount two or three productions a year, always ambitious and always financially taxing. Today, at the peak of their productivity, Mabou Mines is on the verge of economic extinction, which I guess you could say is the pragmatic definition of avant-garde theatre.
Being unique has its drawbacks, in terms of both economics and reputation. Though it has a tiny studio at P.S. 122 (a former elementary school on the Lower East Side converted into artists’ spaces), Mabou Mines has no permanent theatre. In recent years the company has been in residence at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater under the strong support of Joseph Papp; it has also performed in New York at La Mama and the Performing Garage, and toured throughout America and Europe as well as Australia and India. Still, many more people have heard of Mabou Mines than have ever seen them perform. Talking about their work, even in theatre circles, is not like discussing, say, Dreamgirls.
Early on, all the group members worked on all Mabou Mines pieces. Later, various members began initiating and directing their own projects, so there would be two or three subsets within the company making works. Now something else is happening. As the group has expanded in numbers, as its younger members have matured artistically, as its older members have become sought-after to perform or direct in other nonprofit theatres, as its history has made it an established presence on the theatrical landscape, Mabou Mines has become even less a cohesive group than it ever was and more a collection of individual artists.
For instance, in early February, JoAnne Akalaitis directed Ruth Maleczech and Fred Neumann in Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Through the Leaves at New York’s Interart Theatre, which coproduced the play. They had to interrupt their rehearsal period so Akalaitis and Maleczech could go to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles for a 10-day engagement of Dead End Kids, the acclaimed “history of nuclear power” Akalaitis first conceived and directed for Mabou Mines at the Public Theater in the fall of 1980. Greg Mehrten, Terry O’Reilly, LB. Dallas and Bryan Schofield also went to L.A. for the tour, which the company hoped would scare up the additional $200,000 needed to complete post-production work on the Akalaitis film of Dead End Kids. When they returned from L.A., Mehrten began work on his first directorial project with Mabou Mines, Pretty Boy, scheduled to open at the Performing Garage June 5 with a cast including O’Reilly and Bill Raymond. Raymond, meanwhile, has been performing at La Mama in Hans-Pieter Litscher’s one-man play Palermo + Jerusalem. Also this season, there will be a revival at the Public Theater of Hajj, a video-theatre piece performed by Maleczech and written by Lee Breuer. At the moment, though, Breuer is completely absorbed in negotiations to make a Broadway show and/or a record of The Gospel at Colonus, his musical co-written with Bob Telson produced last fall in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave series, which also featured Akalaitis’ production of Philip Glass’ music-theatre collage The Photographer. The latter work toured in March to Madison, Milwaukee, Boston and Washington, D.C. Both Hajj and Breuer’s award-winning A Prelude to Death in Venice will travel in July and August to the Toga International Theatre Festival in Toga-mura, Japan, then onto Tokyo for performances there.
It’s hard enough to keep track of these comings and goings; to weave them into a single group portrait is practically impossible and, in a way, untrue to the state of the art of Mabou Mines. What follows is a collection of fragments that I hope gives a sense of the many voices of Mabou Mines at one point in time. Before everything changes once more.
In Mabou Mines, Lee Breuer always seems to be the avant-garde. He was originally the artistic director of the group, its first writer, its first director, the first to get interested in technology and then to explore every new horizon of high-tech gadgetry. He tends to have the biggest ideas for productions and the biggest budgets. (On a cable television show, he once said of Hajj, “It wasn’t meant to make a mint—it was only meant to cost a mint.”) He was the first to start taking jobs directing outside the company; with The Gospel at Colonus he is making the first serious stab at commercial theatre.
