The Playgoer: I (Don’t) Hate Theater

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I (Don’t) Hate Theater

by chris mills

Remember my “more later” promise? In my experience, it’s a custom more honor’d in the breach than in the observance, but I’m a good promiser. And so…

Richard Foreman. The downtown director with the most longevity (running cheek by jowl with Mabou Mines’ Lee Breuer), driving the glorious, rickety Ontological-Hysteric truck through the streets, always has a lot to say. On this particular occasion, it was a part of the St. Mark’s Books Reading Series, and (as he has been doing for the last couple of years) Foreman stresses that he is through with theater. It was one of the threads of thought that wove through his conversation with the New Yorker’s Hilton Als (tho if you’ve ever seen RF interviewed, you’ll know that the interviewer is more a prompter for a multi-chapter lecture than an actual interlocutor). Another repeated claim concerned Foreman’s (thirty year) dislike of theater. He asserted repeatedly that his attraction—as a consumer—was always toward other art forms, especially avant-garde film, rather than theater, even though theater was the medium in which he worked. Now that makes sense to you or it doesn’t, and I realize the paradoxical sound of it, but I absolutely understood all he was saying about the lure of other art forms. I understood because my attraction to the other arts links directly to my love of theater. The allure of these forms comes from a desire to imbue theater with all of the rest of art’s possibility as well as its own. Like the Borgesian map of the world—drawn to scale—which encompasses all that is available and as much as possible.

These mental rumblings were prompted as I taught (in the spring) a class on Gertrude Stein and Mac Wellman, for which I was mulling over theater’s unique ability to stretch and fragment the bounds of representation, even as it produces clearly readable worlds. Theater can reconfigure or undo everything—setting, language, character—and still allow everyday behavioral tonalities to function, which in turns ask us to question behavior in the “real” world, our world. Into this pile o’ thinking the Playgoer—the real dude—dropped a Voice article by Alexis Soloski, in which she celebrates the contemporary state of US (esp. downtown NYC) playwriting. She writes about Adam Bock, Rinne Groff, Young Jean Lee, Rob Handel, Jordan Harrison, and Anne Washburn, among others, writing “All of these writers display an interest in the workings of language, its potential for communication and obfuscation…”

Unlike past greats such as Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams, these writers don't emphasize plot or character. Rather, they hew toward another tradition of American drama. This school—which begins with Gertrude Stein, and includes Maria Irene Fornés, Richard Foreman, and more recently David Greenspan and Suzan-Lori Parks—doesn't place primacy on plot or character; instead, it questions the very devices and means by which we create theater.

And, I’d like to add, the way we create life. That might sound aggrandizing, but ritual is the stuff of life. Which leads me to one of my quibbles: while Soloski’s article is insightful and celebratory about these writers, and the experimental use of both language and theater, I’d like to suggest that the experiments are deeply connected to questions more philosophically forceful than theatrical process alone. They are asking how we do or might live in the world, asking, in the true Aristotelian sense: how does one live the good life? Young Jean Lee’s Church does “toy with formal conventions,” but it is also rooted in ethical questions about spirituality and its performance, Jordan Harrison’s Amazons and Their Men wants to know how Leni Reifenstahl could live inside her skin and Jenny Schwartz’ God’s Ear is most profoundly about the consequences of loss. Soloski writes that the play “nearly lost its emotional vigor to its verbal playfulness,” but the verbal play allows the emotional freight of loss to atomize. It plays out over a landscape of verbal tics and Freudian substitutions; it is the emotional medium. The litany of cliché in this piece, as it pulls language from context, reveals the true non-sense of the content. Language lay like a skin—or an abstract expressionist canvas—over the deep roiling emotions of the work. In the play, Schwartz shows language functioning precisely as an ambivalent gift that we give each other…over and over again.

I second Soloski’s celebratory tone, but see the move in contemporary playwriting as cartographic; these writers are making the world more visible, mapping it by making it strange (in Pound’s shadow), so that we might imagine ourselves living in it.

Are there tickets left for Headlong Dance Theater’s Hotel Pool (performed in a pool on Rector Street)? I don’t think so, but the reservation policy is liberal, so people'll cancel at the last nminute and there will be a waiting list…might be worth investigation?


Anonymous said...

Can't wait to see Headlong Friday night. I'm bringing some NYC folks who have never seen them - always a good time with Headlong. I often describe them as adorable when I'm talking about them, but the fact is that their performances move me so deeply when I see them that I hop on that bus to Philly for their open rehearsals more often than not. I don't usually do that for "adorable."

Unknown said...

So funny, because I absolutely know what you mean. they are so "adorable" that they make you cry and rage and be amazed.

I am so glad that so many people are seeing their work here. Headlong and Pig Iron are two of my favorite companies and both great reasons to take a trip to Philly!

Anonymous said...

I hope this Hotel Pool thing gets toured to Day Inn 's around the country. I was near the bottom of the waiting list saturday night, so i think i can confirm that no one was turned away. what a great show; and even if the dance had sucked, which it didn't, it would have been a terrific night out. just to be in that scene, at that site, and experiencing art in such a unique way... was thrilling.