Harry Koutoukas: the Godfather of Off-Off-Broadway

March 11, 2018

The creative drive and success of Greek-Americans in the arts is a phenomenon as yet to be fully assessed. It seems that quite literally for every specific field, genre or expressive form that exists in the arts some Greek-American is not only a well-known practitioner but one who unquestionably has excelled in their endeavors.

A perfect example of this reoccurring but as yet understudied occurrence is in the spontaneous development of Off-Off- Broadway in New York City during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The very name of this theatrical form denotes an ‘avant-garde, nonunion, or amateur theatrical productions that take place in small or informal venues and are typically more experimental and less commercial than those staged in off-Broadway theaters.’ Such were the enduring contributions of H. M. “Harry” Koutoukas, at the very moment this urban-American dramatic form was conceived, that during his most productive moments in this developing art form, he was recognized by his peers as the very Godfather of Off- Off-Broadway.

Yet even creative legends have beginnings. On June 4, 1937, twin sons Haralambos Monroe and Paul K. were born in the small town of Endicott, NY to Greek immigrant parent Harry Paul and his American-born wife Agnes Rita Dailey Koutoukas. There were two other Koutoukas children Jean Ann and Robert Ogden. Harry Paul Koutoukas was a barber who by 1954 owned the OK Barbershop at 1506 North Street in Endicott. The family home was located at 123 Harding Avenue.

In 1955, the Koutoukas twins graduated from Union-Endicott High School. That same year Harry moved to Manhattan to attend the New School University. By 1959, Harry Koutoukas was living in Greenwich Village. While Koutoukas was to deny in interviews, later in his life, of any interest in prose writing in the June 23, 1959 edition of the Endicott Daily Bulletin we hear “a fervent leader among Greenwich Village existentialists, Mr. Koutoukas has nearly completed the novel, ‘Red Scarf’ which is set in a small upstate industrial town.” On November 13, 1966, Paul Koutoukas was ordained a Greek Orthodox priest who in time was became an archimandrite.

H.M. (Harry) Koutoukas was by virtue of his native talents, work ethic, scalding wit and enduring presence in the New York art scene a force of undeniable influence. Koutoukas became one of the first playwrights to present his work at the Caffe Cino. From 1958 to 1968, this cafe was the scene for what was to become the Off-Off- Broadway movement. Koutoukas did not move along this new path of creativity alone. Among the other actors/playwrights who collectively formed the ultimate coterie of the Off-Off- Broadway theater movement Koutoukas wrote, and witnessed and interacted with fellow creators Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Doric Wilson, Tom Eyen, Robert Patrick and assorted others.

Koutoukas has often been called a surrealist playwright, actor and teacher but more was at work. Koutoukas sought through each one of his plays to identify and comment upon the world in which he was a part. For Koutoukas, 1964-1967 were the key years for his most creative work. This claim must be weighed against the fact that Koutoukas, during his overall career, wrote/created over 150 recognized plays (see http://koutoukas.blogspot.com). The playwrights, actors, cafe owners/supporters of this new theater, each in their own way, were consciously seeking to alter how theater was presented and experienced. For Koutoukas’ part, he called his written creations “camps” rather than plays to very deliberately distinguish between accepted forms of plays and theater to this new direction in which all involved were exploring together.

As the Off- Off- Broadway productions evolved the presentation of these camps were in the setting of the cafe and at every juncture from costuming (or no costuming), dialogue, presentation, lighting, amateur as well as professional actors were meant to openly challenge any and all expectations. The inner life and the public oppression of society were frequently addressed. As a mainstay, Koutoukas’ camps eventually gained wider and wider recognition.

Writing for the New York Times, Williams Grimes, noted at the time of Koutoukas’ death “in works like ‘Medea in the Laundromat’ and ‘Awful People Are Coming Over So We Must Pretend to Be Hard at Work and Hope They Will Go Away,’ Koutoukas presented cartoonishly stylized characters, equipped then with arch dialogue and set them loose in outlandish situations. He obeyed no rules but those that one of his characters called ‘the ancient laws of glitter (March 10, 2010).” Koutoukas was renowned throughout Greenwich Village artistic circles but he never became as successful or commercial as some of his contemporaries such as Lanford Wilson or Sam Shepard. But, clearly Koutoukas was absorbed with other artistic and personal considerations.

In 1965, Koutoukas received the National Arts Club Award for Experimental Play writing, for his camp “The Love Triangle.” In 1966, he received a Village Voice Obie Award for his camp, “Assaulting Established Tradition” with the special citation “for the style and energy of his assaults on the theater in both play writing and production.” Then, in 2003, Koutoukas was awarded the Robert Chesley Lifetime Achievement Award for Play writing in New York City.

You can judge all my claims for yourself by reading through any number of Koutoukas’ published plays, ever-growing number of critically conceived book length studies of the Off-Off- Broadway Movement, listening to any of his radio performances and/or viewing his interviews on YouTube. One place to start such an exploration is in H.M. Koutoukas 1937-2010: Remembered by His Friends, edited by Magie Dominic and Michael Smith (Silverton, OR: Fast Books, 2010). Actually, if you have the time, at least three principal modern theater collections hold photographs, interviews and other documents related to Koutoukas and the development of the Off- Off-Broadway: the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the Lincoln Center, Rutgers University Archives and Bobst Library at New York University.

On March 6, 2010, H.M. Harry Koutoukas died at 87 Christopher Street, Apartment No. 9, his Greenwich Village apartment where he lived for 50 years, he was 72 years old. The cause of Koutoukas’ death were longstanding complications caused by diabetes. Various memorial services were held at the time of Koutoukas’ death. Koutoukas even figures into the field of Greek-American monuments. On June 4, a ceremony was held in “dedication of a bronze plaque celebrating the life of H. M. ‘Harry’ Koutoukas at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Christopher Street. St. John’s Pastor Mark Erson blessed the plaque, which is now affixed to a tree well between 85 and 87 Christopher Street (Westview News July 6, 2017).” This site was chosen given the fact of Koutoukas’ long residency in this general area.

Michael Ellick’s remarks at Koutoukas’ memorial at Judson Memorial Church on March 7, 2010 offers his view of what was the very center of Koutoukas’ work by saying “at his core was the hope that each of us could be free from the authorities that inhibit us, whether they be religious authorities, who tell us what you’re supposed to believe, or whether they be pop culture authorities, who tell you how you’re supposed to look, what you’re supposed to wear, what you’re supposed to buy, and what your play is supposed to be about.”


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