Longtime Downtown Theater Director George Ferencz Passes Away at 74

Ferencz was a mainstay at LA MAMA, THEATER FOR THE NEW CITY, NEW FEDERAL THEATER, and go-to director for Shepard, Baraka, van Itallie, Wellman and Max Roach.

By: Sep. 23, 2021
Longtime Downtown Theater Director George Ferencz Passes Away at 74

Stage Director George Ferencz (1947-2021), passed away on September 14 following a long illness according to his wife of 35 years, Sally Lesser. For over a half century, Ferencz was a beloved fixture of New York's Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theatre scenes, directing premieres and revivals of works by such playwrights as Sam Shepard, Aishah Rahman, Amiri Baraka, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Mac Wellman, and Yasmine Rana as well as older canonical works by Eugene O'Neill, Bertolt Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Sean O'Casey, and Agatha Christie. He also collaborated on original pieces with artists from outside the theatre, such as journalists Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, and jazz great Max Roach. As a resident director at La MaMa from 1982 he spearheaded scores of original productions and readings. He founded and ran La MaMa's Experiments Reading series from 1998 through 2014.

He directed Mr. Breslin's play THE QUEEN OF THE LEAKY ROOF CIRCUIT at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1988, and collaborated with Pete Hamill and Max Roach on a jazz musical about Brooklyn, BROKEN LAND, which has yet to be produced.

Ferencz was 74. He was born February 3, 1947 in the Hungarian Catholic neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, where he got some of his earliest experience as a presenter organizing rock and roll dances for the local C.Y.O. His love for dramatics began to gel with apprenticeships at Kenley Players and at The Karamu House, Cleveland's ground-breaking African American theatre company. First attending the University of Detroit on a journalism scholarship, he then transferred to Kent State University in the late '60s, where he directed plays by Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit and Peter Ustinov, graduating with a B.A. in theatre in 1970. Ferencz worked as a stage manager as part of his early professional training including the infamous musical adaptation of Come Back, Little Sheba entitled Sheba! Ferencz later organized and directed touring productions featuring Hanna-Barbera characters including The Huckleberry Hound All-Star Review which was performed at the White House and New York's 3,000 seat Beacon Theatre.

Ferencz moved to New York in 1970 and began to study with Gene Frankel. In 1975, he co-founded The Impossible Ragtime Theatre with Ted Story, Pam Mitchell, and Cynthia Crane. His breakthrough came the following year with hit productions of two Eugene O'Neill plays starring his long time friend Ray Wise. Ferencz's version of The Hairy Ape was noted for its Expressionistic physical direction; in Dynamo, he reversed the character's lines so that they would speak their sub-text, and "think" their intended dialogue. These innovations resulted in rave reviews by important critics such as Mel Gussow of The New York Times, and the theatre world began to take notice.

In 1979, Ferencz directed Shep in Rep (The Rock 'n Roll Plays) featuring Cowboy Mouth, Mad Dog Blues, The Tooth of Crime, Melodrama Play, and Melodrama Play, the first of his 19 productions of Sam Shepard plays. The following Summer, his collaborations with the late poet/playwright Amiri Baraka began with the production of Slave Ship and At The Dim Cracker Party Convention. His long association with La MaMa and its founder Ellen Stewart began in 1982 with the production of Money, A Jazz Opera, with book by Amiri Baraka and music by George Gruntz. Through Baraka Ferencz met jazz great Max Roach. Their collaboration began in 1984 with Shepard Sets, three Shepard plays in rolling rep: Angel City, Back Bog Beast Bait and Suicide in B Flat. At La MaMa he found his artistic home . There, Ferencz and his collaborators created a number of productions that explored his notions of rock and roll theatre and acting styles that were in the vein of jazz improvisation.

Obie and Emmy Award winning actor Ray Wise said, "George reawakened the actor in me and set me on a path that I still follow today."

Since 1985, Ferencz directed numerous productions at Theater for the New City. TNC Founder and Artistic Director Crystal Field said,"George Ferencz was a one-of-a-kind. He had the political and historical understanding that is a necessity for Socially Relevant Theater. He was a Brechtian Director whose mission was not only to engage you emotionally, but also, to make you Think and Think Hard, about the World in which the story Lives. And surely, he knew the humorous and the salacious in literature. Two reasons to love the plays and musicals he chose to bring to us. He made Art Live in our Hearts and our Minds! And he has left a legacy of a new audience for a New Theater."

Mia Yoo, current artistic director of La MaMa states, "George had an innate ability to make challenging, non-traditional texts and plays breathe and come alive on the stage. Beside all the remarkable productions he directed, Ellen Stewart had a special relationship with him and would call on him when things were not working on particular projects. 'George, come fix it,' she would say. He was deeply tied to La MaMa and to the non-conventional writers who joined him in breaking ground to create new forms in theatre making."

Besides La MaMa companies Ferencz worked with extensively over the decades included INTAR (where he co-founded the Hispanic American Music Theatre Lab with Tito Puente), Theater for the New City, and Woodie King's New Federal Theatre where he directed the premiere of Baraka's Boy and Tarzan Appear in a Clearing with music by Hugh Masekela. His collaborations with Roach took him to Lincoln Center, as well as the Colosseum in Verona, Italy. Regionally, he worked at such companies as the Actors Theatres of Louisville, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The Cleveland Playhouse, the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, San Diego Rep, and Syracuse Stage. In addition to founding The Impossible Ragtime Theater, Ferencz was also founder and producing director of CEMENT and The Experimentals. Ferencz directed internationally in England (Anna O's Private Theater), In Germany (Cowboy Mouth, In Concert, The Lady Aoi), and in Italy (Conjur Woman).

Ferencz taught directing in the graduate department of Columbia University for 15 years, and both acting and directing at Yale University, Brooklyn College, NYU, Marymount Manhattan, Michael Howard Studio, Lee Strasberg Institute, and Kent State. He guest lectured at Cornell University.

"We would regularly run into his colleagues and former students on the street," said actor Jenne Vath, who worked in numerous Ferencz productions, "They would invariably say that George changed their life. George was a great spirit and a rock star of a director who understood the music and magic of theater deep in his core. He channeled that inspiration to his colleagues and ultimately to the audiences who experienced his brilliant visceral productions."

Ferencz had dodged potentially lethal danger on at least twice previous occasions. He was still a student at Kent State University at the time of the 1970 National Guard Shootings that killed 4 and wounded 9. And he was in the Mercer Arts Center near NYU at the time of the building collapse on August 3, 1973, in which four people were killed.

Ferencz is survived by his wife of 35 years and collaborator on over 65 theater productions, three-time Emmy Award winning costume designer Sally Lesser and their son Jack Ferencz.

Funeral arrangements by Brooklyn Heights and Hill Funeral Directors.


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