Breuer is sometimes hard to take, in person and in his work. The word “jive” comes to mind. He’s capable of heart-stopping poetry and irritating speed-rapping, and he dreams up theatrical effects that are by turns stunning revelations and cheap gimmicks. He’s been lauded for his productions of Beckett—Play, Come and Go, The Lost Ones—and his three Animations, The Red Horse, The B.Beaver, and The Shaggy Dog. His The Saint and the Football Player was a gargantuan athletic spectacle most memorable for luring untold numbers of impressionable youths into the service of Mabou Mines. (“There used to be what I called the Leeslaves,” says Greg Mehrten, “kids who left home, moved to New York, and starved for years.”)
The first thing of Breuer’s I saw was A Prelude to Death in Venice, in which Bill Raymond manipulated a Bunraku puppet named John who spent all his time on the telephone, juggling conversations with his mother, his answering service and something called Johns Anonymous. It was a dense rush of puns, in-jokes, and experiments in sound. Sister Suzie Cinema followed, a 20-minute doo-wop opera performed by the a capella group 14 Karat Soul—fun, but a trifle. Shortly after that Breuer started showing excerpts from The Gospel at Colonus, an adaptation of Oedipus at Colonus set to Bob Telson’s gospel score and performed by Ben Halley, Jr. and 14 Karat Soul; the piece, as they say, needed work.
Then, in the fall of 1980, came Lulu at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. It may have cost Robert Brustein half the subscribers at his new Harvard home, but many who saw it will never forget the multimedia circus Breuer created to translate Wedekind’s vision of female destructiveness to contemporary America—his black Lulu was photographed for Interview, sang with a punk band and met her death in a cheap Jersey motel. All Breuer’s tinkering with music and mechanics came together in a jarring, violently modem marriage of extreme artifice and extreme emotion. My respect for the director doubled. And doubled again when he unveiled the final version of The Gospel at Colonus at BAM last fall, this time utilizing a full choir, a cast of excellent black actors, four famous gospel combos and Clarence Fountain, a blind gospel singer, as Oedipus. Unlikely as it seemed, Breuer located the ecstatic religious impulse of Greek theatre within the black church of today and used pop music structures to make the relationship between character and chorus, theatre and community, not academic but physically felt.
How do these outside projects relate to his work with Mabou Mines? “In the beginning, it was assumed that a Mabou Mines project would have the whole company work together—it was like a troupe,” says Breuer over espresso in a coffee shop on First Avenue. “Then we became more and more what I think we are now, which is a producing collective. Most of us, the old guard, are working inside the company and outside the company, and Gospel was definitively an outside project. Mabou Mines is a very white group, they do very white art. I was more interested in a different kind of energy and working with black performers.
“I’ve become a very schizophrenic type of artist, and the two sides really diverge,” he says. His work with Mabou Mines he sees as classical and elitist—Hajj was an hour-long “performance poem” in which a woman sitting at a vanity table looked into a mirror and saw not only her reflection but also (thanks to state-of-the-art closed-circuit and prerecorded video) her past—while works like Gospel he terms popular and populist.
And how do his other outside directing projects, such as LuIu and the critically disastrous Tempest he directed in Central Park for Joe Papp fit into this scheme? “Not very well. The Tempest I’d like to do again—it was a $500,000 workshop for what should have been a good $30,000 production. Okay? I was really broke, I needed the money. People talked about my Tempest as a perfect example of a failed Peter Brook—what they didn’t understand was that my model was not Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was an extensively interpretive direction of Shakespeare. My Tempest was adaptive along the lines of Brecht’s Coriolanus, which is 90 percent a closely hewn translation—but Brecht still had that new 10 percent to texture it politically, and the brilliance is that he made it a comedy.
“I should never have been an idiot enough to do a new concept of The Tempest without a long developmental process. That’s why Lulu worked and why Gospel worked. Lulu I’d done three times, and Gospel diddled around for three years. It went through versions where Oedipus was very focused on Ben Halley, Jr., all the way through to this idea we ended up with, where Oedipus is this amorphous, mythological void hedged in by readings and preaching and song, but not embodied by any one actor. That depersonalization goes with the Japanese narrative storytelling idea, where the persona translates over to the singer and the samisen player, then it’s embodied by the actor in a dance, then it’s a lyric in a song, and you get 15 different attitudes about how this particular mythology is dealt with in art, but you don’t get locked into a character.”
