Whose Avant-Garde?

On the occasion of the 56th Annual Obie Awards, we ask theater-makers their view of today’s—and tomorrow’s—experimental theater

We’ve had poor theater, rich theater, deadly theater, the Living Theatre, live nude theater, holy theater, profane theater, solo theater, the Group Theatre, and theater without any actors at all. With such a history of experiment, can there be anything new under the stage lights? The term typically associated with forward-looking theater, the avant-garde, originally applied to horse cavalry—and as War Horse can tell you, that went out of style a century ago.

And yet, artists continue to make work that teases out fresh forms and functions, questioning the relationships between between actor and character, between cast and audience, between theater and life. This year, as the Obies again honor excellence and innovation in Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater, we asked some of its foremost practitioners and presenters whether a theatrical avant-garde still exists, and what artists should do to keep galloping onward.

Next up, the theater of robots and trees: Rude Mechs' The Method Gun, performed this season at DTW.
Alan Simmons
Next up, the theater of robots and trees: Rude Mechs' The Method Gun, performed this season at DTW.
ERS and John Collins threw the book at theater: Gatz
Joan Marcus
ERS and John Collins threw the book at theater: Gatz

Richard Foreman, playwright/director

Theater, like all art, should disorient rather than evoke the Ahh of recognition (even of the “exotic”). There are still rules to be broken: Daring to bore or irritate an audience with work that might be “necessary” for re-structuring the mind even if not seemingly “entertaining.” Theater should dare to put average audiences to sleep and make a few desperate individuals aware of how out-of-step they are with things as they are.

Anne Kauffman, director

There are many artists interested in messing with theater for the 21st century. As to whether or not new technologies can help, on the one hand, it’s like technology fucks with the thing we’ve held sacred, the intimacy and immediacy of live performance and communal witnessing. On the other, isn’t that what the avant-garde is about, eschewing the sacred? Maybe technology is the kind of offensive tinkering necessary to move the art form forward.

I think Richard Maxwell points the way forward, for sure. When I first saw his work, it blew my mind, since it’s a true collaboration between what’s being presented and the audience. The audience has to apply emotion and meaning to it or else the event doesn't exist...the actual event is made and occupies a place between the stage and the audience.

Kirk Lynn, playwright for Rude Mechs

I can’t understand the idea that we’ve seen and done it all. I think we have a lot to look forward to. Breaching the divide between what we consider human and animal. Animals and plants. Organic and inorganic. Performances made by robots and oak trees.

Brooke O’Harra, artistic director of Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf

I still feel that convention needs challenging, and in my work I’m always challenging form and questing expectations of “plays.” It’s easy to feel that the avant-garde is over, because we more experimental theater artists are not galvanized as one particular rupture. Larger cultural trends (the expense of NYC, real estate, deep cuts in funding organizations) have made it almost impossible to maintain a sustained collective practice.

I think many of our contemporary playwrights point the way forward—like Kristen Kosmas and Thomas Bradshaw and many of the young graduates from the Brooklyn College playwriting program.

Mike Daisey, monologuist

Does a theatrical avant-garde still exist? I can think in the space of three minutes of a whole list of things I could say from stage when the lights come up at my performance this evening that would result in a riot: an exquisitely detailed, loving description of how I recently raped a child who was asking for it, an honest accounting of how pleased I am pissing into my lover's mouth. Over time you find how words can can still achieve disruption but be less outré—the right epithet, landed precisely, a choice or unchoice image that opens up the subconscious.

Nick Jones, playwright

Anybody truly radical is probably working on the fringe. And by the fringe, I don’t mean Downtown; I mean outside of theaters entirely, in contexts where no one is pursuing a career, and there are no reviewers (and possibly no audience). There is a huge DIY culture of performance in the United States, and it’s probably the closest thing to avant-garde that exists, in that it’s beholden to nothing and no one. In New York, I’m thinking about people like Swoon who get people together to make rafts that they do performances on, and some of the Jeff Stark–related performance activity in warehouses throughout the city and some of his own site-specific theater on subways and in abandoned (illegal) spaces.

What should theater do if it wants to continue to be visceral and relevant and challenging? Implement more old person nudity.

Shawn Sides, director of Rude Mechs

I look to artists who are dealing with the audience in a way that requires something of them—beyond passive reception, yes, but beyond their focused attention, as well. Especially pieces that are incorporating the tactile. Ant Hammond and Rotozaza, Punchdrunk, Ontroerend Goed. This isn’t new, as in never-done-before. Totally old. But I think that at this particular cultural nano-second, it’s leading the way.

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