The City's Best (And Not So Best) Progressive Theater

En garde, avant-garde!

Even during a decade of deep social transformation and political upheaval, most American performance groups showed few signs of dissent or engagement. The emphasis remains firmly on cool eclecticism and irony, formalism and fragmentation—perhaps reflecting a downtown theater culture dominated by (mostly white) MFA aesthetes. But some alternative theater artists have rekindled interest in depicting and sometimes assaulting America's national myths. Among many notable recent productions touching on this theme: Elevator Repair Service's textured stage explorations of novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner; Radiohole's Anger/Nation casting a psychedelic eye on a 19th-century temperance crusader; and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Les Freres Corbusier's musical salute to an American president's violent conquests, slated for revival at the Public Theater in March.

Some investigations of America's DNA fizzled. The pretentiously named Theatre of the Emerging American Moment (a/k/a The TEAM) mounted a 2009 epic called Architecting, which proved overextended and full of scattershot musings juxtaposing Gone With the Wind and the Katrina disaster. (One of the dangers with young ensembles is that they think they've invented the wheel—in this case, postmodern pastiche.) The Lily's Revenge, written and directed by Taylor Mac with a multitude of collaborators, offered a sprawling five-hour paean to a sensitive flower's discovery of difference, with allusions to the right to marry; the show's abundance of sets, performers, and styles turned the ambitious extravaganza into a downtown community event when it played at Here this fall. But the writing rarely matched the performers' wattage, with messages of love giving way to sentimentality.

If alternative theater isn't exactly polemical these days, it also isn't as formally inventive as it could be. Most performances by the current avant-garde voluntarily stay within certain genteel perimeters of "art" theater: audiences book tickets, go to familiar venues, and (usually) sit in folding chairs with Xeroxed programs in their laps—and maybe a beer. But other performance artists have nudged things out of buildings or out of bounds, experimenting with interactivity and community.

The sound and the furry: Big Art Group's SOS
Paula Court
The sound and the furry: Big Art Group's SOS

Flash mob instigators like Improv Everywhere, for instance, have exploited phone and wire technology and challenged definitions of performance and audience; their recent spectacles have resulted in pageants of slow-motion shoppers in Home Depot and statuesque commuters in Grand Central Terminal. Also breaking beyond four walls was 365, Suzan-Lori Parks's massive experiment in democracy and dramaturgy; that collaborative project had Parks penning a play every day for a year, then disseminating the scripts and coordinating (electronically) staged interpretations of her daily dramas in all kinds of communities across the country over the span of another year. Results ranged from the banal to the expressive, but the experiment was never about the finished product; it attempted to activate an artists' network where none existed before and tried to find a common catalyst for creativity.

Those projects held elements of surprise, risk, and uncertainty—vital aspects of 20th-century performance breakthroughs like Dada and Happenings and ingredients always needed to spice things up. If New York wants to stay in the theatrical vanguard, it must encourage and embolden progressive artists to try projects that aren't strictly outcome-driven. Theatermakers' creative evolution may be stunted, however, by the city's notoriously conservative infrastructure. Few theaters or arts organizations commission or present experimental work on a large scale; even well-curated performance series, which could supply intellectual fiber and expand public tastes, remain rare.

Ultimately, there are degrees of "avant-garde": Not many artists today call for, say, burning down museums and libraries in the name of new technology, as the Italian Futurists did a hundred years ago. Nor do we hear many downtown voices calling for a new order, or even for an end to a disastrous war—as theatermakers here did in the 1960s. In 21st-century New York, aspirations look milder and more careerist: Experimental stage artists want creative outlets and a responsive public. Understandably, they also seek good publicity and financial relief. But in the next era—now under way—there's an appetite and opportunity for enlarging the theatrical experience in New York. If anyone can seize the day, it may be Big Art Group, Nature Theater, and anyone else with the intellectual muscle to build up the vanguard.

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