When Breuer is off working on something like Gospel, “it’s like a leave of absence” from Mabou Mines. “The company’s evolving still. I don’t think I’m gonna do that much more theatre, really. I’m pretty interested in doing some of my old pieces again that I don’t think really had their day. I have this image of doing The Red Horse Animation with the children of the people who originally did it. I wanna do Shaggy Dog as a musical, to put the music into it that was always alluded to. I’m working on a piece now with Telson called The Warrior Ant, using Brazilian and West African music. I don’t even think it’s gonna be theatre. I think we’re just gonna do a record. It could be an animated film or something, but I don’t think there’s much of a way to stage it.” (In fact, The Warrior Ant was shown in an unstaged concert version at the Performing Garage in April.)
That seems to be the end of the conversation, because Breuer has to go off to a meeting with Motown Records. But he casually mentions that Mabou Mines is in terrible shape financially, and if something doesn’t happen shortly the company is going to go down the tubes. Breuer himself is obsessed with seeing if The Gospel at Colonus can have a further life. Some producers who did the Weavers’ movie Wasn’t That a Time! are interested in doing a TV version, and Breuer is trying to remember the name of the person he’d spoken to. He pulls out of the back pocket of his jeans a handful of multicolored scraps of papers all wadded up: his files. He never does find the one he wanted.
Rehearsal scene: Annette and Victor are middle-aged working people having an absurdly dainty gourmet meal in the back room of Annette’s butcher shop in Queens, where she lives with her dog Ralphie. Annette girlishly confesses that she’s been keeping a diary since Victor came into her life, offers to let him read it (he doesn’t care) and sits down to record the menu; he pulls a porno magazine out of his back pocket. She looks over his shoulder, wonders if the models are whores, and before long she’s taken off all her clothes, he’s shed his pants and they’re humping on the sofa when the dog starts barking frantically. “It didn’t turn out nice,” she later tells her diary. “Ralphie called Victor’s bluff.”
That’s just the first scene of Through the Leaves, typical Franz Kroetz–crude, spare, heartbreaking. It demands everything of the actors, which is nothing new for Ruth Maleczech and Fred Neumann, whose last Mabou Mines pieces were solo works Hajj and Company, respectively. But as for audiences—well, Ruth and Fred don’t have the kind of glamorous bodies you’re used to seeing naked onstage; they are real middle-aged people, sagging flesh and all. It’s strong stuff, exactly to the taste of JoAnne Akalaitis. She says Kroetz is her favorite playwright. She directed Request Concert at the Interart, and Kroetz sent her this play, a new version of Men’s Business.
We sit around in the rehearsal rubble of empty coffee cups, unfinished sets and chairless platforms to talk. I suggest that perceptions of Mabou Mines usually focus on the extraordinary acting and media techniques rather than the literary aspect, and this sets the three of them off doing what Mabou Mines members like best—disagreeing. Fred: “We always started with a text. For Company, I spent four and a half months at MIT investigating holograms and laser beams and solid forms to try to create another person, another body, to act beside, and at the end I was very dissatisfied with it. So I went the other way around, shedding the stuff I had accumulated in our Mabou Mines way.” Is there a similarity in the writing of the handful of writers you come back to again and again? Ruth: “Between Kroetz and Beckett and Jim Strahs and Lee Breuer and Colette? Nooo.” JoAnne: “I think people really do try to look for synthesis in our work, and I don’t think it exists. Perhaps that is one of the strengths. Within this community of people, the interests are very varied.”
“There are some commonalities in this company—one is narrative,” says Ruth. “Usually, there is a notion that the audience comes toward the piece, and the piece comes toward the audience, and somewhere they meet and there’s a kind of ‘telling of the play.’”
