Your Future, My Past

Off-Off: The Old, the New, and the Next

Nobody wants that undifferentiated world, but capitalism's clever. Like the chameleon, it hides from its enemies by replicating its surroundings. Niche marketing is its non-nutritive equivalent of individuality: The thing watered down to please everybody now comes in five colors and four flavors, which may be a profitable way to reach target audiences, but doesn't offer much artistic gratification, or coherence. Theater artists already at work, raised on the old-style leveling mass media (and mostly well away from any actual theater), face it with numbed cynicism; the new version's effect on their successors, today's children, I can only shudder to imagine. What will they know—what do their older siblings know—about transposing their visions into three dimensions?

And this, finally, is why I suspect I won't be delving into Clancy's world—though he's faxing me a list of artists whose work he thinks deserves serious scrutiny. It's not that I was brought up on a different set of media icons, but that iconography itself, in my childhood, was imposed with less force. You could make your way through it more independently, and emerge from it with more of yourself intact. I am full of grief for the young, who've had proportionally less of that chance; I admire their bravery in desiring to break away and be themselves at all, in an era that urges everyone's life to be about nothing. I resent, on their behalf as well as my own, the extent to which they've been pushed further and further from the geographical center by the real estate magnates who work hand in hand with the media moguls. I don't object on principle to there being theaters in outer boroughs—there should be theaters everywhere—but I do object, vehemently, to having the center of a city that has always lived by the art of the theater turned into a vapid tourist whorehouse, while the theater activity that made its life possible is shoved into those distant corners. I object to the marginalization of an art form that is not marginal to human life, unlike the two-dimensional technological forms, which merely record what somebody once did somewhere else, and are therefore never central. (There is actually no such thing as movie acting; acting is done on a stage.)

It's up to the artists, of course, to prove that theater isn't marginal. I think my generation gave it a good try. And I don't doubt that there are artists in this next generation who can, and maybe will, make the theater central again, by making work that speaks from their center to the center of our concerns. If I spend little time down on the Lower East Side, it's because those artists have not caught my attention yet; the work of theirs I've heard about, or seen, doesn't exert much pressure on me to see more. In their dislocated, eerie deadpan, and in the noisy, hollow overstatement that sometimes interrupts it, I haven't yet discovered—and maybe they haven't either—the center of their passion, their reason for making theater. I'll be happy to be proved wrong; maybe that fax of Clancy's, coming out of the machine as I type this, will tell me different.

I hope so, because the theater has a future, in our geography as well as in our souls. Technology built the big retail chains that have taken over so much real estate, and technology, via the Internet, is slowly weeding them out of it. Soon the realtors will be eager to welcome us back into their vacant, spacious storefronts. At the same time, millions of desk-locked, glazed-eyed Web workers will be flooding the streets, desperate for unplugged, un-downloaded human experience. We had better be ready for them. We had better know our history, our mission, our tradition, our means for reaching audiences, and our justification for addressing them. We must be ready to speak as the theater has always spoken, to any and all comers. What stories we tell, and how we tell them, will be the meaning of the next millennium, long after the DVD drives and MP3 players have ceased to work. John, where's that list?

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