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AMERICAN THEATRE | Robert Kalfin, Off-Broadway Pioneer, Made a Dwelling for Massive Dangers

Robert Kalfin with the corporate of “Higher Depths” in 1982.

Robert Kalfin, founding father of the Chelsea Theater Heart and longtime Off-Broadway producer and director, died on Sept. 20. He was 89. One other tribute to him and his legacy may be learn right here.

Within the mid-Sixties, rising prices made it exhausting for once-thriving industrial Off-Broadway theatres to thrive. In the meantime cash, non-public and public, was flowing to resident theatres throughout the nation. Robert Kalfin thought: Why not begin a nonprofit theatre in New York?

So he did, in two successive church buildings in Chelsea from which his firm was shortly booted. Was he discouraged? No. All through his profession, when one thing went unsuitable, Kalfin would strive one thing else. That’s how the Chelsea Theater Heart grew to become the resident theatre firm at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 1968. Critics raved about Chelsea’s work, and audiences started to subscribe earlier than they knew what performs Chelsea would do subsequent season.

Kalfin and two new companions he had met at Yale, the place he was instructing, took pleasure in doing “performs no one else would do.” They reimagined little-known classics in addition to new performs, all of them works that questioned assumptions. Kalfin directed performs primarily based on poems, on Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl the Yeshiva Boy. Believing, as he as soon as put it, that “theatre displays shared common experiences,” he routinely introduced artists from totally different backgrounds into the identical tasks.

With govt director Michael David, now of Dodger Properties, and manufacturing supervisor Burl Hash, Kalfin produced a number of the first multimedia and environmental productions. He introduced thrilling administrators to Brooklyn, together with John Hirsch, inventive director on the Stratford Pageant; Carl Weber, who had assisted Brecht on the Berliner Ensemble; and Des McAnuff, who directed his first New York present at Chelsea. Kalfin even lured Hal Prince to Brooklyn to stage an environmental revival of a present that had initially flopped on Broadway, Candide.

Kalfin was born within the Bronx on April 22, 1933, to a Jewish couple of Russian descent. He was culturally Jewish and homosexual, however he refused to outline himself in a method that excluded him from a class he wasn’t in, aiming to transcend limits and talk throughout limitations. He got down to produce performs about Native Individuals, Black Individuals, ladies, and, sure, Jewish individuals and homosexual males.

He generally clashed with others who did outline themselves by their tradition—as an illustration, Chelsea ceased manufacturing on Daybreak Track, a play about Chief Joseph, when members of the Nez Perce tribe protested its casting of white of us in Native roles. A person of concepts and beliefs in a practical society, he clashed over cash issues with some, together with his personal govt director, Michael David. 

Actors beloved him. Kalfin urged them to take large dangers and belief their instincts. He would strive staging and interpretations he knew would possibly fail in order that actors would be happy to take large possibilities, even make horrible selections—that vulnerability, he knew, was the trail to nice selections. In his final years, he was engaged on a e book about directing he referred to as Making it Secure to be Unsafe.

Patricia Elliott, Robert Kalfin, and Frank Langella in a publicity nonetheless for “The Prince of Homburg” at Chelsea Theater Heart in 1976. (Picture by Martha Swope)

Frank Langella phoned Bob when he heard Chelsea was going to do The Prince of Homburg and requested for the position. “I at all times wished to do The Prince,” he stated, “and I wouldn’t do it with anybody however Bob.” When the restricted run was over, he organized for PBS to report it for its sequence Theater in America.

Christopher Lloyd’s first large half in New York was in Kaspar, in Weber’s manufacturing of Peter Handke’s play. Previews weren’t going nicely, and he felt caught till Bob reminded him of the enjoyable he initially had with the position. “I put the enjoyable again into it. Bob saved the day,” he stated. He later appeared in Bob’s productions of Whole Eclipse and Completely satisfied Finish (reverse Meryl Streep)

Glenn Shut, who appeared in McAnuff’s manufacturing of The Loopy Locomotive, wrote to recall “Bob’s laughter, enthusiasm, and depth. He made us all really feel particular and part of one thing essential.”

