Thieves Theatre, named in honor of Jean Genet, was founded in 1981 by Nick Fracaro, Tanuj Kohli and Gabriele Schafer, who had met during a University of Illinois at Chicago production of Genet’s The Balcony.
Thieves performed its inaugural production, Genet’s Deathwatch, at Illinois State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison outside of Chicago. The company soon became known for presenting edgy, multi-disciplinary, often site-specific work. Many of its early commissions and co-productions were with prominent alternative art galleries and performance spaces in Chicago, Toronto, and New York.
Thieves Theatre first came to New York in 1982 through an exchange between two legendary alternative art spaces, Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago and ABC No Rio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Thieves would ultimately relocate permanently to New York in 1985, with Gabriele’s fellow graduate from the Yale School of Drama, Erik Ehn, becoming Co-Artistic Director, replacing Tanuj who returned to India.
Representative of this early New York era was the world-premiere of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Trash, the City and Death, in an original translation by Gabriele. This controversial play about how real estate speculation preys upon a city was co-produced by Thieves Theatre’s early collaborator ABC No Rio, which was born in 1980 with The Real Estate Show. This venue was both site-specific and zeitgeist-specific to the subject of the play and garnered a vast amount of international attention and press.
Another significant period was from 1990 to 1993, when the company produced a series of projects it called Nomad Monad: The Making of Thieves Theatre’s Last Stand, in which, on the centenary of the Wounded Knee Massacre, the company erected a full-sized Lakota tipi replica, handmade from 78 US#3 mailbags, in the then oldest Manhattan shantytown at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, presenting plays, art exhibits and other work inside it. This commemoration of the Native American lives lost a century earlier grew into a meditation on the nature and constituency of the “homeless nation” living across contemporary America. In 2013, the project was part of a New Museum retrospective titled “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star” which looked at “art made and exhibited in New York over the course of one year. Centering on 1993, the exhibition is conceived as a time capsule, an experiment in collective memory that attempts to capture a specific moment at the intersection of art, pop culture, and politics.” This Curbed article describes how NYC’s all but obsolete pay phones were used to transport people back to that year. The bottom of that article points to how C. Carr’s “prescient Village Voice article written about the shantytown in 1992 sums up the end of this era.” (Click here for a comprehensive listing of documentation about the work.)
In 1994, Thieves and Erik Ehn, who had left Thieves in 1987 to pursue a playwriting career, reunited, and, along with a handful of theaters from across the United States, co-founded the Rat Conference, a national (and later international) consortium of theater workers dedicated to sharing work and ways of working. In its ten-year history (1994-2004), RAT spawned dozens of collaborations and highlighted an important segment of theatre history, marking the beginning of the digital medium’s direct impact on relationships among theater peers. The press continually cited Rat as the “regional alternative theatre revolution.” This was due in large part to Thieves/ICL early member Seth Kaufman’s (Whirl-i- Gig) expertise at keeping the latest technology and software of the digital revolution tied to the new experiments in peer relationships that the Rat Conference fostered.
Beyond being communication central, Thieves Theatre initiated and headed up four of Rat’s annual conferences – Minneapolis in 1996, New York in 1997, Philadelphia in 2001, and Rosario, Argentina in 2003. The latter would mark the beginning of Thieves’ increased focus on international collaborations.
In 2000, Gabriele and Melanie Dreyer were introduced to each other by Erik. They both had an interest in German theater and collaborated on several projects, both in the US and in Germany, including in 2002 a staged reading at New York’s Public Theater of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s newly completed play, Woman From the Past, in which Gabriele played the lead and Melanie directed and translated. In 2003, Melanie joined Thieves at Experimenta 6 Teatro, the annual international theatre festival organized by El Rayo Misterioso in Argentina, with whom Thieves organized that year’s Rat meet.
Through its international work – beginning in 2001 with Nick’s study with Grotowski/Artaud based physical theater company El Rayo Misterioso – Thieves Theatre sought to find a new community. In 2001, Nick and Gabriele also began studying butoh, and in 2005, and 2007 Gabriele became a producer of the biennial CAVE New York Butoh Festival.
Because of its recent years of working in physical theater, its international collaborations, and the strong alliances it has forged with its collaborators, in December 2007, Thieves Theatre changed its identity to International Culture Lab to become more reflective of its evolved mission and work.