What is avant-garde theater today? It’s easy enough to look back on last year’s vanguard, but how can we define the movement we are in the midst of? In her series, Kate Kremer explores the question of the new avant-garde.
Looking back, Richard Schechner describes a kind of coup d’état in which directors and performers wrested interpretive power from a dictatorship of writers:
When the sixties began, a challenge was proclaimed by directors against writers. We directors wanted to shape texts…Directors wanted writers to cease dictating their “intentions” to us, or to insist that directors and performers ought to be mere “interpreters.” A distinction grew up between directors who would treat written texts “with respect” and those who would violate the texts.
Schechner’s distinction is forebear to the present-day contrast between “plays”—written by a single author—and “devised theater”—collaboratively created by directors, performers, playwrights and designers. However, one difference immediately leaps out: whereas Schechner describes “violating” texts, today we talk about “devising” them. That shift—from deconstruction to construction, from overthrowing to invention—has significant implications.
Further differences emerge through my conversations via email and Skype with three contemporary playwright-devisers. For one thing, they tend to reject firm distinctions between plays and devised works. “I can feel very clearly in my brain that there is no dividing line between devising and writing,” muses Kirk Lynn, playwright, professor, and one of six co-artistic directors of Rude Mechs. “There is sort of a live performance space and then prose…but I can’t think of a playwright who doesn’t also devise.”
Playwright and theater/filmmaker Will Arbery finds the line similarly ambiguous: “Playwriting is more like starting by writing, and devising is more like starting with people in a room. But that’s not necessarily true at all! You could start a devising process digitally, or alone, or by typing up a play and bringing it to people who rip it up. And you can start a play all of those ways too.”
Playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski describes struggling with the terminology to describe multifaceted work: “I’m always calling my work different things, because it seems to make it more accessible to people, but it’s still theater—I mean, all theater is interdisciplinary; all theater innately involves collaboration across disciplines.”
Critic Andy Horwitz has noted that the term “devised theater” as it tends to be used in the US has become a kind of “catchall buzzword” without a firm designation—due in part to the range of styles, techniques, aesthetics, and outcomes the term is designed to encompass. Horwitz quotes David Williams’ more specific definition: “Devised theater seeks to draw upon the facilities and energies of particular groups in particular contexts to create forms and materials. Personnel and context constitute one of the primary starting points…these people, this place, this time: what are the processes, materials and forms they produce?”
While not embarrassed for his directorly coup d’état, Schechner does voice two concerns. The first—bane of revolutionaries everywhere—is that revolution begets revolution, and “whatever directors intended, it wasn’t long before performers liberated themselves from us just as surely as we liberated ourselves from writers.” He fears dispensing with directors may result in a loss of theoretical rigor, allowing theater to “[slide] back to orthodox solutions.”
Schechner’s second concern is the “failure” of his generation “to find a way of passing on performance knowledge.” With the deposition of the playwright’s authority goes the simplest means of transmitting dramatic knowledge—the text.
Schechner’s anxieties are rooted in questions of preservation and continuance. How do you continue to push out against formal constraints? How do you pass on an experimental spirit?
Kirk Lynn turns these anxieties around. “I think the surest sign that the avant-garde is fine is that the old guard says it is no more and it will never be repeated,” he writes. “But I don’t think the goal is ever continuity…I think it is a success to destroy the text as a reliable means of continuity. I think a bigger question in the age of Vimeo and YouTube and Facebook is, how are we going to hide our formulas to ensure there can be no continuity? How are we going to recreate or even one-up the destruction of the text as a reliable source material by messing up a more complete and severe documentation process?”
Likewise, Arbery is most concerned with theater as a present tense medium. “All we can do is be of the moment…I’m less concerned with shelf life, and more concerned with creating living, present, burn bright and die art.”
Jendrzejewski describes her investment in the present in terms of the everyday. One of her recent projects, based on stories she gathered about moments of epiphany or life change, explores “the little mundane things that accumulate into the drama of our lives…the choices we make and actions we take on a daily basis that set all the other things in motion.” Jendrzejewski has also noted the centrality of space to the writing process, the way performance space informs the experiences of both writer and audience: “Everyone’s literally in it together, past and present and possibility all entangled.”
Together, these observations suggest a change in focus beyond the shift from violation to invention. Whereas the old avant-garde was oriented toward an imagined future and engaged in a revolutionary project of overthrowing stale regimes and remaking art—and society—according to visionary principles, the new avant-garde is focused on the current moment.
“So many genres long to be live performance” Lynn notes, citing Kanye’s live projection song releases and OK Go’s videos “that long to prove their liveness”—whereas theater’s most and perhaps only essential function in an era of highly accessible culture is to provide what Lynn calls “a kind of YOU HAD TO BE THERE quality.”
“You had to be there” is also the motivating force behind the devising process, with its emphasis on these people, this place, this time. It is a means of wrenching ourselves back into this moment, from which we stray, from which we are distracted. A process of interrogating the intersections of personalities and materials as they exist in a room and a moment together, devising forces performers and audiences to confront their relationship to “the present” in the sense of both here and now.
Our project, in an era of “complete and severe documentation,” may not be the realization of an ideal future but rather of a communal now—a shift that should not be mistaken for a diminishment of vision or hope. Instead of seeking future change, we make it in this moment.
Photo 1: Still shot from Rachel Jendrzejewski and SuperGroup's it's [all] highly personal at the Southern Theater, presented by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2013. Photo by Bill Cameron.
Photo 2: Still shot from Theo Goodell and Rachel Jendrzejewski's Things Are You The All, created with an ensemble of 15 artists, Red Eye Theater, New Works 4 Weeks Festival, Minneapolis, 2014. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Video: A video trailer for Will Arbery’s We Were Nothing!, a site-specific play performed in a private apartment. Featuring Elly Smokler and Emilie Soffe, directed by Lisa Szolovits. (Video by Will Arbery.)