Crystal Field

Written by Vira Byramji

I sat down with Crystal Field, co-founder and Artistic Director of Theater for the New City (TNC) in the Lower East side, to talk about street theater, politics and the power of the individual. Crystal is a strong example of a woman in community leadership fostering a platform to make local voices heard. Under her guidance, TNC has produced over 800 new plays which have garnered a Pulitzer Prize and over 43 OBIE Awards for excellence in every theatrical discipline.

I got the chance to see Checks & Balances or Bottoms Up, this year’s TNC summer street theater play performed in Central Park. The production was an all-encompassing social dialogue touching on immigration, POTUS, activism and so much more. I was inspired not only by the play’s ability to fit so many areas of deep concern into one cohesive and fun piece, but also its aim to show people that they have a power and voice of their own.

Crystal was gracious enough to host us at TNC’s location on 1st Ave and east 10th. A remarkable building that still buzzes with activity and the promise of a brighter tomorrow. Our conversation begins here:


V: You have a good team here.

C: Yeah we watch out for each other. We’re a big family. We have our squabbles, as families do, but we care a lot about each other. I don’t run this place by myself. I couldn’t possibly do it. We all wear a lot of hats, the same person that’s doing maintenance can be on the board. We have a similar philosophy. We’re pacifists and that’s a big thing–and of course we are protestors. We’re dissatisfied with the way things are and we want to do everything we can to make life better. And sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose, and sometimes we win and lose at the same time, but we feel overall–if you look at your life–you’re not sorry you were born. And you don’t regret any part of your life. And I think that’s so important, for people to be able to say that to themselves. To say, “I don’t regret.” I mean, maybe you’re disappointed about a lot of things.. I’m not talking about that, that’s very different, but I don’t think that I gave up on any possible living things I could have done.

V: When you use the term pacifist, is that pacifist as opposed to activist?

C: No. It’s pacifist as opposed to a violent approach. My parents were pacifists, and one of my mentors was the WRL (War Resisters League), which was very big for many years here. I was also very connected to WBAI (NYC listener supported radio station 99.5 FM), and the guy who started WBAI was a pacifist. So..

V: Non-violent protest.

C: Yeah, non-violent. My sister almost once got hit by a pipe ‘cause she was breaking up a fight between two guys. Luckily, she didn’t get hit over the head, but she came very close. I’ve been in a number of situations where–not politically, just socially–been in situations, and helped to break things up and helped to get a vying parties to talk to each other, but it doesn’t always work.

V: It doesn’t always work and it’s not always easy.

C: No, it’s never easy! It’s never easy because they tend to blame you! You’re out there trying to get them to take it easy and they turn on you! Then they have something, you know, that brings them together; namely you. So, it isn’t always pleasant.. but I’m made that way. I’m simply made that way. That’s my personality.

V: I read online that you do between.. well one figure said 30 – 40 and another figure said between 20 – 30 productions a year?

C: We do between 30-40 productions a year. Sometimes we say 20 – 30, but it’s really 30 – 40. It’s not all TNC productions, but about 20 – 30 of them are. The rest are resident productions or groups that don’t have a home for themselves, and it’s usually between 10 and 20 of them that are by emerging playwrights whose first foray into professional theater starts here. We do productions of plays that have complete sets, complete lights, complete costumes.. We also have a reading series, but that’s a very minor part of what we do. Those 30 – 40 productions are full productions, and most of them are full length plays. Sometimes we do plays with 25 or 30 actors in them. We used to do more of that, but everything costs so much now. Actors used to perform for nothing. That’s not the case anymore.

V: The more expensive the city gets, the more demands [there are] on each individual.

C: Yeah, and also this theater started as we were still in the pioneering efforts of theater. To help, to go from what we call “keyhole” theater, or “kitchen” drama theater; we broke the fourth wall. We incorporated in 1970, December, but we really began in the Spring of 1971. At that time, we were working for nothing. I was a very successful member of the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) and Actor’s Equity. I actually gave up my Actor’s Equity membership for five years in order to act for no money, because at that time you weren’t allowed to do that at all. But you know, prices for theater started at $2.50.

V: Accessible theater for all!

