Lee Nagrin, Trailblazing Downtown Artist, Dies at 78

Obituaries   Lee Nagrin, Trailblazing Downtown Artist, Dies at 78 Lee Nagrin, a visual artist, performer, singer, choreographer, director and playwright who created highly individual works Off- and Off-Off Broadway for 40 years, died June 7 of complications from advanced colon cancer in hospice care at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. She was 78.

Called "a multi-media artist before that term was invented" by The Village Voice, Ms. Nagrin was instrumental in the development of many Off-Broadway theatres and worked with many of the seminal avant-garde artists of her generation, including Meredith Monk and Ping Chong. Originally from Seattle, she studied drama and English at the University of Washington. She moved to New York in 1950 when she was 21 and began her theatre work in the city — work that did not end until her death. Her final work, Behind the Lid, a collaboration with puppeteer Basil Twist, is now playing at the Silver Whale Gallery on Bleecker Street.

Ms. Nagrin — who was a painter and whose theatre work was highly visual and strewn with striking images — formed her own company, the Sky Fish Ensemble, in 1979 and under its umbrella created and directed many of her later works, including Sky Fish (1979) and Bird/Devil (1980). In 1986, she premiered Bone Orchard and Bird/Bear. The latter won an Obie Award for Best New American Play.

Reviewing Bird/Bear in 1986, the Village Voice said "Nagrin creates personal collages, using original vocabularies. With her painterly and sculptural approach to staging, Nagrin also has ties to post-modern and performance art. Bird/Bear seems almost out of its own time....Nagrin's magical forest so exquisitely evokes a sense of wander at life itself that its naiveté may be of the most knowing, and necessary kind."

Another critic said of the large, gray-maned performer, "You know from seeing her that she is precisely who Hans Christian Anderson had in mind as a good spirit, fairy or Godmother for all his eternal stories."

Inspired by artist Joseph Cornell, who created whole worlds within enclosed boxes, she said of her vision of theatre, "I began to think of the theatre as a complete box, not as a proscenium at the end of a row of seats. The entire space would be an environment where theatre could live." She trained with the Metropolitan Opera coach Kathleen Lawler, and was offered subsidy by Jan Peerce for an operatic career. Later vocal experiments led to "the development of an approach that fused operatic vocal technique with more popular musical forms. This was combined with an investigation into the use of voice that has links with the method 'the extended voice' and the work of vocal pioneer Alfred Wolfsohn."

From 1971 to 1981, Ms. Nagrin was a member of Meredith Monk's company The House. Among the works she did with Monk are: Vessel (1971) Education of a Girl Child, (1974) Paris/Chacon/Venice/Milan, (1970, 1975) Small Scroll (1975), Quarry (1976) Recent Ruins (1979) and Ellis Island (1981).

In 1975, Ms. Nagrin directed Eric Slazman's Lazarus, which premiered at La Mama in New York, followed by a European Tour. In 1995 she performed in Foundry Theatre's production of Deviant Craft by playwright W. David Hancock, at Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage.

Her final piece, Behind the Lid a sort of retrospective on her career, was about "a woman looking back on her life through a dream; her memories expand, open, and reveal while an intimate audience of 18 will travel with her through this hand made world."

Ms. Nagrin said of her life's work: "The sense that I have about the creative work is that it's almost its own life...It's an area that just simply keeps moving and as you do the work, it keeps moving."