LAST SATURDAY night, a handful of people ambled out a small door onto Tremont Street, and the Atma Theatre closed its doors in the South End for the last time. Sam Samshak has moved his troupe out of the ghetto he grew up in--taken the impoverished Atma Theatre out of Castle Square and into a church basement. An exciting experiment of the arts in the ghetto has ended. But the Atma began anew Thursday evening at the Charles Street Meeting House in central Boston. It has not failed--only moved to where it can be seen.
The Atma began as a theatre without a base in a community without a theatre. Samshak hoped that he and the community could help one another, but both of them needed something more than the other could provide. The South End's cultural base could not subsidize the Atma as a suburban community might have, and any attempt at local season ticket sales proved impossible. In addition, the Atma immediately encountered the community's inherent hostility to outside intrusion.
In September of 1967 when Samuel Samshak was playing the crony in the Boston MacBird, two theatrical friends approached him with the idea of starting an experimental theatre somewhere in the Boston area. Between the three of them, Samshak, the actor, Jerry Reagan, the actor-director, and Ron Beaton, the light technician, they had the necessary qualifications. So with what little money Samshak had in the bank, they rented a storefront in the cinder-block beauty of BRA's Castle Square and transformed it into a theatre. On October 5, 1967, the Atma Theatre (then known as the Atma Coffee-house) opened with Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. The admission price was $1.50, and the coffee was free.
Of the three enterpreneurs, only Samshak remains now. Beaton and Reagan left in February of 1968. Beaton followed the rise and fall of the Light Company as a technician, while Reagan went to the Opera Company of Boston.
BUT FOR Shamshak, the Atma has become an object of extreme personal devotion. "It's something more than ego thing," he said, "the Atma has been my whole life for the last two years." And those two years have been anything but easy; the Atma has seen none of the instant success of such projects as Boston After Dark. The choice of the South End site had been a result of something more than pecuniary considerations. Samshak had grown up in the Castle Square area and had "kind of an emotional link" to the neighborhood.
The novel idea ran into some serious problems from the very beginning. Two weeks after opening night, the police shut down the Atma as a potential "disruption to the Community." But the coffeehouse was soon allowed to open again. While Samshak had no plans to disrupt the community, he soon found that the community would disrupt the Atma Windows, lights, typewriters, and tape recorders were vandalized; within the first two months, over $2,000 worth of damage was done. Guards were placed at the front and back doors to keep the community gangs from disrupting the performances. But keeping unwanted people out was not as difficult as getting the much wanted crowds to come in. There was no money to advertise and no crowds to provide an income.
Despite its financial difficulties, the Atma and Samshak persisted in the Castle Square site for nearly two years. Samshak himself found it necessary to supplement his $15-20 per week income by teaching at the Actor's Workshop in Boston.
He has managed to extend the Atma payroll to ten other actors and actresses as well. While the $15 a week salary is hardly an attractive inducement for well established actors, some do come to the Atma hoping for a big break. "They don't expect much when they come here," Samshak admitted. "They've got to start somewhere."
Though nearly all of the actors have come to the Atma as novices, the reviews indicate anything but amateurism. Lawrence Rubins and Robert Jones, the two mainstays outside of Samshak, directed four of the top twenty plays of 1968 chosen by Boston After Dark. (Leonard Melfi's Birdbath, LeRoi Jones' Slave and Dutchman, and Edward Albee's Death of Bessie Smith.) Samshak calls them the "two best directors in this town." They both came to the Atma as long-time friends of Samshak and have stayed for the entire two-year history.
Frank McCarthy came as an actor to make his debut in Slave, and has starred in Birdbath and Death of Bessie Smith since then. Gus Johnson, who was well received at the Atma in Slave and Dutchman, is one of the few actors to leave the theatre, going to the Seattle (Wash.) Repertory Company. William Utay, Rick Bailey, and Lelani Johnson (Bailey's wife) came up from Dallas, Texas and SMU to put together Bill Hanhoff's Owl and the Pussycat on ten days' notice. The production closed out the last two weeks of the Atma in Castle Square.
THE ACTORS perform as a tightly-knit ensemble, all tied together by the tough demands of this unique theatrical experiment. "It's a family in a sense," commented Samshak, "Not that we all sit down and eat supper together, but there is a real communication between the actors. That's the greatest thing about the Atma." Frank McCarthy described the group spirit as "a very comfortable life."
The actors all feel the growing pains of the Atma, and are required to adapt themselves at a moment's notice to the severe limitations constantly being set upon them. And the required adaptations are many. The very choice of plays is limited by the small cast of ten players. (Krapp's Last Tape has one character, Albee's Zoo Story has only two characters, and so on with the entire repertoire.)
But the physical barriers of the stage were not so easily overcome. The stage was so small that the actors could take only small unexcited strides. The streetlamp outside the old location sneaked through the blackened windows and ruined effective lighting techniques. And to complicate lighting even further, there was no money for a lighting board--lights could only be turned off and on with no control over their intensity. for seats the theatre had only 22 burlap-covered tables which could hold about ninety people.
Despite these stumbling blocks, the Atma perservered. Samshak was convinced that it would never fold as long as he kept producing good theatre.
But producing good theatre is thing more than a goal to Samshak. It is the essence of his whole involvement with the stage. To him, the social import of a dramatic experience is only secondary to its dramatic rightness. Although it may be possible for someone to deduce a social motif in the plays performed by the Atma, Samshak claims no such intention. "We're not carrying any political banners," he stated, "we're just doing the plays that we can perform best."