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Cross The Edge

A Guide to Successfully Breaking Genres

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My favorite thing about making theatre right now is how frequently artists prod at traditional genre labels. With groups like Pigpen Theatre Company garnering recognition as both a folk band and a professional physical theatre ensemble, and the media-heavy, dance-y, and sensory immersive Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time taking Broadway by the britches, the question of how we define what makes a play is (refreshingly) back on the table.

I see a movement bubbling of cross-genre collaboration, pushing the boundaries of traditional form.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it truly means to delve into the alt-genre category. How are new genres approached or bridged, in a way that goes beyond experimentation within a single genre?

I’m drawn to experimental forays into genre deviance and multimedia exploration. As a producer, I see this as promising practice for defining a fresh creative voice in our community.

St. Louis is a city in the clutch of catharsis. It was once the fourth largest city in the United States and is now the fifty-eighth. Following a precedent set by St. Louis-raised, but New York-famous Tennessee Williams, many theatre artists over the past half century have known St. Louis only as a place to flee for prospect and opportunity elsewhere.

a person performing in front of a light screen
FLESH AND BONE, by (re)discover theatre, at the 2012 St. Louis Fringe Festival.
Photo by Christian Gooden.

Recent years have witnessed a disillusionment of the artistic rat race and laughable cost of living in former hubs like New York and LA. We’re seeing a re-enchantment of rustbelt cities where rent is cheap and communities are cultural canvases. The yuppie has made way for the yuRppie (young urban restoration professional), creative and entrepreneurial types, who are working intentionally to transition population decline into growth. For performers, the result is lots of creative voices hungry for artistic outlets, with wide-open minds and a rapidly evolving perception about what makes a performance.

St. Louis was a cultural beacon in the twenties, but population decline and social tension led to cultural decline alongside economic collapse. In the city that was once a launch pad for jazz and dance, what artistic evolution are these yuRppies pioneering today? In a city so nostalgic that twenty-year-olds wax poetic about the 1904 World’s Fair, how are we moving towards a new cultural identity?

In St. Louis, we’re witnessing a cultural rebirth.

two actors singing on stage
Sleepwalker by 4-D Productions, which described itself as an "Indie-Pop Musical," is a collaboration between a local actor/director, pop musicians, and a local contemporary dance company. This photo is from a performance at the 2014 St Louis Fringe Fest, photo by Kimberly N. Photography.

I see a movement bubbling of cross-genre collaboration, pushing the boundaries of traditional form. Folk singers weave theatricality into their shows, pop bands build operatic narratives into their concerts, news broadcasts are meshed into symphonic compositions, cult-status indie rock bands make cameos at classical theatres.

I know this on its own terms isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but for St. Louis, often steeped in the conventional, it’s an exciting sign that a new wave is about to break. A craft in and of itself, genre exploration can yield powerful new relationships, and both personal and professional growth for the participating artists.

It can also fall flat, though. Any discipline striving for depth and integrity should consider best practices. As a producer, I look for these indicators of a successful piece:

1. Making the choice to bend

When it works: The themes or content are begging for it. Delving into new media in which form reflects content is always fascinating. When blending genres helps the audience connect more deeply with a theme, experience of humanity, or message of a piece, it’s absolute magic.

The pitfall: Genre bending can easily come across as a gimmick.

2. Others paved the way

When it works : Strong genre-bending projects examine the discipline they’re incorporating. They become students of the new field; they partner, they collaborate, they study.

The pitfall: Every once in a while, an artist seems to think they are the first person who ever conceived of blending genres. Study up! Humility makes for a strong artist, paving way for growth.

3.Respect the new genre

When it works: One of the most beautiful outcomes of cross-genre projects is gently introducing audiences of one discipline to another. When film aficionados discover that they are captivated by live performance; when music snobs are completely absorbed into lyrical dance. Good genre bending breeds a stronger patron vocabulary and broadens cultural horizons.

The pitfall: Poorly executed cross-genre projects can actively damage patron building. Film buffs may be entertained by the novelty of a film with messily integrated performative elements—but, in the worst case, it might reaffirm a belief that the live work is the weaker genre and was only made salvageable by the film.

I’m all for experimentation and risk-taking in workshop settings. By all means, dare to suck. And when a piece makes its way into a professional context, I advocate for our ethical accountability as the harbingers of our disciplines. As creators, we are responsible for approaching exploration with best-practices in mind. When done well, we position ourselves for the best possible outcome—an evolved understanding of our cultural relevance, role, and delivery. Delving into a new paradigm is tricky work, and the benefits well reward the challenge. 

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