The Problematic Play Festival will force us into conversation about the theater industry’s play selection process and the topics that are “off the table” in the American theater. Through an open submission process, we seek playwrights who are willing to discuss, stage, and confront their “problematic” work, providing a space for in-depth, critical, facilitated conversation between artists and audiences.
Submissions are now open for Playing on Air’s inaugural James Stevenson Prize for Short Plays. In his editorial cartoons for The New Yorker, James Stevenson told stories about the human comedy with energy and economy. Playing on Air, a theater podcast and public radio show, will award three major prizes for short comedies that perpetuate Mr. Stevenson's spirit and wit, bringing the finest new American plays to a national audience - for free.
SEEKING: Complete original stage musicals which play between seven and twenty minutes. Works which have been previously produced are acceptable, as are excerpts from full-length shows, if they can stand up on their own.
MUSICAL STYLE AND THEATRICAL FORMAT: Any musical style: pop, rock, C&W, show, opera, etc; or theatrical format: comedy, mystery, drama, etc.
*** FOR MORE INFORMATION about these and other opportunities see http://www.nycplaywrights.org ***
*** AVANT-GARDE ***
Term applied since the end of the nineteenth century to theatre as well as other arts and practitioners involved in introducing original and experimental ideas, forms and techniques. Examples range from Jarry and Apollinaire to Cage and Robert Wilson.
A loose term, often meaning Experimental Theatre, that has been widely used since the middle of the twentieth century and has gone by many other names: ‘event’ or ‘Happening’ in the 1950s; ‘multimedia’ in the 1960s; ‘visual theatre’ in the 1970s; Performance Art in the 1980s; Live Art in the 1990s. Rarely have these names been chosen by the practitioners; they have for the most part been coined for the sake of critical convenience, often (particularly in Britain) because when critics are confronted by theatre which is not a play – by work not based in text – they see it as so foreign to their tradition that it must be defined as separate, an ‘experiment’. They have been unable to develop a vocabulary which can cope with the physicality and volatility of experimental performance or its multiplicity of meaning. (The work of Robert Wilson, for example, was reviewed in one paper early in his career by its dance critic.)
A Friday night in late 2015, and New York Live Arts is abuzz with anticipation for the second half of Looking for Paul, a play by Dutch theatre group Wunderbaum. A man with a protruding rubber nose and gigantic hands enters the stage. He walks to the center, where a toilet stands, and drops his pants to take a seat. Two women—the first leading the second on a leash—enter the scene. Meanwhile, the man on the toilet has begun smearing his own feces onto a cloth. Then, one of the women pours liquor bottle after liquor bottle over her body, while a second man throws heaps of spaghetti toward her bosom. Then a third man undresses and starts penetrating a bale of straw while rhythmically screaming, “Room service! Room service!”
For American audiences this may be provocative and uncomfortable, but for the Dutch actors it is nothing new. “Americans say we are modern and experimental,” said Wunderbaum actor Walter Bart. “But for me, I don’t see that. I don’t think it’s that much of a provocative performance at all.”
The US economy may be (mostly) stable again for the moment, but that hasn't halted its interest in one European import: avant-garde theatrical adaptations. These productions take an old, perhaps even familiar text, and present it in a way that breaks free from all tradition and conventional readings. They aren’t necessarily new, but their popularity seems to be surging.
One American establishment has latched onto these productions perhaps more than any other—the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). This past fall, BAM presented its annual Next Wave Festival and among the more prominent productions were at least three avant-garde adaptations: in September, Phaedra(s), conceived/directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski; in October, Letter to a Man directed by Robert Wilson; and in November, Kings of War directed by Ivo van Hove. These productions utilized the texts of a Greek myth (and various works inspired by it), the diary of a schizophrenic dancer, and five Shakespearean(/Marlovian?) histories respectively. Despite being highly different in content, the intentions behind the productions were strangely similar. They articulated an emerging aesthetic of theatrical art where originality is sacrificed in favor of irony, surface meaning is discarded as false, and even technological advances can’t turn our heads away from the specter of the past.
The Avant-Garde Theatre
by Eugène Ionesco
I am, it seems, an avant-garde dramatist. It would even seem obvious since I am present here at discussions on the avant-garde theatre as representative of this avant-garde. It is all entirely official.
But what does the term avant-garde mean? I am not a Doctor of Theatrology nor Philosophy, nor Art: nor am I what is commonly called a “man-of-the-theatre.” Perhaps I am a kind of mason, knowing certain laws of dramatic construction, but in an empirical or instinctive manner.
If I have formed certain ideas about the theatre, they refer above all to my theatre for they have sprung from my own creative experience: they are hardly normative, but rather descriptive. I hope, of course, that rules which apply to me will also apply to others, for the others are all contained in each one of us.
