night out" and "experimental theatre" are not terms
usually seen as compatible or even desirable from whatever camp one
occupies on the spectrum of theatre as distraction and theatre as art.
"good night out" doesn't have to simply be "bread and
circuses" or some distraction from everyday woes. Nor does
"experimental theatre" need to be an all too alienating
kind of "in ya face fucker" type of immature angst from
"cutting edge" of cool!
theatre began as oppositional to modernist approaches to artistic
creation that extolled the possibility of noble progress towards some
ideal human condition; an ideal that was at the heart of industrial
progress and capitalism and, ironically, communism. Experimental
theatre involved more than simply experimenting or trying out
something new in theatre. Rather, it required a whole hearted re-invention
of what it meant to be a performer and what it meant to create and
present a performance.
It questioned "essentialist"
concepts about humanity and the universe while attacking all that
could be perceived as "realism".
Such an attack required that expression needed new forms from
outside the dominant realist modes of expression and communication.
If all "realism" is really a cultural illusion, then
dominant cultural forms needed to be undermined and replaced or
transformed. Modernism assumed it had all the progressive
communication forms while Traditionalist cultures had only primitive
means for communication and expression. Postmodernism tended to see
all forms as suspect or problematic. Such thinking enabled the great
theatre director Peter Brook to seek out challenging new influences
from all such cultural expressions in order to find some kind of
paradoxical "essential" or universal form or at least
common grounds through which all humans could speak with each other.
Jarry to Antonin Artaud, Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht there
arose theories for performance which have had significant influence
on theatre over the past century. All challenged dominant cultural
norms and smug essentialism. Inspired by Artaud, Japanese Butoh
emerged to further challenge the very concept of theatre performance
and any compromise with "realism". Whatever the form, each
influence and inspiration opened up the need for artistic and
personal examination of one's motives, objectives and framework for
creating and presenting artistic products. Postmodernism produced a
restlessness and introspection that encouraged extreme modes of
criticism and the dismissal of individual insight as being culturally determined.
thoughts would never occur to most participants in "little
theatre" or amateur theatre groups or even academically inclined
university off-shoots into theatre presentation, such postmodern pre-occupations
have a large impact on academic criticism; although with less impact
on popular press critiques.
as with most of the western world, "Main stage" theatre
never adopted the excesses of post-modernism in the way that the
visual arts have over the past sixty or so years. It would be hard to
conceive of major funded companies producing programs of mostly
"post-modernist" presentation. Most seasons comprise
essentially Modernist works that still include the likes of Tennessee
Williams, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Noel Coward, George Bernard
Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Terrance Rattigan, Tom Stoppard and, in
Australia, David Williamson . . . and the list goes on!
reviewers tend to prop up the support for such programming while
theatre companies and artists that have stepped outside such seasons
have generally had a hard time of it. A classic example of this is
Steven Berkoff. His theatre has been exceptionally successful while
his personality and product have been mercilessly attacked as
self-promotional addictions in a way never levelled at Postmodernism
darling, Andi Warhol or any other director of a mainstage company.
Cross concludes that "Berkoff
has not been involved seriously in anything beyond his own ego."
(Robert Cross: Steven Berkoff and The
Theatre of Self-Performance, 2004).
criticism is suggests that Berkoff's art is really an illusion.
Another critic, attacked the man as being physically "hideously ugly".
Yet it is
doubtful if anyone other than Berkoff has ever so succinctly summed
up why theatre is vital for human beings, society and culture and
what makes the relationship between performing, writing and directing
so dynamic. Berkoff has consistently been on the front foot in
promoting why his more "experimental" approach offers a
"good night out". He sums it up perfectly in an interview
with Matthew Stadlen on 6 October 2012 accessed HERE.
and personality are inextricably linked. The passive aggressive
non-committal persona of Warhol and the aggressive tendencies of
Berkoff seem to be at diametrically opposite ends of some
"personality spectrum "in the arts. Academics and critics
have in the main praised the blatant self promotion of Warhol and his equation
of marketing and art as inextricably linked in an obvious irony (a
feature of postmodernism) while being very uncomfortable with Berkoffs
tantrums and ironic discussion of "democracy " in his art (an
equally ironic statement considering his obviously authoritarian
style and demand that actors do it "his way " as
demonstrated by Berkoff). Cross certainly draws attention to this feature
of Berkoff's personality and ways of self promotion.
cultivates cool and "foppery" and certainty of knowing that
all advent is only valued because critics and a coterie of
influential others deem it valued. Postmodernism makes no commitment
to anything other than cultural skepticism; dismissing commitment as
something akin to bourgeois individualism; something Berkoff might be
accused of propagating!
Yet the Postmodernist
can smile, roll the eyes and assume all is fair game as nothing can
be allowed a kind of iconic status while working within the framework
of apparent Modernism. For the Postmodernist, an insult over
cocktails is more devastating than any cause which some artist may
try to meld into a presentation. The Postmodernist enjoys art and
physical theatre especially when no precise meaning can be given to
its execution. Meaning threatens the Postmodernist who assumes all potential
meanings are of equal value (read Paul
Boghossian: Fear Of Knowledge) and thus meaning itself is irrelevant.
mainstage theatre might not be Postmodern, there is still an appeal
to the smug irrelevance of foyer small-talk evident amongst the
coolest of the cool set. Arts funding and academia has tended to play
to this smug coolness while giving condescending approval to
alternative theatre offerings.
significant area where Postmodernism and academic support has
coalesced is in the area of "Physical Theatre". Significant
experimental approaches have seen Physical Theatre emerge over the
past forty or so years as a hybrid Dance, Circus and Theatre
movement. The most obvious successful example of this is
Cirque Du Soleil. But this is also the
field where most experiment in theatre has started.
