H.M. Koutoukas, Flamboyant Figure of Early Off-Off-Broadway, Dies at 72

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18 Mar 2010

H.M. Koutoukas, a colorful and prolific playwright who wrote and staged literally scores of works in the early days of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, died March 6 at his home in Manhattan. He was 72.

Known as Harry, Mr. Koutoukas' forum were the groundbreaking Greenwich Village spaces La MaMa and Cafe Cino, where his fellow compatriots included Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard. Though an early writing star in Village circles, he never became as successful or commercial as Wilson or Shepard, largely because his plays followed few rules. They had names like Medea in the Laundromat, Christopher at Sheridan Squared, Tidy Passions; Or, Kill, Kalaidoscope, Kill, Turtles Don't Dream and Awful People Are Coming Over So We Must Be Pretending to Be Hard at Work and Hope They Will Go Away; were written quickly (he claimed to write three a year); rehearsed quickly; and often used people taken in off the streets as actors.

"[Cafe] Cino would come to photograph playwrights," he said, "and say, 'Do you have a play for me this week?' There was a need for a different play each week, so you'd have a play ready." Mr. Koutoukas' plays were routinely described as surreal, with larger-than-life characters set in crazy situations.

His true name was Haralambos Monroe Koutoukas — a fact he liked to hide, the better to add to his mysterious aura. He was born on June 4, 1937, in Endicott, NY, "a small shoe town" of 6,000. He moved to Manhattan in the early 1960s and formed a theatre workshop called the School for Gargoyles, whose members included Gerome Ragni and James Rado, Tom O'Horgan and Harvey Fierstein.

In 1966, the playwright won an Obie Award for "Assaulting Established Tradition." It is unknown whether anyone else has ever been honored in this category. In the 1990s, he worked frequently with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.



Throughout his life, one of Mr. Koutoukas' most cared-for productions seemed to be his own flamboyant self. He wore capes and jewelry. Late in life, he bleached his dark hair white, rather than dying his graying hair black. He claimed to have started writing suicide notes as a child to get his parents' attention. One of his production ideas was to bomb the theatre where his play was running.

The playwright said he survived through the generosity of patrons and by keeping his needs small. "It's the only way for me. I could write a play with the time and energy it takes to fill out an application for one of those foundation grants."