What is it that you think you’re doing when you do theatre?

It was after the era of Mabou Mines, the epic theatre of Peter Brook, the strikingly visual, sometimes inscrutable, operatic pageants of Philip Glass and John Cage and Meredith Monk. It was after and still during Laurie Anderson and the Talking Heads.

At some point there, I stopped calling myself an actor and started referring to myself as a theatre artist. This was more than a vanity entitlement. In fact, I was at first deeply embarrassed to be claiming artistry while still very much in the klutzy middle of a long experiential learning curve. But, in fact the increasingly-common use of “Theatre Artist” represented a rhetorical turn in the culture just as it reflected my growing understanding of the aesthetic, moral and social dimensions of theatre, and an awareness of the deeply collaborative nature of the form. The people with whom I studied and with whom I collaborated– like, Joanie Evans, Fay Simpson, Polina Klimoviskaya and Wendy Woodson–were doing very interesting- even breathtaking- exploratory stuff that incorporated text, movement, voice, imagery and dance. They asked questions constantly (of themselves and of each other); they made physical, vocal or other kinds of “offers” –bringing their own fresh ideas to the studio floor constantly and showing it to each other, or proposing scores to be attempted together. They built performance from the ground up, in the studio, together. Perfecting the size, volume, angle and intensity of a single gesture in relation to its context might consume days.

The process, which could take months or years, was expressed structurally through the product, if ever a product was the outcome. Sometimes, the process was felt to be sufficiently rich unto itself that no audience was required for the experiment to have been worthwhile. Embodiment and kinesthesia and resistance were terms that we used without any proper sense of shame. It was a heady time of self-empowerment for actors, who under this conceptualization of theatre were no longer auditioners and wanna-be props in someone else’s vision, but makers.   We were creating solo and ensemble performances. Sound, set, costume and lighting designers often collaborated as artists having an equal expressive role in the development of what we called not a script, but a piece.  In fact, the language of traditional theatre with which I had grown up, along with the hierarchical methods of production, were changing to reflect the values and critical questions that had emerged in the wake of modernism. We weren’t putting on a play; we were making work… or, to use conceptual terminology that came out of European grassroots theatre and later became commonplace, we were devising work.

That work was rarely meant for the elevated proscenium stage; it more often occurred in black boxes and dance spaces and in locations we thought of as “sites”— which meant that we didn’t perform in front of painted flats or other “backdrops,” on a platform with a rapt audience sitting politely, gazing straight ahead and up at us with the admiration and awe associated with an ecclesiastical setting, but instead in found or built environments.

The environments were felt to be textual themselves, and to embody meaning. I recall a performance I participated in with the Mudmen that involved “mudding up” our entire bodies, covering up the rest with the armor of discarded and repurposed office supplies, donning huge masks made of papier mache and leaves, carrying briefcases and parading with glee through Manhattan, including through Grand Central and on subway trains, all to audience delight (in Midtown, people who were on their way to work with their own briefcases sometimes joined our procession). I also clearly remember a performance of Love’s Labours Lost in a housing project in Hell’s Kitchen that made use of the eerie central courts: during the performance a pick up game competed for the same space. As the Princess of France, I interrupted one monologue by bending to scoop up an errant basketball that rolled into my shins, dribbling it a couple of times and passing it back to the teenagers. The audience of 30 or so, most of whom spoke no English, wildly applauded the disconnect and continued to watch both the game and the show. A piece was held in a place to draw attention to that place. At a time when something needed to be made visible in a community. For example: in response to the AIDS crisis; as an answer to bullying; as a way to bring to light family dysfunctions and class differences and racism.

And so, along with our commitments, our words and our methods, our relationship to our audiences changed. We wanted them to be aware that we were performing—to notice that they were being entertained, and not to get sucked into entertainment without critical and contextual thinking. We wanted to include them, to make them more explicitly a part of the performance, to have them see one another across the room, to place them above us or even onstage with us. As actors became artists, audiences became participants, and artists became practitioners. Practitioners were interventionist; they were political, and they needed to understand and be able to articulate what they were doing, and with whom, for whom and to what ends.

Did we never produce Henry V? Yes, we did, and we cast it to draw attention to performances of masculinity, for example: women in all the male roles, nothing else changed. Did we never make comedy? All the time. Was the work dark, navel-gazing, self-important? Only the bad work. The good was really good, and it was rich, textured, relevant, memorable and it made you want to– no, have to– see it.

One thought on “What is it that you think you’re doing when you do theatre?

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