JoAnne is called away to a production meeting. I know she doesn’t like interviews—”I tend to be very paranoid about journalism and how writing about these projects can hurt them”—but I admire her more than almost anyone else in the theatre. She’s so articulate, both intellectually and emotionally, that it’s intimidating, and her long swannish neck and pouty chin make her look at times severe. But then she’ll flash her goofy, toothy grin and betray her most enviable quality—a down-to-earth sense of humor.
Born into a devoutly Catholic Lithuanian family, JoAnne studied philosophy at the University of Chicago before her passion turned to theatre, and it shows in the mental diligence and moral weight that grounds her elegant visual sensibility as a director. Dead End Kids, for instance, is not just about the clear and present danger of nuclear power, but also about the quest for knowledge behind its development and the question of whether that search is a bad thing. Once we were talking about the accusation that the piece was anti-intellectual, as represented by the recurring image of books being damaged. “For some reason I wanted to destroy lots and lots of books, a whole set full of books. I just loved the way they looked flying around the stage. I was interested in what it is to hurt a book, you know? To Western people it’s very sacrilegious to throw books; I write in books and break their spines and blot my lipstick on them, and I throw books away when I’m done reading them. This attitude is very shocking to people.”
How did you learn to direct the way you do? “I dunno. Everybody in Mabou Mines is a director. I also think a lot of actors are probably really good directors and don’t know it, or think directing is a big deal. It makes me sick the way directors are given so much credibility, so much importance in the theatre and actors not enough. Even in Mabou Mines I think directors have too much power.”
But the director makes the huge choice of what the material will be—Dead End Kids was your idea. “Yeah, part of the high of directing is having total responsibility.” No pause to register the contradiction. “I love it. Also, as a director, I now am excited by those areas where there seems to be an insoluble problem in the piece, that truly frightening area of doubt and despair where a problem can’t be solved. Actors really don’t like it, and as an actor I know I would get very pushy in that situation. Now I like being in that state. Directing has taught me to be patient, to let it be awful for a long time, for really a long time, to let the actors hate me for not being smart enough to solve it. Sometimes it’s solved in some miraculous way—it starts to work—or it’s solved by throwing it away or making it shorter or by thinking about it and having a better idea.”
One of my favorite things that JoAnne ever said about Mabou Mines was that what’s unique about the company’s acting is that actors direct other actors, or actors direct themselves, “even on a very practical level of being able to say to the director, ‘Well, I’m not going to do that, it doesn’t interest me.’ Conventionally, in the theatre, that’s not a valid response for an actor to have. In Mabou Mines, that’s the unspoken contract—that you’ll always be working in modes that interest you artistically.” Of course, that only works if you have actors actually as good as Ruth Maleczech.
Most people don’t know that Ruth Maleczech is one of the greatest actors alive today. She’s almost frightening in her power, like a witch. She can be rough and mad as a gypsy sorceress or fragile as a toy doll; her face is an Oriental mask, her wonderful rich voice comes from somewhere far within. Like JoAnne and David Warrilow (an original Mabou Mines member who left in 1978), she took acting as a calling and spent many years thirstily investigating every theory of performance technique from ’50s Happenings in San Francisco (she hooked up with Lee Breuer in 1957 at UCLA) to Stanislavsky to the Open Theater to Grotowski to mediated performance art in the ’70s. All that information is stored up in the actors’ bodies, and Ruth in particular makes a point of passing it along to other members of Mabou Mines and young artists who work at Re.Cher.Chez, a studio she and Lee Breuer founded to nurture the seeds of experimentation Mabou Mines has planted.
