Thieves Theatre’s Last Stand

Thieves Theatre’s Last Stand

Noah was a student at NYU at the time he wrote the following article. Gabriele and Nick had given a lecture to a class in which he was enrolled at Playwrights’ Horizons in New York. When he expressed interest in working something up on the history of Thieves, we opened up our file cabinets to him. The Making of Thieves Theatre’s Last Stand would continue for another couple years after Noah gave us his article with the following statement dated 5/31/91:

The Making of Thieves Theatre’s Last Stand is a work in progress. Any documentation or critique at this point is incomplete. The artists themselves do not know where it is going or where it will end. At this point the project relies on a clear awareness of what is happening as opposed to a strong view of what should happen. When a stick is jammed into an anthill, the ants scurry around and attempt to ascertain what has just occurred. Over the last six months Thieves Theatre has put the stick in the anthill. The ants are still scurrying.

When we decided to create our webpage, we found a copy of this article and thought it best described to those interested the history and impetus behind Thieves Theatre.

a written history in progress of
The Making of Thieves Theatre’s Last Stand

by Noah Gardiner

“A landscape is such a natural arrangement
for a battlefield or a play that one must write plays.”

–Gertrude Stein

In New York City’s Chinatown, at the Manhattan Bridge Plaza on Canal at Chrystie Street, there stood a tipi constructed of seventy-eight U.S. domestic mailbags and seventeen trees. Erected among the shacks of an American shantytown known as The Hill, the tipi was the temporary home of Gabriele and Nick Manhattan for a total of three years. Gabriele and Nick’s study of The Hill spanned a period of four years. It marked the epitome of their work — a culmination and a turning for Thieves Theatre. The project was entitled;The Making of Thieves Theatre’s Last Stand.

Gabriele Frontera and Nick Manhattan (aka Gabriele Schafer and Nick Fracaro) are the directors of Thieves Theatre, a group founded in 1981. Its stated aesthetic in an early brochure was:

“to exchange identities with and articulate the voices of those who are stigmatized, quarantined, disenfranchised. The task is to break through the barriers between us and them in order to find the common ground on which true community is dependent. Our endeavor is to achieve all the elements necessary for a dialogue towards a more permanent reconciliation.”

But perhaps the essential motivation for the tipi project and, in fact, the force behind the entire history of the company could be seen as an ongoing romance with the outlaw; a continuing study of the unconsciously dissident.

Thieves Theatre’s name and guiding inspiration are derived from the writings and life of Jean Genet. The company grew from a 1981 production of Genet’Deathwatch at the Illinois State Penitentiary in collaboration with an inmate drama group called The Con Artistes. Choosing the penitentiary was an aesthetic decision; the idea of site-specific extended into the choice of actors and later came to incorporate “real-life specific”,  if you will — not ignoring the reality of the circumstances behind the forth wall. Stemming from a dissatisfaction with the insular nature of most theatre, the goal was to place the text into a meaningful context. Too much theatre takes place in the context of theatre and, as a result, the reverberations never leave the theatre. The context found with Deathwatch and explored further since is that of the disenfranchised; and the power of the disenfranchised when empowered and legitimized by theatre.

After a number of smaller productions in Chicago (one-acts by Beckett, Cocteau, Chekhov and an original play, Travelling Light, by Nick Fracaro) and Toronto (Tom Eyen’s The White Whore and The Bit Player and Cocteau’s The Human Voice in French and English), the next major exploration of the evolving Thieves Theatre aesthetic came in 1984 in Toronto. The production was an adaptation of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade which played at Toronto’s Theatre Centre at midnight. The cast included members of a support group for released mental patients with whom Gabriele and Nick began the project in a workshop. Other cast members included a band, several members of the blossoming Toronto punk community and a handful of professional actors. The production polarized the Toronto theatre community. There were rumors of stabbings and mainlining drugs in the performance (both untrue). One letter to an editor stated, “the spectacle was not a performance. It was a perverse, violent assault on the actors in the play… Someone like Fracaro should be ostracized from the theatre scene.” This drew responses such as, “Unlike much theatre I have seen, [Marat/Sade] raised questions — made me think, wonder and feel… Fracaro and the entire cast deserve our congratulations for exploring some of the real avenues of theatre.” (Both letters appeared in December 1984 issues of NOW, a Toronto weekly.) The managers of Theatre Centre supported Thieves Theatre throughout.

With this production, the event went far beyond the walls of the theatre. The non-acting of the mentally ill performers, and the barely submerged violence of the punks unleashed in this forum of supported legitimacy, violated the safe boundaries of what was to be experienced in a theatrical performance. In this Marat/Sade the audience accustomed to theatre was indeed unconvinced of its safety. The punk community, which had never before experienced theatre, found its voice expressed in a public forum. The former patients were regarded as something to be more than pitied, perhaps feared, perhaps respected. The production refused to resolve any of the questions it opened. And it is debatable what the long term effects were on public regard for the patients, the actors or the punks, since ultimately it was impossible to determine who was whom (arguably, the underlying point of the play as written).

In 1986/87 the company mounted the world premiere production of Fassbinder’s Trash, the City and Death in a new translation by Gabriele. After a long back and forth with the Fassbinder estate, including a face to face visit in Germany, the company managed to secure the rights and to mount the world premiere of the play, which had thus far eluded even Fassbinder himself. The play was written in 1974 but had remained unproduced due to protests that the play was anti-semitic. One of the characters is named “The Rich Jew”. The play involves the destructive effects of real-estate speculation in the city of Frankfurt. Fassbinder had stipulated that the play must premiere in either Frankfurt or New York. It opened at ABC No Rio [a Manhattan Lower East Side performance space. (This production was the company’s second cooperation with ABC No Rio, which had been squatted and “stolen from the city” by a group of artists. In 1982, its directors invited Thieves Theatre to bring Fracaro’s Travelling Light from its performance venue, W.P.A. in Chicago) . As Trash was being performed, the city was locked in debate about the massive redevelopment of the Lower East Side. Thieves Theatre felt that the play’s alleged anti-semitism was no reason it should not be produced, that a society’s wounds must first be exposed before they can be healed. The script’s political incorrectness was one of its appeals. Or as Nick said to a reporter from Der Spiegel , “Antisemitism? Yes, alright, fine, that, too.” In this day and age, the politically incorrect is the new outlaw.

“If I examine my work, I now perceive in it,”
patiently pursued, a will to rehabilitate
person, objects and feelings reputedly vile…
I was involved in the rehabilitation of the ignoble.”
— Jean Genet