Theatres have been reporting big trouble for years. Subscriptions are down, and sinking. So is government funding. Deficits build and build. The seniors who've been keeping theatre alive for the last however many decades are getting older and older and older.
So is the theatre dying?
Naw. It's mutating.
Because the audience is changing. A generation has grown up whose early conditioning with theatre was not good. Plays were something they were brought to see as a class, and made to write essays about. There were good ones, most certainly, but it's hard to overcome the distaste that comes with forced viewing, and the distraction offered by an afternoon away from school (just try getting into Eugene O'Neill in those circumstances). Movies and TV told the stories that captivated. Concerts and sporting events created a bigger thrill in getting swept up in the emotions of a crowd.
And then, here and there, from the solid foundations of modernity, these postmodern redefinitions of theatre sprang up, and they keep on springing. They're finding ever-increasing audiences, many of whom don't think of what they're seeing as "theatre" or "a play." In contrast to so much other theatre, these new mutants are thriving, and propagating throughout the landscape.
I've been cultivating work of my own in this garden for the last fifteen years or so. I've worked almost exclusively in fringe theatre festivals (unjuried week-and-a-half carnivals where anyone can put on any show of any kind they want), as a writer, director, actor, dramaturge and producer. I've gotten to see a fair amount of stuff - on the fringe and beyond. What follows are my very subjective impressions of how the big picture is tilting and evolving in a new - and to me, very appealing - direction.
Movement Based Works
Riverdance leapt up out of nowhere in the mid 90s. Traditional Irish stepdancing, one showpiece after another of outstanding movement. No dialogue, no characters, no story. Music and dance, that's it. PBS broadcast it repeatedly and offered CDs and videos to its subscribers, but seeing it on the small screen only whet the public's appetite to see it in person - in big, prestigious venues. It toured the world for fifteen years (it's still going, as of this writing), spawning the equally prominent knock-off Lord of the Dance.
The same kind of success happened with Stomp. Rhythm. Percussion. Tap dance. Clowning in a musical context. No dialogue. No story. The stage show grew out of the collaboration of two musicians who'd worked together as part of a street band and theatre group. It's still touring more than twenty years in.
The Blue Man Group honed their sensibilities doing street theatre/music too. They present a unique and intriguing formula: bald-capped men in blue face paint drumming and doing physical comedy that directly engages the audience, as all street theatre must. No language. No story. An LCD message board interacts with the audience in preshow. The show ends with rolls of toilet paper being thrown over the audience - direct, silly, unthreatening participation people are eager to experience.
The Australian duo The Umbilical Brothers presented (and are still presenting) physical comedy shows of a kind that's practically indescribable.
Puppetry of the Penis describes itself, with a premise so bizarre and intriguing people noticed and talked about it even if they didn't see it.
These pieces draw from a tradition: the circus. No story. No pretending the characters aren't aware of the audience's existence. A talented individual presents herself and performs an astonishing feat that you can only believe because you're there to see it for yourself.
No coincidence then that the brightest light in this kind of theatre, and possibly in theatre altogether, is Cirque Du Soleil. From humble beginnings in Quebec, and the risky premise of presenting a circus without animals, it's taken over Las Vegas, with six shows in permanent runs, and tours everywhere else (on every continent but Antarctica), charging exorbitant ticket prices (which people repeatedly pay), often setting up their own huge tents as venues. No video does justice to what they present. People want to be there, to see it for themselves.
De La Guarda took this impulse and upped the ante. People are initially brought into a room ceilinged with white paper, lit from above. There's no stage. No indication of what's about to happen. After a while, human feet start running across the paper ceiling, and then disappear. Soon they tear holes in it. Then performers lower through the ceiling here and there (harnessed) and are yanked back up. One descends, grabs an audience member, and disappears with her! They descend elsewhere, and she's released. Soon, all the paper's gone, and the audience sees the long tall room, with the harnessed actors in a gallery above. Two chase each other along the walls, as music plays. Later, tall sets of scaffolding are rolled in among the audience, actors dancing atop them, with water pouring over them from above. Actors emerge within the audience, dancing and instigating them to dance. This show grew out of a series of Argentinian raves. How do you describe it in terms of theatre that came before? Acrobatics? Dance? A play? Does it matter?
