“Now, this is gonna be a very long interview,” Crystal Field informs me. She’s spent the past five minutes answering one question. Her black and brown spaniel, Fanny, runs back and forth between us asking for pets.
The 79-year-old director and cofounder of Theater for the New City has a mess of curly strawberry-blond hair tucked away under a red-ribboned top hat. She wears the same hat and bedazzled jacket every Saturday for her theater’s outdoor cabaret performance, Open ‘Tho Shut, which started as a response to New York’s theater shutdown.
Though the outside performances started so Theater for the New City could continue during COVID, live theater is finally allowed to reopen indoors. On April 22, the theater will host a concert of performances based on Latin American indigenous culture; the same day they will be opening a play. They also plan on participating in the Lower East Side Festival (LES) this summer.
Theater for the New City is in its 50th year, “and we hope to do another 50, with or without me,” Crystal informs me. “It will go on past me.” Theater for the New City and its members have accumulated 43 Off-Broadway Theater Awards, and their work has played a major role in New York theater history.
This interview took place over a series of weeks and has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you decide to do outdoor performances?
People, especially in this neighborhood, are used to Theater for the New City being in the street. So, we figured we would try something new. We took our shop, we took one third of it, and we made it into a little theater, and we raised the garage door, and we figured the audience is on the street. We chalked out places for them to stand. And people are dying to perform and perform live.
So, can you tell me a little bit about the history of Theater for the New City?
Well, Theater for the New City really began in 1971. We were incorporated and became a 501(c)(3), nonprofit entity. We were offered a year and a half rent free in Westbeth, which was way over on the west by the Hudson River.
After about six months, the people that ran Westbeth, they had an artistic board. They went behind our backs, and they tried to rent the theater for money, because we weren’t paying anything.
We said, “We’re not leaving. We have a contract. We’re gonna stay here. We’re gonna sleep here. And we will not allow you to throw us out.” So, we were there for a year and a half. We won an Obie while we were there.
At any rate, at the end of the year and a half of our lease ran out, and we had to go. We moved to Jane Street to a welfare hotel. And there was really nothing on that street but empty warehouses. And I yelled out on the little porch where that was the entrance: “Hello out there.” And of course, there is no answer.
What about the people in the welfare hotel?
Some of the people were really lovely. And a couple of them were in one of the plays. The people who lived in this hotel were all homeless. Let me tell you, people were dying on our back steps. People were vomiting on our back steps. There was blood on our back steps. But the audiences never found out. The audience had a separate entrance. And we cleaned everything up.
How long were you in the Jane St. Location?
After eight years, our rent went way high. So, we moved again, in the early ’80s. We moved to Second Avenue. We had found that there was a building there. It had originally been a church. And they built the building over the church. So, and then, of course, the church went away. And it became a porno movie house…
… and became a key club. And there was a murder there. So, the police closed it for a year. And so, we got a great price. And we built three theaters there. We did Sam Shepard’s Buried Child which won a Pulitzer Prize. We did many, many other plays, and won all kinds of awards.
Were there problems in your new building?
The owner of that building, by the way, was from the Mafia. Sometimes, an honest crook is better to deal with than some of these highfalutin, elite, you know, heads of foundations, and you can’t trust them. You have to choose your crooks.
When did you move to your current location?
So, a wonderful, wonderful, local person connected to Good Old Lower East Side found us a building on First Avenue. And that’s where we are now. We bought this building for $717,000. Now it’s probably $15 to $20 million. And we moved in in 1986. It took us 26 years to pay the mortgage but in two-oh-one-three we burned our mortgage. We own this building free and clear.
How did you personally get started in theater?
It was because I was a dancer, and I studied with Klarna Pinska. I performed with Klarna Pinska at the age of three with a huge silk scarf.
Okay, what was the moment where you knew you wanted to be an actor?
I went to study with Paul Mann. He was from the Group Theater. The first year I quit very soon because he scared the shit out of me. And then I went back a year later, and I studied with him for seven years. I loved it. I love acting more than anything.
I have an Associate’s degree in dance from Juilliard, and then I went to Hunter College for philosophy.
Why did you make that turn toward philosophy?
I made that decision because I come from a very radical family on both sides. So, I was politically active. You know, at the age of 14, I was out there.
Can you give me an example?
The FBI visited our home.
