George Ferencz, Innovative Theater Director, Dies at 74

George Ferencz, a director who was a fixture at theaters known for experimental work like La MaMa E.T.C. in Manhattan, died on Sept. 14 in Brooklyn. He was 74.

His family said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Mr. Ferencz (pronounced FAIR-ents) directed pieces by unknowns as well as name writers like Sam Shepard, Amiri Baraka and Mac Wellman. One specialty was giving startling new interpretations to previously staged works, both classic and contemporary. Another was infusing productions with music in unusual ways; he collaborated a number of times with the jazz drummer Max Roach.

Mr. Ferencz first drew attention in the New York theater world as a founder and co-artistic director of the Impossible Ragtime Theater, known as I.R.T., which presented a wide range of productions in small spaces beginning in the mid-1970s. His 1976 staging of “The Hairy Ape,” a 1922 Eugene O’Neill play, gave that work a visceral immediacy.

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

Mr. Ferencz scored 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 review in The New York Times, “then Mr. Ferencz’s productions could serve as models.”

Mr. Ferencz left the I.R.T. 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 had won the Pulitzer Prize for “Buried Child.”

Two years later Mr. Ferencz mounted a full production of one of those pieces under the title “Cowboy Mouth (in Concert).” Here he revisited “Cowboy Mouth,” which Mr. Shepard and Patti Smith had written and first performed in 1971. Mr. Ferencz’s production, with Brooks McKay and Annette Kurek in the roles originated by Mr. Shepard and Ms. Smith, imagined their back-and-forth exchanges as a rock concert.

“The result,” Mr. Gussow wrote in The Times, “is a sizzling, surrealistic 70 minutes that in its own stark way comes closer to the anarchic spirit of Shepard than some elaborate productions of more complete plays.”

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

The next year Mr. Ferencz began a long association with Ellen Stewart and her influential experimental theater, La MaMa, in Lower Manhattan, directing a portion 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 works in 1998 and ran it for 16 years.

Mr. Ferencz directed well beyond New York’s downtown scene, staging productions at Actors Theater of Louisville in Kentucky, the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia, San Diego Repertory Theater and numerous other venues.

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

George Michael Ferencz was born on Feb. 3, 1947, in a Hungarian Catholic neighborhood of Cleveland. His father, George John Ferencz, owned an auto-parts store, and his mother, Anne (Haydu) Ferencz, was a homemaker and a former beauty queen.

He studied journalism at the University of Detroit but transferred to Kent State University in Ohio, where he pursued theater, directing plays by Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit and others. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1970 and settled in New York soon after.

In 1969 he married Pam Mitchell, who became a founder of I.R.T. along with him, Ted Story and Cynthia Crane. The couple divorced in 1978, and in 1986 he married Sally Lesser, a noted costume designer he had worked with for years; they collaborated on some 65 productions.

She survives him, as does their son, Jack.

In addition to his La MaMa work, Mr. Ferencz was a favorite of Crystal Field, the 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 hard about the world in which the story lives.”

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

“George loves jazz and directs like that,” Mr. Roach, who died in 2007, told The San Francisco Examiner in 1987. “He kind of lets things unfold the way folks like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington would do. He knows where he wants to go, but he gives everybody a chance to make a contribution.”

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