Recently, I was having a late-night chat with a few friends, and we were discussing the term "experimental." The consensus was that the term simply brings up a series of genre images: actors speaking in chorus, disconnected images, naked people hanging from scaffolding, Richard Foreman, The Wooster Group, multi-media, etc. The term has become, for the most part, divorced from its roots, which is to experiment with the form. It's become a genre term, much like Alternative Music was in the 1990s. Foreman, for example, isn't experimenting, one could argue, but is presenting the sort of theatre that he has established as his style for a very long time.
Theatre has a limited palette of descriptors. Drama, Comedy, Tragedy, Experimental, Absurdist. Noh Theatre. Kabuki. Puppet Theater. One-Act, Two-Act, Three Act, Five-Act. Ten-minute play. Monologue. Musical. Improv. Comedy Sports. When we get creative we take a few terms and shove them together. Dark Comedy. Tragicomedy. Dramedy. Play with Music (as opposed to musical.)
There is Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway or Indie Theatre. There is Chicago's Off-Loop, so-called Regional Theater.
Think, then, of the vast array of descriptors in music. Classical and Neo-Classical. Jazz (Smooth Jazz, Fusion Jazz, Dixieland, Traditional). Rock (Hard Rock, Acid Rock, Heavy Metal, Punk Rock, Grunge). Hip Hop (Grime, Crunk, Hardcore, Trip-Hop, Gangsta Rap), Blues...need I go on? Endless derivations and schools of thought and music, all with their particular audience, all easy to find, all easy to quantify and identify.
Thinking about even the term experimental, we still use that term to describe the aesthetic of the 1960s... the Open Theater and the Living Theater.
As we try to reach out to new audiences or consolidate our relationship with existing audiences... perhaps part of our challenge is to more adequately describe our work. The irony of language is that it creates rather firm limits on our imagination if single words are allowed to describe too many things (that is "good" that is "interesting.") As one of the mediums that embraces word play, we can do far more to create new genres or more accurately explain the many types of theater that are present in today's world.
We can stop describing theater by region or size of house or general outcome (Tragedy shall make you cry, Comedy shall make you laugh), and describe the actual feel. Think about words like Crunk, or Funk, or Smooth Jazz. They are Onomatopoeia. They make us immediately imagine what it is that we are going to hear. What we are about to pay for, perhaps.
Think of Elevator Repair Service. From their website:
"The group's theater pieces are built around a broad range of subject matter and literary forms. They combine elements of slapstick comedy, hi-tech and lo-tech design, both literary and found text, found objects and discarded furniture, and the group's own highly developed style of choreography. "
"Since its first production in 1991, the company has received frequent high praise in the New York, national and international press. New York Magazine has called ERS "the best experimental theater group in town," while New York Newsday has called the group's work "wacko enough to be truly inspired." Reviewing its 1996 piece, "Shut Up I Tell You" ArtForum noted that "in an admittedly spotty theatrical season E.R.S. . . . stands out not only for its humor and intelligence, but also for its defiant theatricality . . . one of the most intriguing theatrical events I've experienced in some time." The Village Voice says of "Total Fictional Lie," "The work, here, has integrity, intelligence, and precision as well as imaginative skill; and its actors have talent for days." And The New York Times praises TFL for its "fresh and surprising perspective."
That's a very long description, unspecific, and hardly fitting a company with so unique a voice and perspective.
Here is The Wooster Group from its website:
"For over thirty years, The Wooster Group has cultivated new forms and techniques of theatrical expression reflective of and responsive to our evolving culture, while sustaining a consistent ensemble and maintaining a flexible repertory. Wooster Group theatre pieces are constructed as assemblages of juxtaposed elements: radical staging of both modern and classic texts, found materials, films and videos, dance and movement, multi-track scoring, and an architectonic approach to theatre design.
The Wooster Group has played a pivotal role in bringing technologically sophisticated and evocative uses of sound, film and video into the realm of contemporary theatre, and in the process has influenced a generation of theatre artists nationally and internationally. The Group's work is unique because it attracts not only the theatre-going community but also artists and enthusiasts of many other cultural disciplines, such as dance, painting, music, video & film. "
It would take a bit of an effort to see, quickly, the similarities or differences between ERS and Wooster from these descriptions. These are two of the most distinctive theatre companies in country. How do they describe themselves? "Ensemble-based, multi-media, experimental."
I'd take Crunk any day.
Anyone have a better name for what these two do?
Here's a little brainstorm of in-no-particular order genre names for new plays and genres:
What can I say? I'm no expert. Anyone have some other ideas? Hit me. Anyone recently seen a play that you would called "Vox?" Or "Unison" Theater? or "Pop?"
UPDATE: George Hunka responds to this post here. Or, at least, he appears to. As usual, George and I don't see eye to eye on this subject.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.