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.

Taylor Mac, playwright/performer

I get described as an avant-garde theater artist because I wear high-heels and use a heightened theatricality. The Greeks used to wear high-heels when they performed. I am a traditionalist and proud to be one. And just to be clear—there's nothing wrong with being avant-garde, but let’s acknowledge what it actually is. The rule and taboo to break is our egomaniacal desire to be thought of as new, our amnesia in regards to actual history, and our fear of theatricality.

Alex Timbers, artistic director of Les Frères Corbusier

Over time, there’s less and less shock value to be mined in terms of onstage acts and imagery, short of real violence and real sex, which might be the last possible transgressions. The future taboos come from integrating the audience more and more into the onstage madness, and in immersive environmental work where the boundary between performance and reality can lack distinction. There’s real potential to disturb, provoke, and awaken there.

Young Jean Lee, playwright/director

I think the “downtown/experimental/avant-garde” theater people I've worked with have been doing a pretty good job of keeping the theater relevant and challenging. Our producers, presenters, and funders care about diversity and innovation. Our tickets don’t cost $100. I do think that experimental theater can be elitist in its own way, which is another issue, but at least I can afford to go see it.

Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, artistic directors of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Of course the avant-garde exists. It has always existed, and it will always exist, as it should for a healthy balance (or unbalancing) of society. But right now it’s struggling because it is not engaged by intelligent criticism. The criticism, more so than even the art, has become lazy and complacent. Critics ask really nothing from us or from the art form. It takes both a vigorous art and a vigorous criticism to have a really vital avant-garde.

John Collins, artistic director of Elevator Repair Service

The funny thing for me and my company is that when we were 21 or 22 years old, we were so damned determined to be avant-garde that what’s avant-garde to me now is making some more conventional choices, like all this work we’ve been doing with classic texts. Maybe when they’re writing about this 20 years later, the avant-garde will turn out to be about work that on the surface appears to move back toward conventions. Maybe in doing that we find something that’s truly new.

Jay Scheib, director

I think any self-respecting artist would consider themselves trying to experiment, trying to move the form forward, but I’m personally inspired to be kind of derriere-garde. There have been a lot of great experiments, none of which have really been synthesized [into mainstream theater], so there’s an enormous disparity between the theater artists experimenting with new forms successfully and then what we end up seeing on more mainstream stages.

Mac Wellman, playwright

I prefer to use the term experimental rather than avant-garde. But all theater is experimental. I don’t think the difference between avant-garde theater and mainstream theater is that great. All theater is made in the same way. There is always a stage manager, there are always rehearsals, it all kind of looks messy in the same stupid way, only the product ends up being different.

David Herskovits, artistic director of Target Margin Theater

We need to reframe the terms for discussion of theatrical innovation. Does anybody like the name “avant garde” anymore? The label has too much baggage. But the questions of rules and breaking them is as valid as it is ancient. Context is everything. Nobody has really shed all their conventional expectations, shibboleths, and taboos. The sets of conventions, the frames, vary with context and community; that is all. What seems familiar and safe in one context seems classic in another and daring in a third.

Mark Russell, artistic director of Under the Radar

Yes, the avant-garde still exists. It exists wherever there are rules and taboos that have not been tested—like speaking every word from a great American novel. Or not projecting one’s voice like you’re supposed to in the theater, or talking for two and a half hours from notes, not a set script. All of these performances go back to the roots of the theatrical avant-garde. Each generation and community defines that avant for themselves.


Qui Nguyen, artistic director of Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company

Bring the hotness that’s been blowing up in venues like Here, P.S.122, and Incubator Arts Project into spots like Playwrights Horizons and Second Stage to see what we can do. Seriously, wouldn’t it be hot to see Young Jean Lee in Lincoln Center, Banana Bag and Bodice at MTC, or, hell, I woulda loved to have gotten that call to give my Vampire Cowboys a crack at giving Spider-man some real theatrical superpowers. We’re busting at the seams with innovation and inventiveness—it’s time that Midtown started investing in our generation’s brand of badass.

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