The same company created Fuerzabruta. Giant tent. Audience moving from place to place, herded by the crew. An actor in a suit walks in place on a big elevated moving sidewalk. Other actors walk or stand and he weaves through them. The actors fall off the far end of the sidewalk into the hands of crew members. A brick wall of cardboard boxes is placed on one end, which he smashes through. Later, elsewhere in the space, a giant glass-bottomed pool lowers from above the audience, actors swimming in it. Dance. Choreography. Physical theatre. Much else happens. How could you do justice to it by describing it? And if you've seen it, how could you not want to go be part of it again?
Story hasn't been discarded - far from it. Storytelling thrives, actually. The Moth is a non profit group in New York which puts on storytelling events - with an accompanying podcast series that boasts a million downloads a month. There are storytelling events and story slams in cities all over North America. People get up on stage and tell short or long tales of their own relationships, jobs, thoughts and feelings.
Most of my own work has been in this category - 60 to 90 minute autobiographical monologues.
Spalding Gray pioneered this form, stripping the theatrical experience down to its simplest form - a person on stage, sitting at a desk, telling a story. That's it. Playing all the characters, flipping his head from one side to another to convey dialogue. Doing the sound effects. Going for hours at a time. Changing the monologue night to night, a little or a lot. And you couldn't take your eyes off him. (There are really good filmed performances of him.)
Lily Tomlin's approach seemed somewhat more extravagant in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her partner Jane Wagner. She played a multitude of characters, using the entire (bare) stage, supported by extensive light and sound cues, but no costume changes - conveying so much with her mind-blowing vocal and physical skills as a performer. The bulk of the show looks at the feminist movement of the 70s from the point of view of a participant, and fills the audience with sadness and laughter and devastation and hope.
Sandra Shamas saw it, and credits the show with changing her approach, morphing from stand-up comic to solo show performer, launching herself into a new phase of her career with My Boyfriend's Back and There's Gonna Be Laundry - an account of the ups and downs of her relationship with her at-the-time partner Frank. It was an instant hit. She was soon self-producing this show and the many that followed in major theatres, and became a self-made millionaire. She's still doing it.
Daniel MacIvor created a series of solo shows, expanding and exploring the possibilities of what an actor alone on stage could do. He frequently co-wrote with his director Daniel Brooks, and included strong elements from his sound and lighting designers. In Monster, a show about the fall-out of a horrific act in a small town, there was a rendition of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head with every note done as a human scream, programmed into a keyboard. Later, a light seemed to drop from the ceiling and bounce along the stage, only to utterly vanish, representing a car accident. How did they do that? And how can I convey the power of the kaleidoscopic story he told, with its bizarre twists and digressions and left field characters and sudden, punch-you-in-the-gut surprise ending?
Mike Daisey has been referred to as the new Spalding Gray, sitting at a desk, telling of his experiences working for Amazon.com in the boom and bust of the dot.com era, or of his travels to China to find out where our Apple gizmos are assembled. I saw him do an 80 minute monologue titled All Stories Are Fiction in which he came up with the set-list of stories he'd tell an hour before showtime, every one being something he'd never said on stage and would never say again. He captivated the audience without ever looking at his notes, hesitating, stuttering, or even taking a drink from his glass of water.
Ronnie Burkett forged a career creating puppet shows that aren't for kids. Tinka's New Dress explored a dystopia in which a puppeteer offers political satire - inspired by underground puppet shows that actually happened in Nazi-occupied Prague. It ran almost two hours, with no intermission. Burkett played all the characters, operating his marionettes in full view, taking them from a carousel and replacing them at the end of each scene. Street of Blood explored AIDS - and vampires. 10 Days on Earth presented a mentally challenged man's experiences coming to understand that his mother has died. His shows are piss-your-pants funny, too. And his puppeteering is so sensitive, you instantly believe in the characters.
The Old Trout Puppet Workshop debuted with a very daunting artistic challenge - a puppet show without language. The Unlikely Birth of Istvan featured two puppets, locked in an existential struggle that represented human birth. The Trouts followed this up with a non-verbal version of Beowulf, and then the hilariously mind-boggling Famous Puppet Death Scenes - a sequence of… puppet death scenes, created with iconoclastic humour and originality (and language) that make you forget puppets were ever considered children's entertainment.
War Horse tells the story of the first World War, focussing on a horse - represented by an actual horse-sized puppet requiring three operators, always in plain sight, expressing its emotions through its steps, the tilt of its head, the movement of its ears. It interacted with actors, and other puppet horses. The show won scads of awards and is still playing in major cities and touring. It also humanizes both sides of the conflict.
