Theatre Genesis playwright and director Anthony Barsha directed Sam Shepard’s Back Bog Beast Bait as part of an ill-fated double bill that also included Cowboy Mouth.
Sam Shepard lived in the Lower East Side at the time with his roommate, Charlie Mingus Jr., a painter and the son of jazz legend Charles Mingus. Shepard was also a musician who often incorporated rock ’n’ roll in his plays and, in 1966, he joined the Holy Modal Rounders as their drummer (which is how he later met Patti Smith, with whom he cowrote the play Cowboy Mouth). Shepard and Mingus lived in a condemned cold-water apartment on Avenue C, past the Old Reliable. The two young men saw it as an urban frontier, and would act out “cowboys and Indians” games on the streets. These sorts of scenarios—along with tales of revolutionary street-fighting men and rough-and-tumble masculinity—made their way into several of Shepard’s early plays. Theatre Genesis’s bare-bones, no-nonsense space was an ideal setting for the butch plays that Shepard, Anthony Barsha, and their peers wrote. “Genesis was distinguished by being much more heterosexual than any of the other places,” said Robert Patrick. “Sam Shepherd, Murray Mednick—a lot of their plays had references to cowboy movies, and westerns, and things like that.” Their shows veered toward what one reviewer dubbed “Macho Americano,” and they thought of themselves as the “Hells Angels of the Off-Off-Broadway scene,” as Barsha put it. “Off-Off-Broadway started with the gays at Cino, so it was pretty much a gay scene,” he observed. “Ralph Cook and Leonard Melfi, Kevin O’Connor, Sam Shepard, myself, Murray Mednick, and Walter Hadler—we’re all straight guys. It was that kind of a scene. A lot of pot, and a lot of women, and a lot of messing around in that area, so Genesis definitely had that reputation, and rightly so.”
From Chapter 14 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Theatre Genesis, also located in the East Village on Tenth Street and Second Avenue, was another hotbed of Off-Off-Broadway activity. Along with Café La MaMa, Judson Church, and Caffe Cino, it was one of the key venues of the downtown’s underground theater movement. And like Judson, it was housed in a church—St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, which in 1963 hired a radical young rector named Michael Allen, who was committed to supporting the artistic scenes flowering around him. Theatre Genesis was the brainchild of Ralph Cook, who was a head waiter at the Village Gate, a popular venue where jazz artists like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Cannonball Adderley played. “Ralph approached Michael Allen, the rector at the church,” recalled Genesis playwright Anthony Barsha, “and that’s how they got set up there, in ’64. Michael Allen was a very open guy, and he was the opposite of Ralph. He was a sort of jolly fellow who could’ve played Santa Claus.” Cook brought along his Village Gate coworker Sam Shepard, whose first two one-acts—The Rock Garden and Cowboys—opened at Theatre Genesis on October 10, 1964.
When Patti Smith was performing in Femme Fatale at La MaMa during the summer of 1970, she got to see the Velvet Underground for the first time in the upstairs room at Max Kansas City’s, which held about a hundred people. That same evening, Ridiculous director Tony Ingrassia asked Smith to read for his play Island. It was about a family that met at Fire Island for summer vacation, and Smith played another amphetamine-crazed character who rambled incoherently about the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. “It’s probably Tony Ingrassia’s best work,” Off-Off-Broadway actor Tony Zanetta said. “It was this big ensemble cast, where Patti was a speed freak niece who shot up onstage, threw up onstage.” Smith didn’t actually vomit—that effect was achieved by a mouthful of cornmeal and crushed peas—nor did she really shoot up onstage. Ingrassia had assumed that she was a genuine speed freak because of her disheveled hair, pale skin, and skinny frame, but Smith nearly fainted when he casually asked her to use a needle to shoot water into her veins and pull a little blood (they ended up putting hot wax on her arm to make it look real). Smith said that her experiences doing Island finally solidified the notion in her head that she could be a performer. However, she hated memorizing lines and didn’t like how scripted action constrained her—something that wasn’t true of performing poetry and music, her next destinations. “Even though she became known for her music,” Zanetta said, “Patti was kind of a natural actress. She was obviously at the beginning of something, because she had a little following already.” Theatre Genesis playwright and director Anthony Barsha ran an acting workshop that Smith was a part of, in which they worked with sounds and movements, and did other theater games. “She got more into more physical stuff like that as a result of the workshop,” Barsha recalled. “Later, Patti said she had learned a lot from that, and it helped her become more of a rock performer onstage.”
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Theatre Genesis playwright and director Anthony Barsha first met Patti Smith when she and Sam Shepard performed Cowboy Mouth on the same bill as Back Bog Beast Bait, which starred James Hall and Shepard’s estranged wife. “It was pretty crazy,” said Hall. “He cast his own wife in a play that was followed by a one-act about his affair with Patti.” Barsha, who directed Back Bog Beast Bait, confirmed that it was a complete debacle—though he acknowledged that Cowboy Mouth itself was quite stunning. “Their chemistry was like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,” he said. “It was an excellent performance, Patti and Sam. It was a treat to see. It’s too bad it had to end abruptly.” Cowboy Mouth opened and closed at the American Place Theatre on West Forty-Sixth Street at the end of April 1971. “Patti and Sam’s thinly disguised characters’ relationship was destined to end,” Hall recalled, “just like what really happened between them. Then we found out that Sam had disappeared, and even Patti didn’t know where he went.” Shepard found the emotional strain too much—“like being in an aquarium,” he later said—so he fled to a Holy Modal Rounders college gig in Vermont. Like his character in Cowboy Mouth, Shepard returned to his family and responsibilities; meanwhile, Smith set off on new adventures.
From Chapter 25 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore