Crystal Field: Making Street Theater for Five Decades

The Checks and Balances, or Bottoms Up! cast resists the evil puppet hands. Photo: Jonathan Slaff.

One of Off-Off-Broadway’s oldest companies, Theater For The New City (TNC) is now in its fifth decade of presenting free summer street theater throughout NYC. Each year, when most of the indoor productions within its East Village space close up shop, the company recruits a large ensemble of actors and musicians who perform in public places everywhere you look. Their newest show, Checks and Balances, or Bottoms Up!, boasts a singing and dancing company of 50 as well as a five-piece band, puppets, masks, trap doors and smoke machines. The show’s book, lyrics and direction are by TNC’s longtime artistic director, the indomitable Crystal Field; Joseph Vernon Banks serves as composer and arranger. Performances run through Sun, Sept. 17. For full list of locations, visit TNC’s website here.

TNC’s website also describes Checks and Balances… as:

…a rip-roaring musical that pits a Catholic school girl and a subway conductor against a Monster Puppet as they fight for the health and safety of all New Yorkers, the civil rights of America and finally, the future of our planet. This is the story of the awakening of America’s true Patriots to do battle with the Monster of Apple Pie fascism and the Pumpkin Head of State, whose mission lies in golf courses and hotels, Russian dances, corporate princes and the power of money. Starting out at opposite ends of a spontaneous protest by subway passengers on the L train, they, each in their own world, learn the true reasons for our current distress and mentored by community activists, a teacher who works after school to make his students successful, an Investigative Reporter, A Buddhist monk in disguise of an itinerant bum, and a blue Blue fairy whose quiver is filled with Love Dust and Glittering Truth.

I recently spoke with Field about the show — in which her granddaughter, Briana Bartenieff, plays the Catholic school girl — and about creating street theater in a polarized political environment.

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Ed Malin: You are the author of how many annual street theater productions?

Crystal Field: This is my forty-forth.

EM: What inspired this show — besides, presumably, the election — and when did you start to write it?

CF: Last September: I start to write the new show right after we close the old show. I am also on stage — I have a very tiny part — but I think that is one of the things that makes street theater special. When the writer is also on the stage, even for a short time, and the composer is at the piano, a show takes on a special level of commitment and passion that it doesn’t have when someone else is playing your music, so to speak. Anyway, two things inspired me: one was the election, for sure. I felt like, “Oh, God, I can only do my part, I’m an artist, I am running this theater.” I can’t go to a lot of protests (I don’t hold my urine well enough to get arrested), but I’m an artist, and I can help in my way and that’s a big inspiration for me. My granddaughter is an inspiration for me. She’s growing up, and I used to write a lot of stuff inspired by my son and now I write stuff inspired by my granddaughter.

EM: How did you get started?

CF: It started in 1973 when I was an actor at the Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. At that time, it was the angry arts against the war in Vietnam. They were looking for people to write stuff, and so I wrote something about it and I performed it on Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet stage. Peter got very excited about me, and really promoted me in every way. It was his writer, Bob Nichols, who founded the Poets’ Theater at the Judson Memorial Church. He wrote a play called The Expressway. It was about New York City’s plan to do a highway from the Hudson River to the East River, crossing the bottom of Greenwich Village and annihilating Little Italy. There was a huge fight against it. He wrote this musical with, like, 27 actors, and he decided I was going to direct it. We performed the show in the street, outside, sponsored by the Public Theater. I rode up Lafayette Street in a car with a mask on and four dummies hanging out of the car, and I smashed the stage with the car. The stage was designed by Robert Nichols, who was also a landscape architect. The guy who was the head of production at the Public said it couldn’t be done. The stage was built out of boxes with struts in them. We had 16 people dancing on that stage, and then I smashed the stage at every performance; the boxes dispersed, the car was safe and I was safe. Anyway, he got me into writing street theater and taught me how to do it. After a while, he would say, “OK, Crystal, here’s the first line of this song or beginning of this scene — you write the rest of it.” That went on for a couple of years, and then he said, “I’m going to Vermont. I’m retiring — you will do the next show yourself.” So, in 1975 was the first full-length musical with many, many actors that I did. It was called Mama Liberty’s Bicentennial Party.

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You have only yourself, your passion and what you believe in.

EM: That must have been a great time for counter-cultural performance.

CF: Yes, I have many years of political theater behind me. When we were playing that show in the East Village, the buildings were all burnt out because of arson (because the owners got money that way), and the locals were roasting a pig next to the vacant lot where we were playing. It was a different world. We always said the thing about street theater is it keeps you grounded. It’s not like other theater. You’re out there, the public can leave, throw stuff at you, they can hate you and disappear. You have only yourself and your passion, what you believe in, and, of course, the quality of your work.

EM: What is the favorite role you have had in street theater?

CF: Usually I give myself a very small role. One year, I did play the lead. It was about a woman who became conscious of her position in the world, called Self: A Self-Important Musical. I would go from one scene to another, watching what was happening. It was a lead like my granddaughter Briana has in our show this year. She goes around the world, watching.

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EM: After all the good work you did last year with a street theater piece about the election, and given that TNC is also a polling place, did you see people voting in the general election?

CF: People did vote last year; the actual election was quite full. I’m a Bernie Sanders person. The Democratic Party is tied to big business and no good, but they’re not crazy. [President Trump] is insane! He’s not only insane, he’s a fascist. He’s the worst side of capitalism — no controls, whatsoever. That’s an ugly picture. We are a democracy, with all of our trials and tribulations. We are an experiment: 200-plus years is nothing. All around the world there are countries saying, “You see? They can’t do it. It’s not working. They’re turning into a state with a strong authoritarian, fascist regime.” But it’s not going to happen. We won’t let it happen.