The new theatrical landscape teems with creators who variously interpret the same impulse: how do we surprise people? What can we do that's never been done? Fringe theatre, referenced earlier, practically demands it. Participants in a fringe festival only make their own box office, and present their work in a competitive environment, with the audience primed to discover what's new and hot that year. Everyone wants to have something unique, some new way of telling a story that'll make the audience spread the
In 2000 I co-wrote and toured a two person play titled 52 Pick-up, which told the story of a relationship in fifty-two scenes, the title of each scene written on a card in a full deck. The play opens with the deck being thrown in the air, and it scatters all over the stage. The actors pick a card at random, read the title, and perform that scene. Then another card, another scene, and so on, until they've gotten through all fifty-two. So there's always the same story, but performed in a completely different order every time. You might see the break-up scene before the couple has met. You might see those two scenes back to back.
That play was a bastard grandchild of a Chicago-based show which has been running on weekends since 1988: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Audience members pay their admission at the rate of nine dollars, plus the dollar equivalent of the roll of a single die (a novelty people are bound to mention to their friends). The show consists of thirty very short plays, whose titles are written on numbered pieces of paper, pinned to a clothes-line. Each begins with an actor saying "Go" and ends with "Curtain!" The audience, hearing that cue, calls out the number of the play they want to see next - so the order of plays is different every time. As the show progresses, the clothes-line gets emptier. A clock upstage counts down from sixty minutes, and it's uncertain whether they'll get through all thirty plays. A single audience member on Friday rolls a die, as does someone on Saturday, and the total is the number of new plays the company will create for the following weekend. The feel in the audience is one of anarchic glee. The participation isn't threatening - it's enlivening.
David Diamond's company Theatre for Living offers an even greater opportunity for participation. Short scenes are presented that directly address a specific social problem. A scene is replayed, and anyone in the audience can raise their hand, freeze the scene, and replace an actor, playing out their own idea for how to resolve the situation. The goal is community discussion.
The Laramie Project explored the shocking story of the homophobic hate-crime killing of Matthew
Shepard, drawing its entire text from interviews and testimony of actual townspeople, giving the audience one point of view after another. Each actor played multiple roles, sometimes in immediate succession.
The Vagina Monologues also drew on found materials, being built out of interviews with women around the world. Creator Eve Ensler authorized royalty-free performances once a year on Feb 14th - V-Day, with the proceeds going to fight violence against women. These performances are done with a cast as big as a community cares to include - sometimes two dozen or more - and brings out audiences again and again.
The Vagina Monologues has stood as a shining inspiration for a piece I'm working on - PostSecret: Unheard Voices - a multimedia adaptation of the award-winning blog and art project, in which people anonymously send in secrets on self-created postcards. The show is built out of projected postcards, and actors reading emails people have sent creator/curator Frank Warren, with responses to certain secrets and stories about how the project has impacted their lives. Audience members are invited to write down their own secrets on blank postcards in the lobby during the intermission, some of which are read in the second act. After the show people can write responses on a white-board, and are then photographed holding it, some of which are used in future performances for the play's final scene.
All kinds of things are being adapted to the stage. The exchange used to be uni-directional: from the stage to the screen. The other way is becoming common now. Sometimes as musicals, sometimes in strange and novel ways.
The One Man Star Wars Trilogy presents George Lucas' three great films, condensed into an hour, brought to life on stage by a single actor. No costume changes, no set, no props, no sound cues. Charlie Ross uses his voice and body, and acts almost as a symphony conductor of his audience's collective imagination, conjuring pictures, scenes and moments in their memories based on his virtuosic physicality and vocal talents. Same with his One Man Lord of the Rings. Neither show would make sense to someone who hadn't seen the films, but movies have become a strong source of cultural mythology for many - those movies in particular. Ross's shows create a mythological experience, retelling the audience's favourite stories in a way that must be somewhat akin to the verbal origins of the Iliad and the Odyssey. (I directed these shows, by the way)
The Lion King launched strongly off the 1994 movie's box office and video success, but arguably has had a longer and more powerful impact as a stage show (directed by the great Julie Taymor). Fitting in with certain conventions mentioned earlier, the characters are represented as puppets or highly stylized costumes. There's no attempt to compete with the film's animated, "realistic" portrayal of the characters and environment - this version offers something different. The theatricality is openly acknowledged, and celebrated. The audience participates, using their imagination.
