I’ve never met Michael Feingold. I only know him from reading his essays and reviews. Michael’s voice has always been clear and passionate—he’s the most intelligent and experienced theater critic in the city. Some time back we engaged in a semi-public conversation about the state of downtown theater. I wanted to know how he thought current work stacked up against the old Off-Off, the glory days. The deal was I’d give him some artists’ names, he’d check them out, then tell us what he thought. I faxed the names. He never showed. Instead he wrote an article, “Your Future, My Past.” The piece celebrated and mourned the downtown theater generations that have passed and questioned the present generation, mine. Michael’s questions were specific and sobering. What is our central passion? What can we know of our tradition? Are we carrying it forward?
I have a simple answer to Michael’s questions, the Socratic school-yard response: You tell me.
Yes, there is a fuck-you attitude in that reply, but I come by it honestly. The defining experience of my generation of theater artists is neglect. Neglect by funders, critics, government. Neglect by our elders. What was my pursuit of Michael but a classic exercise in dysfunction, a boy waving and jumping in front of a distant, silent man, desperate to win his attention? I told Michael once, “Just come down and see the stuff. Praise us, condemn us, it doesn’t matter. Just show up.” A slap is as good as a hug to an abandoned child.
If the defining experience of my generation is neglect, our defining characteristic is self-sufficiency. From the fabled birth of Nada through the tenacity of Surf Reality and Collective Unconscious to the bootstrap insanity of the New York International Fringe Festival, we’ve learned how to do it on our own. We are the feral children of American theater. We are tribal and at times shockingly ignorant of our history. We are too liable to confuse hardship with honor and incoherence with innovation. But through our stubborn refusal to go away, we have cleared a place for a community to gather. We are not that community yet.
Is there a shared central passion expressed in Mike Stutz’s Hoffenrich and the early work of the Flying Machine? Hoffenrich was an electric mix of modern dance and sketch comedy; Stutz spoke of a modern-day Fluxus, while the Flying Machine reveled in pure Le Coq physicality. When these groups played together in a midnight club in Hell’s Kitchen four years ago, it was clear to the audience that something vital was thrashing about in front of them.
Do Liza Jesse Peterson and Jamie Sneider express their central passion in the same way? Ferocious and fearless, these two solo writer-performers differ wildly, Peterson achieving a skin-tingling intimacy with her audience and Sneider an unsettling depth of commitment to her characters. Both can astound; both are deserving of the attention and paychecks of Leguizamo, Deavere Smith, and Hoch.
You want names? C.J. Hopkins, Leigh Silverman, Erica Schmidt, Portia Johnson, Curtiss I’Cook, Bill Talen, Sander Hicks, Tina Fallon, Julia Lee Barclay, Daniel Kleinfeld, Dov Weinstein, Ben Schneider. These writers, directors, producers, and actors are not only worthy of serious scrutiny—they’ve already received it. Their colleagues downtown have scrutinized them for years now. They’re not kids. They’re not amateurs. They’re serious, dedicated artists. Their central passions are evident; they express them with skill and subtlety; they know their tradition and nightly drag it forward inch by inch, breath by breath.
But individual anointing is dangerous. Some in my generation have already received invitations to the Big Time, which they’ve earned. Richard Maxwell, the current downtown wunderkind, is genuinely working on something new to the American theater, a brave experiment in the isolation of sentiment and the disentanglement of language from stage picture. He could be carrying the tradition of Stein forward, if a pedigree is what you want (perhaps Michael will attend one of his plays someday). Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann are the new bad boys of Broadway, pissing and laughing straight to the bank with Urinetown. They deliver a straight-up American musical with a crypto-socialist message, a savvy political statement that sends you out humming. Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner crafted a minor populist masterpiece with The Donkey Show. It’s nothing but a party, but when I first saw the sex scene at the Piano Store, when the strobe pounded and the two-man donkey started throwing it to a drugged Titania writhing on the floor, Shakespeare’s play hit harder than any Midsummer I’d ever seen. These artists all come from downtown and are all of my generation. That’s about the extent of their similarity. But let me dangle from a limb here.
The shared central passion of the current downtown generation is to create an environment of immediacy, an aware and open connection to the audience. We acknowledge the audience and the act of theater taking place. We express this passion in both our content and our form. From the staging of Hopkins’s plays, where the actors directly face but never directly speak to the audience, to the revival contagion of Talen’s Reverend Billy shows, to the fractured spoken-word/ narrative twists of Cook’s scripts, this passion is manifest. We know exactly as much of our tradition as we have been able to gather, operating more as a cargo cult than a graduating class, admittedly, but I submit that we are by and large blameless in this behavior. And are we carrying our tradition forward? Jesus, it is with such teeth-clenching sorrow and frustration that I say yes. Yes, Michael. Of course we are. What else would you expect us to do?
“Your Future, My Past: Off-Off: The Old, the New, and the Next” by Michael Feingold