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Marshall W Mason Interview - PART III

Updated: Sep 9, 2019

Erma: So you had actors in Bob’s play who would soon become famous writers themselves, with a poster by the brilliant writer, Lanford Wilson and all directed by the life-time Tony achievement director – YOU!!!??? Ohhh – to have been a fly on that wall.

Marshall: They were very central to the Cino.

Erma: I knew Lanford was.

Marshall: Lanford was probably our most famous playwright. At the time.

Erma: I had no idea that Bill Hoffman was involved.

Marshall: Well Billy was, at that time, an editor for Hill and Wang. He had edited new American plays. He was really responsible for, in a sense, the discovery of Lanford Wilson because he was the one who brought Lanford to the Cino. Without that, there would have been no story to tell.

You know coincidentally Bill's best friend was John Corigliano, the Pulitzer prize winner, composer and the two of them later wrote or were commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to do "The Ghost of Versailles".

So Bill and John were Cino-ites who hung out. You didn't see so much of John because he was a composer. It was a theater scene. He came around from time to time, but Bill was there all the time. So was Bob Patrick. John Guare, of course, was there. He did a play called "Loveliest Afternoon of the Year."

Erma: You remember all this?

Marshall: John was again not as regular as the others, again he was a young playwright getting started, and this is one of his first plays.

Erma: Cino really was a breeding ground for theatrical genius.

Marshall: Oh it absolutely was. The other one that I haven't mentioned yet, became the other star of the Cino, besides Lanford, was this young kid named Sam Shepard.

Caffe Cino was the first off-off Broadway theater, the very first. There was no other theater, except the Cino, that was it. Ellen [Stewart] was fascinated by Joe's success, and so she wanted to do a theater of her own. So she started La Mama.

Then the two of these were doing so well that a couple of pastors who were associated with churches, Ralph Cook was with an Anglican church over on 2nd Avenue, started Theater Genesis over there. Al Carmines was at the Judson church and he started the Judson Poet's Theater over there. So really, within a very short time, within a couple of years, there were four major off-off Broadway theaters. We all kind of moved around among them. I never did a play at Theater Genesis. I did do plays at La Mama, Cino and Judson Poet's Theater.

Anyway, so Sam's [Shepard] early work, a play called "Icarus"... "Icarus's Mother”.

I didn't get Sam's work at first. I thought he was strange. His plays were strange. They weren't conventional in any way and I didn't really get it. I was more realistically inclined, having trained with Chekhov and Ibsen and having been brought into theater really by Tennessee Williams. That kind of realism was lyric realism, but nonetheless, realism. Sam was not that. He was in some other vein, not like Ionesco or anybody really, not like anybody. He was remarkably unique.

It took me awhile to really warm to Sam's work and actually I can tell you when it happened. It happened when I saw a production at the Judson Poets’ Theater of “Red Cross”.

Suddenly for the first time, I really got what Sam was about. By then I had seen about half a dozen plays of his. It took me awhile to come around to it, but I finally got it. When I got it, I just adored it. From then on, a major Sam Shepard fan. As Lanford was, Lanford adored Sam's work. Sam was very supportive of Lanford's work. So they were competitive, maybe in a way, but not really in any negative way. They were supportive. All the Cino people were supportive of each other. A lot of it came from Joe. Just him having created this magical atmosphere in which you could do anything. He encouraged you to do whatever it is you had in mind. Nothing was off limits, nothing was out of bounds, try anything.

It was partly that, and then it was partly because Lanford's personality was so encouraging and warm and he adored the theater. He adored seeing people succeed in doing good work. So he was very encouraging to Bob Patrick, he was very encouraging to Billy Hoffman, to Sam, to everybody. If somebody could write a good play, he was all for it. He didn't feel threatened or anything at all by that. Probably because he knew he was better. (We all laugh)

As I said, there really wasn't real competition between Joe and Ellen, but people were ... Sam was from Theater Genesis basically. Paul Foster was basically from La Mama. Lanford was basically from the Cino. Those were the three playwrights who had really sort of made a name for themselves early on. Although they each came from a different theater, as it were.

Sam's plays were done, as I said, not only at Theater Genesis, but the Cino. I first saw him at the Cino. I first got him at the Judson Poets’ Theater. So we moved around a lot. I, as I said, and all my early work was done at the Cino then I started doing work at the La Mama with the bigger stage and the ability to have a larger cast and whatever, I started doing most of my work, for a long while, at La Mama and would only occasionally do something at the Cino.

Erma: Was Leonard Melfi around at the time?

Marshall: Yes, Leonard Melfi. Leonard was, I think he was mainly LaMama, as I recall. I think his plays again were done at the Cino. They started at La Mama and would come to the Cino, I believe.

Erma: Did you have open auditions there? Did you have a company of actors?

Marshall: No we didn't have a company, but a lot of the actors ... Cino was sort of like a family. So much as we all hung out there so we knew each other very, very well. I'm sure some of us were sleeping with each other, you know. It was a family kind of situation, incestuous.

Erma: It happens.

Marshall: It happens, in the theater, that's for sure. (we all laugh)

Up next PART IV

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