Interview with Crystal Field, Director of Theater for The New City

By Jacqueline Kirk

Jacqueline: So, to start, how did you first get involved with Theater for the New City?

Crystal Field: Well, I’m a founder of Theater for the New City, and it was founded in 1970. There were 4 of us. Myself, Theo Barnes, Larry Kornfeld, and George Bartenieff. However, after a year and a half, Theo and Larry resigned because we were protecting ourselves about a lease, and they said artists should not be involved in anything but art so they resigned. And George resigned about 37 years ago. So, for the past 37 years, I’ve been the director of Theater for the New City alone.

Jacqueline: Wow. Okay. So, what is the mission of Theater for the New City, and how has that changed over time?

Crystal Field: It hasn’t changed. It actually has not changed.

To nurture and develop writers for the American stage. We have a mission statement that includes a lot more than that, but that is the main purpose of it. We were born at a time of transition, style-wise, in writing. We were very instrumental in the move from kitchen drama, or living room drama, or keyhole drama, to breaking the fourth wall and involving the audience in the production. We also of course use multimedia which in 1970 was not being done either. We were very in the minority in the beginning but now the mainstream has come up to us. We were also very instrumental in having people of what they used to call the minority persuasion writing for us. We did the work of Miguel Piñero way before anybody was doing plays by Hispanic playwrights. And of course, we’ve done many many, many plays by African American writers. And at the time we began, they were not being done at all. But, you see, over time the mainstream has changed.

What are we fighting for now, that we’re now in the minority about? Climate change is a really big one now.

Jacqueline: Do you address these social issues through the works that are made?

CF: yes, that’s an important part of our mission.

Jacqueline: Is that just naturally a part of every piece of work that’s developed?

CF: We started that way because we fought to do the work of what they called, at that time, minority writers. And that of course was a social issue. My mother was an immigrant to the United States, she came here in 1902 at the age of 5. And she lived through the immigrant hell. In those days her father lived in a sweatshop and got tuberculosis, her brother died, and her mother died because when she was giving birth, the hospital used dirty instruments. My mother, through great struggle, became a doctor. It’s the story of America, that through tremendous struggle and deprivation, you can achieve what you want to achieve. She went into an orphan asylum. The Rothschild’s project would take young people from orphan homes and teach them etiquette, so they could jump from where they were to a more middle-class life. It was stuff like where the right knife and fork go. She worked in a candy factory, as a waitress, in order to get through school, etc., etc. I have a history, and she told me many stories. Many wonderful artists came out of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, some very famous painters who were friends of hers. So I am in that tradition.

J: Was that your first exposure to artists?

CF: As a child, I danced professionally with a woman called Clarina Pishna. I don’t remember anything about her except that she had bells on her ankles. I don’t remember her ankles, or her face. She’s in the books on the history of dance.

CF: I went to the High School of Theater and Art. And I have an associate’s degree in theater from Juilliard and one in philosophy from Hunter College. None of which is going to do you much good financially, but spiritually, it was wonderful. And so I have a long history of living poor so that you can do your art. That is something that many artists accept and do and really don’t complain about. But when they talk to other people, people think they’re nuts. So, what can I say?

J: I completely understand you there.

CF: Theater for the New City started when Mayor Lindsay was mayor. And that’s why it’s called Theater for the New City. It’s because we hoped and believed that things were going to change for the city under his direction. The problem was he had a problem that a lot of artists have. He didn’t know how to deal politically or financially with the unions. He had a lot of trouble as mayor. He had great ideals but not enough practical skills.

I want very much to give artists practical skills. That is another mission of Theater for the New City. To give artists who are not educated in protecting themselves financially, to then have the skills to battle producers and sometimes, the press. So that they could write what they want to write and be successful. That is the mission of Theater for the New City also.

J: That title is such an interesting one. It sounds like an ideal. It brings to mind the idea of a perfect city. What is your idea of that?

CF: What we want, is art to be an important part of the budget. Hahahaaa! Of the budget! Let’s put it that way. Maybe you have to worry about your food and your shelter. But you also have to worry about your soul and your psyche. And that’s where theater comes in.

AI is not going to solve our problems. That’s another thing we’re fighting for that we didn’t have to worry about in 1970. We are very worried about it. During the pandemic, we opened our garage and made our garage into a theater. We performed for audiences in the street all winter. We had big audiences. Even though we did streaming, we stopped our streaming as soon as we could, because we wanted people in the seats, and people actually cried when we did live performances again. Our audience wept with joy that they could see something physically. The best movie in the world could not compete with a poor live performance. Even a poor live performance is better than a movie. And of course, a good live performance, that’s the creme de la creme.

J: What’s on the horizon for Theater for the New City?

CF: Well, the thing we’re doing next is Street Theater. Again, that’s part of our mission. We want to bring the theater to the community, and the community to the theater. When you do live theater outside of your own venue, you are creating a greater audience. Because those people are going to come to the theater. And they do. We get audiences from all over the world, all over the country. But we get a hell of a lot of audiences from all of the five boroughs, particularly of course Manhattan and particularly the west and east village. We started in the west village, on bike street. I won’t go into the history, it’s very interesting, but it’s too long to fit in an article.

J: We can do it in the next article.

CF: Anyway, we have a very interesting history. We helped to change a number of neighborhoods from grade c to grade a. And of course, in the process, we would always lose our lease and have to move. And finally, we bought our building in 2013, and paid off our mortgage. We paid the market rate, that’s another story I’m not going to tell you about. We bought it for less than a million and now it’s worth 15 million or something like that.

But where you going to move? So you sell the building and then what, you’re going to buy another building? No! The next building will be 20 million. What good does the money do you? That’s our attitude. We want a place where we can perform and we encourage other artists to perform, write, dance, act, mostly to write. Most of the writers direct their own plays. We encourage it. Because that way the inner softer parts of their writing will be retained. Directors often ignore it.

Physical acquisition per se, or luxury living, does not, well, number one, it usually leads to devastation and the closing of the operation, which it has in many cases, or it leads to the negation of their original mission, or it leads to a watering down of the themes of the plays we present.

So, this way we’re protected from all that. We have one luxury that you cannot buy, which is the luxury of self-expression. Of uncensored self-expression. That’s another thing, we don’t censor our plays. Now, we do pick them. We do pick them. But once we picked a play, if there are things in it that we don’t like, we don’t close the play. We won’t close it; however, we may not ask you to write again. But we won’t ever close the play.

We’re a little different, from others. And our relationship with the public is different. Because we want a wider and wider audience for plays with themes that do not seem to be so popular at the time. However, they become popular. Sometimes, they win prizes. But very often, we’re ahead of the game.

J: It makes sense with your unconventional approach that you would attract writers that have a penchant for predicting what’s to come.

CF; Yes, ha! Which people don’t always want to hear. Let’s say, a lot of people don’t want to hear. But then as time goes on… I mean, for instance, this whole climate thing. For street theater this year that’s the theme.

J: Yes well, it’s so hot out, so it’s very topical

CF: Yes well there’s also going to be terrible floods and terrible hurricanes.

J: When is the play opening?

CF: August 5th. We open the street theater, right next to the theater, on 10th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue at 2 pm. We always open right next to the theater. The second performance is at St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx, that’s on Sunday.

J: Ok. I’m gonna try to be there, and hopefully, I can meet you.

CF: Oh ok. Very good Jacqueline, that would be fine.

J: And what’s it called?

CF: It’s called Life on the Third Rail, or A Subway Delay to the Future.

And, I wrote the book and lyrics. And Joseph Vernon Banks wrote and arranged the music.

J: I’m very excited.

CF: We have a company of 27.

J: Does your granddaughter perform?

CF: She did last year but not this year. My granddaughter is a playwright, and she’s starting to work in the theater, in development, which she doesn’t know too much about, but she’s very smart, and we’re paying her crummy wages, but she’s learning. But she hasn’t got time for the street theater this year, oh well actually she’s helping me as an AD, an assistant director, but she’s not performing.

J: Ok, well those are all my questions. Thank you so, so much for your time, I really enjoyed our conversation.

CF: Ok, well we’ll see you August 5th.

J: Yes, and I’ll make sure to have this paper dropped off at your door.

CF: Wonderful.

Leave a Reply