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Robert Kalfin, director and producer of innovative theater, dies at 89

Longtime theater director and producer Robert Kalfin died on Sept. 20. He was 89. He passed in hospice on Long Island, New York. The cause of death was acute myeloid leukemia, his friend and colleague Philip Himberg told The New York Times. Kalfin was best known as a co-founder of the Chelsea Theater Center, which presented provocative and challenging work off-Broadway.

Born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx, Kalfin grew up attending performances of the Metropolitan Opera and went to the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. He majored in psychology, but was in the drama club, at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., and got an M.F.A. at the Yale School of Drama.

In 1965, he and stage manager George Bari, also his life partner, and company manager David Long, co-founded the Chelsea Theater Center – the name came because they gave performances in a church in the Manhattan neighborhood. For almost 20 years, the company produced adventurous, non-commercial work – from Amiri Baraka's 1969 play Slave Ship, set in the hold of a Middle Passage ship, to an uncut, seven-hour production of Jean Genet's The Screens. The theater's mission statement, Kalfin told the Primary Stages off-Broadway Oral History project, was to "do whatever nobody else is doing and what we think people ought to see." Over the years, its productions received as many critical brickbats as raves.

When the company moved its base of operations to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1968, several of its productions transferred to Broadway, including Hal Prince's environmental staging of Leonard Bernstein's Candide in 1973, which won a special Tony Award. Kalfin also directed several works which migrated to Broadway, including Strider, a play with music based on a Tolstoy story about a piebald horse; Yentl, an adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer story starring Tovah Feldshuh; and the Brecht/Weill musical, Happy End, starring Meryl Streep.

After the Chelsea Theater Center closed in 1984, Kalfin had a thriving career as a freelance director, mostly in off-Broadway and regional theaters, including a Yiddish language version of Yentl at the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater in 2002. He also served as artistic director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. His partner, George Bari, died in 2013.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.