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SCREAM No. 60 : January 2013 (revised Dec 7 2013)

Making Experimental Theatre 
the choice for a good night out


Our Lady By The Beach Over The Sea
experimental theatre as a "good night out"

 

Preview for SUR LE CONCEPT DU VISAGE DU FILS DE DIEU
an amazingly provocative and poignant theme made for the 
stage by Romeo Castellucci.

The production was so successful in 2011 and received
sizable audiences through Europe that it attracted the ire of
ultra conservative Christians and supportive Muslims. This
resulted in violence in the theatre and picketing outside.

A traditional treatment of the themes of age, ideals, trust 
and belief would not have been able to elicit the sort of
response required. It is an example where the very
form of the theatre had to respond to the nature of the 
function. The influence of Antonin Artaud is ever present
and so the work requires viewing from outside a traditional
context. 

Read the blurb HERE.

Read of the attacks on the play HERE.

 


 

 

 

 

A "good 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.

Yet a "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!

Experimental 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.

From Alfred 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.

While such 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.

In Australia, 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!

Popular press 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.

    Robert 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).

Such personal 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.

Perhaps art 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.

Postmodernism 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.

While 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.

The one 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.

Much Experimental theatre emerged through Contemporary Dance which is firmly based in the Postmodern camp. Influenced by people such as Pina Bausch and Jiri Kylian Australian 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 political issues".
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)

The Company's 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.

Romeo Castellucci's theatre has successfully integrated a Postmodern approach that sometimes has "meaning" and purpose. His recent production of On 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.

Related movements 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 presenting The Choir by 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.

Today, the 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.

There is 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 or To 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!

The 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.

Talented and 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 Experimental Theatre.

Joe Woodward


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