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

En garde, avant-garde!

Ten years into the 21st century, it seems a fitting time to look at the state of New York City's theatrical avant-garde. How has it evolved over the past decade? Who's doing the most inventive work, and who's coming up short? What exactly constitutes a vanguard these days, and where is it heading?

Some of the answers can be found by looking at the young ensembles who now lead the city's progressive theater scene. Although downtown playwrights—like Young Jean Lee, Thomas Bradshaw, and Richard Maxwell—stand among the era's theatrical pioneers, the arena for experimentation is increasingly occupied by self-producing groups in long-term collaborations. The decade has seen a new crop—Temporary Distortion, Witness Relocation, Radiohole, among others—named more like bands than traditional stage ensembles. Collectively, they have reinfused downtown theater with interdisciplinary energies and fresh entrepreneurship. The best ones could rouse the American avant-garde, which has largely settled into a comfortable set of postmodern conventions.

Many of New York's edgier ensembles have been drawing on non-dramatic source material (i.e., no plays) and creating work that mirrors other media forms—two impulses historically embraced by modernist avant-gardes, of course, but sometimes yielding original results today. Big Art Group, for instance, makes a touchstone out of synthesizing media elements. SOS, their 2009 show at the Kitchen, offered a spiraling series of hallucinations of consumer catastrophe—simultaneously humorous and apocalyptic. Scenes alternated between terrified animals fending for themselves in the Darwinian wilderness, and grotesque chats between urban creatures of consumption. The group used live projections, computer graphics, and a dense soundtrack to create an overstimulated (but deliberately oppressive) mediascape, which was somehow charmingly homemade.

SOS points to a category of experiment under way in alternative theater, which might be described as Internet dramaturgy: live performances structured around nonlinear associations, a continual or escalating series of non sequiturs, or constantly regenerated narrative frames. These dramatic forms echo our now-daily experiences of clicking through multiple sites and toggling between realities. Stage compositions increasingly reflect structures and patterns from the Web, a development ripe with potential.

The admirably arty Radiohole could also be included in this web-of-consciousness heading, with company-devised pieces full of visuals and free association. Keep an eye out for the Brooklyn-based group's latest performance collage, Whatever, Heaven Allows at P.S.122 this February. Another example: Crime or Emergency, a shamanistic cabaret created and performed by Mike Iveson and Sibyl Kempson at P.S.122 in December. As Kempson performs approximately 10 characters in a sequence of interconnected tales, the scenario simultaneously progresses and falls apart, relying (a little too much) on Kempson's virtuosity and Iveson's musical scoring.

There is a difference, however, between a narrative or event in continual, vigorous metamorphosis and something that just meanders in abstraction or pastiche. The wryly named National Theater of the United States of America, for instance, seems unable to organize its disparate impulses—Gothic flourishes and traveling tent antics, for instance—so a show like Abacus Black Strikes Now! (mounted at P.S.122 in 2006) didn't coalesce. Despite lively music, Cynthia Hopkins's Accidental Nostalgia trilogy, produced at St. Ann's Warehouse in recent seasons, overstretched a fantastical quest for a singer's mysterious past.

Elsewhere in New York's experimental playground, realism is under serious reinvestigation, but not the psychological kind—call it hyperrealism. Nature Theater of Oklahoma—perhaps the most intellectually nourishing of these new groups—stands on the frontier of this unfolding territory. The group applies scientific precision to their enactments of transcripts taken from real conversations; by dissecting contemporary speech, they reveal our splendidly otherworldly thought processes, and show how we struggle to articulate our individual realities (thereby creating new ones).

Last season, Nature Theater's monodrama Rambo Solo poignantly chronicled actor Zachary Oberzan's artistic obsessions and personal evolution. The group is currently presenting its Romeo and Juliet at the Kitchen, in which they enact interviews they conducted with people struggling to recall and articulate the famous tragedy's narrative. Also watch for their new serial epic opera, Life and Times, an exuberant celebration of a friend's ordinary autobiography; the company apparently plans to do a complete version in multiple parts—an epic of the self bringing to mind, say, Robert Wilson's early experiments.

It's no accident that Nature Theater works a lot in Europe, where fellow avant-gardists like the German company Rimini Protokoll are deploying amateur "experts," civilian nonactors, and audience interaction to slash theater's fictive fabric. That idea has started to turn up stateside, too, with performance events such as CiNE's 2008 audience "seminar" Venice Saved (at P.S.122), which put interactivity and spontaneity at the live event's core. (The production asked attendees to debate the political efficacy of theater today; the result varied nightly, frustrating some and stimulating others—but the change of terms was provocative.) Ironically, modern avant-garde dramatists reacted against realism throughout the 20th century, cooking up new aesthetics like surrealism and Brechtian epic theater as antidotes. Now the pendulum may be swinging back, with theatermakers instead looking to radically expand "real" elements to keep up with other media's "reality" programming and a vogue for DIY documentary. This looks like one of the most exciting dynamics to watch in the new decade.

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.

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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