Fred Neumann, in his own way, is also a force of nature, a big bear of a man from Detroit by way of Utah whose life was changed when he wandered into a Paris theatre to keep warm one day in 1953 and saw the premiere production of Waiting for Godot. He had a thriving career doing radio plays, voiceovers and film dubbing in Europe while acting at night with an English language theatre in Paris when he fell in with Lee, Ruth, JoAnne and David. They invited him to return to New York to form a theatre company, but he stayed in Rome with his wife Honora Fergusson and their two young sons for another year before signing on. “I got off the boat at midnight,” he recalls, “and there they all were. I remember there was a strike and we had to unload our own things, and then we went to a diner and immediately started talking about our first project, The B. Beaver Animation.” His performance as the b-blocked writer in B. Beaver made Fred Neumann a fixture in the Mabou Mines constellation; he also performed in The Shaggy Dog, Cascando and his own production of Mercier and Camier, as well as Lee Breuer’s Lulu at the ART and on tour. And he’s made it a point to work outside the company as an actor—he played on Broadway with Al Pacino in Richard lll, at the Guthrie in Peer Gynt, at the Public in David Rabe’s Goose and TomTom. “I took directions, just did my task, found it very difficult. I’ve learned that it’s very hard not to participate fully in the creation of a piece.”
While JoAnne is off at her production meeting, Fred and Ruth get around to the issue of kids. Hard as it is to imagine, Mabou Mines has 14 children among its members. “This is a huge crisis in all our lives,” says Fred. “We examined it very early on with my kids—we couldn’t let them get in the way of Art, you know, but we realized that we had to deal with it or we wouldn’t have a theatre.”
“The children have paid dearly,” Ruth says matter-of-factly. She and Breuer have a son who is 8 and a daughter 14. “They’ve paid with lack of time, lack of parent input when they need it, having to be sick at home alone sometimes when it would be nicer if somebody was there. They pay with not having things that their friends have. They pay by living in a very dangerous neighborhood because that’s the one that can be afforded. Sometimes I think the kids just look at you and think you’re a real asshole because you blew it. Especially in the ’80s—these are not the times to be a poor, struggling artist.”
The conversation comes around again and again to money, how they can make their life’s work yield a living. “Sometimes I think we haven’t been as enterprising as we might be in seeing just how far these works can go,” says Ruth. “We want more people to see them. That’s why we left art galleries and went into theatres in 1975 after being on the art circuit for quite a while, because artists and musicians were more responsive to our work than anyone else. Now a question in our minds is how many other people would like it? Maybe a whole lot of people. What has been an underrated and underexposed and undervalued kind of theatre could in fact be very popular.”
Besides applying to the new works program of the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Council and pondering a three-month annual residency at the L.A. Actors Theatre, Mabou Mines is considering renting a theatre in New York and running several pieces in repertory. “We’re also talking about doing a Shakespeare,” says Ruth, “not outside of Mabou Mines but inside.”
“Mmm,” says Fred. “There’s a scoop for you.”
“I came here, it was incredible, I lived on Avenue A and 6th Street, I thought I had moved to hell,” says Bill Raymond. “In two weeks it had become my home. I came to New York from Topanga, very idyllic–used to wake up with the cows chewing in my window. I lived there for 10 years, raised my family, got divorced, went through a lot of changes. I was at a turning place, I came to New York and joined Mabou Mines.”
We’re sitting in Phebe’s cafe drinking coffee and watching this hell that is home roll by. He lives around the corner on Second Avenue with Linda Hartinian, a long-time actor and designer, with Mabou Mines; they have a five-year-old named Quinn. Bill is the quintessential comic actor in Mabou Mines; the combination of his puckish face and gnarled cartoon voice make him suitable for everything from gestural Beckett to Lee Breuer’s high-tech tone poems. Before Mabou Mines he put in time with the San Francisco Mime Troupe (where he originally met Lee and Ruth) and made the Hollywood rounds, guest-starring on Then Came Bronson and such.
“That was a major change in my life, starting to work with Lee and Ruth again,” says Bill. “I had a lot of catching up to do. I saw a rehearsal of The B. Beaver, and I understood the work immediately. It was an extraordinary display of technical brilliance, verbal-visual puns, esoteric references, visual images that were referring to literary puns, captioning the event that had just happened, being the thing it was talking about. The whole idea of stuttering, of writer’s block, it was a metaphor upon a metaphor upon a metaphor. Very dense, very funny, very hot and very accomplished.”
