Cubiculo Theatre: What’s in a Name?
Every neighborhood, street, and building in New York has a history. Sometimes all that is left is an obscure name. That is what has become of the Cubiculo Condominium at 414 West 51st Street, which is described on a real estate site as a fabulous brownstone penthouse duplex with 4 bedrooms, 3 full baths "right out of La Bohème but without all the coughing and the poverty." The condo in Clinton is the former site of the Cubiculo Theatre, which operated as an experimental theatre and home for the National Shakespeare Company from 1968 to well into the 1990s.
I know this because I have had the pleasure to process the materials that the theatre donated to the New York Public Library. If you are interested in the history of Off-Off -Broadway experimental theatre, this collection illustrates the kind of commitment to programming and management that it takes to run a successful operation. The Cubiculo Theatre records are primarily comprised of press releases, programs, fliers, and reviews for the theatre's programming from 1968 to 1977.
The Cube, as it was known, opened in 1968 as a rent-free showcase theatre that encouraged artists to try out new ideas and work in an atmosphere that cultivated creativity, discovery, and growth. The founders, Phillip Meister and Elaine Sulka, made a point of letting audiences know that what they were seeing were sometimes works in progress. As a result, The Cube fostered the careers of many artists, including Israel Horovitz, an Obie Award winning playwright and founder of the New York Playwrights Lab. Horovitz wrote Author! Author!, a semi-autobiographical film about the life of a playwright, starring Al Pacino. He is also known as the father of Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. Horovitz hosted an annual festival at Cubiculo, featuring plays written by his students at Brandeis.
I found this letter written in 1976, when the neighborhood was known as Hell's Kitchen, by a patron from Brooklyn after seeing a play in the festival:
On Sunday June 13th, I attended the play "Friends Indeed." To get to your theater, I had to pass through one of New York City's slum areas, which was deplorable in its poverty and human degradation. The streets were littered with debris and filth.
On seeing the play by David Cohen, while very clever in presentation and well enacted by the cast, I couldn't help but compare the morals of the characters with the degraded surrounding neighborhood. These characters, though college graduates, never lifted themselves out of the engulfing mire all around them.
I am a mature person and am not affected or influenced by such material, but I worry about the young, impressionable individual who is being erroneously indoctrinated by such philosophy.
If you want to clean up New York, and the face of the earth for that matter, we have to be solicitous of everyone in all stages of life, and the way to do it is clean up your mentality and morals.
When I came across the building’s listing I had to laugh. The building is not very far away from its La Bohème days. In fact, I am sure the ghosts of Philip Meister and Elaine Sulka still inhabit the space. Not only did they run the theatre until their deaths, Meister in 1982, and Sulka in 1994, but their friends and families held both of their memorial services at the Cubiculo. As they say, if walls could talk!
If you want to explore more of the collection, consult the Cubiculo Theatre records in the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. You will find programs, reviews, fliers, biographical information for the cast and crews of performances, and information on two of Israel Horovitz's plays produced at Cubiculo, Dr. Hero and the First, the Last and the Middle. There is also programming information on the many dance, music, film, and poetry readings held at the theatre, including performances by The Last Poets, Diana di Prima, and a play written by Joyce Carol Oates. In addition to the Cubiculo Theatre records, researchers can find additional information in the Cubiculo records housed in the Music Division.