Theater In Conversation
Beckett Rosset with Ellen Frances
Last October, in a crowded Lincoln Center cafe, a self-described stage producer seated at the table beside me piqued my attention.
He was going on about underground plays taking place in a private residence downtown: “Apparently the place is just crazy, anything goes! And it’s run by this guy connected to Samuel Beckett,” he marveled. In the weeks following, I continued to overhear similar conversations around the city about poetry readings and performances by new playwrights at what people were simply calling “Beckett’s.” Unable to remain in the dark any longer, I started asking questions. One DM and a phone call later, I found myself outside of a 1920’s West Village townhome in disrepair. When the unmarked door opened, a man introduced himself as Beckett and ushered me upstairs.
Seated in a worn chair beside a burning fireplace, I marveled at the beautiful chaos that is Backett’s living quarters. There were piles of hundreds of books, hand-drawn works of art, old chandeliers and original Evergreen Review posters hanging on the walls. Across the room was a black and white portrait by Richard Avedon. It showed the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, poet, and theater artist Samuel Beckett with his arm around a little boy. Taken in 1979 and aptly titled Beckett and Beckett, the little boy in the photo is a young Beckett Rosset, son of Samuel Beckett’s legendary publisher Barney Rosset. As I had recently learned, he is also the man behind what is New York City’s most notorious independent, underground theater.
Rough around the edges, yet simultaneously quite elegant, he had an uncanny resemblance to his father as he walked around the room with a lit cigarette in his mouth. We talked for an hour about writing, literature and art. Then I made a proposal: I wanted to perform poetry, in front of my paintings, via nineteenth century balletic-pantomime. It’s a forgotten artform for which there is next to no venue in the city, and possibly no audience. I was prepared to be turned down. Beckett looked excited, though. He took a drag of his cigarette, studying the calendar. Turning back to me he asked, “How about after the holidays?” I agreed, and just before midnight in the first week of February, I stepped down the creaking staircase leading from his apartment to the ground-floor venue in costume. Beckett was on the mic giving a speech about donations to his endeavors, which rely solely on contributions. Through the hallway I could see a surprisingly large crowd of people, which included notable authors, producers, and artists.
A melody began to play in the distance on the old Steinway baby grand, then the room went quiet. I entered down the pathway Beckett had cleared for me. Two weeks later, on the afternoon of February 14, I sat down with Beckett in his apartment to talk about the impact he’s making on the arts from the underground.
Ellen Frances (Rail): I heard a lot about you around town last year, initially, I think, because of Fire Wars.
Beckett Rosset: That’s Cassidy Grady’s play. She was in an earlier play here by Matt Gasda called Dimes Square, which had been in the New York Times. After that came Fire Wars.
Rail: And she premiered that here?
Rosset: Yeah, and she just did a new play last night in Brooklyn. I think it's an honor to maybe be a stepping stone for people’s careers. Even if it’s just through word of mouth, if people then move on to bigger and better things, to me that’s part of the purpose of what I’m doing actually.
Rail: You get pretty big crowds for it being word of mouth.
Rosset: I don’t do much promoting because that would destroy everything.
Rail: When I performed here though, there were hundreds of people. What motivated you to start having these events?
Rosset: It was moving into this building and meeting Mary, the original owner. She spent her entire life supporting artistic expression, in particular it was theater that she loved. I never had a vision of it becoming what it has. I was just taking things as they came, but it organically grew into what it is now. Different playwrights have shown their work here and then I started the Tense reading series. Other types of performances were incorporated after having met so many people, such as yourself, who are incredibly talented in different artistic fields. I thought: if I could give these performing artists an opportunity to show their work too, why not?
Rail: And how does Tense fit into all of this?
Rosset: Tense predates the venue; I’ve always had this publishing desire. I’ve gone through various iterations of ideas, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’m ready to make Tense, the magazine, a physical reality. I think it’s an excellent vehicle to get even more voices heard.
Rail: One of the things I find so interesting about what you are doing, especially in the midst of social media trends and influencers, is that you don’t really care about any of that. How do you decide who performs?
Rosset: I think a lot of it has to do with who I encounter in life. It never hurts to have some people who are established writers or performers, especially if I like them. If I meet someone though, even if I’ve never seen them, or read them, if I like them as a person—I guess it just comes down to that. I follow my gut. I’m a gambler in more than one sense of the word. I just kind of go with it.
Rail: You’re also a multifaceted artist on top of producing these events. Do you want to eventually focus on one thing?
Rosset: I have a really hard time focusing, but I’d say my oldest and deepest dream is to be a writer, without a doubt. Not just because I’m named after Samuel Beckett, or because my father had Grove Press, but I did grow up in that world. At one point I felt like I had become some kind of Beckett character. I don’t know if I’m trying, now, to outgrow that, but I think writing is where my heart really lies. There is this constant internal conflict though: Do I want to produce these events, which is insanely exhausting, but can be really rewarding? Do I want to be a publisher, which I have a very deep attachment to because of my father?
Rail: And now you're acting.
Rosset: Yeah, I’ve only been in one play here; it was Guerilla Days written by Roman D’Ambrosio. It was a short play, but I forgot some lines. [Laughs] I looked out into the audience’s faces at one point and once I did that, it was over.
Rail: Yeah, when I performed people were almost face to face with me, not like a traditional theater. For a second, in the beginning, it scared me! But I think it’s amazing the audience is so diverse. I saw people of all ages, professionals, artists…
Rosset: I’m desirous of being inclusive of everyone possible. If you can’t create an atmosphere where all are welcome, something’s wrong.
Rail: That atmosphere seems to generate an energy that’s really unique.
Rosset: I feel there’s a great desire from people to be a part of something like this; maybe it’s post lockdown, but that’s over simplifying it. There’s something magical about this space. As far as my energy, I have kind of an attitude like, I don’t give a fuck. I’m going to do what I’m going to do, consequences be damned. If I’m doing something I truly believe in, I’m willing to go to the ends of the earth to fight for it. I think people feel that from me. There’s no pretense here. People—audience, performers—can just come and be themselves.
Rail: Giving a stage to that level of artistic freedom seems so rare these days. I don’t know if you realize how important what you’re doing is.
Rosset: I don’t know if I do. I don’t know if I should. Maybe it’s better I don’t?