DISPATCHES FROM THE CULTURAL FRONT
In my previous two dispatches I spelled out my aesthetic prejudices and artistic morals, and introduced a term, Theater Present, to describe a sensibility that I perceive surging through American theater today (see dispatch 1 and 2), declaring “SOMETHING IS GOING ON in American theater.” The shows and companies mentioned below are not only proof positive of my assertion, but the meat and bones of that ‘something’.
If shows in New York and popping up and touring around the country last year are any indication, the surge remains vital. Work of note in last year’s season is nearly too numerous to list, much more, to analyze sufficiently...
Things I Saw of Note (the list/insufficient analysis):
Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Romeo and Juliet – NaTO premiered their finished Romeo and Juliet at the Kitchen (previously shown as a work-in-progress in New York; it continues to tour all over the world, next in Portland, OR). Instead of adding a modern twist or deconstructing Shakespeare’s text, this tireless company, driven by its creative directors, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, has transcribed descriptions of the plot of Shakespeare’s best known tragedy and placed the stuttering, hilariously misremembered transcriptions into the mouths and bodies of two of their regular company members – the always game and impressive Robert M. Johanson and the peerless Anne Gridley. This is a great introduction to NaTO – their interests, their methods, their tone – even if it does not quite achieve the transcendent, theater-forward level of their masterpieces – Poetics, a ballet brut, No Dice, and the still-in-development, Life and Times.
Life and Times - I also saw video this year of the 3 and 1/2 hour Life and Times, episode 1, from an archival recording made in Vienna (currently touring Europe with some cast replacements). This absurdly ambitious opera sets the transcription of an interview about one woman’s life – no ‘um’s or ‘uh’s excluded – to joyous music and strangely primal choreography, elevating the vagaries of young childhood to the, well, operatic... and that’s just the FIRST PART! Episode 2 will premiere in Vienna on November 5th this fall, and rumor has it they are developing enough future episodes to fill 24-hours. I could not be more excited. Given the shockingly fresh work they have already created, I still assert that with this piece NaTO has done the unlikely of pushing the form even further than previously achieved. Not only is Life and Times, episode 1 eminently enjoyable, it is mind-bogglingly constructed. Through your laughter and tears, you just have to shake your head at the aesthetic and technical achievement of all involved. Word is the productions can be expensive to mount (a New York City premiere of Life and Times is not even scheduled yet), but if you’re wise, you’ll beg your local arts board to spring for any one of this hard-working, hard-traveling company’s shows to land in your town.
The National Theater of the United States OF AMERICA
Chautauqua! – Awarded “The President’s Award” by the Lower Manhattan Culture Council for the show, NTUSA remounted and toured Chautauqua! last year, most recently performing at the Long Wharf in New Haven. This show, not entirely ironically, plays with a traveling American educational movement of the late-19th/early-20th century (called, naturally, Chautauquas) that, as the show explains, traveled the prairie and other remote areas to put on historical, geographical, and scientific pageants for communities that otherwise lacked formal exposure to these subjects, and mixed in variety acts to attract all crowds. NTUSA basically puts on one of these Chautauquas, cleverly making the beginning of theirs about the Chautauqua movement itself and whatever venue they happen to be performing; inviting a guest lecturer to speak nightly; and, as you might imagine, refracting all of this through a contemporary lens. The show basically contains everything I want out of theater – presence (that is, direct address and acknowledgement of the audience and the performance site); self-aware humor; circus-grade clowning and precision; displaying both sly and brazen theatrical intelligence. Specifically I appreciated NTUSA’s burrowing more deeply into each section than might be expected in our short-attention society (even while employing some of the attention-hopping modes of television and new media), which, through this duration, reset my mind to observe, notice, and wander expansively through historical narratives and morals I had previously considered settled and understood for myself. The company understands that it would be way too thin a precept to simply subvert or point at the goofy folksiness of this populist movement of yore, opting bravely to try their hand at actually presenting one to the hip contemporary theatergoer. Bravo!
