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Inheriting the Avant-garde, or How Do We Carry it Forward?

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.

Strangely enough, what seems new and original isn’t really. Even the innovative is in part derived. Whether genealogically, pedagogically, liturgically, or dramaturgically, by blood, bequest, or inspiration, the avant-garde is inherited.

As it happens, the problem of inheriting a tradition of experimentalism and innovation is a little more complicated than strapping on grandma’s old wristwatch. What we are taking up is not so much a mantle as a dismantle—not an established role or even a coherent revolution but rather the urge to take things apart, to find out how they tick.

This is the problem confronting young theater-makers today. We are heirs to the theater artists of the 1960s and 70s—many of whom were our teachers, all of whom paved the way for us—and heirs to their avant-gardism, their aesthetic revolution. How are we to carry that tradition forward? How are we to change, question, complicate, and revolutionize it? How are we, in Ezra Pound’s words, to “make it new”?

Looking back, the thrust of the avant-garde movement of the 1960s and 70s is clear. Ensembles such as the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, and the Wooster Group developed more egalitarian, process-oriented methods of working and pioneered stylized, poetic, ritualistic, hyper-realistic, surrealistic, and profane modes of performance which broke the naturalistic mold and tested the boundaries between audience and performer. Writers and directors such as Robert Wilson, María Irene Fornes, Richard Foreman, Caryl Churchill, Elizabeth LeCompte, Judith Malina, Julian Beck, Peter Brook, Ed Bullins, and Joseph Chaikin challenged our notions of space and duration, meaning and eventfulness, theatricality and chance. They revolutionized our sense of what a play might be.

That was their revolution. What is our avant-garde?

I began mulling over the avant-garde because I was thinking about young theater companies—“young” signifying companies comprised largely of young people and/or companies newly founded. I was thinking about my peers: twenty, thirty, and forty-something actors, directors, playwrights, writers, artists, and performance artists living in all parts of the country, doing work of all different kinds and at all different levels. So many people are out there grappling with the avant-garde, and regardless the success of the product, that grappling is unfailingly interesting. Is it avant-garde?

Now, “avant-garde” is a tricky term insofar as it is defined colloquially as forward thinking or the leading edge, but the success or influence of that avant-gardism can only be seen retrospectively. Something or other was avant-garde, but how can we say for sure that it’s going to be? It’s hard to see the vanguard until after it has passed, just as it’s hard to talk about contemporary theater in terms of the whole body of its history. This thing I am seeing—is it really new? All I know is its now, we’re in it.

And here’s where we run into a bit of a quagmire. Because when we speak historically of the American avant-garde, we tend actually to refer to the avant-garde of the 1960s and 70s—the old avant-garde. We’re talking about The Connection, The Serpent, Dionysus in 69, Einstein on the Beach, Rhoda in Potatoland. We’re talking about the Ontologicial-Hysteric Theatre, the Byrd Hoffman Foundation, The Performance Group, Theatre of the Ridiculous.

We’re not talking about what is happening now. And as it happens, it is hard to make that term, the “avant-garde,” apply to the now because it sticks so obstinately to then. In fact, scholars will tell you the avant-garde is over: Richard Schechner shut it down in his 1981 apolo-eulogy in Performing Arts Journal, “The Decline and Fall of the (American) Avant-Garde.” The greatest failing of my generation,” he wrote, “is our failure to find a way of passing on performance knowledge,” of developing a vital and continuing “tradition of experimentation.” He asked, with not a little chagrin: “How come so few people in their 20s are doing significant theatre? Where are the inheritors?”

Well, shoot, where are they?

I’d say they’re now. And I’d say they’re working. And I’d say that some are making very significant theater (I’m looking at Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, the Rude Mechanicals, Seattle’s Satori Group, Chicago’s Walkabout; I’m looking at playwrights like Lucas Hnath, Annie Baker, Lisa D’Amour, Kimber Lee, Emily Conbere.)

But I also think that the avant-garde looks different. For one thing, it has dispersed both physically and ideologically: what was once a movement centered on New York and San Francisco is now nationwide. And what was once a coherent if not cohesive movement is now more an ecosystem. It is less directed—perhaps to its detriment—but it is also deeply invested in the process of making and growing and increasingly rooted in the communities in which it finds itself.

We can protect and nurture that ecosystem; we can study and critique it; we must enter into it. We are the inheritors, but the landscape looks different than it did. So we will necessarily inhabit it differently.

“Avant-garde” is a sneak and a bully. It sidles into conversations about what’s happening and before you notice, it’s organized all of history into row after row of soldierly events that either culminate in the thing that is, that you are actually in the midst of, or else march right over it, on to some other supposed front.

But I’d like to talk about now. Over the next eight months, I’ll explore this new post-apocalyptic place, this After-the-Avant-Garde landscape to see how young theater makers are living in it and lighting it up.





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Thoughts from the curator

In her series, Kate Kremer explores the question of the new avant-garde; what is avant-garde theatre today?

