When avant-garde playwrights Gao Xingjian of China and Elfriede Jelinek of Austria won their Nobel Prizes for literature, in 2000 and 2004, the New York theater world responded with a big shrug. A shrug that endures: We’ve still yet to see a major production of Gao’s time-bending salvation dramas (sometimes banned in China) or Jelinek’s humorous language twisters. Jelinek has inspired controversy throughout Europe for her aggressive counterculture stances (her recent play Bambiland deals with the U.S. and Iraq). She has admirers and detractors, but New York has been left out of the debates.
The glaring absence of these playwrights’ work shows how easy it can be to overlook international voices in this city. And though New York is slowly improving its attention to foreign work—due to some new, energetic producers—we continue to miss out on many of the world’s theatrical riches.
Part of the problem: New York’s larger, most prominent theaters rarely stage their own full productions of new writing in translation. In a time of global upheaval, where are the plays from the Middle East? The lyrical, abstract work of the young Iranian Amir Reza Koohestani, for instance, has been translated and presented at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Africa and Latin America—couldn’t mainstream theaters here include one play in their seasons? We’re lucky to have the Signature Theatre, which devotes each season to a single American author. But imagine what additional voices we might discover if we had an equivalent major institution exploring a foreign dramatist every year. A smaller group, the Play Company, does cultivate new foreign plays; in 2005 it brought us Terrorism, a domestic tragicomedy by Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov, a fraternal duo from Russia’s Ural Mountain region. It was a useful introduction. But there’s lots more Russian writing New York should witness—dramas about Putin and Chechnya from Moscow’s Teatr.doc, and young writers with bleaker social visions like Vassily Sigarev, who explores social brutality, or Ivan Vyrypaev, whose stunning Oxygen and Genesis-2 combine techno beats with haunting existential parables.
Playwriting, though, is only one issue. These days, the most exciting advances have been coming from Europe’s so-called “director’s theater,” where stage artists work on large-scale canvases, encouraged by generous state subsidies. New York has basements for foreign avant-garde plays, and audiences can catch visiting ensembles and smaller productions at venues like P.S.122 and 59E59. But encounters with great contemporary directors on a grand scale remain rare.
When large productions do travel, the most pioneering projects aren’t necessarily selected. For instance, in recent seasons the Brooklyn Academy of Music has brought over Thomas Ostermeier’s sleek productions of Nora and Hedda Gabler from Berlin’s Schaubühne. Yet Germany’s most exciting and progressive theater, the Volksbühne, sets a world agenda for the avant-garde, and we’ve seen nothing of it. Master directors like Frank Castorf, René Pollesch, Christoph Schlingensief, and Christoph Marthaler have combined performers’ improvisations with new extremes for naturalist acting and theatricalist mise-en-scéne. Castorf’s five-hour adaptation of The Idiot, for example, challenged an actor to improvise one speech for up to an hour, egged on by his fellow ensemble members. Castorf’s stagings routinely incorporate lengthy mud and food fights, and the company once shelled a live cannon at the audience (no casualties). Schlingensief investigates late capitalism and contemporary politics, and his performance antics have involved live TV broadcasts and forming new political parties for audience members. These directors work and tour productions across Europe, where the next generation already imitates their aesthetics. This, if anything, is the Next Wave.
We’ve also missed an accompanying visual revolution, launched by European superstar stage designers like Bert Neumann and Anna Viebrock, who use Home Depot prefab materials, secondhand plastic furniture, and lots of neon lighting. Their sprawling environmental sets radically rethink theatrical space, and other designers have increasingly absorbed their principles (and copied the favela-chic look). Together these directors and designers have been expanding and evolving the art form, nourished by state subsidies and a theater system that prizes innovation.
Theatermakers whose creations don’t fit into clear categories especially need to be seen here. Belgium’s Alain Platel, with his phenomenal Ballets C de la B, has pushed dance theater into politically resonant metaphors. Hungary’s Béla Pintér—a director-playwright with a knockout ensemble—stages hallucinatory, comic fables about nationalism, ethnicity, and country life, with exquisite original music and plenty of Hungarian folk dancing. The Swiss-German group Rimini Protokoll weaves a thick web of ironies out of political documentary, amateur participants’ biographies, and fragments of plays such as Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy. Their current piece, Mnemopark, features elderly toy-train enthusiasts narrating a nostalgic journey through fake Alpine villages, as micro cameras on the toy trains provide hypnotic video feeds.
This is not to deny the vitality that’s spread across New York. There’s plenty of homegrown talent to celebrate, and some dazzling entrepreneurship makes it all possible. But why does a city that otherwise prides itself on resisting the nation’s cultural phobias so often seem like a parochial theater town?
Internationally minded producers cite a long list of factors: These are tough times for challenging art of any kind. Raising money for unknown names and productions makes things harder. Flying and housing foreign artists (with sets and equipment) adds to the high costs of a big production. Obtaining visas has become a major difficulty and expense since 9/11. And even if a show can get here, New York has few spaces adequate for the grand scale of other nations’ state theaters. Worst of all, producers fear that audiences (and press) unfamiliar with a foreign title, director, or ensemble will stay away. And now another problem looms on the horizon: Culture ministries of foreign governments, which help their American producing partners with funding and planning, face new rounds of budget-tightening.
Happily, some brave producers go undeterred. “Act French,” last season’s program of French productions and readings, brought Ariane Mnouchkine’s emigration epic Le Dernier Caravansérail and introduced us to fresh dramatists like Koffi Kwahulé and Marie Ndiaye. At St. Ann’s Warehouse, Susan Feldman has presented work by (among others) Grzegorz Jarzyna, the visually inventive young Polish director; she’s pursuing his giant site-specific Macbeth for next year, at a roofless warehouse in DUMBO. New York Theatre Workshop is collaborating with Pollesch and Neumann to mount an American version of 24 Hours Are Not a Day, their witty and wild 2002 Volksbühne fantasia about globalization, 9/11, and postmodern identity. And Belgian director Ivo van Hove will return to NYTW this fall to create his version of Moliére’s The Misanthrope.
Some of this past season’s most thrilling foreign stuff got close, but not all the way to New York City. Jed Wheeler brought two ravishing productions by major visual directors to his Peak Performances series at Montclair State University: the Flemish master Jan Fabre’s Je Suis Sang, a dance-theater bacchanal of violence and medieval bodies, and Romeo Castellucci’s stark, painterly spectacle Tragedia Endogonidia (L.09). Both companies plan to return with other projects.
These are just a few of the world voices New York needs to hear more from, but no list is comprehensive. Drama always needs a steady supply of fresh ideas to propel it forward. Doubters need only think of the Moscow Art Theatre’s 1922 tour, which introduced American audiences, artists, and critics to new acting forms. Had this legendary ensemble not visited, would anyone stateside have ever experienced Stanislavsky’s visions in their fullest living dimensions—and assimilated what they saw? Foreign influences have altered the American theater’s DNA at critical junctures. New York should make sure this is one of them.