In Evil Dead: The Musical, the source movies' appeal lie partially in the special effects and wildly creative camera work. How do you compete with that on the stage? Audience interaction. Blood on the screen stays on the screen. On the stage it squirts directly and abundantly into the first few rows - the "splatter zone." All the catch-phrases from the movie trilogy are included in the show, and the audience joyously joins in saying them.
Green Day made the unusual leap from heroes of the 90s Alternative rock movement to Broadway, with their own stage adaptation of their album American Idiot. The success of this award winning show rides on a wave of jukebox musicals (plays built on a collection of previously existing songs around which a story is built) that include Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, We Will Rock You, and Rock of Ages. Take what the audience already knows, and change it, give them something new.
Smashing through the stereotype of musical theatre as a world saccharine goody-two-shoes sensibilities, a wave of irreverent, envelope-pushing musicals have staked truly significant ground on Broadway and on tour.
Mel Brooks led the charge with his 2001 adaptation of his 1968 movie The Producers, which won a record breaking twelve Tony awards, and made Broadway history in charging an unprecedented $100 a ticket, so great was the public demand. Corrupt theatre producer Max Bialystock's funding of a sure-fire bomb "Springtime for Hitler" by seducing and defrauding dozens of old ladies inspired an elaborate fantasy sequence about as distant from the over-earnest love and singing in Les Miserables as it's possible to get. At its height, the run was sold out for months ahead of time, with theatre-goers delighted to be taken on such an outrageous ride.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch wrought its success from the underground. Writer and star Jon Cameron Mitchell presented a gay lead character who'd undergone a botched sex-change operation, with all but a single inch of his penis being removed (the Angry Inch), in order to marry a US army officer and escape East Germany - a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In America he fronts a rock band and tries to claim credit for the success of a much more successful rock star he'd mentored. The show consists of a rock band set. No orchestra. No family friendly humour. It played in New York for years, and continues to be produced elsewhere, with an edgy audience coming faithfully, even dressing in drag.
Jerry Springer: The Opera moved from the Edinburgh Fringe to London's West End (and beyond), but never had a run in the US. The sight of a large chorus of studio audience members singing repeatedly "What the fuck?! What the fucking fuck?!?!" as one character after another revealed a sensationalistic secret made me not only laugh but think "this is musical theatre?" Many others who'd previously thought of themselves as uninterested in the genre must have had the same experience.
Same with Avenue Q - a twisted extrapolation/spoof of Sesame Street, with puppets and actors coexisting, and singing about their desire for love, how the internet is for porn, and how everyone's a little bit racist.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone teamed up with Avenue Q's Robert Lopez to create The Book of Mormon, probably the most outrageous and provocative musical yet (check out their equivalent/rebuttal to the Lion King's Hakuna Matata - Hasa Diga Eebowai, sung by Ugandan villagers about what their lives are actually like). The original cast recording has become the best-selling soundtrack to a musical in four decades.
You can be certain many more will venture into this liberated field.
The many varieties of live comedy performance aren't deemed as "real theatre" by some, but I suppose their definitions of the term aren't as broad as mine. Performers up in front of an audience, presenting material that's at its best when you're actually there to see it in person… sounds like theatre to me. (I include slam poetry in this, by the way - even though it's not quite right to lump it under "comedy.")
Stand-up comedy shifted from formulaic one-liners to social commentary in the 60s, got widespread acceptance in the 80s boom, was absorbed by sitcoms in the 90s, and yet is still evolving and bringing bold, original voices to the stage (David Cross, Maria Bamford, Margaret Cho, Patton Oswalt - and many more, some of whom, like Demitri Martin, have taken the form full circle and simply tell jokes - and do it so well that while they're on stage, that's all you'd ever want a comedian to do). Louis CK, inspired by George Carlin's prolific output and uncompromising material, has been giving hilarious and bold comedy concerts for years and is even pioneering new methods of digital distribution. He recently endorsed a half-hour set by Tig Notaro (available on iTunes) in which she improvises a startlingly honest half-hour set about having just been diagnosed with breast cancer - to an audience that isn't sure whether to laugh or cry.
