The Happy Awkward Moment

Performance Theater's Intimate Surprise

Theater Group STAN is a group of young Belgian actors—a collective of performers that have been working together for nearly 10 years. They deal almost exclusively with classic theater texts, but they reinvent these texts so fully I consider their work completely radical. After selecting a text, STAN then translate it, learn it, and tear it apart line by line. Only a few days before opening will they finally get up from their table and put together a few set pieces, some light cues, and perform the play. In a STAN piece the actors often wander in and out of the action whether their character is onstage or not. They watch each other as if in a very intensive rehearsal. It seems as if STAN is taking the great jazz of actors playing in rehearsal and bringing that to an audience. (How many shows have we seen that were great in rehearsal but fell flat when they finally got onstage with light cues, set, and other embellishments?) There's an informality in STAN's work that's disarming, and a rigor that's bracing. STAN's acting technique is straight-ahead natural—not lyrical, not pushing. If an emotion is set too high, as in many Chekhov or Ibsen classics, the actor will underplay it, setting the words off against his action. The language of the play becomes new again. Even tired, overdone plays—such as Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, one of STAN's first hits—become fresh, politically charged contemporary works.

Recently I attended a conference organized by Roberta Uno and her New World Theater in Amherst, Massachusetts. Called "Intersections: Future Aesthetics," it focused on the new discipline of hip-hop theater. It was exciting to see so many young artists (most under 25) embracing theater as a forum for their ideas. There was a rough magic in their use of poetry, tap, and choral movement to express complex ideas. The work was simple, direct, and—with more than a few nods to performance art—a great look at the future of theater in the U.S. Another conference begins this June in Portland, Oregon, organized by Theater Communications Group, an organization set up years ago to serve the regional theater movement. Called "New Works, New Ways," it will take a different look at this vibrant field of young theater makers and the many avenues they are devising to create and disseminate their work. These are early, significant steps in the road to reinvigorating the American theater.

Theater Group STAN's Lucia Smelt: a disarming informality
photo: Bernaded Dexters
Theater Group STAN's Lucia Smelt: a disarming informality

Performance theater is a sniper in the guerrilla warfare of our culture—theater done in small cells, through international connections, via information passed in dark bars. The resistance is not to any outward oppression, but to the robbery of our spiritual lives by media, work, technology, advertising. We come to these dark rooms to escape the bombardment of modern life. We gather together to enjoy the awkward, the wrong, the uncomfortable, the not pretty, the not cynical, the rudely funny, the extreme, the simple pleasures of seeing a person on a stage in front of a small crowd—existing.

I'm looking forward to the future of performance theater, with artists like Maxwell, Etchells, STAN, and ERS, and a long list of others: the Universes; Julie Atlas Muz; Radiohole; the Big Art Group; the Rude Mechs of Austin, Texas; Pig Iron Theater and New Paradise Laboratories in Philadelphia; Berlin's Gob Squad; Japan's Dumbtype. By focusing on the exquisite experience of live performance, theater will only prosper. There will be greater and greater demand for what we do—the intimacy, the reality, the surprise of truth. The antidote to technology is the ever evolving theater of the present: performance theater.

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