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!