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Discovering The Theatre

Lessons of The Fall Season from A Class Of New York Newcomers

Before Rahm Silverglade took avant-garde director Erin Mee’s course at NYU entitled “Drama in Performance”—in which twenty undergraduate students spent the Fall seeing and discussing sixteen shows—he thought that “good, compelling theatre” was “difficult and rare,” and suspected that regular theatregoers go more out of habit than anything else, “because they were theatre majors, or they don't have Netflix accounts, or they want to do something different.”

picture of student
Some of the students with “Drama as Performance” professor Erin Mee. Photo by
Jonathan Mandell.

After the course, the Chicago native feels the same way, even more so. Some narratives don’t turn out the way you hope or expect. Yet Silverglade says experiencing a different live performance each week for the last four months also has broadened his definition and deepened his understanding of what he calls “a beautifully bizarre, intimate, tangible art form,” one with the “rawest power to move you.”

Silverglade, who rollerbladed to class and whose hair got him profiled in New York Magazine, is not necessarily typical of the students who took the course, many of whom are engineering or science majors, and more than a third of whom are citizens of other nations. Lest this give the wrong impression, not all were unsophisticated theatregoers, far from it. One math major has seen many Ancient Greek tragedies—in Greek: Olina Stathopolou, who is from Athens, hopes to become a professional stage manager. Silverglade himself is a musician and composer who at one point was sure he wanted to make a career in musical theatre (Now he’s not so sure).

It is also important to note that both the timing of the course, and the budget for tickets—a total of $350 per student for the entire semester—prevented them from seeing most of my top ten theatre picks for 2015. 

Would Silverglade have felt differently if the class had been able to see Hamilton, Spring Awakening, or Fun Home? Three other plays from my list actually were on their syllabus—Hir, Barbecue, and Before Your Very Eyes, as well as two worthwhile musicals, Michael John LaChiusa’s First Daughter Suite, and Futurity by the indie band The Lisps. But it was illuminating to discover that one of the students, Hind Al Tantawi from Jordan, felt “closest” to one of the plays the class saw that was on few critics’ radar, Mourning Sun, a story about child marriage in Ethiopia, and immigration to America, because child marriage is something that occurs in her country.

The point driven home by the course is that, in the year of Hamilton, there was plenty of other theatre in New York of value. The fresh perspective of newcomers to New York theatregoing, and the wide variety of works to which they were exposed—including some that traditionalists might not consider theatre at all— struck me as an instructive alternative way to look back at the Fall season in the city.

Hir: Identity and Belonging
On the surface, Hir, a play by Taylor Mac that was at Playwrights Horizons, is a familiar family drama—the characters are a mother, father, and their two children who live in a house in the suburbs. But it winds up deeper and weirder (and funnier) than its apparent models.The house is a deliberate and spectacular mess; the father had a stroke; the mother dresses him in clown makeup and diapers; the son is coming home after a dishonorable discharge from the military, and the daughter is now transgender. “Hir” (pronounced “here”) is the pronoun the younger child prefers.

actors performing
Kristine Nielsen and Tom Phelan in Hir by Taylor Mac. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Mac considers the play part of a new theatrical genre the author calls Absurd Realism, defining this as “simply realistic characters in a realistic circumstance that is so extreme it is absurd.”

To me, this play, which is simultaneously sly and thoughtful, reflects several trends in theatre and the culture at large, including the increasing depiction of transgender people (there were several plays on the subject), and the mainstreaming of “downtown” or independent theatre artists (witness as well Hand to God, which went from Off-Off Broadway to Broadway.)

To Olina Stathopoulou, “it is a play about identity, pride, power, and pretense…. Hir is primarily about belonging,” and touches on issues including immigration, class, and LGBT rights—all issues “I have pondered as a young person living in New York much more than I ever would have if I were living in any other place.”