Experimental theatre emerged through Contemporary Dance which is
firmly based in the Postmodern camp. Influenced by people such as Pina
Bausch and Jiri
choreographers such as Meryl Tankard and Don Asker led a charge to
bridging the gap between dance and theatre.
But the most
problematic group in terms of categorizing is also one of the most
successful: ie. DV8.
DV8 is one of the world's most successful dance/theatre
companies. It plays to full houses on world tours and has a bundle of
awards to it's credit. While its techniques emerged from
"Postmodern" theatre/dance aesthetics, it's agenda and
program results from "interests in social, psychological and
This is a kind
of amalgum of postmodern and modernist orientation that some might
consider post / post modern! Ironically, its Artistic Director and
founder, Lloyd Newsom, has just received an "OBE
for his services to contemporary dance and was named by the UK
Critics Circle as 'one of the 100 most influential people in the arts
in Britain in the last 100 years" '(Nov 2013)
orientation is certainly not "Modernist"! It's integration
of challenging techniques (eg. from Pina Bausch and Brecht's/
Piscator's Epic Theatre) applied to dance and movement suggest a
company of the future and a company that challenges the shadows of
society's tunnel vision! Methodology and use of pastiche techniques certainly
suggest postmodernist technique; the use of committed content orientation
following a strong challenge to contemporary contradictions in
thinking suggest something much more! They certainly offer much more
than an "all philosophies and belief systems are of 'equal
value ' approach to their artistic work.
theatre has successfully integrated a Postmodern approach that
sometimes has "meaning" and purpose. His recent production
the Concept of the Face, regarding the Son of God created a
storm of protest in France where it was attacked, physically as well
as verbally, for being "Christianaphobic" by an ironically,
and perhaps unaware, group of Muslims. Perhaps not exactly what one
would regard as a "good night out", the play found a form
to explore complex ideas beyond the reach of modernist approaches to
theatre. Such a work resulted from a high commitment to experiment
and the ideas of Antonin Artaud.
such as Theatre In Education and Youth Theatre have similarly been
influenced by Postmodern thinking with their emphasis on advocacy
over aesthetics. Theatre as a tool for change or enhancing some
social movement or as a benefit to some other area for development by
giving "voice" have had large impact from the early 1970s
to recent times. With growing "accountability" and issues
of finding sanctioned "partnerships" in order to sustain
funding from state bodies, such movements have largely dissolved or
been absorbed into education frameworks or community development
projects. In some cases, they simply do standard plays but performed
by young people or adapted for younger audiences.
It is almost
impossible now for such companies to present the controversial and
experimental works that were their hallmark thirty or so years ago.
Can you imagine the uproar and legal implications of developing and
Errol Bray with pre-teen and young-teen actors in today's
environment? While still being presented throughout the world, the
play is only performed with adults playing kids now . . . though
originally in 1981, it was performed by young people from The
Shopfront Theatre for Young People.
play still holds true. Yet the element of the original experiment is
lost. Alison Cotes' Review
of The Choir
recently performed in Brisbane made no reference to the genesis of
the play nor how it might be of relevance to young people today. It
was just another play! But The Choir
is an example of Experimental theatre that did not exist for and of
itself but as positioning for an idea . . . a compelling idea
that needed society's attention.
nothing cool about The Choir. It is often categorized as part
of a "gay theatre" aesthetic. But unlike most "physical
theatre" presentations, the play has a commitment to an ideal:
a sense of specific and objective meaning as in DV8's Can
We Talk About This
Be Straight With You.
So for a
"good night out" that costs some considerable dollars, I
suggest our theatre does not have to pander to lowest common
denominator cool! Nor does it need to follow a "modernist
structure" as in the "well made play". Rather, it
needs to step outside itself; requiring an experimental approach and
a melding of new forms to ideas and new views about the nature of
human existence within cultural boundaries and beyond. Few companies
have the expertise of DV8. Yet, they provide a significant model for
working; applying a post modern aesthetic of newness compounded by a
strong social and political base. This is NOT modernism. Some call it
"post-post modernism" ... but who really cares!
conservative theatre practitioner and company will abhor this kind of
thinking. The suggestion that the very form or style of theatre has
anything to do with content or function is an annoyance to be
disregarded. The anachronism that is so much of theatre today is a
result of such derision from a large percentage of people currently
involved with putting on shows. Smugnatists or not, they are blind to
reality and possibility and even to the very potential theatre holds
for engagement with individuals, society and cultures.
While the post
modern theatre of experimental cool drove away audiences, an
integrated theatre that seeks to investigate experience and
apply an adequate form that merges and blends a number of traditions
will once again attract the curiosity, attention and desire of
contemporary audiences. But it needs the assistance of critics and
academics to help create the "cool" factor. Attacks like
those of Robert Cross on Berkoff do indicate the link between
personality and art and highlight the different ways of interpreting
works within a postmodern spectrum.
newly formed artists need encouragement to use a "form follows
function" approach to creation and presentation of theatre;
rather than simply following old formulas which were developed as
part of a "modernist" conception of theatre concoction. It
is no wonder Berkoff is so popular with students who seek change but
then only to find it stultified once in the professional theatre. It
is no wonder idealistic and energetic students and young actors are
turning to Japanese Butoh and other alternative methods of creation
as they seek to expand the possibilities of the NOW. It is no wonder
theatre is losing out to film and television in the area of inspiring
career choices. While theatre keeps repeating its mantra of modernist
realism as a means of realizing itself, it will continue to be
submerged within the weight of large scale musical spectacle and
television soap opera. To offer a good night out theatre needs to
fulfill its potential for live engagement in a meaningful way. This
requires an experimental approach that requires challenge, insight,
skill and a willingness to have something to say and a means for
saying it that is both apt and organic. This is the necessity of