The Joe Cino Ring 

Mac Rogers 

Sometimes a colossal honor can fit inside a tiny circle, no wider than a human finger. The Innovative Theatre Foundation (ITF) received one such physics-defying honor this past July 21st, when Martin Denton and Rochelle Denton of the New York Theatre Experience presented core ITF team members Shay Gines, Akia Squitieri, and Nick Micozzi with a ring that once belonged to a man named Joe Cino. It’s not so strange if you measure the honor inherent in a ring not by its circumference, but by the hands through which the ring has passed. By this metric, there are few objects in American theater of equal value.

So which hands exactly are we talking about? Well, we’re going to have to go back quite a bit to answer that question.

Joe Cino probably needs very little introduction to the OOB community, but let’s give him one anyway; he most certainly earned it. When Cino rented a tiny storefront on Cornelia Street in 1958 with the intention of hosting poetry readings and folk music concerts, he could not have imagined how vital a groundwork he was laying. As his Caffé Cino became more and more known for presenting new, groundbreaking plays, it became a creative home to pivotal dramatic artists like Doric Wilson, John Guare, Sam Shepard, Al Pacino, Bernadette Peters, Jean Claude Van Itallie, and innumerable others. Alongside Judson Church, Café LaMaMa, and a few other key communities, this little hole in the wall –which was lit with stolen electricity and didn’t even have a legal license to present plays – spawned independent theater as we know it today. No less than Edward Albee referred to the Caffé Cino, quite simply, as “Eden.”  

It was Lanford Wilson (author of the Caffé Cino breakthrough hit The Madness of Lady Bright) who, as the legend goes, found the ring on Cornelia Street near the Cino and used it to make an impromptu tongue-in-cheek marriage proposal to Cino. While Cino turned down the proposal, he kept the ring for most of the rest of his life – much of which consisted of extraordinary struggles to keep the Caffé Cino up and running under tremendous legal and financial pressures. Toward the end of his life he gave the ring to Kenny Burgess, a gifted artist with a knack for designing posters for Caffé Cino productions that wouldn’t be identifiable as theater ads to casual passers-by (but which would be recognizable to those in the know).
In 1989, the last year of his own life, Burgess passed the ring along to Magie Dominic. Dominic was a leading Caffé Cino writer and performer who has in recent years become one of the institution’s foremost archivists, having donated an invaluable assortment of Cino-related programs, scripts, and photographs to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Dominic recalls, “I kept the ring for many, many years. It traveled with me. Then on his birthday in 2009, I gave the ring to Doric.”

The “Doric” in question was of course Doric Wilson, one of the pre-eminent Off-Off-Broadway playwrights of the late 20th Century and a pioneer in bringing gay theater to a higher level of cultural visibility – both through his own plays (among them Street Theater, A Perfect Relationship, and And He Made A Her) and through his co-founding of the TOSOS (The Other Side Of Silence) theater company. So foundational were Wilson’s contributions to independent theater that the IT Awards presented him with the Artistic Achievement Award in 2007, and in 2012 instituted the Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award in his honor. 

As Wilson’s frequent directing collaborator Mark Finley remembers, “One of the great things about Doric was that you always knew where you stood with him.  He wasn't one to play politics or cozy up to people he couldn't stand.  So I could tell from the way he spoke about Joe Cino that he had great affection and respect for him.  Two more different people would be tough to imagine -- Doric, tall polished but direct and Joe, small, round and fey.  He would often tell the story about meeting Joe for the first time and Joe asking him what his [zodiac] sign was and based on his answer, Joe decided to give him a date to do his play. That's how Doric was when he met people.  He could tell at once whether they were ‘keepers’ or not, and he was rarely wrong.  I'm pretty sure that came directly from his experience with Joe.”

