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.