Tom O’Horgan’s Kinetic Sculptures

Tom O’Horgan’s Kinetic Sculptures

Café La MaMa’s secret weapon was Tom O’Horgan: a multitalented director, musician, and choreographer who worked on dozens of shows at Ellen Stewart’s theater. A musician with no traditional theatrical training, he had worked throughout the 1950s as an offbeat variety entertainer, cracking jokes while playing early English ballads on the harp—even appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. “He was ambidextrous when it came to his playing, whatever he thought the piece needed,” playwright Paul Foster recalled. “It added a whole new dimension to theater.” O’Horgan merged music, gesture, and dialogue by using performers’ bodies to create what he called kinetic sculptures. One exemplar of this approach was Foster’s Tom Paine, a “living play” that seamlessly integrated the auditioning, casting, rehearsing, and script development processes into an organic whole. To master this new theatrical style, all fifteen members of the La MaMa troupe attended five-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week workshops that included music making, movement exercises, and dialogue. “There were people fiddling around with theater form,” Robert Patrick said, “and so Tom O’Horgan and Paul Foster and the La MaMa troupe put it all together into a workshop method that developed the idea of collaborative creation in theater.” O’Horgan’s performers might come out wearing drapery—chanting and moving about—then suddenly swirl and shift into a scene that was developed from another overlapping theme. “Sometimes,” Foster noted, “you just wanted to emphasize the texture, and you’re willing to lose comprehension.”

From Chapter 20 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore


Café La MaMa (third location)
122 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003