Gorilla Theater: 26 Years Later an Actor Returns to the Park

Gorilla Rep
Chelsea LeSage and the cast of Gorilla Rep’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
in Washington Square Park. Photo: N'namdi Andersen.

In his forward to Christopher Carter Sanderson’s 2003 book Gorilla Theatre: A Practical Guide to Performing the New Outdoor Theatre Anytime, Anywhere, NYTheatre.com founder Martin Denton observed “Gorilla theatre is theatre of urgency and connection.” In the opening paragraph of the tome’s introduction, Sanderson illustrated what Denton meant by this when he succinctly described what has become his signature production:

In 1989, a talented group of people came together to help me put on a production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Washington Square Park, in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village. It moved from place to place as it went from scene to scene around the southwest corner, near the asphalt hills, and bouncing over the playground fixtures there. The actors and a few helpful volunteers lit the show with flashlights.

The following year, I was one of those actors.

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CCS and Charlie in the Woods
“This dog, my dog.” Christopher Carter Sanderson and Charlie. Photo: Meredith Kadet Sanderson

I met Christopher in an elective course on Shakespearean performance practice as it had evolved over time, offered through the NYU Undergradute Drama department. Taught by Roberta Krensky Cooper, who had published a book a few years previously on the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, we spent the semester examining the production histories of six of the Bard’s most famous plays: Midsummer, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III, and The Tempest. The focus was on innovative directorial approaches to the work.

Back then, Christopher’s appearance comprised extravagantly long, frizzy hair that hung down almost the full length of his skinny frame, a tiny Van Dyke (which made him reminiscent to me of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo), and a green Army jacket that he seemed never to be without. He was older than the rest of us. None of us knew exactly how old. Our wild conjectures put him at anywhere from 25 to over 30 — an age that seemed unimaginably ancient to me at the time (I was 20).

That spring semester of ’89, the entire department was abuzz with the news that he had somehow convinced the administration to allow him to use one of its mainstage spaces for his directorial thesis project, a production of Hamlet. It featured one of the department’s stars, Michael Laurence, in the title role (who last season returned to the part in his play Hamlet in Bed at Rattlestick Theater), and it was a Very Big Deal. No undergraduate student had ever before been given the keys to that particular kingdom. Rumor also had it that he was going to be staging it with the actors on elevated platforms, surrounding the audience, who would be standing on the floor of the theater, in effect re-creating the Globe Theatre’s pit.

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Sanderson was a student in the super-cool, very hip Experimental Theatre Wing. (NYU’s undergraduate drama department infamously farms out its approximately 1,000 students to numerous studios, both internal and external to the Tisch School of the Arts. To this day, when I meet a fellow UGD alum, one of us inevitably gets to the Question: “What studio were you in?” It’s a way to peg a potential rival, collaborator and/or sexual partner, sort of how gay men always seem to need to ask each other what gym they belong to.)

Everything exciting was happening at ETW.

ETW was where everything exciting was happening at school. Just within the few years before I arrived at college, Anne Bogart had won a Bessie for her production of South Pacific, which she then followed up with a rock-and-roll Spring Awakening — 20 years before Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s; Robert Wilson staged his groundbreaking version of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (helping to cement the playwright’s reputation in the States); and Richard Foreman snagged yet another Best Play OBIE for Film Is Evil, Radio Is Good.

Chandelier Titania
My work with Christopher cemented my lifelong commitment to experimental theater. Photo: Meaghan Bloom Fluitt

While I was matriculating, Jean Claude von Itallie created an immersive environment for his adaptation/ translation of Jean Genet’s The Balconywhich situated the audience inside the absurdist playwright’s hall of mirrors whorehouse, and Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson were just beginning to create the work that would lead to Big Dance Theater. (I attended their theatrical staging of Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay for Smiles of a Summer’s Night — the film that was the basis for Sondheim’s A Little Night Music — when a student there.) All of these were either exclusively or primarily cast with ETW students.

I was in the stodgy-by-comparison Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. (Lee’s widow Anna maintained his office exactly as it had been at the moment of his death, down to where the pencils were situated on the guru’s desk when the old SOB finally kicked the bucket.) As a fairly fey gay teen who suddenly found himself in an interactive immersive version of Back to the Future, I was more or less ignored by most of my teachers (since, as you all know, gay people didn’t exist in 1955). Being a nice, working-class, Irish-Catholic boy from Nowheresville Scranton, PA, I had been conditioned from birth to never, ever, evah question authority. I had an instinctual sense that I was very much in the wrong place, but people Who Knew Better Than Me had placed me in Strasberg, so that’s where I was meant to stay.

