NEW YORK — It was the kind of conversation that young restaurant employees in New York have surely had hundreds of times since the early 1960s, when Ralph Cook was a waiter at the Village Gate, a nightclub in Greenwich Village.
Mr. Cook had started a theater company at a nearby church, and when he learned that one of the busboys he worked with had written a couple of plays, he asked the guy if he could read them.
Chances are that Mr. Cook didn’t have much hope for the manuscripts; after all, the busboy was new to New York City and just 20 years old. But in October 1964, the plays, one-acts called “Cowboys” and “The Rock Garden,” turned out to be the first original works produced by Mr. Cook’s new venture, establishing it as a bright light in the emergent downtown theater scene and, not incidentally, propelling the playwright toward a celebrated career.
“He had heard that I’d written these one-acts and wanted to see them, and I think within a week we were in production,” the former busboy, Sam Shepard, said in a recent telephone interview. “That’s the way it was back then.”
Mr. Cook, who died at 85 on Sept. 23 in Bay Minette, Ala., left New York for California in 1969 and spent the latter part of his life as a political activist, silversmith, and fisherman, among other things. But in the five years he ran Theater Genesis, as he called his enterprise, Mr. Cook made a significant mark.
Housed at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, it joined Caffe Cino, Judson Poets Theater, and La MaMa ETC, places that turned the area into an alternative theater district, the leading edge of what became known as off-off Broadway.
Of necessity the theaters shared a low-budget aesthetic, and by inclination a sense that the stage was failing to address a national mood, especially among the young, and that it was pivoting from postwar complacency to subversion of the status quo. In off-off-Broadway, theatergoers were confronted with material that was often more political, more sexual and, for good or ill, more uninhibited than what was being presented elsewhere, particularly on Broadway.
“Here, now, in Lower Manhattan, the phenomenon is taking place; the beginning, the genesis, of a cultural revolution,” Mr. Cook wrote at the time, adding: “Personally I have little hope for the survival of our civilization.
“But whatever hope we have lies with our artists. For they alone have the ability (if we do not continue to corrupt them) to withstand the onslaught of mass media and the multitude of false gods. They alone have the ability to show us ourselves.”
Within the constellation of downtown theaters, Theater Genesis was known for holding the playwright sovereign. Shepard became the best known of the writers to emerge from there; among the others were Leonard Melfi, Murray Mednick, and Walter Hadler.
Mr. Cook served as artistic director — he set a stringent standard for scripts and thus chose to produce fewer shows than other theaters — and also directed productions. He was held in high regard by both writers and actors because, they said, he managed to direct them by leaving them alone.
“He gave you the freedom to do the art; that’s why he hired you for the part,” the actress Barbara Eda-Young, who appeared in Melfi’s best-known play, “Birdbath,” said in an interview. Lee Kissman, who acted in Shepard’s first production, added in another interview: “Ralph had a great eye and a great ear. He was one of the best directors I ever worked with because he let us work.”