The word “crazy” comes up fairly regularly when talking to people about the Mabou Mines theater company.
Take one of Sharon Ann Fogarty’s early experiences with that fabled group — nine years before she became one of its co-artistic directors. It was on “Mabou Mines Lear,” a gender-reversed production of “King Lear” — not obvious back in 1990 — that was directed by Lee Breuer and starred Ruth Maleczech as the monarch.
“The opening scene had dogs and all these kiddos so my job was to pick the kids up around five o’clock, drive them over, do the scene and drive them back,” Fogarty, now 65, said. “Then I would come back, and I was doing various other parts. One of them was holding down Isabell Monk while Honora Fergusson gouged her eyes out. It was kind of a crazy, crazy time,” she continued, “but it was really fun.”
Starting Thursday, Mabou Mines is celebrating 50 years of theatrical experimentation with a three-day megamix, a retrospective of some of its most notorious, daring, beloved, memorable or, yes, craziest projects. (The company is actually 52 years old but the celebration was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.) The works will include live readings, concerts and films, in conjunction with a companion exhibition of archival material, at the Mabou Mines home in the 122 Community Center, in the East Village, where the group settled in 2017 after decades of a peripatetic existence.
The performing arts, by definition, exist in the moment, so mounting a greatest-hits package — especially of an Off Off Broadway company — is a daunting task. Mabou Mines got the idea for its extended birthday party after a founding member, JoAnne Akalaitis, spearheaded a 12-hour tribute to the playwright María Irene Fornés at the Public Theater in 2018. “So when we came to talk about Mabou Mines’s 50th, JoAnne said, ‘Why don’t we just do a marathon of all the pieces?’” Fogarty recalled.
This would have been more than 60 works, so they settled on 31. “Some are going to be excerpts, some are going to be full, some are just going to be the music,” Fogarty said. “Some of them are an hour, or you get 15 minutes, like a juicy scene or something.”
The programs will bring former company members back to the fold, along with simpatico guests such as Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel, who will perform Franz Xaver Kroetz’s “Through the Leaves,” produced by Mabou Mines in 1984, on Thursday. The following day Akalaitis will direct David Greenspan, Ellen McLaughlin and Ellen McElduff, a former company member, in Samuel Beckett’s “Play,” which Mabou Mines staged in 1971.
The time machine will travel all the way back to Mabou Mines’s first project, “The Red Horse Animation” (1970), which was conceived during a retreat in the isolated Nova Scotia town that gave the company its name. On Saturday, Akalaitis — who was in the original production — will reprise it alongside a pair of first-generation Mabou heirs: the writer, director and actress Clove Galilee, who is Breuer and Maleczech’s daughter, and the choreographer David Neumann, the son of the Mabou members Fergusson and Frederick Neumann, who died in 2012. (Akalaitis’s then-husband, Philip Glass, another founding member, wrote the music.)
Tight family bonds have always been part of the Mabou Mines matrix — the group, born out of the experimentations of the 1960s, blurred the personal, the artistic and the political. Akalaitis, 84, recalls that the children of company members tagged along on tour in the 1970s and babysitters were in the line budgets for rehearsals — an afterthought for many current theaters.
“Looking back, it was based on a very sound socialist principle that we are all equal and we all get paid the same amount of money, whether we’re working or not,” she said of the company’s precepts. “And when there was no money, there was no money — there wasn’t money for some.”
Breuer, who died last year, had quickly emerged as a dominant personality, and he directed some of the troupe’s most famous shows, such as “Peter and Wendy” (the story of Peter Pan told by a solo actress and puppets, in 1997) and “Mabou Mines Dollhouse” (Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” with the men played by actors under 5 feet tall and the women by actresses who were nearly 6 feet, in 2003).
At the same time the company embraced decision-making by consensus, which did not necessarily help speed things along. “Consensus building is very, very hard but I also think it’s the only way to do it,” Akalaitis said. “If you have a group of people who basically have big egos and don’t want someone else to be the boss, the only way to do it is that everyone’s the boss.”
Even now, the company split leadership responsibilities among four co-artistic directors: Fogarty, Karen Kandel, Mallory Catlett and Carl Hancock Rux.
The major reason Mabou Mines has endured for a half-century is that it has always drawn like-minded people who thrived on experimentation. Kandel remembered her first experience with the company, working on “Mabou Mines Lear” with Breuer and Maleczech. “There was a kind of trust that whoever was doing whatever role, you would find your way there,” Kandel, 69, said in a video conversation.
“There was the shy me and then there was the thing inside of me, and that’s what Lee wanted to see come out,” she continued. “One time I said, ‘Why am I going to climb up this telephone pole?’ Lee’s response was something like, ‘Don’t ask me those questions, that Stanislavski [expletive]. Just climb up the pole!’” (Kandel would go on to star in the Mabou hit “Peter and Wendy.”)
Past and present are inextricably entwined in “Moi-Même,” a movie directed by Breuer that the artists who would go on to form Mabou Mines (except for Akalaitis and Glass) shot in Paris in 1968 and 1969 but never finished.
Breuer’s son Mojo Lorwin retrieved the footage and during the pandemic went over all 16 hours of it with his father on Zoom — there was no script and the dialogue was never dubbed in, so Lorwin, 38, was trying to figure out some sort of through line. “I did the vast majority of the work on it after he died but it really feels like a collaboration because he gave me this stuff to work with, but he left me all this space, too,” he said. “So I’ve written a script, I decided what these things mean.”
On Saturday, “Moi-Même” will be presented as a work-in-progress backed by a live band and the Foley artist Jay Peck, with Kandel voicing all the adults and Declan Kenneally all the kids.
In a way, it will be a bridge between Mabou Mines’s prehistory and what may lie ahead. “The future will be, hopefully, something that still feels like us,” Kandel said, “but won’t look like us.”