My mother was one of the first woman doctors in this country. My father was a teacher. My father thought the Soviet Union was the cat’s meow. It was the McCarthy period. [The FBI agent] said, “Dr. Stone, since the whole McCarthy period is over, wouldn’t you like to tell us who you know who was radical?” And she said, “Get out of here.”
My father was a writer. And I think I grew up with his torments and the misery of writers trying to get published. My father went to Columbia for journalism. He was, among other things, the night editor for the Herald Tribune in Paris. 1929. But he also wrote for the Daily Worker, which was a communist newspaper.
How did your dad’s work as a writer influence your writing for theater?
I was not influenced by his writing. But I was influenced by his struggles as a writer. It’s such a difficult life. It’s worse than an actor’s. Writing is a lonely art.
Haha. As a writer, I’m aware.
You can’t write unless you’re alone. If you’re in the middle of the city, you’ll go somewhere in the bathroom. Get away. If you can, go to the country. I have a trailer upstate in the woods. I go there to write the street theater. I can’t write it here. That’s too much happening; every minute is distraction.
Tell me about how you got started in street theater.
During the Vietnam War, I was performing in the TLA, the Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. And the word came out about the Angry Arts against the War in Vietnam. And they asked me, “Would I do something?” I wrote a piece about it. And I performed in Central Park on Peter Schumann’s open bed truck. And he took a great interest in my work. And he really was a big mentor. And he’s the one who got me to write street theater.
It’s a different form from any other kind of theater. You know, it’s just its own little baby. And if it’s done, right, it’s enlightening and it’s entertaining at the same time, and makes you go home and sing and you laugh and cry.
What’s one of the most successful pieces of street theater you’ve done?
We won an Obie for the [Village] Halloween Parade. We were the first to produce the Halloween parade. I did that because the designer, Ralph Lee, worked for me for five years. And he came to me one day. And he said, “I have all these beautiful, huge puppets in my loft at Westbeth, and I don’t have anything to do with them. Why don’t we have a parade so I can show off my work?”
Are you working on anything else currently?
Oh, the name of the street theater this summer. It’s called Critical Care, or Rehearsing for a Nurse. It’s a story of Rose. A young lady who is studying nursing takes a job in a home health care center. And I think the virus is going to appear in the form of a puppet.
Do you know where you’re going to perform it yet?
We’re praying and hoping that the city will allow us to perform in the parks. And they are opening something called Open Culture [as an extension of] Open Streets. And we’re hoping that 10th Street will be one of them. They have not said “no,” they have not said “yes.” But they have not said “no”– we have great hopes that we will be able to do it
I’m always in it. I always have a small part. I often play Lady Liberty. And sometimes I play a witch.
How do you feel about the current theater shutdown?
The first thing that the world says is, “We got to have a place to live, we got to have clothes on our back. Forget about art, you know, if we have to let go of something, we’ll let go of our art.” And then their soul falls apart. That’s the reason art is there: to tell the world what you feel and to talk about what could be better.
What are your plans for reopening the theater now that you can?
We are seating people every other seat and every other row. And we are only allowing one third of the audience in and the actors wear masks when they’re not performing. And we have staged things so that there isn’t close contact between characters.
We will be broadcasting a radio play called Her Tennessee Waltz. And the actors are seated at three long tables six feet away from each other. When they’re not performing, they sit in the audience apart from each other, wearing masks.
What are your feelings about this past year and reopening?
Well personally, I don’t like Zoom. I don’t like the digital world. I learned a long time ago that there’s radiation from these things, and they’re bad for your eyes. Remember that Rome built fabulous plumbing, but they had lead in their pipes. And many, many people died of lead poisoning. And it was one of the factors in the downfall of Rome. So, to me, it cannot take the place of live performances and I can’t wait to open our doors to real people.
Are you running purely off donations right now?
We’re $65,000 in debt from SBA loans. Maybe one day they will be forgiven. Still, it’s money going out, not money coming in. We are struggling. We are constantly struggling and hoping and praying.
What are the SBA loans going toward?
The SBA loans are going to pay our staff so that we don’t fire them. We have about a seven-person staff, four of whom are in the theater every day. And in addition, we have maintenance, and we are constantly having to deal with a building, and it’s in constant need of repair. We got a loan of $65,000 and they forgave $10,000. We owe $55,000 to SBA.
How was your financial situation?
Theater for the New City never had any money. And we know how to survive on very little. We know how to produce with very little. Why? because theater is a necessity, and art is a necessity in the lives of human beings.