Chris and another ETW bro (this guy you might have heard of named Moisés Kaufman?) were unquestionably the alpha males of the department in the late ’80s. They even competed for the same actress-muse, Christopher’s fiancée, Alyssa Bresnahan. Christopher talked back to the teacher. Christopher acted like he knew more than she did about Shakespeare in general and Hamlet in particular. Christopher intimidated and terrified me.

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So when one day at the end of class, when out of the blue he suddenly turned to me and intoned in his peculiarly stentorian way, “I’ve lost my Rosencranz, and I want you to audition for me,” I felt like Christ himself had said to me, “Peter, lose the fishing net.” I got the part, and the next year, was invited to be in the second cast of MSND, ironically in the role of Peter Quince (succeeding Katherine Gooch, who had played Gertrude in Hamlet).

The choice led me to the path I’ve trod to this day.

I had also been accepted into the apprenticeship program at Actors Theatre of Lousville. I thought I wanted to be a regional theater actor, the kind that worked at places like the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford and ATL. Instead, I opted to stay in New York and run around the very sketchy-at-the-time Washington Square Park. After all, Christopher had chosen me, when it seemed no else would. For better or worse, that choice led me onto the path of Downtown experimental theater that I’ve trod to this day.

Christopher and I had a huge falling out a few years later, then made up, then fell out again, and basically didn’t speak for 20 years. Last year we reconciled. Who knows? Maybe this time it will take. We’ve both changed. I’ve grown wary of the charisma of others, and the need to feel “chosen” is one I can fulfill for myself now. I thought that summer of 1990 was long behind me. Certainly I’m no longer out all night dancing at clubs, then getting up and going to work at Avon Products, then running around the park. I left that club-work-act-repeat cycle quite a few years ago.

Tim Cusack as Rosencranz
The author rehearsing Sanderson’s staging of Hamlet in 1989. Photo: Christopher Carter Sanderson.

I was supposed to be at a conference this weekend at Playhouse on the Square, the big regional theater in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s for a professional organization comprising many employees of TCG theaters, my peers in queer youth theater work. But Christopher, once again, called me out of the blue, this time asking if I would be willing to come in and cover the role of Peter Quince. And once again, in that funny way life has of sometimes bringing you right back to the exact same spot you were before, I chose Downtown over the Regionally Professional. It seems to be where I belong.

Quince in the Dream is a carpenter; his surname is a play on “quines” or “quoins,” which are wooden wedges used by carpenters. Jesus, of course, was a carpenter. Coming back to the role after 26 years, a theory occurs to me that perhaps Peter was meant to be a theatrical self-reflexive representation of the principles of a populist Rock on which the young Shakespeare wanted to erect his performative Church. Who knows?

Gorilla Rep is nothing if not populist. Sanderson has a deep-seated belief in the necessity of providing free, physically robust productions of the classics to all New Yorkers. He does so in a manner that enlists the audience as active participants in the plays. But I’m aware each night when I arrive to perform how much Washington Square has become prettified in the ensuing 26 years, the art-directed version of the park I once knew. I’m aware that our cast is almost entirely white, performing the ultimate canonical white dude for a city that is majority minority. I’m aware of the irony that my personal awakening to the politically liberating power of site-specific, non-hierarchical theater came about within the highly privileged space of NYU. I carry these contradictions and histories into my acting each night.

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My body is also no longer what is was at 21, and my joints in particular are none-too-pleased with me at the moment, but I’ve discovered there’s quite a bit of life in this middle-aged boy yet. It’s still a moment fraught with mutual apprehension, bordering on fear, when I look a New York stranger in the eye and invite them through a gesture or line to step across the imaginary divide between their world and Peter’s. And there are moments during the show when the moon is glowing above Judson Church, sweat is pouring down my face, and the flashlights are making flickering, ephemeral love to the actors’ bodies that I am certain my life has brought me to exactly the place I was meant to be. This rough magic. Here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream performs every Thursday through Sunday at 8pm in the southwest corner of Washington Square Park at the Sullivan Street entrance. Tim Cusack will be in the show through Sun., Aug. 21.