October 5, 2018 at 11:11 am PDT | by Susan Hornik
Manhattan 1980s and 1990s East Village comes to life onstage in Hollywood

Riot police faced off with squatters and anarchist protesters in Tompkins Square in the 1980s. The protesters demanded that the sprawling Tent City in the park remain until the city housed the homeless. There were frequent clashes with police, the biggest being the 1988 riot over a curfew for the park. An event that set the tone for the next decade of life in the East Village. (Brooklyn College Library Archives, photo by Betsy Herzog)

In late 1980s Manhattan, part of the “East Village” locals know as Alphabet City was a kind of cultural soup that heralded today’s more socially conscious world.  More than 750 homeless people were living in Tompkin Square Park, many camped out beneath a luxury highrise that became the defining contrast of a neighborhood on the cusp of a difficult transition.

By the 1990s, that period of time had changed the course of life in the area.

A budding grassroots activist movement was also emerging, focused on gay rights, AIDS and the rights of the poor mixed with the traditional beatnik bohemian blend that had defined the neighborhood for generations.

Yet, even given that progressive blend, it was still a neighborhood where many people would avoid making eye contact with homeless people, quickly walking away.

Writer, actor, and artist Robert Galinsky, however, was not one of them, spending years digesting the energy and rawness of that transformative era into a television series and play, “The Bench: A Homeless Love Story,” that chronicles the time and passions that still resonate today.

Los Angeles Blade sat down with Robert Galinsky in preparation of a limited engagement Hollywood run of his hit off-Broadway play at Hudson Guild Theater (6539 Santa Monica Boulevard) from October 4 through November 9: tickets available at plays411.com/thebench

Los Angeles Blade: You have worked with this material for decades, why was it important to you to keep working with it vs other projects?

Galinsky: I’ve worked on this material for so long because it never left my soul and now is the time for live audiences and streaming television audiences to witness it too. The road to great television is through great theatre, so the years put into the research and writing of the play have made it possible for me to go solo on “the boards”, and next fully cast on TV, tablets, flat screens, phones and more.

We are pitching this to Hulu, Netflix, Amazon and a host of other television services. The way people watch streaming television services today, is the same way people love viewing great theatre: by appointment, with enthusiasm, and no distractions.

The stories are taken from the late 1980’s and range from those struggling with gender identity, addiction, veterans, and the mentally ill. Here we are 30 years later, still wrestling with these issues. I also have appreciated the robust conversations with friends, colleagues, and family around what they’ve seen…

What’s happening in our Supreme Court nomination process is at the heart of so many homeless women’s journeys. My gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, who sit in the eye of this conversation around harassment and abuse. These thoughts and problems have always been in my face and on my mind. Over the years, I’ve raised a son, I’ve opened and closed businesses, created other shows and events, but the characters in “The Bench”, and their struggles have always lived within me. Time for them to broadcast far and wide!

Los Angeles Blade: The play is making its debut in Hollywood, what else would you like to do with the material?

Galinsky: “The Bench” has always been a love of mine waiting for ME to mature enough in order to bring it to TV and the theater with the justice it deserves.

I wasn’t flavored enough and hadn’t been through enough in my life, to do and say the things that need to be said in the play. The material matured and changed with me as the stakes in my life have risen. And also because real life events have brought new insights and meanings into my work.

People watch the stage and get immersed in the stories and the characters and they do the same when binge-watching TV. That’s why it’s important to me to keep working on this.

Los Angeles Blade: How did actor Chris Noth (“The Good Wife,” “Sex in the City”) get involved as a producer?

Galinsky: Chris sees the potential to take this from stage to small screen and he, as well as showrunners and network executives know now is the perfect time to do it. Noth is an incredible human being with a huge heart and a very acute mind. He saw the material, along with Barry “Shabaka” Henley and both wanted to be advocates of it.

My director, Jay O. Sanders is another incredible force, as is my producer Terry Schnuck, and we’re all excited about its future. Chris is now in the discussion as a Producer of the series, as we pitch to television. Jay and “Shabaka” are ready to act, along with a number of other people who I can’t mention just yet.

Los Angeles Blade: How did your spoken word background contribute to this? 

Galinsky: When I began writing this piece, I had just discovered writers like Sonia Sanchez, Allen Ginsberg, Nuyorican Poets Cafe poets Reg E Gaines, Ron Cephas Jones (now starring on NBC’s “This is Us,”) along with Sam Shepard, Marty Watt and Bell Hooks.

Their writing opened up language to me that I never knew existed. At that same time, I had the great fortune of being a regular bartender for playwright August Wilson in New Haven, Connecticut. He was working on “Fences” at Yale University, with Lloyd Richards at the time.

I would interact with him as though he was my instructor, as if I were taking my own private mini-master class with him. He told me many things and coached me through how to take the ideas written on cocktail napkins to full-blown moments where the language rattles out of the characters’ mouth.

Elevated to the level of poetry, but always grounded in their real character, situation, and moments, this gave me permission to think of spoken word as everyday language in everyday people.

Los Angeles Blade: How have things changed from the time u first wrote it?

Galinsky: We have solutions today we never had before, because we have uncovered the roots of the problems through new technology, education, and wisdom. We have more advocates today willing to do the work. It’s actually fashionable to help others, imagine that! I love it.

However, we’ve sadly normalized two of the issues in the play: AIDS and homelessness. Our charitable partners address this in their work.

Los Angeles Blade: In addition to being a playwright, you are also a tireless activist, collaborating with The Research Foundation to Cure AIDS.

Galinsky: Yes, they are an alliance of leaders from diverse fields, who are developing a cure for AIDS that is accessible and affordable for those in need worldwide. Leading scientists from esteemed institutions, such as the Population Council and Stellenbosch University (Capetown, South Africa) are partnering to develop a cure.

Also, top clinicians from revered organizations, like Columbia University Medical Center/New York Presbyterian Hospital, the New York Blood Center, and Rockefeller University are also involved.

Kambiz Shekdar is president and founder, a very close friend who shares my concern for those with AIDS. He asked me to launch a NYC campaign called “Downtown Cures.” We enlist theatre artists, musicians, painters, and artists from other creative areas to lend their talents to help with awareness efforts. The play has given a portion of our proceeds to RFCTA since we opened Off-Broadway at Cherry Lane Theater last year.

Los Angeles Blade: It is your greatest hope to have audiences better understand the life of a homeless person.

Galinsky: I hope they leave the theater energized and looking at the world differently. There is so much rich storytelling to do when you double click the characters from the play. They’re heroes and victims and they have families, co-workers, and an incredibly diverse community to explore. We’re going to launch from the stage to the screen and inform globally, while entertaining at the same time.


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