Robert Patrick apologizes for his casual attire as he settles into a patio chair in the outdoor seating area of House of Pies in the Los Feliz district. “I just finished my daily 60-block morning walk, and I didn’t have time to go home and change.” At age 74, Patrick exudes a buoyant sociability and is only too happy to discuss his creatively overflowing life and times, including his status as one of the founders of the 1960s New York theater movement at Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village that became known as off-off-Broadway and his position as a pioneer of gay theater in America.
In 1972, Samuel French declared Patrick “New York’s most-produced playwright” of that era.Â In fact, he is the author of more than 300 produced works and 60 published plays, including Kennedy’s Children (1975), which garnered a featured actress Tony for Shirley Knight. On Tuesday, March 27, he is to be honored by the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, who have made him ALAP’s first honorary member.
“I haven’t written a play in a long time, not since I left New York and the world of theater in 1990,” he confides.Â “But Dan Berkowitz and John Dorf who run ALAP thought the world should know more about me, so they’re having this Evening With Robert Patrick next Tuesday.”
Born Robert Patrick O’Connor in Kilgore, Texas in 1937, Patrick’s migrant worker family moved so frequently he never enjoyed a full year of schooling in any location until his final year of high school in Roswell, New Mexico. He certainly had no aspirations to have a life in the theater. He attended Eastern New Mexico University for a time but dropped out. He recalls, “I had two ambitions at the time.Â I wanted to be a cartoonist or a nightclub singer.Â I had no talent for either.”
He joined the Air Force but was kicked out when it was discovered he had sent a love poem to another airman.Â Feeling there was something decidedly wrong with him, he had himself committed to a New Mexico state mental institution. After an obligatory two weeks, he was released. “They told me there was nothing wrong with me, and I should just move to a bigger city.”
Instead he moved to Kennebunkport, Maine, in the summer of 1961, an even smaller town than Roswell. He got a job at Kennebunkport Playhouse washing dishes during summer stock season and discovered he had a passion for live theater.Â On his planned return to Roswell, he stopped in New York for the afternoon because he wanted to see Greenwich Village.Â Patrick recalls following a young man into a café, which turned out to be Caffe Cino, owned by Joe Cino, who offered his space to any playwright with the guts to perform with no sets, no lights and no money. Patrick had found his home.
“It was absolutely the most wonderful place in the world for me,” he affirms.Â “After three years of temple slaving, doing any and every odd job that needed doing, I got an idea for a play. In 1964, I wrote The Haunted Host and gave it to Joe.Â He threw it in the garbage.Â He told me, “˜You don’t want to be a playwright.Â Playwrights are terrible people.’ Lanford Wilson was there and he said, “˜Joe, Bob works hard and you should do his play.Â If you won’t do it, then I won’t do any more plays here.”Â Joe took it out of the garbage, wiped off the coffee grounds and produced it.”
Along with Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Doric Wilson and others, Patrick became a pioneer instigator of a theater revolution at Caffe Cino and Café LaMaMa (founded by Ellen Stewart and Paul Foster in 1961). “Off-off-Broadway was something entirely new in the history of world theater.Â Plays were done in coffee houses, churches, bars, art galleries and bookstores, places which made their money from business not from theater.Â Therefore, the plays did not have to please an audience or critics.Â For the first time in history, theater was an independent expressive art form. We didn’t have to please anybody but it turned out we pleased a lot of people.
“We impressed a change in theater that would find its way to Off-Broadway and Broadway, too.Â We were doing gay plays at the Cino five years before Boys in The Band.Â We were doing plays about drugs and dropping out eight years before Hair opened. It was the most exciting time in the history of theater. Off-off-Broadway theater, as I knew it, basically ended when the Cino closed after the death of Joe Cino (1968).Â But I kept writing plays and getting them produced.”
In 1969, Patrick was accorded the Show Business Award for his plays, Joyce Dynel, Salvation Army and Fog. Camera Obscura was produced on PBS, starring Marge Champion.Â In 1973, he lived for a time in LA, helping co-found LaMaMa Hollywood,Â but he discovered Hollywood people had a different frame of mind from those he knew in New York.Â “I freaked out and had to leave,” he recalls. “An actress named Jacque Lynn Colton kept it going for a while, but I had to get out of there.”
The only problem Patrick had was that he was broke and facing eviction from his apartment. “Then I got a call from my agent in New York who told me a theater in London was doing a play of mine, Kennedy’s Children. They were willing to fly me to London but only from New York.Â Then I remembered there was a theater in Chicago called At The Drama Shelter that was doing a lot of my plays. I called them to see if I could push them to give me some money.Â They told me they had been trying to get a hold of me because they had thousands of dollars of royalty money for me. I got back to New York and then to London.Â The next year, Kennedy’s Children opened on Broadway and was a huge hit.
Though delighted to have Broadway success, Patrick had no desire to be a part ofÂ Broadway’s Great White Way. “I led a completely insulated life living and working in the Village. In 30 years living in New York I’d seen maybe 20 Broadway shows.Â I didn’t get uptown that often. I didn’t want to. There used to be a bar in the Village named Phoebe’s.Â I could walk in there on any given night and find at least a hundred people I knew. I would walk through Phoebe’s and before I reached the other side of the room I’d be offered a production, a publication, a job writing an article, an interview and sex. And sometimes I was only walking through the bar to see if I could borrow 50 cents to buy a can of cat food.
“One time I was entertaining this hustler in my house and I remembered I was supposed to have my picture taken at Phoebe’s with Doric Wilson and Harvey Fierstein for an article on gay playwrights.Â I told my companion of the afternoon that I had to go have a picture taken and he asked, “˜Can I take the picture? So, I have a picture of me, Harvey and Doric, taken by a hustler, in between two bouts of sex between him and me.”
After the success of Kennedy’s Children, Patrick spent 10 years traveling to high schools all over the country on behalf of the International Thespian Society, the high school drama fraternity. He visited over 1000 schools and drama festivals during that time. One school once offered to fly him in, but he told them to buy him a month-long bus pass instead so he could stop at 10 more schools that couldn’t afford to bring him to them. Between those years, 1975 and 1985, he spent his time either producing his plays in New York or traveling to schools around the nation. He hit every state except Hawaii. He loved working with the students, but he was finding the task of producing theater in New York more problematic.
“I made a very bad business decision in 1980. That year, my agent started going crazy. She was embedded with all my plays that Samuel French handled. And the only way I could get out of my relationship with her was to sell those plays to Samuel French.Â They didn’t want to buy them, but I insisted. I gave up rights to all my popular plays on the assumption that my new plays would do well and at least I’d make me a comfortable living.Â They didn’t. I was very wrong and became very poor. It was a struggle for me after that.Â I had no money and for a time, no home. I was living in light booths. In fact, I was picking which theaters to do shows in, based on how big their light booths were.”
During this time, Patrick did an LA theater sidebar, spending nearly a year working with the colorful coffee house purveyor Smitty, who was producing his own off-off-Broadway at DejaVu Coffee House in Hollywood. “Smitty had very successfully produced one of my plays, T Shirts, with Michael Kearns. Smitty asked me to help him set up the space next door, which became the Fifth Estate.Â I did it mainly because I wanted to establish a gay theater here in LA.Â I did my work and returned to New York.Â By the way, for all who are interested, Smitty is still alive, living and working happily in New Orleans. I, on the other hand, was not doing too well by the end of the ’80s.
“The decision to quit doing theater came to me one day in 1990 when I was carrying a sofa on my back down 2nd Avenue in New York as a set piece for a play. It started raining and the sofa got heavier and heavier.Â Nobody on the street offered to help me, and I realized ever since 1961, for 30 years, people had been watching me walk the streets with sofas on my back. I realized I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I left New York, because why be in New York if I wasn’t doing theater?”
Patrick moved to California to stay with relatives for two years. During that time he realized he had been so insulated that he had been totally out of touch with what had happened to America in the 30 years he had been in theater. He found himself appalled and terrified.
“When I left New Mexico for New York, or as I put it, when I left America for theater, the horrible thing about this country was ignorance and indifference.Â When I returned from theater to America in 1990, the horrible thing was fear and distrust.Â What the ’60s did to average Americans was to make them afraid of everything. My family was afraid of the food they ate, the cars they drove, the medicines they took, their neighbors, strangers, foreigners, their own politicians. They were afraid of everything. I wrote a play about it called Heterosexuals, which has not yet been produced. It is about my family and what I came back to.
“Eventually I got a job doing public relations in LA.Â The boss died, and I moved on to do some television ghostwriting for a few years.Â Then the people I was writing for learned how to do it themselves and they dropped me.Â Â So, I took a job reviewing gay porn movies, which is what I do now.”
When I ask Patrick why he hasn’t gotten involved in theater in LA, he shrugs. “They don’t want me. I’ve sent out scripts to theaters, and I don’t even get the courtesy of a rejection slip. Maybe it’s the age thing. Actually, I got one from the Blank Theatre this week, rejecting my submission. I’ve never had an overture from Celebration Theatre.Â Until lately, I didn’t even know who runs the place.”
Patrick admits to being flattered and delighted to be recognized by ALAP but he is frustrated to be always living in a state of near poverty despite being one of the most prolific playwrights in US history. Social Security pays his rent. Everything else is a struggle.Â But every once in a while there is a glimmer of hope.
“A producer called me today to ask me if I would be willing to write a 2012 version of a play I wrote in 1976, My Cup Ranneth Over. The play has an interesting history.Â Marlo Thomas hired me to come out to LA from New York and write it for her and Lily Tomlin.Â She was very happy with it, but then Marlo and her producers had a fight. It was never produced. So, I offered to buy it back from her and she just gave it to me.Â It became my most produced play.Â I used to send Marlo a Valentine every year, saying,’Your play was done 2000 times last year.Â Marlo, Happy Valentines Day’.”
I can’t help asking Patrick what his wish list would be for the future. “If I had a theater to work in now, I’d write a play a day for the rest of my life.”
An Evening With Robert Patrick, presented by the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights (ALAP). Â Tuesday, March 27 at 8 pm. Cost: $7. Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles. Contact email@example.com. Drop-ins are welcome.