Marilyn Chris, who received an Obie, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Award for the lead position in Kaddish, had labored with Kalfin earlier than the Chelsea years and after. An in depth buddy, she took him to physician’s appointments in his final 12 months. “Robert beloved actors and was a pleasure to work with,” she recalled. “He had a exceptional humility. He believed it was his fault for those who couldn’t do one thing. That made you’re feeling a lot much less responsible that you simply wound up doing it in spite of everything. I sorely miss him.”

Kalfin didn’t maintain grudges when an actor didn’t see issues his method, and the sensation was mutual. “We collaborated brilliantly on Yentl,” stated Tovah Feldshuh, who would finally be nominated for a Tony for the position when the present transferred to Broadway. Acknowledging a couple of hiccups alongside the way in which, she added, “It took a short while, however we grew to become allies. He was a pricey buddy and an exquisite human being. He was at all times all for exploring any chance for a play. Any concepts we had, he would say, ‘Attempt it.’ He was at all times all for our contribution.” She went on to work with him in a number of productions within the post-Chelsea years.

John Shea, Neva Small, and Tovah Feldshuh in “Yentl” at Chelsea Theater Heart in 1974.

In an e-mail, Eleanor Reissa, who labored with Kalfin after the Chelsea years on a number of exhibits, together with Yentl in Yiddish, wrote to say, “He handled every new venture as if it was the primary—which is what all of us crave within the theatre. Although he was round endlessly, he was an harmless, almost wide-eyed in his love for the theatre. Actually wide-hearted. I believe of his pleasure within the work, his endurance and care and love of the artists, at all times together with youthful ones whom he handled as friends.”

Bob welcomed enter from everybody. The janitor? Why not. College students? Actually. That’s how Yentl occurred: It was Philip Himberg, who had accomplished an internship at Chelsea when he was at Oberlin School, who learn Yentl in a category and despatched it to Kalfin, pondering it might make play. Kalfin agreed, commissioning Leah Napolin to jot down it, and the remainder is historical past.

I personally entered the story as a grad scholar. I wished to do my dissertation on Chelsea Theater, and requested Bob if I’d have a look at the recordsdata. My knees had been nonetheless shaking—I used to be in Robert Kalfin’s workplace!—when he stated certain. And the way would I like to return to rehearsals and interview everybody who’d labored there? 

He invited me to observe him direct Frank Langella within the Kleist play. I used to be there from first rehearsal to final tech as two artists took huge dangers; no rehearsal was like some other.

Later, I requested him how he acquired Hal Prince to Brooklyn. “I requested,” he replied merely, as if it had been completely pure. I’m undecided how I went from there to sitting in Prince’s workplace, choosing his mind about Candide, or speaking to the lengthy checklist of luminaries and not-yet luminaries who had been a part of Chelsea’s historical past. However Bob made me really feel assured, capable of strive something.

From time to time, I’d ask him if he thought an method I used to be contemplating was “proper,” and he would advise me to “simply strive it.” Though a professor at NYU was formally my dissertation advisor, it was Bob who set me free. I had not deliberate a profession in journalism, however right here I used to be, speaking to everybody, attempting each method to writing about them, protecting what labored, discarding what didn’t.

Bob, together with Burl Hash, got here to my doctoral protection at NYU, and when the dissertation committee requested me for revisions to make it “much less breezy,” the 2 males rose to my protection, arguing that Chelsea wasn’t a stuffy educational establishment. It was a daring theatre, and a e book about it must be too.

Marilyn Chris phoned me once we misplaced Bob. Truthfully, I’m nonetheless processing. I need to name him as I write: What, of the various issues I might say about him, who, of the many individuals who beloved him…? However I do know what he would say. So I’m simply attempting it.  

“Such unhappy information!” Glenn Shut wrote in an e-mail. “What a wonderful period of New York theatre he represented.”


Davi Napoleon is creator of Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater.

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