He quickly keyed into the Mabou Mines collaboration and worked closely with Lee on The Shaggy Dog and JoAnne on Dressed Like an Egg. “For me as a performer, the idea is to get where the performance takes me to a new place every night. As you go through that process, you set up a formal structure which enables you to think. It’s great fun to get down on the floor, fun to pretend, sometimes it’s fun to make a real big loud noise or see if you can jump high or see how long you can extend a moment of tension. If you can think while that’s going on, and you can figure out what the hell it means while you’re doing it, then I think you had a pretty good night.”
Besides Cold Harbor (an antiwar piece in the guise of a deconstructed museum exhibit on Ulysses S. Grant), Bill has also directed the Mabou Mines Radio Project, a little-known but ongoing series of radio playlets written by people like Dale Worsley and Jim Strahs and performed by Mabou Mines actors. He won a national award in 1980 for directing Worsley’s Easy Daisy, and WBAI in New York recently aired Strahs’ hilarious The Joey Schmerda Story. He and Linda Harrinian are working on a piece called Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said based on the writings of Philip K. Dick. He does voiceover work in New York and he’s acted under such other directors as Joseph Chaikin, Richard Foreman, Peter Sellars, Des McAnuff and John Sayles. “It enables me financially to do the work that is at the heart of my being, which is the work with Mabou Mines. I would not have evolved into an artist if it hadn’t been for Mabou Mines. I lost a lot of money last year by not working outside the company. But I guess Mabou Mines is my fuck you money–it’s the thing that says I really don’t need to do a roach commercial.”
Terry O’Reilly, L.B. Dallas and B.-St. John (Bryan) Schofield are part of the second wave of Mabou Mines, less well-known than the old guard. Terry was originally part of a theatre collective called Ead’s Hill in Memphis, where he grew up. “We moved to New York and Mabou Mines helped us get dates. Ellen Stewart picked us up and gave us money to go back to Memphis and be La Mama South. We modeled ourselves almost totally on Mabou Mines–we made all new work. In 1972, Lee asked me to be in The Saint and the Football Player, and one thing led to another.” Terry has parallel careers as a published poet and a dancer, which contribute to his work with Mabou Mines; his presence in Dead End Kids, for instance, or Cold Harbor is more sculptural than actorly. He also recently appeared as Thomas Paine in a play by Anne Bogart.
L.B.Dallas grew up an Army brat in Texas, Formosa and Puerto Rico, abandoned pre-law and economics at the University of Florida to be an artist in New York, and got involved with Mabou Mines through The Saint and the Football Player. “Lee asked me if I’d want to work with them full time. I didn’t realize that meant seven days a week around the clock for a year.” He went through stage managing, lighting, set designing, and sound engineering before evolving into the company’s technical director. “It arose out of a need of mine—I wanted to do something for the company to give it stability, especially the way I saw the company developing a number of directors and instigators of different projects.”
Having a full-time technical advisor is a sign of both Mabou Mines’ egalitarian politics (techies are often treated as menial laborers in other theatres) and their artistic ambitions. “We often get in a lot of trouble for putting production ahead of personnel—overspending to get the production the way somebody wants it to be,” says L.B., a burly bearded fellow whose initials stand for Little Burt. “This is a big topic at a lot of meetings. But generally there is acceptance that that’s what the group is about, that the piece itself will be treated with a great deal of respect.”
Bryan Schofield was a theatre professor at the University of Pittsburgh when he met JoAnne Akalaitis. “Mabou Mines kidnapped me,” he says. “Because of my background—I used to rig trapezes for Barnum and Bailey, was a stagehand for the Ice Capades and industrial shows, worked in porno theatres as projectionist—JoAnne said, ‘Would you be interested in stage-managing a tour of Dressed Like an Egg in Europe?’ I jumped at the chance, and one thing led to another.
