Rochelle Owens has been a playwright, poet, translator, and video artist in the international avant-garde for over 35 years. She is author of four play collections and 16 books of poetry. A pioneer in the experimental Off-Off-Broadway movement, her play Futz was produced in 1967 by Ellen Stewart at La MaMa, directed by Tom O'Horgan, and filmed in 1969. Her plays have been presented and translated worldwide. Owens herself has translated Lilian Atlan's novel Les passants (The Passersby). A recipient of five Obies and honors from the New York Drama Critics Circle, she has taught at Univ. of Calif San Diego and Univ. of Oklahoma and held residencies at Brown Univ. and Univ. of Southwestern Louisiana State. The editor moderated a conversation with Owens in May at La MaMa for its Coffeehouse Chronicles, an ongoing oral-history project, capturing for posterity the recollections of surviving pioneers of New York's Off-Off Broadway theaters. The project was conceived and is directed by Chris Kapp under the guidance of Ellen Stewart and is videotaped for the La MaMa Archives. www.lamama.org.
ROCHELLE OWENS: First, I'd like to thank Chris Kapp, for organizing this unique and important series and for drawing attention as well as providing a forum for many old and new friends of La MaMa. I'm grateful to Ralph Lewis for his inspired and wonderful staged reading of The Queen of Greece. I'm pleased that Gregory Bossler of the Dramatists Guild of America, the editor of The Dramatist, is here this afternoon at the Coffeehouse Chronicles.
I would also like to say something about Ellen Stewart and the La MaMa Experimental Theater. Ellen has been and continues to be an inspiration. Two generations of theater artists have succeeded in redefining real and invented borders of gender, identity, and human experience, much of this because of Ellen. Her concept of theater as an oasis to sustain, nurture, and promote a rich diversity of playwrights and directors on a global scale continues to be a viable alternative to the deadening priorities of the commercial theater. Ellen's intelligence, creative power, generosity, and dedication are forces that flow as normally through her being as the sun, moon, and stars turn across our skies. All of us who know her have, in some way, been transformed by her. Thank you, Ellen.
GREGORY BOSSLER: What you just said about Ellen is also true about you and your work. From Futz, your first play at La Mama, you've addressed the boundaries of gender, sexuality, and power. First, though, I wonder how a refugee from Brooklyn like you found her way to La MaMa?
RO: Your memory is great! That is a line from my play Chucky's Hunch, in which the title character addresses his ex-wife as "a refugee from Brooklyn." The play premiered at the Theater for the New City and was produced by Crystal Field and George Bartenieff, who had performed in a couple of my earlier plays, Beclch and Istanboul. Chucky's Hunch had a highly successful Off-Broadway run at the Harold Clurman Theater and starred Kevin O'Connor, who won an Obie Award for his amazing performance.
When I was nineteen I left Brooklyn and lived and worked in Manhattan. I had been writing poetry since my teens and took a course at the New School, but I dropped it because the instructor demanded we memorize "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." I thought he was cynical and indifferent to his students' interests. At the age of twenty I married a sculptor whose friends were mainly visual artists in the dominant abstract expressionist style. Their discussions about art were cerebral and focused on sophisticated techniques and painting as process, as in the work of Kline, Pollock and others. I was impressed by their commitment and began to believe that true creativity was supposed to offer surprise, discovery, and possibly even fulfillment.
In 1958, before the Vietnam War and during the trial of a killer named Caryl Chessman, I began writing my first play, Futz. I was working as a clerk in the accounting department of Sotheby-Parke Bernet, among whose customers were Greta Garbo, Ali Khan, and Katherine Hepburn. The first drafts of the play were typed on lot statements and sheets torn from the daily calendar. Between sales, during the slow periods, I worked secretly on my play. In 1965, Futz was given a workshop production at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minnesota, which turned out to be very controversial. During that same year, the Judson Poets Theater in New York produced The String Game, directed by Larry Kornfeld and with music by the wonderful composer Al Carmines. When I think of that period, I see a stage set showing several doors with me rushing out of one marked "The Poetry Society," where I had worked and been a member briefly but had left because of its stifling literary club atmosphere, and then finding myself mysteriously in front of other doors marked in bleeding red paint, LaMaMa E.T.C., Café Cino, St. Marks Poetry Project, The American Place Theater and Theater Genesis. The poetry scene was intensely active, a time of impressive nightly readings and dynamic little magazines. I had met Allen Ginsberg, who introduced me to LeRoi Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka. LeRoi and his wife Hettie were incredibly generous and welcomed poets, painters, activists, and wannabees to their apartment on a round-the-clock basis. It was a crazy but sweet time, and Jones published poems of mine in his important poetry magazine Yugen, which thrilled me because it was a significant alternative venue for innovative poetics of various kinds. At that time, in 1960, I met a young poet and scholar, George Economou, who became my husband two years later. He was one of the editors of the groundbreaking Trobar poetry magazine and press, which published my first book of poems in 1961.