Barbecue: Laughing and Cringing at Race and Privilege
Barbecue by Robert O’Hara, another of my favorite plays this season, is ostensibly about an intervention that a family is conducting in a public picnic grounds with an out-of-control relative. Presented at The Public Theater, it was an outrageous comedy full of surprises, one of which is how it simultaneously made us laugh and uncomfortable that we were laughing. One of the unsettling jokes was how much the rest of the family is as bad off as the sister they are confronting. But that was just the start.

Like many in the audience, Jenzia Burgos, who lives in the South Bronx, was shocked when the stage went black and the lights came back up on the same set of characters, who had been portrayed by white actors, and were now being portrayed by African-American actors.

actors performing
The white cast of Barbecue. From left: Becky Ann Baker, Samantha Soule, Constance Shulman, and Arden Myrin. Photo by Joan Marcus.
actors on stage
The black cast of Barbecue. From left: Heather Alicia Simms, Benja Kay Thomas, Marc Damon Johnson and Kim Wayans. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Burgos notes that the huge laughter that greeted this startling switch “was the kind that rushes out of you when you don’t know how else to react”—and that this very reaction forces the audience “to face ourselves and question why we found this to be jarring.” She shrewdly observes that the audience members

would not laugh in the face of a black person who was inhabiting a traditionally “white” position. Yet perhaps, we would still experience a small level of discomfort somewhere deep inside without admitting it.

In these ways, Burgos believes, Barbecue makes the audience “come to terms with an ingrained societal racism.”

Despite the theatre’s willingness to confront racial attitudes, Jenzia Burgos, who aims to be a professional writer and work in the theatre industry in some capacity, found attending theatre at The Public to be an alienating experience. She wrote her final paper for the course on how the public spaces in The Public Theater and the Signature Theatre, where the class saw Annie Baker’s John, are undermining the organizations’ efforts to bring in a larger spectrum of theatregoers:

By executing spaces whose architecture, furnishings, lighting, and design mimic the historically perceived lived experiences of wealth, intellect, and high culture, these theatres are not considering those whose backgrounds are rooted in poverty, urbanism, lower education, and histories of racial or ethnic exclusion.

Before Your Very Eyes: Playing With Time
In Before Your Very Eyes, the latest work by Gob Squad, also at The Public Theater, seven children, whose actual ages range from nine to fourteen, playfully put on clothing, wigs, and makeup in order to pretend to age, decade by decade, in just seventy minutes.

actors performing
 Before Your Very Eyes. Photo by Joan Marcus.

To Pablo Pacareu, an engineering student from Uruguay, “seeing first-hand the loss of innocence of the children onstage was a jarring experience for me personally, since these are changes that are not made apparent in real life,” because they happen “over extended periods of time.”

What for me turned out to be most intriguing about Before Your Very Eyes had to do with time in a different way. My first reaction was mostly to find it odd. It was only after a time that it kept on coming back to me, suggesting new levels of appreciation. (It also helped to listen to the discussion in the class, where one student astutely observed that the play seemed to be inspired by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.)

The lesson here for me was to let a show marinate—not to let my initial impressions lead me to a conclusion by intermission, or even immediately after the end applause. It helped that Mee instructed her students to keep their personal opinions about the shows to themselves; the aim of their discussions (and their papers) was not review but analysis—and “analysis as verb rather than noun: What does it do versus what does it mean.”

I realized, from listening to these students’ (virtually) judgment-free analyses, how important it is to stay open to a show. That doesn’t automatically get easier the more theatre you see; it might actually get more difficult.

I realized, from listening to these students’ (virtually) judgment-free analyses, how important it is to stay open to a show.

Experimental Theatre
“Experimental theatre” is another one of those vague theatrical terms. It too often merely evokes now-familiar routines from the hairy 1960s. But we are living in an era of true theatrical experimentation in a myriad of ways.

