R.I.P. George Ferencz

Sad news: friend, colleague and mentor George Ferencz passed away back on Tuesday, September 14 following a long illness. George was a widely known, widely revered downtown stage director, best known for working with companies like La MaMa, Theater for the New City, INTAR and others over the past 40 years, and with Gene Frankel and his own company Impossible Ragtime prior to that. Ray Wise of Twin Peaks got his start in a couple of O’Neill productions George directed back in the ’70s. George was especially interested in incorporating jazz and rock and roll ideas into the aesthetic fabric of his productions. He directed 19 plays by Sam Shepard, worked extensively with Amiri Baraka, and developed original pieces with jazz great Max Roach, as well as with major New York voices like the journalists Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin. He also worked several times with Jean-Claude van Itallie, who, coincidentally, passed away five days earlier.

I love the photo above — it reflects how George looked when I first met him. He’d directed and presented the premiere of my one-act play The Strange Case of Grippo the Apeman in 2007, which I later presented in a full production at La MaMa in 2011 as part of my Tent Show Tetragrammaton. When I LAST saw George, at the production of Prague 1912 (2017) at Theater for the New City (which I reviewed here) he looked thinner and tired. It turns out that would be his last production as director.

I’d first met George around 2005 or 2006 when he presented a playreading by my then-girlfriend in the Club at La MaMa. He was a VERY loveable guy, down-to-earth, accessible, and he had the BEST laugh, hearty, loud and unfiltered. He was one of those rare experimental theatre artists who never lost his connection to that fundamental, populist entry point most of us start with. He wanted to wow people.

I had the honor of helping to prepare his official obit (printed mostly verbatim here), and in researching his life, I learned tons I didn’t know about him. For instance, that his first awareness of the theatre came from watching Little Rascals shorts, of which he clearly remained a big fan (all of those times when the kids made a curtain out of a quilt and a clothesline and put on a show!) Also, he got some of his first theatre experience doing shows at Karamu House in Cleveland, which we only learned about a few days ago for this piece about Frances E. Williams. And, one of his first professional jobs was a show he put together for Hanna-Barbera, a touring musical of their characters headlined by Huckleberry Hound (George plainly had a extensive working knowledge of the entire Hanna-Barbera cartoon universe — something you can’t say of every downtown stage director).

I keep up digging up more cool stuff about him. Like he directed the original production of Dan Therriault’s Battery in 1983. (Five years later I did a scene from that play at the Manhattan Punchline with a guy named Dennis Dooley! I wish I’d known of George’s connection to the play when we became acquainted years later…)

Here are some remarks on George’s passing from the great playwright Caridad Svich:

So sad to hear the news of George’s passing. Yes, indeed, he directed the world premiere of my play ANY PLACE BUT HERE at INTAR in 1992. The production was recorded and is in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection. It starred Jessica Hecht! Her first lead role right out of NYU! That was a heady time for me. my first NYC show. right after training with [Maria Irene] Fornes for four years. I wrote that play in INTAR’s Lab, and Irene was going to direct the premiere and then she bowed out because of a gig in Italy, which is when George stepped in. It was Max Ferra’s idea to have George direct it. (Irene ended up directing the play in 1995 at Theater for the New City). Anyway, at the time, I only knew George by reputation. his famous staging of TOOTH OF CRIME! We met and I found him to be wonderfully mischievous, risk-taking, fearless and genuinely committed to bringing out the best of everyone in the room. He had a terrific ear for rhythm and tempo in plays and an uncanny ability to embrace the sense of brutality and extremity in work with a sense of commitment and also respect and moral rigor. He understood jazz, and the modus operandi behind playing a rehearsal room as if it were a jam session. in that way. His adventurous and beautiful spirit – embracing contradictions in theatre and its ability to provoke – is something to marvel at. In the room, he always told me “never be afraid, even if it’s an idea that seems impossible.”

Perhaps the best way to get to know George is by listening to the man himself. Thanks, Jenne Vath, for helping me learn so much more about him, and for hooking me up with these clips:

A terrific two and a half hour interview with Casey Childs for the Primary Stages Off Broadway Oral History Project recorded in 2018, available here.

A 1985 conversation with Fritz Ertl about directing Shepard, presented by the American Theatre Wing, available here.

His recollections of working with Max Roach here on the Janus Adams Show