Which art hubs of 20th century New York City are now sterilized condos, and where does the creative spirit remain? In Unforgotten New York: Legendary Spaces of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde, producer and writer David Brun-Lambert, photographer John Short, and creative director David Tanguy explore the present-day identities of the art spaces, clubs, underground hangouts, and performance venues of the 1950s to 80s.
Unforgotten New York is something of a misnomer, as every single one of the over 40 profiled places is in Manhattan. Photographer Short wrote in an essay for Dezeen that he and his collaborators first “went about trying to evidence our theory that the New York that had been the hotbed of the arts from the 1950s to the late 1980s was dead. And the reason it was dead was that the city had become too prosperous.” Later they discovered this wasn’t exactly the case, acknowledging “that the avant-garde was not dead in the city, but it was now to be found out in Brooklyn.” Brun-Lambert is based in Geneva, and Short and Tanguy in London, to give a bit of an excuse to this revelation.
The close of the 1960's was a halcyon time for the theatrical avant-garde. Theaters, churches and lofts from Manhattan's West Side to the Brooklyn Academy of Music were filled with experimentation as conceptual directors led ensemble companies into adventurous avenues. In the space of a single season, theatergoers could see the Open Theater's ''Serpent''; Jerzy Grotowski's Polish Lab Theater; and Robert Wilson's first revolutionary epic, ''The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud.'' Stretching the timeline a bit, one could also see Tom O'Horgan's production of ''Tom Paine,'' Richard Schechner's ''Dionysus in '69,'' Charles Ludlam's ''Bluebeard,'' Andre Gregory's ''Alice in Wonderland,'' and Richard Foreman's early experiments with his Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Arriving in New York in 1969, as a young visitor from Rumania, Andrei Serban looked around at all the theatrical activity and said that the ''avant- garde was in flower.'' In 1984, one might wonder where the flowering has gone.
Though at first glance it might appear that the theatrical avant-garde has retreated, a closer look shows that it has diversified, altered and renewed itself. It is not always visible from New York, because New York is no longer the only focus for theatrical experimentation. The avant-garde is everywhere, and, especially, elsewhere. For economic as well as artistic reasons, experimental directors are working in San Francisco and other cities of America, in Europe and at international arts festivals - and, when possible, also in New York. As the theatrical avant-garde has proliferated geographically, it has also assumed a variety of new forms, and it is being presented on new stages, from SoHo art galleries to major opera houses. One sign of the movement's vitality is that it is complex and difficult to categorize. In his book, ''Toward a Poor Theater,'' Mr. Grotowski, one of the seminal figures of the 60's avant-garde, expounded his theory of ''poor'' and ''rich'' theater. The rich theater, he said, ''depends on artistic kleptomania, drawing from other disciplines, constructing hybrid spectacles, conglomerates without backbone or integrity, yet presented as an organic art-work.'' Instead, he championed a reduction to essentials: actors unencumbered even by scenic or lighting design.
One of the things that’s great about our show is that we actually don’t have to spend any money on a theatre. We are out working in public space.
This isn’t the first time Stark has done this kind of work. His first site-specific play—“I.R.T.”—was performed in 2009 on the New York City subway. He followed it up with “The Sweet Cheat”, a play about a post-apocalyptic New York that was performed in an abandoned warehouse north of the city.
And he’s not the only one making site-specific theater. In fact one of New York’s more popular long-running shows is “Sleep No More”—an avant-garde retelling of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, performed in three adjoining warehouses in Manhattan designed to look like an old hotel. John Gould Rubin has also used the site-specific format in his own work.
JOHN GOULD RUBIN:
I did it because it was much less expensive and because it would endow the audience, which– with an entirely different experience. You’re in an experience if you go to the theater which is one that you’re accustomed to.
But if you go to– a place, the address of which you’ve been given that morning by a telephone or an email, you’re already primed for an unusual experience. And so, it is economics. But it’s also– it’s also a way of endowing the audience with an unusual experience.
On April 30, 1971, at New York’s Town Hall, Norman Mailer, of all people, moderated a program billed as a debate on feminism. In the audience, having paid $25 each, were the would-be cream of the local intelligentsia, come to see what would happen when the author of The Prisoner of Sex, Mailer’s recently published gynophobic treatise, wrangled with Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jill Johnston, and NOW’s Jacqueline Ceballos about women’s lib. Johnston, who appeared stoned and spoke throughout in the breathy cadences of a coffeehouse poet, later described the event as “a disaster for women” because it occurred at all, yet she also called it the social event of the season. Mailer was the reason for both, being both condescending and glamorous. Trilling he called “our leading literary lady-critic”; his response to one heckler began, “Hey, cunty.” But beyond the name calling, Mailer distinguished himself as the clownish misogynist everyone expected by framing feminism as a humorless stalking horse for a left-based totalitarianism. To his provocations Trilling remained tartly aloof; Johnston merely giggled and muttered like Louise Lasser. It was left to Greer, whom Life had recently dubbed the “saucy feminist that even men like,” to snap the tongue out of Mailer’s mouth, even while seeming to flirt with him. She wore a fox boa.
