Patti Smith On Off-Off-Broadway

Patti Smith On Off-Off-Broadway

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


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