C: Accessible theater, right. Now we do at least three events a year that are totally free, the street theater all summer long, and Halloween, the outside portion is free, and the LES festival of the Arts, which is a three day festival, is a festival that’s free to the public. So, we still do free events and we keep our ticket prices relatively low, but that means $10, $12, $18 a ticket. Which is different than $2.50. We’ve been around a long time and we do a lot of good theater. We actually won, our production won, Sam Shepard his Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child, which we commissioned. We did the work of Irene Fornés, 6 or 8 of her plays, all of which won OBIEs.

V: I saw collectively, you’ve won about 43 OBIEs over the years. That’s incredible.

C: Yeah, and the Pulitzer, and also the gentleman who won the Nobel Peace Prize had one production in the United States and that was here. Mr. Gāo [Xíngjiàn], we called him Mr. Gāo .. he had written a play and we did it.

V: When you first started, what was the idea behind the theater?

C: We are a writer’s theater. Our job is to nurture and develop writers for the American stage. That’s what we do. That’s why, mostly, if a writer does his or her work here, later on they can become very successful–but we don’t move shows from here to the commercial theater because 1) we don’t have the staff to do that and 2) we don’t have the money to do it; and we don’t look for the money to do it either.

V: It seems like there’s a social and political drive for the theater, or is it mostly social?

C: Well, we like plays that have a social significance–definitely. We definitely like those plays. Plays that deal with history, we’re very interested in; and plays that have social content we’re most interested in.

V: Not only the play and production itself, but also the people involved are very diverse.

C: Well, yes, our street theater is very political, but not all our plays are. They’re socially very significant, but not necessarily political.

V: There’s a difference.

C: Yeah, there is a difference. We do political plays, though. Many years ago, we had a guy from Estonia, a wonderful writer, and he had Stalin in his play and he was definitely a renegade from Estonia. However, when he came here, in rehearsal he said, “oh where’s the stage manager, where are the stage hands, where are the props?” We said, “Hey you have to do this yourself. Get your friends in here!” and he said, “Oh no! that’s not the way it’s done!” [laughter]

So at the same time he was screaming about Soviet control and censorship, he also wanted what they offer, which is an economic base. The state gives you everything, but they also take away everything. In America, that’s where it’s at; you have freedom of speech with no money. How far does that get you? Not far enough.

V: How does Theater for the New City survive? From grants, ticket sales..?

C: We get grants, and about a quarter of the street theater money comes from the city because we do all five boroughs. We’re not only political but we also bring a lot of joy and happiness to the neighborhoods, and that’s what they care about. We also get very very small funding from the New York State Council on the Arts. We used to get a lot, $65,000 a year, and now we get about $11,000.

V: When were you getting $65,000? How many years ago and what do you think is the reason for the decline?

C: Oh, many years ago. The reason is that New York State Council on the Arts has been cut. Cut cut cut cut cut! We used to get $75,000 a year from the National Endowment for the Arts. We get nothing now. By the 1980s it was starting to go away already. It’s been many years. It’s not new. We were able to survive really through people’s money. We raised money for the street theater in June. We sent out letters and emails. This year I got two $1 bills in a letter from someone, but I also got $7,500 from someone. We’re raising money now for a handicap elevator. We go to our audiences and ask and they give a dollar, or five, some people give $200. It’s a lot of little donations. It works because we have a very vast audience. We give over 6,000 complimentary tickets a year. The city supports our free ticket program, and by that I mean they give something towards it. It’s never fully supported but they do give something. The city of New York has really broken its ass to help the arts. Every mayor. I mean Bloomberg, maybe, but Bloomberg had his own money and he gave his own money and we have to thank him for that. He was about the best bad mayor we’ve ever had. [laughter] He was a great supporter of the arts. I like the current mayor. I mean generally speaking I think he’s ok.

V: What has he done for the arts?

C: Let’s put it this way… he hasn’t fucked us up. He has an idea for a cultural plan for the city which talks about talks about diversification, which is very important. It talks about funding for the arts. He’s a good guy with a very good commissioner and he’s the one who appoints the commissioner. Tom Finkelpearl is a good DCA commissioner. The whole DCA, which is now DCLA, is the best city agency. They are really good guys.  We LOVE our city councilperson, Rosie Mendez. Her term is up in December and we will miss her. She’s a real supporter of the arts and affordable housing. She’s a fighter for our area; we love her. Monday we’re going to have a debate here between the six candidates for her office. The Villager Newspaper is sponsoring it. It should be really interesting.

V: You’ve done a lot. You’re an actor, a writer, a director. What made you decide that community and street theater are where it’s at?

C: Well, I was an actor. I had a featured role in Splendor in the Grass, which was a Kazan movie. I got into the Lincoln Center training program [which] was run by Kazan and Whitehead. I have a degree from Juilliard in dance and I have a degree from Hunter College for philosophy. But I was a dancer and I got introduced to the Judson dance.Yvonne Rainer was performing at the time, at Judson. And Meredith Monk was a dancer performing there.

V: What a scene.

C: Sam Sheppard was doing off-off Broadway. Yeah, that was the scene. That was the ’60s. I discovered the alternative theater movement after they threw out Kazan and Whitehead [at Lincoln Center]. At a certain point they ran into difficulties with the board. I went to TLA, which is the Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia, run by Andre Gregory. Wonderful theater company. He also got thrown out by his board, so that’s how I learned that if you want to start a theater you better get a board that’s on your wavelength and that has the same philosophy as you. Otherwise they’re going to throw you the hell out. Because this is a nonprofit situation and you don’t run without your board. It’s you and your board. It’s not you–and it’s not the board. And if you don’t get the right kind of board, you can go home. So I knew that from the very beginning.

V: You don’t need the Koch brothers’ board.

C: No, you don’t. There are people on the way to the Koch brothers that aren’t too good either, you know. You really need people who really agree with your philosophy of theater and your politics and your social [agenda]. Because don’t forget, Theater for the New City was one of the pioneers in LGBT acceptance. Through theater. We were way on the cutting edge. And if you don’t have a board that’s going to support that, then, you know, just forget it. So that’s what happened in TLA. Andre said to me, “I want you to bring a writer’s work that you know. We want to do an alternative.” So I brought them Rochelle Owens’ play called Beclch, and it was done and the board hit the roof. They did not want this play. And anyway, that’s a whole other story. But while I was at TLA, I had another couple of weeks when I wasn’t in a show. And so they said, “Now look, you’re getting a weekly salary so we’re going to give you something to do,” they said, “Well we have these schools in Philadelphia and we want you to create a poetry program for the schools. And we’re going to send you out.” So I said, “Okay” and George Bartenieff and I–I was married at the time to George–we set out to do a poetry program. Well, what we did was we looked at the poets we knew. Because we knew all the current poets. One of them, a wonderful poet who went to live in Morocco because he couldn’t sell his work, nobody would publish him, he wrote a poem called “Little Rock.” Anyway we took those poems and we went back in history and we had renegade poetry from the revolution on up. So we went to the first school, 4000 boys. Only boys–and 4000–and we’re 2 white people and we go on stage and they’re screaming and yelling. And the teacher says, “Be quiet! Be quiet!” You know, through megaphones. Oh, we started and they just wouldn’t shut up. And then after a while they shut up. We were doing poetry about Little Rock. Stuff they’d never heard. No one ever–I don’t know what the hell they were giving them. But, you know–I don’t think they even gave them Edna St. Vincent Millay. They just gave them crap! Some kind of crap!

V: “Roses are red…”

C: Maybe they gave them Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I don’t know. But they couldn’t relate. But they related [to us] like crazy! They were cheering and having a wonderful time listening to poetry, and it was a huge success. So from then on we went to a number of schools. Co-ed schools. All kinds. They were not high schools. They were grammar schools. Very successful poetry program. Well that of course was an eye opener for me. And I realized then that there’s a vast audience for theater and poetry. Because actually we do poetic theater at Theater for the New City. We really do. It’s mythic theater, it’s surrealistic theater, it’s poetic theater–which is a little different than regular theater. But anyway, I learned from that there’s a vast audience out there just waiting for me and what I want to do! Forget about the critics. You have to go beyond the critics to get to them because the critics will never allow you anywhere near them. First of all, they don’t care about them anyway. Then the second thing that happened was, it was the Vietnam War and it was the angry arts against the war in Vietnam. So they asked me, “Why don’t you write something? Come and perform it. We’re having a huge rally in Central Park and you can go on Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater’s flatbed truck.” So that’s what I did. I wrote a piece for George and me. And we went there. We pretended that we were tourists, you know, we were visitors from Philadelphia–although we really were New Yorkers. And we came with our little suitcases and we set up and we did this piece and it was very, very successful and Peter loved it. Peter really became a mentor of mine and he supported me. And that’s how I got to street theater! It was through Peter Schumann, who did street theater, and one of his big writers, Bob Nichols. He has started the Judson Poets Theater in Judson Church and he decided that he wanted me to direct his next full length street theater piece called “The Expressway” and it was against the expressway that the city wanted to cut. They wanted to do an expressway from river to river, cutting out the bottom of Greenwich Village and Little Italy.

V: Oh my God.

C: Oh yeah! Now, the guy who was the head–and I can’t remember his name. He’s a very well-known city official who wanted to do this [editor’s note: presumably Robert Moses], I can’t remember his name. At any rate we helped to stop it. Oh, there was this huge thing against it and they never did it. But The Public Theater, we were the first show at the Public Theater, we were outside the Public Theater.

V: You were the first show at the Public Theater?

C: Yes we were. We were.

V: Wow.

C: Yup! But we were outside the Public Theater because we were street theater. And Bob Nichols, who was a landscape architect, designed the stage and I went up Lafayette Street in a car with a mask on and 4 dummies hanging out of the car and smashed the stage. And the stage flew apart! He made the stage out of boxes with struts in them. The production manager from The Public said, “It can’t be done and I’m not doing it and I’ve never heard of such a thing!”, and so Bob said, “Okay we’ll make it ourselves.” And we made it ourselves. I had 16 people dancing on the stage and running around on the stage and up came the car and the stage flew apart in 4 pieces! He had designed it and we re-created it.

V: I was going to say–because it was a reoccurring play, it wasn’t just a one-off.

C: Yeah, yeah. No, it wasn’t just one performance. And the way he designed it, the boxes were not hurt. They just flew apart.

V: That’s brilliant.

C: Yeah, brilliant. So that was the beginning of street theater. And for years Bob Nichols wrote the street theater. He wrote the street theater for Theater for the New City. Undercover Cop was a big one that he wrote, [also] Open and Shut Magic Company. And then what he did was he’d say, “Okay, Crystal, I’m giving you the first line of this scene. You have to write the rest,” or “I’m giving you the first line of this song, you write the rest.” And so I began to do that over the years. And then one day he said, “I’m retiring and I’m going to Vermont. And you’re going to write.” That was 1976. I wrote my first, complete street theater piece called Mama Liberty’s Bicentennial Party. And that was the first piece.

V: Wow. That’s very cool. So in your time as an actor, in those days–I mean, a lot was changing socially and as you said you were all on the forefront of the LGBTQ movement as well. Did you ever feel like the opportunity to have your own theater also gave you the opportunity to create more diverse roles as a woman actor as well as for others?

C: Oh absolutely! Oh, absolutely! Well, I had a very good career as an actor. I was in a couple of OBIE-winning plays that were commercial and I was really a Jacobian actress. Chekhov was my forte. But I really fell into this because I found the alternative theater movement and I began to perform at Judson Church. And then we did something called Dracula Savant, which was a huge success. At that point, Larry Cornfeld, who was the director, said, “Listen, you and George and Theo and me we’re going to start our own theater. And we’re going to get a building for a year and half rent-free.” And so the Joan Davidson Foundation gave us this building on Bank Street and Bethune. Part of Westbeth.

V: By the river.

C: By the river. 3 stories. It had been the sound stage for The Jazz Singer. It was owned by the telephone company and then it just fell on disuse. And the City owned it and they bought it and they started Westbeth. So we had 3 floors and we had a year and a half rent-free. And that’s how we started.

V: How many productions–

C: And then I fell into it. How many did we do?

V: How many do you think you did in that first year and a half. Did you think, “We have to take advantage of the space, we know we have limited time”?

C: Well, yeah. Maybe we did 5 plays. Because after a year and half we got kicked out.

V: So then what?