Five of the plays on the syllabus could be labeled digital theatre. The 15th Line, a play by Jeremy Gable about the aftermath of a train accident, occurred in real time over several weeks on Twitter. (It was a revival, having debuted on Twitter in 2010!) @Astrojennie, about an astronaut’s return to Earth, is on Instagram. In Lifeline a game by 3 Minute Games, you must guide an astronaut named Taylor, who is stranded on a distant moon, via text messaging. Karen, by a company called Blast Theory, is a smart phone app with video about a life coach who turns you into her life coach. (“At the end of our psychological journey, I realized that most of my issues were slowly on the road to improvement,” Pablo Pacareu observed. “I had sought out to regain a better control of my life, and by helping Karen out, I had learned how to do the same with mine.”) Ferry Play is an app with audio—a growing genre sometimes called a pod play—to which the “theatregoer” listens while riding on the Staten Island Ferry. It’s a project of Mee’s theatre company This Is Not a Theatre Company.

Whether or not all or any of these are theatre, or even live performance, is currently up for debate.

a man in a bed
Versailles 2015. Photo by June Xie.

 Another work on the syllabus took place in three-dimensional spaces but far from a traditional stage. Versailles 2015, a meditation on income inequality presented as a party, was staged in Erin Mee’s apartment, each room the site of a scene that underscored the theme. In the kitchen, for example, a character offered the guests slices of flourless chocolate cake while reeling off examples of the most expensive dishes in the world. Later, in class, Mee pointed out the distinctions between site-specific, immersive, and interactive—concepts that are often smushed together. All have become buzzwords the marketing department affixes to shows to draw in the crowds, whether or not the show quite fits the description.  “Most theatre in the Middle Ages was site-specific, immersive and participatory,” Mee told us, “but there’s a resurgence now.”

Most theatre in the Middle Ages was site-specific, immersive and participatory,’ Mee told us, ‘but there’s a resurgence now.

A proscenium stage does not force a piece to be traditional, as was made clear—one of the few things made clear—by Fondly, Collette Richland, a collaboration presented at the New York Theatre Workshop between the Elevator Repair Service and playwright Sibyl Kempson. The play didn’t exactly receive universal critical acclaim—and this is precisely why it was thrilling to learn of the students’ take on it.

actors performing
Fondly, Collette Richland. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Olina Stathopoulou’s found it the most rewarding of the season, seeing it as “a new kind of memory play, one that concerns itself with questions of illusion and remembrance” that said something about what’s happening with theatre as a whole. She was struck in particular by comments that the character Collette Richland says at the beginning of the play that “people used to react to art uniformly,” but they do not anymore.

There is no one understanding of the play that means you “got it.”...Getting the play is beside the point….It is about the journey the audience takes…New types of plays are trying to get audiences out of their comfort zones. Priority has shifted from simply telling a story to using the most unique and extravagant elements in order to do it.

Fondly, Collette Richland also compelled Rahm Silverglade to write about it with rare verve:

With a belligerent maelstrom of character, movement, humor, and concept, Fondly, Collette Richland strips its audience of their most common assumptions about the spiritual and physical worlds, allowing them a glimpse of their surging, neglected insides, arriving finally at ancient, mystical form…

The result—

transformations of mind, shifts of focus from the material to the ethereal, from measurement to observation, from external to internal experience. These are, luckily for Elevator Repair Service, the transformations that art lives and breathes by, ones that can be remarkably ignited on a bare, unlikely stage…

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Dylan, I feel a little like the character Herbie in the movie Quiz Show who was forced to take a dive by pretending not to know when "Marty" won the Oscar, even though that was his favorite movie of all time. I was very proud of myself for knowing that "Hir" was pronounced "Here" -- you can see that I put it in the first paragraph of my initial review -- http://newyorktheater.me/20...
I most definitely had it in the draft I sent to the Howlround editors; it was in the edited draft they sent back to me. How it became "pronounced her" (which I didn't see) in the published text rather than "pronounced here" is one of those mysteries of life (and/or possibly another act of evil by Autocorrect.)
Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed the article.