31 DOWN radio theater
Red Over Red – Just closing a couple of weeks ago as part of the ever more consistently reputable Incubator Series, this most original theater company – brain child of the eccentric and endlessly imaginative Ryan Holsopple and Shannon Sindelar – returned with one of their best and most unsettling works to date. Uniquely, 31 Down makes aural sculpture and original sound design their theatrical stock-in-trade among their constant technical innovations that include creative use of live and recorded video, pre-recorded dialogue, projectors, and motion sensors. Holsopple is a wizard programmer and electrician, and Sindelar complements this with a show-shaping wizardry of her own, reining all the disparate elements of their shows into the coherent whole. Coming off the success of last summer’s, The Assember Dilator, which explored the perversions, humiliations, and horrors of obsessive laboratory research, Red Over Red portrays paranoia and helplessness surrounding plane flight and travel (aviophobes beware!). A love quadrangle are all unwittingly involved in a plane crash at the center of the story, but that does not begin to describe the experience of this “nerve-jangling theatrical nightmare” (in the accurate words of The Times). The attenuated, noir-paced action is enriched by the sound-extreme, whole-sensory theatrical construction that transports its audience (even in a high-ceilinged theater) inside a claustrophobic airplane bathroom, a crowded hard-core club, and all of the characters’ heads. You feel you are being crashed, crushed, assaulted, aroused. Indescribable and impossible to do justice in mere linguistic terms, this show is the second thing you have to ask your community organizers to invite to town (and I happen to know they’re much more affordable than NaTO). I will see anything 31 Down creates.
HOI POLLOI (Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, Dave Malloy)
Three Pianos – Alternately and accurately described by its creators as a “theatrical explosion of Franz Schubert’s Wintereisse” or “Schubert’s Wintereisse mayhemed,” this was the great surprise of the late winter for me. Created in the Incubator Series and transferring to New York Theatre Workshop’s main season next year (if you don’t live here, plan a trip to New York around it!), this play is somehow a tight and illuminating staging of Schubert’s masterpiece song cycle as well as an overflowing, wine-drenched circus of three friends interpreting and arguing about the song cycle; embodying Schubert-and-friends themselves drinking and singing at a ‘Schubertiad;’ intermingled with a general meditation on meaningful relationships in a meaning-neutral world. Directed by the TEAM’s lead creative force, Rachel Chavkin, it features deeply vulnerable and highly exuberant performances from all three creator/performers (we can expect nothing less from the combination - Duffy of Hoi Polloi, Burkhardt of Nonsense Company, and Malloy of Banana Bag and Bodice). While entirely original, their treatment of the famous song cycle makes a case for seriously fun “explosions” of the entire classical music concert format. Part of my enthusiasm for this piece stems from its cross-cultural appeal - playing credibly among the most bizarre experiments of New York’s downtown theater scene, but legitimately inviting a transfer to Carnegie Hall. (Carnegie programmers take note!) At the very least, Burkhardt, Duffy, and Malloy have extended the reputation of Schubert (and the poet Wilhelm Muller!, whose poem Schubert lifted for the libretto) as transcendent of his time and place. Watching this haunting yet celebratory staging of the gloomy cycle renders the conventional German-Expressionist treatment ridiculous. Without being false to the spirit of the cycle, these three wild men and their creative team have generated a night of theater that is anything but meaning-neutral.
LES FRERES CORBUSIER
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – Alex Timbers, the producer/director that has brought us many brazenly irreverent, rockin’ shows such as Manifest Destiny and Heddatron, has returned (this time as writer too) with possibly his company’s most fitting combination of subject and treatment since their A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant. I imagine the creative team conceived of this play back when populist sentiment about 'beer drinking' with George Dubya was at a height. What a boon they must have felt when the next president swept into office with enormous popular support, an outsider perspective, and anti-establishment rhetoric only to find that governing a plurality of interests is damn difficult. Not that democratic governance is remotely the only issue on the mind of this play. In fact, Bloody Bloody manages to both shock and horrify us that are descendants of genocidal war and benefactors of the displacement of America's indigenous population, while (improbably) complicating the received history on the subject AND, all at once, managing high-pitched hilarity the entire running time! Smart writing. Deft staging. All-out performances. The last moment is an eerie rush.
