Political (Act)ivism and the (New) Avant-garde
What is avant-garde theatre 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.
There is a prevailing sense that the millennial avant-garde is not creating political, activist theater to the same extent as the avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s. I don’t think this is true. But I do think that the challenge has changed.
For those who define the avant-garde by its formal and conceptual interventions, the vanguard is the “cutting edge.” It’s a matter of slicing open the narratives that currently contain us. For those who believe that activism is most central to the avant-garde, the focus is on the margins, on the task of bringing new voices into the conversational center. Margin, edge—these are terms for the same border, breached from opposite sides.
In the theater of the 1960s and 70s, there was a certain synthesis of these two positions. Julian Beck and Judith Malina mingled art and politics, pushing formal and political boundaries and bringing theatricality to their political action. The Performance Group, El Teatro Campesino, The Actor’s Workshop, The San Francisco Mime Troupe, Bread and Puppet Theater, and many other companies likewise developed work that was both formally innovative and politically implicated. For many, the dissolution of traditional hierarchical structures and deconstruction of narrative forms were the organizational and formal expressions of their revolutionary politics. Edge and margin aligned.
But the sense of an opposition persists. You even hear it in the way that artists whose work is obviously “political” have a tendency to hedge, to hold the term at arm’s length. Take Mac Wellman’s defense of art for its own sake in Linda Yablonsky’s 1995 interview in BOMB Magazine. While affirming that he considers his own work “political,” he adds, “But it can’t be reduced to slogans…Art is important not because it can be translated into something else, but because art possesses and embodies its own good, its own special (and spiritual) value, period. People who try to argue for its social utility do it a disservice.”
Or consider a similar moment of ambivalence in Richard Maxwell’s 2008 BOMB interview with Young Jean Lee. He points out that her recent plays, Songs of the Flying Dragon and The Shipment had “taken on a kind of political aspect,” and notes that although he tends to feel that “political theatre doesn’t work by and large,” Lee had pulled it off by making the plays feel personal. He attributes her success to her ability to make these political plays feel intensely personal.
For her part, Lee locates the difficulty of creating political theater in the process of “trying to trap the audience so they can’t escape through…their dismissive loopholes. It’s like as soon as you’re in a room where there’s anything political going on—and I’m the same way—I’m just instantly looking for a way out. I don’t want to be preached at.”
Whereas Wellman objects to the label “political theater” because it implies and imposes on art a putatively higher purpose, Maxwell’s and Lee’s reservations are more pragmatic—they suggest that political theater is difficult—that it demands a personal, nuanced, even tactical approach to forestall an audience’s alienation.
Which prompts the question: is it harder to make political theater than it used to be? Have audiences become more cynical and more wary of messaging? Have artists? And if so, how does this change activist theater?
There was some ambivalence among the people I interviewed about the political impact of the avant-garde. But there was also a strong sense of pragmatism, a strategic way of thinking about theater that has less to do with wide-eyed idealism than it does with a desire to use all the tools at one’s disposal to explore the problem at hand.
I spoke a few weeks ago with Seattle performance artist Erin Pike, who just performed her one-woman show That’swhatshesaid (written by Courtney Meaker) at On the Boards’ Northwest New Works Festival. The piece takes lines spoken by female characters from TCG’s list of the top ten most produced plays of 2013-14 and puts them in the mouth of one female character in an effort to explore how women are represented in the theater.
It’s Erin’s conviction that successful performance pieces should “poke at things,” whether those things are “social and political or individual and emotional.” That’swhatshesaid is a fascinating experiment at the intersection of those two approaches. Given that half of the plays on TCG’s list this year are by women, the piece is an exploration not just of how women are portrayed, but also of how they portray themselves.
Erin noted that because of its tendency to defamiliarize, avant-garde performance can be influential in the way that it offers a new perspective on art itself and shifts how people may experience other art going forward. “Does it influence the rest of their experience of the world?” Erin asked wryly. “To be determined.”
In the early spring, I had a wonderful and wide-ranging talk with Caitlin Sullivan, founding member and current artistic director of the Seattle-based Satori Group. We talked about the history, influences, and interests of the ensemble. Caitlin noted that Satori likes to ask the big philosophical questions, “but also to make things that are immediately theatrically digestible and visceral, like food, dirt, music—things that feel like things. The idea is to get those big questions into the DNA of the world rather than asking them explicitly onstage.”
What ties the group together, she suggested, is the how of a production. Everyone in the group is responsible and implicated in the process of making the work—and this is also how they deal with their audiences. What part of yourself, they ask, is in the room? What part of yourself is at stake? In raising these questions, they reveal the artistic and political implications of how a work gets made.
There is a prevailing sense that the millennial avant-garde is not creating political, activist theater to the same extent as the avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s. I don’t think this is true. But I do think that the challenge has changed. Whereas the earlier generation’s challenge was in some sense to merge the abstract and activist, the intellectual and the mobilizing, the challenge of this generation’s avant-gardists is to merge the political and the intimate: to engage, on a personal level, their subjects, their audiences, and the formal capacities and limitations of the theatrical medium.
If this avant-garde does not seem as visibly political, that may be the point. Tricky, nuanced, visceral, funny, and intimate, this avant-garde may be trying to infiltrate the barriers imposed by contemporary reticence and misgivings about acts of revolution.
Photo by Tim Summers. Erin Pike in That’swhatshesaid at On the Boards’ Northwest New Works Festival.