Sketch troupes are everywhere, many having grown out of improv training, and often develop their material through improvisation - an approach brought to widespread awareness by Mike Nichols and Elaine May in the 60s. The simpler approach of short improv scenes/games or short sketches has gradually given way to more complex and nuanced long-form shows (exemplified by Albuquerque's brilliantly creative duo The Pajama Men), in which one scene flows into the next - or abruptly switches to the next without a lighting or costume change. Characters and themes recur, and there's an overall feel of a journey, even if the show doesn't have a clear single narrative or any of the conventions of a traditional play.
The North American perception of clowns as falsetto-voiced children's entertainers - or terrifying villains of horror movies - is ceding ground to an ever widening school of European descended clown: the social commentator, the speaker of forbidden truths, ready and eager to engage with the audience directly. The Toronto duo Mump & Smoot have created shows for more than twenty years in which their characters speak in a language all their own, but still tell a story, and play with whatever happens in every performance, whether it's a ringing cell phone, a passing ambulance or an audience member's sneeze. In Rebecca Northan's show Blind Date, she pulls a random audience member on stage and improvises a 90 minute show around their truly blind date. These clowns wear red noses, make you laugh so hard tears spill down your face, but you won't find them in a circus or at a birthday party.
And then there's the explosion of burlesque troupes and performers - a seemingly long dead tradition, suddenly thriving, offering live performances with dancing, stripping, music, stand-up, often running in themes, many of which reference the niche interests of the audience (in researching another article, I found that in at a single time, Chicagoans could choose for their evening's entertainment: a burlesque Star Trek, a burlesque Indiana Jones show, burlesque Star Wars, burlesque Batman, burlesque Sound of Music, burlesque you-name-it). There's direct audience interaction yet again, and a deliberate distortion of conventions, given that the performers strip down to pasties and g-strings, but their purpose isn't to give a crowd of beer soaked men hard-ons. Nor is the goal to have a staid theatre audience politely sit and then applaud when appropriate.
I've been arguing this point with one example after another (and I've inevitably left out many significant and excellent shows and artists, and for that, I apologize. Feel free to add further examples in the comments), so I should also say that I don't believe this is the only kind of theatre out there, nor the only good kind. I've seen genuinely excellent drama that adheres to traditional theatrical conventions (Tracy Letts' Tony Award winning play August: Osage County leaps to mind) and will certainly see more. What I'm saying is that the landscape is diversifying, and significantly so.
So what, if anything, do these new examples of the breed have in common?
They're all trying to engage the audience, whether it's through direct interaction between a performer and a given audience member, or by creating work that comes from and speaks to the average person's experience, or by making the audience actively put the pieces of the story they're watching together themselves. The traditional theatre experience is one in which the audience's role is generally passive, apart from expected and sanctioned laughter and applause. This emphasizes early associations of theatre as school-work: be polite, and react with respect. New theatre takes that ethos, and tears it to pieces. If the medium's going to survive, it needs to do what movies and TV and books can't: Engage. Interact. Reach out and touch people.
Movies and TV shows - apart from the occasional dream sequence - are restricted to realistic presentations. Even in stories with vampires or aliens, actors play single roles. Sets are meant to pass for reality. For all the success of Moulin Rouge, and with Chicago winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 2002, movie musicals haven't caught on (the film adaptations of massive Broadway hits like Rent and The Producers famously flopped). For whatever reason, movie and TV audiences want to buy into what they're watching as "real." Theatre has a bigger palette available. It's not only free to present non-realism, it's thriving in doing so (painting underwent a similar sea-change with the advent of photography). By actively inciting the audience to use their imagination, theatre gives people an experience they don't get anywhere else. Same with creating the sense that anything can happen - that we're all in this room, right here, right now, and what happens now is different than how this show went down any other night.
Our society is tremendously atomized and alienated. Most of us grew up distant from our extended families, and continue to be so - jobs often taking us even further apart. Digital interaction offers the semblance of connection, but a handful of likes, a few comments peppered with emoticons, and the occasional retweet never really satisfy. We leave our sports and art to professionals, letting our own creative and athletic inclinations atrophy. We interact less, and our interaction often lacks authenticity. The unacknowledged hole in our souls grows deeper and wider. We're a people starving for that feeling of unity.
Theatre is not the answer to all that ails us. But the repeated impulse to sit in a big room full of friends, peers and strangers and to go on a journey, to experience something emotionally as a unit - instigated and orchestrated by people who are actually there in front of us, reacting to us, modulating their performance based on our response - individually and collectively - points to this deep longing that's an essential part of who we are, and what makes us feel truly alive.
Editor: Chris Dierkes and Drew Taylor