George Ferencz, innovative theater director, dies at 74

Opera theater


George Ferencz, a director who was a regular at theaters known for his experimental work like La MaMa ETC in Manhattan, died on September 14 in Brooklyn. He was 74 years old.

His family said the cause was cardiac arrest.

M. Ferencz (pronounced FAIR-ents) has produced plays by strangers as well as writers such as Sam Shepard, Amiri Baraka and Mac Wellman. A specialty was to give surprising new interpretations to previously staged works, both classical and contemporary. Another infused productions with music in unusual ways; he collaborated on several occasions with jazz drummer Max Roach.

Mr. Ferencz first caught the attention of the New York theater world as the founder and co-artistic director of the Impossible Ragtime Theater, known as IRT, which has presented a wide range of productions in many small spaces from the mid-1970s. His 1976 staging of “The Hairy Ape,” a 1922 Eugene O’Neill play, gave the work a visceral immediacy.

“The main reason you go to shows off Broadway is a one in a thousand chance of finding a production as good as the Impossible Ragtime Theater version of” The Hairy Ape “by Eugene O’Neill,” Glenne Currie from United Press International wrote.

Mr. Ferencz achieved another success soon after with a more obscure O’Neill play, “Dynamo”.

“If lesser plays by great playwrights are to be seen,” Mel Gussow wrote in a New York Times review, “then Mr. Ferencz’s productions could serve as models.”

Mr. Ferencz left the IRT in 1977 but continued to direct Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway, including a mini-festival of Shepard plays at Columbia University in 1979, shortly after Mr. Shepard won the Pulitzer Prize for “Buried Child”.

Two years later, Mr. Ferencz put on a full production of one of these pieces under the title “Cowboy Mouth (in Concert)”. Here he revisited “Cowboy Mouth”, which Mr. Shepard and Patti Smith first wrote and performed in 1971. Mr. Ferencz’s production, with Brooks McKay and Annette Kurek in roles created by Mr. Shepard and Mrs. Smith, imagined their back-and-forth exchanges like a rock concert.

“The result,” Mr. Gussow wrote in The Times, “is a scorching, surreal 70 minutes that in their own way come closer to Shepard’s anarchic spirit than some elaborate productions of more complete plays. “

Among Mr. Ferencz’s collaborations, Mr. Baraka notably conducted his “Boy and Tarzan Appear in Clearing” at the New Federal Theater in Henry Street Settlement in 1981.

The following year, Mr. Ferencz began a long association with Ellen Stewart and her influential experimental theater, La MaMa, in Lower Manhattan, conducting a part of “Money, a Jazz Opera”, composed by George Gruntz with a book by Mr. Baraka. He founded La MaMa’s Experiments reading series for experimental work in 1998 and directed it for 16 years.

Mr. Ferencz has directed far beyond the downtown New York stage, directing productions at the Actors Theater of Louisville in Kentucky, the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia, the San Diego Repertory Theater and in many other places.

“I think of theater as a hammer,” he told the Bangor Daily News in 1979, when he was guest director of a production of Donald Freed’s “Inquest” at the University of Maine, “aggressive and highly theatrical, something you can’t get by flipping the switch on the television. It must have a show and shock value.

George Michael Ferencz was born on February 3, 1947 in a Hungarian Catholic neighborhood in Cleveland. Her father, George John Ferencz, owned an auto parts store and her mother, Anne (Haydu) Ferencz, was a housewife and former beauty queen.

He studied journalism at the University of Detroit but transferred to Kent State University in Ohio, where he studied theater, directing plays by Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit and d ‘others. He obtained a license in 1970 and soon after moved to New York.

In 1969 he married Pam Mitchell, who founded the IRT with him, Ted Story and Cynthia Crane. The couple divorced in 1978 and in 1986 married Sally Lesser, a well-known costume designer he had worked with for years; they have collaborated on some 65 productions.

She survives him, as does their son, Jack.

In addition to his work on La MaMa, Mr. Ferencz was a favorite of Crystal Field, co-founder and artistic director of Theater for the New City.

“He had the political and historical understanding that is a necessity for socially relevant theater,” she said in a statement. “He was a Brechtian director whose mission was not only to engage you emotionally, but also to make you think and think seriously about the world the story lives in.”

Among Mr. Ferencz’s frequent collaborators were Mr. Roach, whom he met at a party at Mr. Baraka’s; they joined forces in 1984 for a staging of three Shepard pieces performed in repertoire, with Mr. Roach providing original music. Among their later efforts was a jazz version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” staged at the San Diego Rep in 1987.

“George loves jazz and conducts like that,” Mr. Roach, who died in 2007, told the San Francisco Examiner in 1987. “He kind of lets things go the way people like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington would. He knows where he wants to go, but he gives everyone a chance to contribute.