George Ferencz Dies: Off Broadway Director Of Seminal Works By Sam Shepard, Amiri Baraka & Others Was 74

Ellen Stewart, George Ferencz La MaMa Archives

George Ferencz, a longtime mainstay of the Off Broadway scene who directed premieres and revivals of plays by Sam Shepard, Aishah Rahman and Amiri Baraka, died Sept. 14 following a long illness. He was 74.

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His death was announced today by the three-time Emmy-winning costumer designer Sally Lesser, his wife of 35 years and collaborator on more than 65 theater productions.

Among the other then-new playwrights directed by Ferencz in significant stagings were Jean-Claude van Itallie, Mac Wellman and Yasmine Rana. Ferencz also directed established works by playwrights including Eugene O’Neill, Bertolt Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Sean O’Casey and Agatha Christie.

“We would regularly run into his colleagues and former students on the street,” actor Jenne Vath, who worked in numerous Ferencz productions, said in a statement. “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 also collaborated on original pieces with artists from outside the theater world, including journalists Jimmy Breslin (1988’s The Queen of the Leaky Roof Circuit). A collaboration with journalist Pete Hamill and pioneering jazz drummer Max Roach, who died in 2020 and 2007, respectively, about Brooklyn and titled Broken Land, has yet to be produced.

As a resident director at La MaMa from 1982, Ferencz spearheaded numerous original productions and readings, and founded and ran La MaMa’s Experiments Reading series from 1998-2014.

Born in Cleveland, Ferencz moved to New York in 1970, and 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 O’Neill plays starring his longtime friend Ray Wise.

“George reawakened the actor in me and set me on a path that I still follow today,” the Emmy- and Obie-winning Wise said in a statement today.

In 1979, Ferencz directed Shep in Rep (The Rock ‘n Roll Plays), featuring such early Shepard plays as Cowboy Mouth (the playwright’s collaboration with Patti Smith), Mad Dog Blues, The Tooth of Crime and Melodrama Play. The project would mark the first of Ferencz’s 19 productions of Shepard plays. The following summer, Ferencz began a series of collaborations with poet/playwright Baraka began with the production of Slave Ship and At the Dim Cracker Party Convention.

In 1982, Ferencz began a long association with the Off Broadway theater company La MaMa and its founder Ellen Stewart with the production of Money, A Jazz Opera, with book by Baraka and music by George Gruntz.

Mia Yoo, current artistic director of La MaMa said: “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, Ferencz worked with such theater companies as Theater for the New City, INTAR (where he co-founded the Hispanic American Music Theatre Lab with Tito Puente), 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.

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, and Lee Strasberg Institute.

He also taught at his alma mater Kent State University, where he had been a student in 1970 when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on student protesters, killing four. Three years later, Ferencz was also at the scene of a New York City disaster when he was inside the famous Mercer Arts Center near New York University when it collapsed, killing four people.

In addition to his wife, Ferencz is survived by their son Jack Ferencz.

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