Ellen Stewart’s first theater was a twenty-by-thirty-foot space with a ten-foot ceiling—little more than a room with a hall, toilet, fireplace, coffee bar, and stage. About thirty people could sit at the nine tables crammed into the space. “I would stand up on the street on the sidewalk and tried to lure in customers,” Paul Foster said. “We were willing slaves to the theater. And so we had a lot of work to do on no budget, and just two people. But we didn’t know, because nobody told us that it could not be done, so we just did it. We had no expertise. We’d admit it, but we wouldn’t shout it.” After nine months of renovations, the unnamed space opened on July 27, 1962. Its first production was One Arm, a Tennessee Williams story adapted by Andy Milligan, the intense dressmaker who also directed shows at Caffe Cino. He taught Stewart and Foster the basics: what was stage right and stage left, for instance, and everything about lighting—a lesson they learned one day when Milligan asked them if they had any gels, the industry term for lighting filters. It was a simple question that confounded this unlikely theatrical couple, a beautiful black woman and gay white ex-lawyer. “I looked at her and she looked at me,” Foster recalled, “and I said, ‘I don’t know, sugar pot, you have any gels?’ And Ellen said, ‘Hmm, let me look at my purse.’ Of course, who would put lighting gels in a purse? Andy knew he had to take total charge, and he did. We used him like an open book, and he was a very good teacher.” With no money to buy theater lights, Milligan taught them how to place an ordinary lightbulb in a large tomato can, painted black, and attach the gels with a rubber band.
From Chapter 6 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore