Your Future, My Past

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

I've never met John Clancy, artistic director of the Present Company. I was out of town last spring when he turned his theater's real estate travails into a solo performance piece. My only experience of his work comes from his recent phone calls to me—impressive performances in their own right, seductive and elaborately argued. Their burden is simple: Clancy wants me, as a survivor of the old Off-Off-Broadway, to write a piece studying the new one that has taken root on the Lower East Side, to weigh up how the new contrasts with the old, to what extent it does or doesn't sustain the tradition. In short, he wants to be judged.

This shows courage, plus a certain generosity of spirit: Clancy has been pitching me to write about a movement and a generation, not just about his theater or his pet playwrights; he does not want to be judged alone. The cynical might mutter "safety in numbers," but "all for one and one for all" may be more to the point, depending on what those in solidarity with Clancy hope their theater will achieve.

That, maybe, is why I haven't yet taken up his invitation. I know all too well what the mainstream theater isn't doing. I also know that, since I started writing here (30 years ago come February 2001), I've watched a generation and a half of theater artists working Downtown, or moving up from there, to try and redress the deficiency. When they began, in the late 1950s, Broadway had become both increasingly expensive (how little we knew!) and virtually closed to new plays and to any sort of experiment. It was the home of stock thrillers, slickly generic comedies, musicals that were inchoate mishmashes more often than not, and the occasional dressy British import.

The old Off-Off-Broadway was invented equally to fight all that and, by fusing with it, to transform it. One wing of the movement wanted to stay in place, playing to a small but elite audience, for a host of reasons ranging from the quest for intimacy through the distrust of commercialism to a cherishing of the avant-garde tradition. The other wing favored using Downtown as a launching pad from which to gain an ever wider influence for the new. I, an inveterate both/and fellow, gave aid and comfort impartially, wherever I saw something of value.

Both schools succeeded, and both successes were a kind of failure. Influence at any price was a devil's bargain, dragging some artists contextless into the mass market; staying small, too often, meant getting ingrown, self-referential, and ultimately sterile. Ironically, some of the most hermetic spirits ended up as superstars; some of those with the broadest popular appeal were rejected, turning into embittered or burnt-out cases. Many, of course, didn't survive to choose either path: The AIDS plague cut an unimaginably wide swath through a movement that had been created, in part, because openly gay and lesbian work was so unwelcome in the commercial arena. And AIDS wasn't the only way to go: There were drugs, crime, epic self-destructiveness. Like any historical trail, Off-Off's is littered with corpses.

The heritage they left behind has hardly begun to be explored. Like most vanished theaters, it survives only as a few documents and a lot of conflicting descriptions, mostly by scholars who were never there. The latter always seem to me to be describing some other theater, in some remote era; certainly not the Off-Off I lived through. But of course, as Irene Fornès remarked in one of the era's seminal Downtown musicals (musicals could be seminal, back then), "I have to live with my own truth/Whether you like it or not." Compared to the mainstream's alleged history of "the American theater" of that time, even the academics' fantasies look convincing. I often tell myself I should write down the truth about that history—my truth—to set matters straight; no doubt somebody would publish it.

But—to come back to Clancy's phone calls—I wonder what good it would do. The smart and edgy young, who've inherited the mode of theater my generation evolved, have pretty much decided which past artists and modes of work they will use as guideposts on their path to the future. I recognize their version of the past—containing at least some people and works that I treasure, it's much less foreign to me than the academics' Colonial Williamsburg-style reconstruction—but much of it I don't share, just as I don't share much of the younger generation's taste in painting, film, or music. Imagine coming of age in a New York that cherished the best-quality cabaret performers, and then finding in midlife that the young hunger to know all about . . . Liberace.

I cite him not to ridicule a generation's taste—though why shouldn't I if I think it stinks?—but to point up a qualitative shift: Four decades ago, when I arrived in New York, there was a difference between popular taste and mass taste, more clearly marked here than in any other American city. This wasn't a matter of snobbery: Popular taste is exciting and complex; it has geographical, ethnic, generational, and class bases, all of which mass manufacture, in its effort to please everybody, tends to flatten out impartially, like a bulldozer leveling landmarks and eyesores alike. Mass taste came in with the Industrial Revolution, and will probably be here till the factory wheels stop turning, part and parcel of the erasure of individuality—the real terror behind this terrifying, overcrowded century, in which the earth's population increased faster, and its resources were depleted more rapidly, than in all previous ages combined. And 20th-century theater, the part of it that you and I care about, is notched from end to end by the cries of individualities that refused to be erased: "I'm not capitulating!" (Ionesco); "I won't go on living as less than myself" (Witkiewicz); "the world is all covered over with people and no one knows who anyone looks like" (Gertrude Stein).

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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