Like Three Pianos, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is transferring from its run at The Public to a Broadway house next season. Do yourself a favor. SEE IT!
The Aliens – Any playwright interested in treading hackneyed territory should find a production or print of Annie Baker’s The Aliens to watch or read. Any theatergoer benumbed by the predominantly cliché offerings of mainstream American theater, should seek The Aliens for restoration. Any theatrical producer looking for a producible masterpiece (production requirements-wise... can’t speak to the cost of the rights or your abilities), given the right attention, you will have one on your hands in The Aliens. Well-worn subjects need a coordinate amount of work on them, and Baker has put in the right amount of effort. (Note to most playwrights: THINK AND WORK HARDER!) With nothing less than jaw-dropping restraint, Baker leads us through the remarkably simple narrative toward anything but simple implications. She introduces us to two mangy outsiders that spend their time illicitly hanging at the employee table behind a coffee shop in Vermont and then introduces them to a new teenage employee who, at first, is not sure how to remove them, but shortly accepts their overtures to join them. Sound thin for a two-hour play? That’s the thing. I cannot fairly reveal more of the plot, but any more than what Baker includes or any variation in the unfolding of the action (such as it isn’t) would bury the work under hopeless contrivance. But because Baker thought hard enough about what story she is telling, we are all rewarded for it. Because it was given attention nonpareil by director, Sam Gold, and his design team, and extraordinarily performed by cast members Michael Chernus, Dane DeHaan, and Eric Gann at its premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, I am afraid that any less of a production could render the play an embarrassment. But since I saw this superlative production, I can attest, if you see it and do not like it, it is not Ms. Baker’s fault.
THE EVEN BRIEFER, 2009-2010
Things I Saw of Note (just a list):
REID FARRINGTON – Gin and “It” @ P.S. 122
YOUNG JEAN LEE – Lear @ Soho Rep
TEMPORARY DISTORTION – American Kamikaze @ P.S. 122
IVO VAN HOVE – Opening Night @ B.A.M.
THE WOOSTER GROUP – North Atlantic @ The Baryshnikov
CYNTHIA HOPKINS – The Truth: a tragedy @ Soho Rep
(I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things...)
Notables I Missed:
WITNESS RELOCATION – Haggadah @ La Mama; Five Days in
March @ East River Park, Summer Stage
THEATER GROTTESCO – Richest Deadman Alive Santa Fe, NM
ÆTHERPLOUGH – human:nature @ Kaneko
(I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things...)
TEAM – Mission Drift
ELEVATOR REPAIR SERVICE – GATZ @ The Public
BANANA BAG AND BODICE – Beowulf @ East River Park,
TONY KUSHNER – Angels in America (revival); iHo (new
play) @ Signature Theatre
THEATER GROTTESCO – OM, Ten Tiny Epics in an Outlet Mall
Santa Fe, NM
DISPATCHES FROM THE CULTURAL FRONT
My first dispatch was an introduction (by way of rally!) to
some of my aesthetic prejudices and values, as well as
strategies for their realization.
Below is an overly brief attempt to account for and
explicate an unstated, un-organized, but nonetheless
prominent, movement gaining surprising momentum in American theater today (with which my own artistic goals are
I try to hyperlink where relevant, but I take all
responsibility for oversight and lack of demonstration. I
leave it to future dispatches to mention companies and
artists that exemplify the following...
dispatch 2: Theater Present...
a personal survey of a resurgent aesthetic
Whether it is a man or a horse is no longer so
important, if only the burden is removed from
A variation on the old pair of fish in the ocean: Two
theater artists are in rehearsal. One turns to the other
and says, ‘Boy, the meaning sure is thick in here.’ The
other looks over and replies, ‘What meaning?’
