The Playgoer: What do we call "Avant-Garde"?

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Friday, May 20, 2011

What do we call "Avant-Garde"?

In this week's Voice (special Obie edition) Alexis Soloski surveys a bunch of downtown folk on what "avant-garde" theatre means to them today and how else they might classify their own work.

Indeed, is the term still appropriate? "Front ranks" of what? Are weirdo artists necessarily always "ahead" of everyone else? As for "experimental"--what's the experiment? (And what's the "result"?)

Many of those surveyed say it all basically comes down to taboos and norms--i.e. breaking them. But I'm not sure the main difference between something you see on Broadway and something at St Anne's Warehouse is that one might have more naked people or audience participation than the other.

And breaking one set of conventions doesn't mean you don't have conventions of your own. A performance at Dixon Place might ignore some taboos--but aren't there a different set of rules in their place?  A moment of unabashed sincerity or tearjerking sentimentality for instance, might be pretty "rule breaking" at a Radiohole or Wooster Group performance!

An event with no rules is not necessarily "edgy" theatre--it's actually not theatre. What makes performance performance, I would argue, is precisely the set of conventions the performer establishes with that audience in that space on that particular night. (Or day, if they're being edgy about it.)

I prefer to see the difference between, say, the Roundabout Theatre Company and, say, PS122 as being that of two different subcultures. One no "advanced" or "vanguard" than the other. Each with their own set of behavioral expectations (on stage and in the audience). And, let's face it, each comprised of a different social class--by which I don't necessarily mean income level, but "class" in the sense of the social groups people live and work in and those they choose to associate with, which often manifest signs in artistic taste, eating habits, fashion, speech patterns, etc.

Anyway that's my two cents. Read Alexis's roundup. Some of my favorite lines are:

Qui Nguyen: I woulda loved to have gotten that call to give my Vampire Cowboys a crack at giving Spider-man some real theatrical superpowers."

Brooke O'Hara: "Larger cultural trends (the expense of NYC, real estate, deep cuts in funding organizations) have made it almost impossible to maintain a sustained collective practice." (i.e. the conditions necessary for a true movement to gel beyond any one particular artist.)

Nick Jones: "Anybody truly radical is probably working on the fringe. And by the fringe, I don’t mean Downtown; I mean outside of theaters entirely, in contexts where no one is pursuing a career, and there are no reviewers (and possibly no audience). There is a huge DIY culture of performance in the United States, and it’s probably the closest thing to avant-garde that exists."

Taylor Mac: "I get described as an avant-garde theater artist because I wear high-heels and use a heightened theatricality. The Greeks used to wear high-heels when they performed. I am a traditionalist and proud to be one"

And finally...

Richard Foreman: " Theater should dare to put average audiences to sleep."

To which I am tempted to respond: mission accomplished, RF, mission accomplished.

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