Blesok no. 23, October-November, 2001
Postmodern Theater: A Manifestation of Chaos Theory?
Starting around the mid-end sixties, the world of theater witnessed the emergence of a new avantguard theater. At that time, traditional theater (classics and musicals) were produced by theater companies situated near the western part of mid-Manhattan around Broadway while intellectually more demanding new plays or new renditions of classics were given outside of the main theater district, hence the expression Off-Broadway for such modern plays or modern interpretation of classic plays.
Smaller theaters which were not able to comply with the union rules of the Actor's Equity staged their plays outside of the union and production regulated environment, hence their denomination as “Off-Off-Broadway”. Many of them focused on new plays, revivals, classics etc. like the rest of Broadway and OB theater, other OOB theaters started to focus on consciousness itself and were later called “avantguard”, “experimental”, “art performance”, alternative” or “conceptual”.
Such postmodern groups included for instance Mabou Mines, The Performance Group, The Manhattan Project, The Ontological-Histerical Theater, and writer/actor/performer's such as Robert Wilson, Stuart Sherman, Alison Knowles etc. These new avantguard groups showed their plays mostly in areas of Manhattan such as the Lower East Side, Soho, Village and Brooklyn where the counter culture of the sixties flourished well and undisturbed from commercial pressures and the intellectual scrutiny of mainstream theater critics.
The features of these postmodern OOB plays were new and radically different from those shown by traditional B, OB and 'traditional OBB' Theater. They quickly outshined other OOB groups and the term 'OOB' became interchangeable with 'postmodern' for many theater critiques and practitioners. Hence, throughout the remaining part of this article, OOB stands for the postmodern variant of OOB theater.
Grosso modo, modern theater is characterized by a core narrative plot which unfolds in logical, sequential manner like for instance plays by Pinter, Sartre or Albee. The actors take up roles of everyday citizens who tell a story based on life's tragedies and existentialist conflicts and the unfolding tragedy or comedy develops along a linear line starting at a beginning and ending with the last act of the play.
The goal of postmodern theater has been to dissolve existing ways of perceiving the world and one-self. The OOB play is meant to be like an event or process whereby the audience and the players/things/objects/space interact mentally. The focus is consciousness and much less emotional experience, political criticism or simple entertainment. OOB Theater's intention is to de-construct reality, not to interpret it nor to seek 'authentic' contact with the audience as was intended by the Living Theater.
Fragments of a protagonist's mind are for instance elevated to equal levels of reality and given separate roles similarly to a person suffering from personality disorder or a person experiencing states of dissociation or hallucinations or a person lying on a psychoanalyst's coach experiencing how his ID impulses are flushing into his consciousness. Sam Shephard, a playwright who combines pieces of storytelling with postmodern sensibility for instance states (1984):
“The stories my characters tell are stories that are always unfinished, always imagistic – having to do with recalling experiences through a certain kind of vision. They're always fractured and fragmented and broken. I'd love to be able to tell a classic story, but it doesn't seem to be part of my nature”.
Another often used technique to break habitual ways of perceiving and conceptualizing the environment is the deliberate use of multiple media and multiple art forms shown simultaneously during an OOB performance, for instance by Meredith Monk, who is primarily a dancer but also uses art, sculpture and theater as equal component parts of her performance. Another example is the Wooster Group whose plays often consist of mixtures between parallel video films, acting and large scale sculpturing etc.
Postmodern performances change from one performance to the next. There is no intention to repeat a play as consistently and methodologically as was for instance taught by the modern theater schools of Lee Strasberg, Stanislawski or Grotowsky. Each event or performance in OOB Theater is meant to create a new Gestalt made up of the sum total of all 'things' put and moved on stage on one hand and the spectator's mind who selectively tunes into different bits of information as he wishes.
This deconstructivist attack on conventional thinking and perceiving can be a liberating experience as is the case during many performances of Mabou Mines and Robert Forman and it can also offer pleasure especially if the de-coded material is part of a shared history or heritage which both performer and spectator share. Elinor Fuchs (1983) describes such a postmodern theater experience of a play by Daryl Chin titled “Apoplectic Fit” in PAJ 26/2, she writes:
The play proper consists of an interweaving of dozens of scene fragments quoted from or inspired by “classic”American films, interspersed with critical passages.The weaving of fragments never coalesces into an illusionist reality with plot and characters, yet coheres because the texts behind the text are part of our cultural narrative. Chin thrusts texts at his audience, books, articles, films, fiction, criticism… It is the world of textuality rather than a dramatic world that Chin is concerned with in most of his plays.”
OOB Theater does not compromise. There are normally no narrated stories, no psychological characters with readily recognizable personalities, no historical context of the play and no linear chronological unfolding of a story line or if so, then only in fragments.
Hence, it is up to the spectator's mind and needs to make meaning out of the information, impressions, sounds, smells etc. Participation is absolutely necessary.