Soon after that period, Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theater were planning a production of Futz. Judith, whose hostile phobia towards those who didn't conform to her bohemian notion of appropriate life-style, ridiculed me—I was working in an office as a clerk—for dressing like a "suburban housewife" and once shouted at me, with more irony than ire, I hope, "Rochelle, why don't you read your plays and find out what life is all about!" But the Living Theater ran into tax difficulties, and the Becks left the USA for Europe, leaving Futz in limbo. Then in 1966, my first full-length play Beclch premiered under the direction of Andre Gregory at The Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia, where it inspired divided critical reviews and church sermons. Ellen Stewart and Tom O'Horgan came to see the play and later she convinced me that LaMaMa should premiere Futz with Tom as its director. At our first meeting in the Village, we discussed the play, which had recently been published by Jerome Rothenberg in a limited edition, and I was terrifically impressed with how intently Tom listened to me. After the play's success in New York, its European tour, and film production, I began to write other plays, nineteen over the years.
GB: It struck me, after just watching The Queen of Greece, which was originally produced here at La MaMa in 1969, just how little has changed in the Middle East. Your plays have been called proto-feminist, but they almost seem proto-humanist, digging to the root of human experience, and the further you travel to that traditional ritualistic place, the more timeless the work seems. I think that's why Queen of Greece can play today and not seem dated. Is that a purposeful exploration?
RO: If that comes across, it's because of my own concerns and the realization that conflict and cultural differences are all problematic and often without solution for those who want change. The fate of the individual, as well as that of the group, clan, tribe, or state, to which we belong is subject to the will of others. Crime becomes a convention, evil mundane, and our mythologies and symbols are transformed according to the collective delusion of the time—crisis and mayhem. Think of Darfur and the destruction of Tibetan Identity by China. I feel there is a dark, twisted inevitability in our destiny and we have to watch out.
GB: You've said that you assumed your life would be a battle of sorts. I assume you were talking about personal battles - or were you talking about a battle between yourself about society?
RO: As a young woman defining herself as a poet--my identity as a poet seemed almost sacred. The fifties were rigidly sexist, and I developed an androgynous notion of self, the ideal model being Joan of Arc, I suppose. From that notion sprung the idea of my life as a battle against cultural norms for a "correct self." Presently, an old warhorse seems more appropriate as a metaphor for myself. An old warhorse has survived battles and still retains a bearing of some dignity. It's a bit comical also, I suppose.
GB: You've also said you have found the theater as a life-sustaining force.
RO: I feel the theater and the other arts can be an education-in-progress for the soul. The arts are oceanic forces where the Imagination plays.
GB: You've switched between poems and plays, which have a poetic element but they're not poetic in the sense of Tennessee Williams. They're more about images than language.
RO: That's a good point, but I've also written plays that employ rhythmic and sound properties of language as a means to reveal the psychology and emotions of the characters. After the success of The Karl Marx Play, which also toured Europe, I tried to write what I considered a commercial play with music. Galt McDermott, who had set the lyrics I had written for The Karl Marx Play to music, wanted to work with me again, so I wrote a musical play, OK Certaldo. It is a charming and delightful love story that I thought should have been produced. I thought it was a hundred times better than much of the stuff that is staged, commercially or otherwise, but nothing came of my sole attempt to please the general public. So be it. I don't regret having written it, but then I'm not especially proud of it either.
GB: What are you most proud of then?
RO: I think I'm proud, if that's the right word, of having a significant body of work, consisting of plays, poetry, translations, as well as some videos. A play that I wrote in 1989, Three Front, was produced by Radio-France and was given a workshop production at the Omaha magic Theater. My, but that play has had a curious history: Joe Papp was considering it for production, and Rip Torn had wanted to direct it, and Jane Fonda's company was very interested in the script. Then Joe Papp died. I moved to Oklahoma, and I remember when Rip Torn phoned the very day the movers came to our New York apartment and said to me, "Rochelle, I come from Texas." As I look back, I remember that in 1958 I wrote a play about, among other things, a man in love with a pig. Forty years later, Edward Albee writes a play about a man in love with a goat.
GB: You've not only got a strike against you by being American, but also being a woman.
RO: That's the way it is: cultural imperialism, hierarchies, privileging the male most of the time, and a fawning respect for the British playwright by theater critics. On the other hand, the American visual artist is highly esteemed. It goes back to "language" I suppose. Who truly has the authority and the mastery of language in the theater? During the seventies in New York, a group of experimental women playwrights that included Julie Bovasso, Maria Irene Fornes, Megan Terry, Roslyn Drexler, Adrienne Kennedy, and myself formed a theater collective. Our meetings were angry, hilarious, and even optimistic. Today it's difficult for everybody, but many young women have the sense of entitlement that guys have always had, which has radically changed the cultural interaction between the sexes in the arts.
GB: Back in the 1960s, as you said in the Eisenhower years, I'm surprised you even found a place to be heard and that Futz received the acclaim it did.
RO: The acclaim happened because several critics wrote very positive reviews, The Times and The Village Voice being the most influential.
GB: It's clear being from and in New York for many years played a definitive role in your becoming a poet and playwright.
RO: Yes, the Village and the East Village of the sixties were points of origin for my life as a writer. No matter how far circumstances eventually took me from those days, they remain for me, as for so many others, the golden age of beginnings. Yes, those were the days, Gregory. And I also remember a remarkable allegorical play titled The Slave with Two Faces that had been produced by the Provincetown Theater in 1910. That play by Mary Carolyn Davies was published in an anthology that I found in our home in Brooklyn when I was ten years old. I was deeply impressed and moved by the play when I first read it, and I enjoyed rereading it. And I'll never forget how glad I was that its author was a woman.