After the Avant-Garde


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Kate -

I’m looking forward to your series. I can’t help but believe that the avant-garde, the makers of performance, have moved away from the formalism of the theatre. As an inheritor of the 70s avant-garde, I have for years struggled with this as a question. I have been a maker of “experimental” works with an ensemble in Denver for the last 20 years. The company chose Denver’s lack of an experimental pedigree as reason to establish and make work in that community. In our time, we have discovered that the question inherently resides in the strength of our communities (audience and artist). The avant movements of the past have largely been a mechanism for larger social transformation. The disbursement of large cultural hubs (NYC, San Francisco, etc.) through media/digital connectivity into a larger more connected America has done two things that seem to be in opposition… First, it has given the field greater access to ideas and the connection of virtual experimental/avant-garde communities. The old idea of waiting a decade for the movements/ideas of the NYC avant-garde to make it to the middle of the county are over; they are instantaneous. But, the second thing it has done, is to weaken the geography of a physical, experimental performance community. This erodes the basic support system that allows communities (performance or otherwise) to thrive. We know from prior avant-garde and performance movements, the makers fed off of and collaborated with each other. The ideas became coalesced because the community WAS a whole. Now we see makers trying to carve out contemporary performance in the unlikeliest of places. These works exist, but sometimes not as a cohesive movement and sometimes without any conversation that would allow a ‘movement’ to grow. Lastly, I would say this disbursement can contribute to a general disconnect among these artists about what American contemporary performance is attempting to change in the beginning of the 21st century.

In the interests of paying heed to that old dictum "We can't know where we're going until we know where we've been," I recommend a few interesting books that may enhance the discussion.

Arnold Aronson's "American Avant-Garde Theatre: A History" (Routledge) is as good an introduction to avant-garde theatre and drama in the US as any, covering the drama and the stage from Gertrude Stein through Reza Abdoh.

Stephen Bottoms' "Playing Underground:A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement" (University of Michigan Press) is very much what its title says. His reach is from 1960 through 1973, so it's not as comprehensive as Aronson's, but he pays closer attention to text-based rather than more formalist experiments.

"The Off-Off-Broadway Book" (1972) edited by Albert Poland and Bruce Mailman (Bobbs-Merrill) is out-of-print, and it shouldn't be. It's an essential collection of theatre texts from Stein through H.M. Koutoukas, Robert Heide and Adrienne Kennedy that defined the movement, if you could call it that. It also includes a series of thumbnail sketches of almost all of the most important organizations of the period.

Finally, "The Theatre of Images" (1987) by Bonnie Marranca includes a good introductory essay and texts from Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, and Lee Breuer, whose plays were among the most radical departures from the theatre of the period. And perhaps they still are.

This idea has been haunting me just as well since I heard Anne Bogart speak of a similar thing. In her interview at Humana this spring she mentioned how she thought post modernism is dead, and we are on the brink of a new "ism." Whatever that ism is has not yet been coined...
I own a theatre company in Chicago that was discussing this very topic the other day at a meeting. We at Two Lights work across disciplines and plan to focus on using the art movement Fluxus as a creative force or means of exploring text in order to create the most engaging experiences we can.
Last night I listened to a podcast about how with today's technology we have the means of getting people to do things on an international, almost universal level, by the millions. If something is to become the next "ism" I also believe technology and multi/intermedia is an important medium for theatre artists to embrace. I think the layering of artistic communities, and thereby strengthening of the community as a whole, is also important. If we have spent so much time in deconstruction, it is our job to build ourselves up again by fusing the work.
I would love to contribute or collaborate on this hunt with you if there are possible avenues.

As a young artist I was nurtured by and with Judith Malina, Julian Beck,
Joe Chaikin, George Bartenieff and many of their collaborators and my
work has been informed by what I took from their aesthetics (Judith
directed my play "Us" in 1987, the first American play she had directed
since "The Brig") I have to say that what drove us, and what drives
me,today, is a poetic connection between the character, action and the
political realities of the world in which we live. The avant-garde was
first and foremost a protest movement, against war, against consumerism,
and for new ways of relating--because of its social and political goals,
its practitioners, those who were truly innovative, let me add the great
Jean Genet, and James Baldwin, had to find new ways of shaping their understandings of reality . There can be no avant-garde unless is engaged with the consuming issues of
our day: war, of course, and nuclear disaster, Global Warming, growing
economic inequality, ugly racism and sexism--and the liberation
movements that have been and are flourishing, despite the grim prognosis
for humanity that the aforementioned presage--for all women, indigenous
peoples, gays, bi-trans., and all people of color everywhere. Our
theater is notably remiss in understanding that the character exists in
relationship to a violent social and political reality--and that reality
must be challenged by the work of art. The avant-garde is not about formalism. It is about creation of a world-view.

Karen, thank you for this wonderful post. I would love to talk with you about your experiences with Malina, Beck, Chaikin, Bartenieff and co.--and about your many plays! I am planning two posts in particular that I would love to consult with you on--one is an exploration of the role of the playwright within the avant-garde theater movement of the 60s and 70s (and in avant-garde movements more generally); the other is an exploration of activism and the avant-garde. Please let me know if you might be interested and available to chat!

This is bigger than all of us and it will not be accomplished by funding. The world has changed, the economy has changed, and unless technology is embraced we have lost the younger generation. Theatre needs to morph into something entirely new and somehow independent of money.

"Ubu Roi" Dec 10, 1896 W.B. Yeats "After Stephane Mallarme, after Paul Verlaine, After Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.”

I feel it is a difficult environment in which to bring out the Avant-Garde in theater, I applaud people who do. There is plenty of talent and tons of ideas, yet to do any of this you need funding, Most playwrights are encouraged to do small cast plays with unit sets in order to be produced or even read / workshopped. In New York even to do an Equity Showcase it costs a lot, and then independent companies must pay for rehearsal space and you're limited in rehearsal time with Equity Actors if you are operating under a showcase code. I applaud anyone who is able with our current limited funding environment to bring the work forward! Congratulations to all who are able to.

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