Jim Neu’s worked as a writer was an important part of Downtown New York theater since the late 1970s. In works ranging from monologues and one-act dialogues to full-length plays and dance/text collaborations with major choreographers, his style and sound are instantly recognizable. Since beginning a long relationship with Ellen Stewart and La MaMa in 1991, most of his work originated there. His last play, GANG OF SEVEN (2008), was his tenth play at La MaMa.
Neu’s writing has two prime influences — jazz and the performers he’s been fortunate to work with. The rhythms, ambience, and attitude of jazz are in his language. The rich individuality of the actors speaking it were, in turn, a continuous inspiration — the way great soloists are in a jazz band. Since the mid-80s a company of actors, musician/composers, and designers added great consistency and style to his work. The company began with Bill Rice, Mary Shultz, Roberta Levine and designers David Nunemaker and Carol Mullins; it would eventually include Black-Eyed Susan, director Keith McDermott, and designer David Fritz. Musician/composers Harry Mann and Neal Kirkwood wrote music, individually or collectively, for nearly every play since the late 80s.
Jim Neu’s background was anything but theatrical. He grew up in Brooklyn and, after age 7, Huntington, Long Island. He was unlucky enough to be drafted after graduating college, but lucky enough not to be sent to Viet Nam. Upon his release in late 1967, he moved to New York’s East Village, joining the quest for self that permeated the times. Progress was slow until new friends suggested going to a workshop in the summer of 1970 run by an emerging figure in theater named Robert Wilson. Wilson wanted to work with people who had no theater experience.
Performing in Wilson’s Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds from 1970 through 1975 was a transforming experience. Robert Wilson’s work became known worldwide. The company traveled throughout Europe, to Brazil, British Columbia, and Iran, performing such landmark works as DEAFMAN GLANCE and KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE. When Wilson began using spoken text, he asked Jim to be one of the writers. Neu contributed text to KA MOUNTAIN, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOSEPH STALIN, A LETTER FOR QUEEN VICTORIA and THE $ VALUE OF MAN.
With fellow Wilson veteran sk dunn, he began creating his own work for the Napa Valley Theater Company in 1976. They performed in San Francisco and toured Northern California. ECHO RANCH (1977), with composer Michael Galasso and choreographer Liz Pasquale, was created at the NVTC and first performed there. The piece — an early multi-media work combining theater, music, dance and video — -would be presented in New York at the Green St. Gallery and PS1.
The late 70s began a period of major growth in the Downtown New York performance scene. Jim’s work with SK Dunn and John Nesci at the Kitchen, Westbeth Theater Center and PS122’s Avant-Garde-Arama is part of the early history of those pioneering venues. He was also featured at Soho Rep, H.E.R.E., The Performing Garage, Squat Theater and at theater festivals in Europe and the U.S.
Other projects include plays for the Talking Band, Otrabanda and Bloolips and the screenplays of Andrew Horn’s first two features DOOMED LOVE (1984) and THE BIG BLUE (1988). He has also written text for dancers in Yoshiko Chuma’s A BOY, A BEER, AND A BLONDE (1985), DEEP COVER (1986) with David Woodberry and AEROBIA (2001) with Douglas Dunn. From 1994-98 he was a mentor in the young playwrights program at Andy’s Summer Playhouse in New Hampshire, and in 2000 conducted a playwriting workshop for the Mladinsko Theater in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Jim Neu died July 19, 2010 of lung cancer. Read his obituary in The New York Times.