A Theater Icon, Still Going Strong

“The thing we love about honoring the Legends of Off Broadway is this: After long and sustained careers, they all continue to do amazing things.”
Robert Kalfin looked more like a hoofer than a theater director as he kicked up his heels in Three Mile Harbor. Durell Godfrey

“Legendary” is a word sometimes used inexactly, but in the case of Robert Kalfin, it fits. 

In 2015, the Off Broadway Alliance bestowed on Mr. Kalfin its Legend of Off Broadway award, other recipients of which have included Edward Albee, A.R. Gurney, Wallace Shawn, Terrence McNally, Estelle Parsons, Andre Gregory, Athol Fugard, and Harvey Fierstein.

According to Peter Breger, the alliance’s chairman, “The thing we love about honoring the Legends of Off Broadway is this: After long and sustained careers, they all continue to do amazing things.” None more so than Mr. Kalfin who, almost 60 years after directing his first New York City production, is at the moment involved with three plays, one of which, “The Resettlement of Isaac,” will have a free staged reading at the Southampton Cultural Center on Monday evening at 7:30 as part of the center’s 2017 Jewish Film Festival.

The play, written by Robert Karmon, is based on the true story of Isaac Gochman, a 17-year-old from Rovno, Poland, who was the sole survivor of a Nazi massacre of 20,000 people, including his entire family. Grazed, assumed dead, and tossed into a mass grave, Isaac survived and, after months alone in the Polish forest, joined a group of Russian partisans who blew up Nazi trains.

Mr. Karmon met Mr. Gochman when he was in his 70s and living at Co-op City in the Bronx. Nobody, not even his American wife, knew his story, but he shared it with the writer, who made it the basis of a novel, “Isaac,” which was published in April.

“I’ve done staged readings of many of Robert’s plays,” said Mr. Kalfin. “He has become a friend, and I urged him to do a theatrical version of Isaac’s story.” The play opens after the events of the novel, when Isaac is an old man living in New York, and moves back and forth in time between present and past.

Mr. Kalfin grew up in the Bronx and attended the High School of Performing Arts, but it was at Alfred University that he found his calling. “At first I had no idea what I had lucked into. It had a two-man theater department, but they were performing the plays of Brecht as they were being translated, they did Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood,’ Anouilh, Giraudoux, and all the other avant-garde playwrights in Europe.”

From Alfred he went on to the Yale School of Drama. “I had come from a different world than most of my schoolmates there. They had been doing remakes of Broadway plays and comedies, and some serious plays, but they didn’t have the background I had. I almost got thrown out because I wanted to do a play by Brecht as my thesis production.”

He managed to graduate in 1957 and directed his first New York City production in 1959. “At that time, the Off Broadway movement in New York was ‘Threepenny Opera’ and ‘Summer and Smoke.’ I had graduated into the same alternate theater stuff I was doing in college. Except Off Broadway was commercial at that time. The idea of nonprofit and subscription theater was just beginning to emerge.”

Mr. Kalfin wanted to develop a nonprofit theater whose work was both professional and innovative, like the great theaters of Europe “that were subsidized up the wazoo because it wasn’t always about asses in the seats.” He founded the Chelsea Theater Center in 1965, and it became the resident theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 1968 to 1978.

“Our mission was to do what nobody else was doing. I directed Kleist’s ‘The Prince of Homburg,’ which everybody said was a great play but nobody had seen. I did it with Frank Langella. I put on Genet’s ‘The Screens,’ which had a cast of 40 and was about seven hours long.”

“The idea of subscription audiences, which enabled nonprofit theaters to get money up front, was new to New York City, and I hit it at a wonderful time. But the kind of government and foundation funding that was available in the 1960s and early ‘70s In 1977, he was one of eight American theater directors flown to Leningrad for “14 days of being drunk on vodka and seeing plays day and night.” After seeing a performance of “Strider,” a full-length musical from the Tolstoy story, he adapted it for the American theater and directed it at both the Chelsea Theater Company and on Broadway. 

“I think I’m the only person who did a Brechtian version of ‘The Solid Gold Cadillac,’ ” he said. He is most likely the only one to direct a production of “The Skin of Our Teeth” in Siberia at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Kalfin is working on a book for young directors titled “Making It Safe to Be Unsafe.” “It’s mostly about what a director can do to create the environment for the magic to happen.”

When asked if various theories of acting have affected his approach, he said, “All theater training is about the same stuff: Who is it, what do they want, why do they want it, how do they express it. It’s down to that, no matter what you’re doing.”

He first came to the East End in 1967 and purchased his current house, a stone’s throw from Three Mile Harbor, in 1970. “It was a summer shack. I realized if I added insulation and bedrooms and bathrooms I could rent it for part of the season and be able to keep it. It’s primarily a source of income, but I escape here to prepare for work I have to do in the city.”