Lee Kissman Alternative Theater Collection

Casting call for Atlantic Crossing by Charles Mingus III and directed by Lee Kissman. Handmade on a business-sized envelope by Mingus and thumb-tacked to the bulletin board at Theater for the New City, NYC, 1972.

In 2019 Washington University Libraries acquired the Lee Kissman Alternative Theater Collection, a new milestone for the breadth of the Modern Literature Collection. As the title suggests, the collection belonged to Lee Kissman–an actor, playwright and director who has been active in experimental and alternative theater in New York City and Los Angeles for decades.

Lee Kissman in My Daddy is Dying by Tom Sankey directed by Ralph Cook at Theater Genesis, 1965

Kissman was a founding member of the Theater Genesis troupe, which was, along with the Caffe Cino, La MaMa, and the Judson Poets Theatre, one of the key venues of the Off-Off-Broadway movement in Lower Manhattan in the 1960s. In October 1964 Theater Genesis premiered Sam Shepard’s first two plays, Cowboys and The Rock Garden. Kissman appeared in the latter, and in several other Shepard plays for Theater Genesis, at other theaters, and on the radio, in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Script for “Cowboys” by Sam Shepard

Program for “Cowboys” and “The Rock Garden”

The mimeographed script of Cowboys in the collection is the only known extant typescript of the play. The collection contains other scripts, posters, playbills and photographs from other Shepard plays, including Up to Thursday and The Unseen Hand, for which he won an Obie Award from the Village Voice in 1970.  The collection also holds the script for Man Fly, an unproduced, unpublished adaptation of “Dr. Faustus” by Shepard.

Silkscreen poster by Tom Sankey for “Forensic & the Navigators”

Kissman appeared in many other Theater Genesis productions, including The Hawk, an improvisational play by Murray Mednick and Anthony Barsha. The collection includes posters, playbills, clippings and a published book related to the play. He has also directed and written for the stage. His scripts for Stone and H Isolation are among the dozens in the collection. The majority of scripts were used by Kissman for performances and as such many bear his notations, annotations, and various other signs of use.

Silkscreen poster by Tom Sankey for “The Hawk”

In the 1970s Kissman moved to Los Angeles, where he was a founding member of the Padua Hills Playwright’s Festival and continued to work extensively in alternative theatre, with playwrights such as María Irene Fornés, John Steppling, Murray Mednick, and many others. He won multiple Drama-Logue and LA Weekly Theater Awards, including a 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Double-exposure of Kissman and the cast of The Unseen Hand during a rehearsal at La MaMa, 1969

Kissman with Stephanie Gordon and Joyce Aaron, performing in Up to Thursday at the Cherry Lane Theater, 1965

Kissman as Willie the Space Freak in The Unseen Hand at La MaMa 1969/70

Throughout his long career, Kissman has collected and kept a great deal of ephemeral material related not only to the productions he appeared in, but also to events and shows produced by friends and colleagues. Besides working play scripts, there are photographs, posters and other ephemera, as well as an extensive collection of programs from plays Kissman attended in both NYC and LA, some signed or otherwise personalized for Kissman by the performers.

Letter from San Shepard to Lee Kissman

In 2015, Contemporary Theatre Review published Kissman’s article, 50 Years On: Theater Genesis and Sam Shepard, with an introduction by Stephen Bottoms, author of Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement. In the above letter, Shepard compliments Kissman on the article, calling it “the best piece ever on the time & the people” for the way it captured the experience of those early years with Theater Genesis. The correspondence series also includes a letter from Shepard to Kissman in 1968, after Shepard had moved to San Francisco.

Kissman’s “Hand People” certificate for his performance in “The Unseen Hand”

Review of Up to Thursday from 1965

Awards, from the serious to the less-serious (see “Hand People” above), are a part of the collection as well. Clippings of reviews of many plays further deepen the research potential of this rich, heretofore un-mined resource. Contact us with any questions or requests to access the collection.

About the author

Joel is the curator of the Modern Literature Collection at Washington University in St. Louis. He also curates rare books and manuscripts at WUSTL.