When it came time for Wilson to pass the ring on, he did something a little different: rather than present it to a colleague who was present and active during the days of the original Caffé Cino, he chose instead to give it to theater artists who were keeping alive the best traditions of Joe Cino and his cohorts. By this time, Daniel Talbott and his colleagues at the Rising Phoenix Repertory had their “Cino Nights” up and running, a series of new plays dedicated to the spirit of the Caffé Cino. As Talbott recalls, Wilson asked to speak to the audience following a presentation of Gary Sunshine’s play Best Sex Ever.

“He let the folks in the audience know who he was and about his extraordinary history with the Cino, and then he said, ‘I have something I want to pass on to Rising Phoenix Rep. I want to give them Joe Cino’s ring.’ It was one of the most special evenings we've ever had in the theater.” The recollection brings out a wistful side in Talbott: “I wish I could've walked down that street late at night and into that small magic room and seen a play by him, or Robert Patrick, or Lanford Wilson, or John Guare, or anyone else that happened to be there and had been the right zodiac sign, who were working their asses off that night. I often wish that the Village was still being held up by all those guys and that we could all afford to open mini Cinos all over the Villages from East to West.”

And thus a major shift happened in the way Joe Cino’s ring passed from hand to hand. More than an object of memory and affection between old comrades of a pivotal era, the Cino Ring was now a recognition of accomplishment and an article of faith – faith that each new recipient was trusted to carry on the Caffé Cino tradition in their own endeavors. So who would Talbott and Rising Phoenix give the ring to next? Who could meet this stratospheric standard?

There are few more ardent or effective advocates of independent theater in New York City than Martin Denton and Rochelle Denton, their New York Theatre Experience organization, and its invaluable online resource Indie Theater Now. So it makes perfect sense that Talbott would select them as his successors in carrying the mantle – and thus the implied tradition of Joe Cino’s ring. And how appropriate that once again, the ring would change hands on one of Rising Phoenix’s Cino Nights, only now with Talbott in the role of giver rather than receiver.

As Denton tells it, “It was the evening of Daniel Talbott’s own play, ‘Break My Face on Your Hand,’ – the final play in the first batch of these plays. And when it was over, Daniel got up to make a brief speech.” Talbott shared with the crowd in attendance – a crowd that included Denton – the story of how he came to be in possession of the Cino Ring. Denton continues, “Doric told Daniel the ring represented the spirit of the Caffé Cino —and should be passed on to someone who, like Joe and Daniel, embodied the idea of discovering amazing new work. And then, to our utter surprise, Daniel said he was giving the ring to us.” Denton remembers the gesture as one of the great honors of his life: “I never believe the crazy stuff that happens to me, working in indie theater, and this was among the indescribably most significant moments in my career so far.”

Denton quickly realized that being the holder of the Cino Ring carried with it two significant responsibilities: 1) to carry on Cino’s  dedication to fostering new plays and supporting a thriving indie theater environment, and 2) to choose a deserving successor, a worthy (if metaphorical) finger upon which to place this storied ring. “We thought long and hard about how to do it. And then one day, Rochelle and I were talking, and she just came up with the correct answer out of the blue.”

Which brings us back to July 21st and the New York Innovative Theatre Awards Nomination Announcement, at the end of which Martin Denton and Rochelle Denton bestowed the Cino Ring – with all its attendant historical resonances and responsibilities – upon The Innovative Theatre Foundation.  Speaking that evening, Denton said of the ring, “It was presented to us as a symbol of the ongoing Cino ‘spirit’ of discovering and honoring the art of America’s new indie theater artists, and with the intent of having it ‘roll’ on to another group committed to doing that same kind of discovering and honoring. We thought, who better than our friends at NYITA? And so, the cycle continues.”

The Innovative Theatre Foundation is profoundly honored to accept custodianship of the Joe Cino Ring – and moreover to implement the promise implied by it, to ensure that groundbreaking, risk-taking independent theater continues to thrive in all kinds of surprising ways in New York City. As Talbott muses, “As the Cino ring moves around the Indie Community and we all touch it, I feel like it's a portal to the spirit of that different time and world. It makes me nostalgic and hungry for the next secret back room hole lit with stolen electricity, candle light, and glitter, where playwrights are falling out the door and into the streets late at night.”



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