C: Then we went a couple of blocks away to James street. To a welfare hotel that had leaks and death surrounding us. People living there were dying and vomiting and bleeding on the back stairs, but the audience never saw it because they had their own entrance. We were in constant crisis mode for a number of years. And then of course, it became a very successful area and they kicked us out. They would not renew our lease. So we found that there was this building over on 2nd Avenue, where I had performed before, and it had become a key club and a porno moviehouse and there was a murder there, so the police closed it. It had been closed for a year, so we got it cheap and we moved over there. Now, the day we moved there, there had been some kind of fight on the street and there was blood all over 2nd Avenue and 10th street. And we went out with our scrubbing brush and our pails of water and we cleaned it up because we’d been used to cleaning it up. I tell you, when I say there was vomit and blood, I’m telling you there was! And we were always cleaning it up, “Clean it up. Clean it up. Clean it up. Get ready for the show.” The audience doesn’t know. And so the neighborhood was really surprised that we went out on the street without thinking, and cleaned up the blood. Because we didn’t want our audience… Anyway, I have so many stories.

V: I know, I could sit here and go down this road forever. Two things I definitely want to ask before we wrap up is: 1) In line with this conversation, in the play I saw at Central Park (Checks & Balances or Bottoms Up), there were so many people of different ages, different ethnicities, of different genders, and it seems like that is a very purposeful choice on your part.

C: Yes, it is. It is. Well, because I believe in peace and love. That’s what a pacifist believes. Their goal is not to stop fighting, their goal is to have a peaceful world. They don’t enjoy getting into the middle of fights. They don’t enjoy protesting. They would rather not do that. They would rather have a nice time. And you know, a lot of people don’t realize that they can have a nice time because life is so difficult. And the money situation is always so bad. And there’s always disease and crime and everything is on top of you and you’re going to be evicted in a minute. But the fact is that you really can have a nice time. And you can fall in love and you can be loved. And that’s the world we’re looking for. And that’s the world that we’re trying to create. And we try to create that around us and support that. And everybody has love in their heart. Everybody. You know, they’re always talking about how we have greed and power madness in us, yeah okay, but we also have that other thing. Everybody.

V: Absolutely. Absolutely. They say it’s easier to love than to hate.

C: It’s much easier. It’s a lot of work to hate.

V: It is. It’s exhausting.

C: It’s exhausting.

V: One thing that I really admire about this theater company is that you make it a point to go to all 5 boroughs.

C: Well, you can thank the City for that. Because in order for us to have any city funding we have to go to all 5 boroughs.

V: That’s excellent.

C: And that’s to the City’s credit. Otherwise we go to all 5 boroughs because the City told us we had to and then we enjoy it. I mean, we–I don’t have the time to go more. You know, the street theater is being asked all over the place to perform. But 1) we have only a certain amount of money, and 2) we have only a certain amount of time because we have a Fall, Winter, Spring season. So we say this is our Summer gift to the City. Wherever we’ve gone, we have found knowledgeable people. The problem is that everybody knows what’s going on and nobody can do anything about it because they’re alone. They’re isolated. And what we teach them in street theater is that you are not alone and you are not isolated. And you can do something. You can organize and you can do something. That’s the message of the street theater. Take your civic responsibility. You have one and it’s there for you. People don’t know it. In general, people think, “Oh, there are the boroughs, only Manhattan” and it’s not true. And it’s also not true that they are a bunch of sheep. Which is also what is said about people. That they are sheep, that they will follow wherever. That’s not true. They are just not empowered. They have to learn that they can get empowered.

V: My last question is, you know, now 30+ years later there’s the internet. There’s so much information. There’s so much input all the time. Do you ever find it overwhelming? How do you choose what to talk about? And do you find it’s harder now than it was before? Or do you find that it’s the same? People just carry on as they always have, people are the same?

C: Whatever is current, whatever is going on is what goes into the play. I work on the play all year. I usually, by the time we finish the street theater, I have the name of next year’s show. So I work on it. I have a little envelope in my kitchen drawer where I put all my notes and ideas. And then we cast in mid-May. Most people come back but not everyone comes back, so we have room for new people. And then we have this 2-week workshop. By the time I get to the workshop, I have a scenario. And then we have 2-week workshop and then I go away for 2 weeks and write it. And I only have 2 weeks. I wait as long as possible to write it, so I can get the latest current events.

If you want keep up with Crystal Field & Theater for the New City: