Teatro Teatro

By Regina Bartkoff

Late to the party with this one, but Charlie and I just binge-watched Ricky Gervais’s After Life (written and directed by, and starring Ricky Gervais himself), and like the Brits say, “It is brilliant.” Not only is it very funny, but it’s touching and deep; sad, but never maudlin. Gervais is  a good actor, and everyone in the show is on point; not a weak link in the whole cast. Everyone was so much fun to watch! No wonder Punk hit so big in England, where these kids—my generation—probably pogoed out of the womb with a sneer and wearing a dog collar. It’s in their blood. I loved the slang the Brits have that Gervais used generously and often.  “He’s a cunt.” “He’s a twat.” And my favorite: “You’re a daft cunt.” That word has a completely different meaning in England than it does here, and it’s not at all taboo to say it there. 

Ricky Gervais has an unexpectedly big heart, and it caught me by surprise and had me in tears. His love and respect for the outsiders, the weirdos, the forgotten ones, reminded me of the Lower East Side in the 1980s.

In the early ‘80s I started seeing people walking around kind of covered in dirt, wearing combat or motorcycle boots. The boots weren’t unusual, we all wore them; none of us had much money for clothes. My own combat boots, bought at a bums’ store on the Bowery, were last worn by a fallen Vietnam Vet. I was working as a waitress at Phebes on the Bowery, and getting ready for work, putting together ripped, stained clothes held together by safety pins, I would ask Charlie if I looked okay. His standard reply would be, “Yeah, it’s dark in there and they’ll think it’s Punk.” And they did. 

But these people I saw walking around covered in dirt seemed a little more extreme, even stranger than me. I soon found out they were squatters, taking over city-owned  buildings abandoned for decades on the Lower East Side. No plumbing, hence no showers, no electricity, no heat. They were going into those buildings and literally digging out years of debris and dirt with their own hands and making homes out of them. I thought: They better wear combat boots 24/7, if not, nails will probably go right up their feet. Like Ricky Gervais in After Life, these people were true outsiders, true individuals. Everyone marched to the beat of their own drummer.

Back then, I wasn’t involved much in the art scene, but I was doing a lot of theatre and independent films. It definitely was not Hollywood. You’d run into theatre directors, just walking down Ludlow Street or East Third, or in Tompkins Park, who would ask you to be in their play or film. That’s where I got my experience in acting. I’ve written about this before, but when I was working at El Sombrero, whenever I had a show to be in for three weeks I would just say, “Teatro, Teatro.” They would say, “Teatro! Teatro!”’ and let me go. Rent was low, and I could take off from my waitress job anytime I wanted as long as I had someone cover for me.

The Living Theatre was on East Third Street then, and I learned from experience to hide in the back whenever I went to one of their shows. Because more than likely at some point, actors (maybe unclothed) would run into the audience and grab people to interact with, or pull up on stage, half the time while asking these audience members if they would like to take their clothes off too. I definitely didn’t want to get caught in that again. Especially the taking off the clothes part. 

At some point, in the 1990s, I was actually in a play where I played the legendary actress and founder of The Living Theatre, the one and only Judith Malina. One night she came to the show. I was so nervous, worried she would hate me. In the play, I, as Judith Malina, was being interviewed in a radio show. I began, “The power structure in America…” and in a few minutes I could hear her laugh, and laugh. A million thoughts go by in seconds when you are on stage, but I remember feeling, “I think she’s enjoying it.” After the show she came to me—I towered over this tiny powerhouse of a woman—looked up, and said, “You know, I was once young and beautiful too.” I told her it was such a great honor to play her, and it was. She smiled at me, pleased, and walked away.