The evening was filmed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, who eventually shaped it into the fabulously chaotic 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall. Watched today the movie makes you gasp at Mailer’s antique sexual politics (and homophobia!) but also leaves you astonished that a time existed, not long ago, when such a discussion could in fact be a sold-out social event and, however silly, serious and influential. Those conflicting qualities must be what drew the interest of the director Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group, whose amusing, somewhat random stage deconstruction of the debate, called The Town Hall Affair, opened on Thursday at the Performing Garage in Soho. Though the Wooster Group’s brand of avant garde is more agreeable and engaging than that of many other companies, it nevertheless requires of its audience a certain tolerance for randomness, and a willingness to tarry and teeter at the point where pretension threatens to tip into obscurantism. You know it’s experimental theater when the complex provenance of the text is treated as an art form, perhaps even more than the text itself.
In Lee Breuer’s avant-garde staging of Henrik Ibsen’s landmark “A Doll’s House,” Nora — the wife who famously walks out on her husband — practically has to crawl to look up at him.
That’s because the actor playing Torvald is less than 4 feet tall. In “Mabou Mines Dollhouse,” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for three days beginning Thursday, all the men are played by “little people” (the preferred term). And the women are big enough to literally scoop these men up.
That striking casting isn’t the only reason that Alicia Adams, vice president of international programming and dance at the Kennedy Center, suggests audiences will be “surprised” and “provoked.” The intensely non-realistic piece rarely slacks off in its challenges: Breuer includes puppets by acclaimed puppeteer Basil Twist, juices up the melodrama, uses toy furniture, and risks nudity and sex scenes. At one point, an opera threatens to break out.
Once upon a time, the "avant garde" didn't refer to art at all. It denoted the horse cavalry, the riders and their mounts who led the charge into battle. But just as the theatrical avant garde really got going, in the late decades of the 19th century and the early ones of the 20th, the military one was being eliminated. (If you're wondering why, you might go and see War Horse.) Still, even though the term avant garde has been outmoded for nearly a century, it's precisely how many critics and academics – myself included – persist in thinking about the theatre. We speculate about what fresh spaces, forms and structures drama can charge into, and we worry that perhaps there's actually nothing new under the stage lights.
Of course, avant garde isn't the only term we employ. We also speak of theatre that's "edgy", "experimental", "radical" – terms that suggest the original and the forward-looking. But is meaningful innovation still possible?
When the Wooster Group co-founder/director Elizabeth LeCompte was first exposed to the work of legendary avant-garde Polish theater director Tadeusz Kantor, she was unmoved. “I thought, this has nothing to do with me,” she says. “The fact that it was this big male standing in the middle of the piece telling the actors what to do didn’t relate on any level.”
That was before the renowned theater company was commissioned by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland and the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at New York's Bard College to mark the centenary two years ago of Kantor’s birth. The resulting work, A PINK CHAIR (In Place of a Fake Antique) had its world premiere at Bard last summer and plays at REDCAT April 5-15.
“I really had to say, 'I don’t know if we’re the right people to do this,'” LeCompte confesses. “We didn’t know how to approach it. They wanted us to do it because they assumed our company was like his company in that we’re a full ensemble that works together, a lot of us, over many years. We all collaborated on the composing of pieces that had no traditional theater text.”
Using film of Kantor rehearsing his late masterpiece, I Shall Never Return, a mashup assembled at the end of his career that incorporates characters and props from earlier works as well as episodes and memories from his life, PINK CHAIR explores numerous unrelated topics.
“The thematics, of course, are how to translate one piece of art into another, or how to discover your roots in someone else’s work, how a company works with a director and material and what the relationships are between people who work so close together and have a history,” LeCompte explains. “There are five stories, and each one makes some kind of nugget of feeling and emotion around what we are talking about. It’s not really an intellectual idea, it’s really an emotional idea.”
The title comes from one of Kantor’s essays on theater, A Kitchen Chair in Place of a Fake Antique, but the Wooster Group substituted “pink” for “kitchen” to incorporate a beloved prop that has appeared in many of its productions over the past 20 years. As with Kantor’s company, Cricot 2, the new show employs costumes and props from past performances.