In 1984, Mac Wellman opened his seminal critique of
American drama, The Theatre of Good Intentions, with the
flat declaration, “Artists and thinkers of our time are
engaged in a war with meaning.” As a student in the late
90s and a theatre artist of this new millennium’s first
decade, I feel I can happily report that the war has been
To wit, turn to Wellman’s 2006 preface in his co-edited
collection of new plays, New Downtown Now (Young Jean Lee, co-editor), wherein he writes of his astonishment at the
current crop of theatre artists’ canniness and imagination
in response to the spoils: “[T]he best of our new theater
practitioners have begun to imagine a set of goals and
procedures...in which perception requires no other
justification than that to which its beauty entitles it.
In this dramatic universe, acuity of perception and
theatrical high jinks are their own reward,” (my italics).
To study the recent artistic past is, indeed, to study
artists and thinkers of Wellman’s ’84 description. That
generation inherited a different mission. The conventions
were thick. The counter-conventions, growing thicker.
These meaning-warriors understood from the example of their
predecessors that the rules had to be absolutely
slaughtered and the carcasses feasted upon before even the
germ of what is going on today could get growing. Thus,
the 80s became a kind of proving decade for the
inspirational potential of destruction. (Thus, Wellman,
LeCompte, Bogart, etc.) The predictions of this
bloodbath’s inevitable descent into nihilism were,
predictably, romantic – all just nostalgia for the old
battlefields. In fact the result has been, not a
devolution to the ‘End of Art’ or some such nonsense, but,
as could have possibly been expected, something much
simpler: liberation. We have long lost trust in received
meaning. Perhaps as artists and audience members, we are
finally regaining trust in ourselves.
That is, Meaning is being restored to its only defensible
provenance – the hands of those making it and viewing it.
Everything, all at once...
Due to this restoration, the shrugging off the yokes of
Theater Past, SOMETHING IS GOING ON in the American
theater, storming our nation’s art programs; dominating our
theater conferences; handily surpassing in purpose the
Theater of Pathetic Imitation (convention bound theater
that awkwardly apes cinema and television, that apologizes
for its own existence). Most importantly, it seems to be
happening organically, instinctually by the children born
after the meaning-wars.
What is this ‘something’, you wonder?
In my observations, it breaks down into two sensibilities –
one the result of the other.
Firstly, there is a recentralization of the LIVE.
Qualities of the LIVE:
-Immediacy – happening right NOW
-Ephemerality – happening ONLY now
-Presence – performers and audience are HERE, gathered
willfully together in a PLACE (only imaginative space
As we all know, in Theater of Pathetic Imitation,
Immediacy, Ephemerality, and Presence are the family
hunchbacks, locked away upon the arrival of guests... or,
worse, dressed up awkwardly and introduced apologetically
with much preface and qualification. And the LIVE is no
longer the site of performance (the ‘subject of
interrogation’ as the academics would have it), as it
was/is in Theater Post-Modern. Today the forefront of
performance is not so much about the LIVE; performance is
LIVE once again.
The result of this recentralization, secondly, has yielded
an abundance of formal liberty. Instead of reference to
means Past, I see an ASSUMPTION OF MEANS Past. By
recognizing and utilizing the unique qualities of Live
Events, performance is free to operate inside its own
terms, from its own terms. The ‘What’ of theater no longer
need be carefully deconstructed (or utterly rent, limb from
limb) as the case used to be. The obligation no longer
seems to be explanation or pointing to. The obligation is
to do, and it is only necessary that the doing fit within
the whole (“...theatrical high jinks are their own
The Past is neither referenced nor deconstructed. It is
I coin work of these sensibilities, THEATER PRESENT.
Some visionary ensembles have raised the profile of theater
of this type (notably, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, The
National Theater of the United States of America, and the
TEAM... more on these companies in future dispatches), but
these sensibilities are informing the work of recognized
and obscure alike.
