from pastelegram.org, June 2011 – April 2014
Sometimes it’s more important to know who talked to whom than what was said. Knowing that two choreographers—or a poet and a sculptor, or other possibilities—worked together tells us something about their sensibilities. It helps develop a rapport with these artists, an intuition about their work that’s difficult to prove or articulate. But it matters.
If you’re interested in the New York avant-garde of the 1960s, then Pastelegram’s partial index of the New York Poets Theatre may help in this way. It networks the interactions between the poets, visual artists, dancers, actors, performers, musicians, filmmakers and composers who worked with the Theatre; clicking on a particular event, you’ll find copies of its documentation and hyperlinked names of all those who participated in that event. Clicking on a name results in a listing of all of the events in which that person participated at the Poets Theatre. Spend enough time and a pattern might emerge. “What is gained from such an approach is an ability to discern wide swaths”—wrote Chelsea Weathers in “Creating Context”—“people moving in and out of a space, in and out of one another’s lives, creating and moving on, over a long period of time, without ascribing to their actions any sort of earth-shaking import or catastrophic rupture. … it affords historians a way to think about history as something workaday and quotidian, as an exchange of ideas rather than as a genealogy of influence.”
For many, the index is an introduction to the Poets Theatre. A significant venue in its time, it’s not so well known now. Still the documents are notable for the evidence they furnish of early collaborations between a wide range of creative people, some of whom are famous now and some whom are not. It shows that New York’s avant-garde of the 1960s did not divide itself by discipline as many now do, but encouraged those with different skills to work together. These sorts of collaborations supported the avant-garde’s testing of art’s definitions, of its boundaries—
Should we wear make up, should we wear costumes, should the audience have the protection of distance from the actors? They did away with that protection; they practically sat in the audience’s lap. Those were boundaries that everybody was testing. How far should we go, should we do these performances in the street, where does theatre happen and where should theatre happen? Really, we were testing the rigidity of the limits, if the limits can be or should be broken.
—as Aileen Pasloff, a dancer and then-frequent Poets Theatre participant, explained in her interview with Robin Williams for Pastelegram.
Where the index and interview with Passloff begin to resurrect this history, and Chelsea Weathers' article discusses the project’s method, the online issue’s final two articles offer two examples of historians beginning to tackle these materials. Leanne Gilbertson’s “Theatre Quote Unquote:* The Expansive Gestures of the New York Poets Theatre (American Theatre for Poets, Inc.)” is a short history and interpretation of the Theatre over its brief life from 1961 to 1965. Where Gilbertson looks at the theatre’s formation and dissolution, its founders and their activities, Cameron Williams' “Reading Frank O’Hara’s Loves Labor: an eclogue, an elegy for the New York Poets Theatre” focuses on interpreting a single play performed at the Poets Theatre in 1964.