Risk Failure: An interview with Crystal Fields 

Bill McMahon 

Looking over Crystal Field’s bio in preparation for our interview, the names of quite a number of luminaries popped out at me – names such as Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, Robert Whitehead, Moises Kaufman, Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard are just a sampling of those with whom she has worked. With such an array of marquee talent on her CV, there was certainly a temptation to ask for some juicy tidbits about the stars, but what impresses most about Ms. Field is her sense of commitment and mission for alternative, experimental and controversial avant-garde theater.

My first question, therefore, was what prompted her to found a theater – always a substantial leap of faith, and a huge undertaking. “We were working at Judson Poets Theater, and Larry Kornfeld, our director, said we should start our own theater. We went first to Westbeth, where they gave us space rent free for a year and a half.  We took the space and made three theaters out of what had been the sound stage for The Jazz Singer.”  Ms. Field founded the theater with Kornfeld, Theo Barnes, and George Bartenieff; they named it Theater for the New City after a statement by Mayor John Lindsay in which he spoke about a “new city” for all; it summed up both their sense of a theater for the community, and a theater open to experimentation and alternative modes of expression. “I had been a member of the original Lincoln Center Theater, but I had discovered the avant-garde.” That discovery led to a true passion for theater that was radical both in form and content, and she never shrank from controversy. She performed in Rochelle Owens’ play Beclch with Theatre for the Living Arts in Philadelphia; the play so enraged the board of trustees at TLA that director Andre Gregory was fired.  The ensemble was unbowed, however, and performed the play in New York at the Gate Theatre.  Just a scant three years later, Field and her partners began TNC.

Having worked with such renowned playwrights as Shepard, von Itallie, Foreman, et al, I asked her what, if anything, these diverse talents had in common. “A desire to break away from commercial theater, rebel against the social moirés and restrictions, freedom from censorship" Field answered. There was a period when we didn’t allow critics in, because they didn’t get what we were doing. They called Beckett a moron then.” Field was determined that TNC be a safe space for writers to experiment, work outside of their comfort zone, risk failure. “Richard Foreman said to me once, ‘I want to go back to TNC and fail.’” Currently, Field is producing and acting in Eduardo Machado’s Worship, and at Machado’s request, critics are not being invited. Working in a new style, Machado wishes to hone his play without the pressure of worrying about the reaction of the Times and all other critical voices, and Field, true to form, is honoring that request. “We never touch the piece while the artist is working.” Recently, Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz called working at TNC “the best experience I’ve ever had.”

I asked how she envisions the future of OOB, and true to form, she outlined the considerable challenges. “The Lower East Side is hemorrhaging artists.  Developers are evicting them as the neighborhood gentrifies. Artists go into bad neighborhoods, then the places become upscale. I know a writer who is being evicted after living in the same apartment for 25 years.” Beyond the conflict of real estate greed vs. a safe space for artists, Field is sanguine about the creative future of theater. “There will always be an Off-Off Broadway because there will always be something wrong with the fabric of society. Artists will always have things to say.”


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