I write all this with full awareness of the danger of
naming things. This column is not intended as a manifesto
– to establish a framework within which practitioners were
somehow bound. All this is spelled out after the work. I
am abstracting a general approach and nature that I
perceive all the work shares. That is, there are not
adherents to these qualities and principles. There are
only the intuitive creators thereof.
As stated above...
I leave it to future dispatches to list more examples and
develop this theory further. See you then!
DISPATCHES FROM THE CULTURAL FRONT
dispatch 1: by way of introduction...
I find it curious when I hear collaborators remark, ‘We’re
not defusing bombs here,’ in reference to the time and
effort that everyone within earshot is committing to
whatever artistic endeavor at that moment. I’m always
tempted to yell, ‘Fire in the hole!’ and dive for cover.
Sure we are! Of course we’re defusing bombs! ...when not
constructing them. We’re signing up volunteers right now –
an outlaw band of detonator specialists, heedful that even
the most trivial entertainment is not approached
carelessly! Self-determined! (as we would wish); Selfjustified!
(as we must always be); We snip the wires on 10,
9, 8, 7...
And you will hear:
Art is dying! Art is dead!
It’s commoditized! Commercialized! Marginalized! Dulled!
Undervalued! Unsupported. Censored. Unappreciated...
To that we say:
So be it! Entitled art is dead art anyway!
Unappreciated? Uncertain? Unknown? These are not cause
for head-drooping, foot-shuffling supplication. Apology
and lament. Self-pitiful simpering. NO! These are the
very foundation of our necessary work, motivations for the
work we willfully undertake! Defusers/Constructers of
bombs, all! We work from here.
Our work must be our contribution to the human
conversation, our answer to the plainly absurd condition of
life. To futility. To oblivion. To meaninglessness.
My personal commitment is to contribute vitality – to
listen closely, sensitively; to think hard; and to create
boldly. But, as a class, all we artists must take
ourselves more seriously (by which, I do NOT mean
humorlessly). Post-Beckett, post-Camus a conscious person
may be able to “live without appeal” in the sense of
disregarding the obvious sophistries institutionalized in
the past. But what now? What replaces them? Enter the
artists... ADVANCE GUARD!
Form must proceed from Content! This is demanded if we are
Dead must be the preconceived structure. The expected.
The understood. Whatever the discipline, whatever the
previous achievements, tradition cannot be our guide.
First must be the themes, the images, the dialectics. From
these, the form emerges. From these, we venture into the
unknown, allowing our curiosity, our study, and vigilant
intuition to lead us to unique and original expression. To
surprise. (This is not to say that all convention is
abandoned, of course. That would not be possible.
Convention. Expectation. These are what something
“unique” is defined from, to which uniqueness refers. Our
challenge is to use convention, not be bound by it.) The
subject of our inspiration will determine the form of its
expression. This is a guiding principle. This is an
It is not enough to ask these questions and vaguely pursue
these goals. Artistry requires, not only interest,
inspiration, and will, but craft, discourse, guidance,
challenge, diversity of opinion and encounter. These lofty
ambitions and questions must be grounded in practice.
Seeking artists of similar aspiration, other
defusers/constructors of bombs! Report for duty with all
abandon and haste! Timers are ticking... 3, 2, 1...
I work as a playwright, producer, videographer, video
editor, actor, author. And my work is informed enormously
by my avid viewership and (personal, un-credentialed)
critical appraisal of arts, politics, architecture, media,
philosophy. This column is to be my report. A collection
of my responses. An assemblage of tangents. An outlaw
record of subversive opinions. A self-appointed, selfjustified
ministry of culture.
My first column, above, gives you some idea of my aesthetic
prejudices, goals, interests. But a column is a different
field of expression – obviously, not purely artistic. I
promise to take license. I promise to have fun. But the
content will be primarily analytical. With your feedback,
I hope to add to the roiling cultural discourse, to plug
into a wider correspondence and conversation.
More dispatches forthcoming...