“Mabou Mines is made up of nine members, that’s an inner circle, and inside that circle are all kinds of lines and intersections between people. Outside the circle is another circle of people who are important to the work: Ellen McElduff, Michael KuhIing, John Fistos, Chas Cowing, Stephanie Rudolph, Julie Archer.”
Bryan has almost always done double duty in Mabou Mines as a performer and technician, and it finally became too much. Last August he took a leave of absence from the group and took up horse farming in Vermont with his wife and two kids. “I stopped learning in the theatre. I was just doing my job, managing budgets, doing rehearsal schedules, designing lighting, but I wasn’t challenging myself,” he says. “My feeling is that the company needs a lot of redefining. Can Mabou Mines support five directors or nine directors? Mabou Mines has been around longer than anyone—the median age of the company has to be 43 or 44.”
Greg Mehrten is the baby of Mabou Mines. He’s 30 and joined the company officially in 1981 with Bryan. He met Lee Breuer when he was a senior at University of California at Santa Cruz, and ended up playing a cheerleader in The Saint and the Football Player. “I worked on all the shows for six years—I was totally Mr. Mabou, it wasn’t possible for me to do anything else, so I told everyone I wanted to become a member.” What does being a member involve? “You have to go to all the meetings, approve all the budgets, you’re involved in everything. Yesterday I wrote three letters trying to raise money for my play, painted the bathroom at P.S. 122, and interviewed people for the fund-raising job. Ruth said, ‘You don’t want to be a member, it’s so much work.’ One advantage of Greg’s being a member, of course, is having support for his own work. Pretty Boy, his adaptation of Wedekind’s Lulu plays set in the gay subculture of the 1970s, will feature Bill Raymond, Terry O’Reilly, Honora Fergusson and Ron Vawter from the Wooster Group. “If I weren’t in Mabou Mines no one would give me two cents to do this play,” he says. “Pretty Boy was turned down for funding because of its subject matter, but I think it’s an effete comedy of manners, whereas Through the Leaves has sex onstage!”
Greg’s outfront gay identity, which would probably be a liability in the commercial theatre, has proven a valuable asset in Mabou Mines productions like Dead End Kids, Wrong Guys, Cold Harbor and the radio work. “All of Mabou Mines’ work is about voice, and I think they liked my voice.” He does have a great comic voice, the weary whine of a blasé Bloomingdale’s habitue, but he can also lapse into maniacal speed raps and an all-purpose ridiculous ethnic accent in a trice.
I ask him about the future of Mabou Mines, if he thinks it will be around in 10 years. “Right now we’re at the mercy of other people’s schedules and finances,” he shrugs. “I think there is an audience for our work; practically every week in The New York Times there’s some mention of JoAnne or Lee or some Mabou Mines thing. But the recognition hasn’t translated into stability. Obie Awards mean nothing. Good reviews in Milan mean nothing.”
Of course, it’s always possible that somebody will actually take a chance and produce The Gospel at Colonus on Broadway, and it will become as big a hit as Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, if not Dreamgirls. Perhaps some Hollywood mogul will flip over Dead End Kids and cough up the bucks to finish the movie, whereupon JoAnne Akalaitis could be hailed the American Syberberg at Cannes and win an Oscar as deservedly as, say, Barbara Koppel for Harlan County, U.S.A. Then Mabou Mines could afford to rent a theatre and run Hajj, Company and Dead End Kids in rep for a year (or Through the Leaves and Pretty Boy) while working on King Lear. It would be only a fitting reward for a company that has survived punishing economic limitations, unceasing self-questioning, hopelessly uncomprehending criticism and the quotidian yet overwhelming rigors of parenthood to produce an American art theatre that is strong and alive.
American Theatre, June 1984
Bonus feature: to see the unedited transcript of my interview with Lee Breuer for this article, click here.