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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.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


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:

Non Cents
Qui Nguyen

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.


Zack said...

Well, for one thing I don't think they've been a "group" for about 10 years . . . more like the Wooster Trio.

I think multimedia/deconstructionist performance might come close to describing them.

There is also docudrama or what the the British like to call Verbatim Theatre to add to your genre titles.

It's a really good question you raise.

Jay Leibowitz said...

The musical sub-genres you listed (no doubt gleaned from a drop-down in iTunes)were not created by the artists, were they? NO! At least not originally. Perhaps now, with the MySpace Web 2.0 debacle we call culture, the independent musician needs to label his music in order to create an account (progressive blues rock is me ... nonsense). What I'm getting at is that the subgenres are born not of the artist but of the suit in marketing. For record stores and online stores. Niches to make the CONSUMER feel as if s/he has successfully contributed to the definition of self through the purchase of said record. I put it to you - is this what you want to do as a theatre artist? Niche yourself? Your goal is to fill seats? I offer no solution.

Freeman said...

Fair question, Jay. I would say that it is my particular interest to 1) fill seats 2) connect more adequately with audiences and 3) bring theater up to speed with the times. There isn't a Marketing Guru to market and brand and re-position theatre to the community.

The idea of Niche has positives and negatives. Certainly, many musicians get frustrated when they treat to break out from whatever their market niche is, and their audiences occasionally suffer. (If Jay-Z put out an album of his Classical Compositions, for example.)

Then again, the idea of mass appeal is outdated and for theater, rather deadly. Maybe a playwright can write in many genres. More than anything, it seems that how our work is describes can generously be called "accurate." I might also call it "audience repellant."

If we want to bring theatre to audiences that are used to having niches, specialties, and subgenres... who does it serve to say "this is a drama in two-acts?" Or "This satire of x y z challenges convention with its use of multi-media technology and music by Phillip Glass?"

What would it be (and this is more of a question) if our future audience members, describing their favorite plays could say "I'm into hackjob, vox, pop and Non Cents plays" the way they can now say "I'm into techno, emo and hip hop."

It might be hell. It might be, well, modern.

Philucifer [aka Charlie Willis] said...

People are going to pigeon-hole you, or stick you in a niche, whether you want them to or not. It's a natural response to informational stimuli. It's not like it's going to stop, and by removing yourself from the process because you look down upon it is just putting you into another niche. Isn't it better to either a) control the message, or b) suggest your own alternative?

Personally, I think this idea has merit. It's a way of continuing the creative process. When I first started listening to the music of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, I found their own definition of their music as Blu-Bop (a mixture of Bluegrass and Be-Bop) to be perfect. That's exactly what they were playing in my ear.

But it also continues the conversation, as it gives the audience an option of accepting or rejecting that definition. Either way, it seems enticing to me.

And, personally, I love the genre of Qui Nguyen.

Jamespeak said...

Me, too. When I read the "Qui Nguyen" genre I spit some coffee on the computer screen.

Scott Walters said...

There was an interesting article about a year ago about how modern art educated its audience through the use of the exhibition book that accompanied the exhibition. By providing essays that explained how to look at this new art, it provided people the power to interpret, and thus to enjoy, art that they might otherwise reject. The sort of labels that you are suggesting does the same thing. Philucifer's example of Blea Fleck as Blu-Bob is perfect. What might at first have seemed a mish-mash of styles suddenly comes into focus and allows enjoyment. I think it is time for the theatre to help its audiences get what it is doing. Also, it would force theatre artists to become more conscious about what they are trying to do, which would also be a good thing. Good post, Matt.

Alison Croggon said...

And so theatre turns into a bunch of fragmented communities of taste, none of them interested in the possibility of trying something unexpected?

I agree the vocabulary ought to expand. But inventing more labels seems more like a way of enclosing it.

George Hunka said...

In talking about theatre, I think that vocabulary will expand only in longer-form considerations. We really have to have the respect for our audiences that recognises they're capable of more complex thought on the matter, instead of a market. It's like calling "The Tempest" a "fantasy" and leaving it at that -- of course there are fantastic elements, but keeping consideration of it within that label is a limitation of the play's possibilities.

And sometimes it's just wrong, and an audience may be driven away if they find something in the theatre they weren't expecting from the publicity. Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" was labelled a "comedy" in the first folio. Woe betide those who buy a ticket thinking they're going to see a 17th century "The Odd Couple." And once burned, twice shy.

Freeman said...

Just because something is written in a more elaborate or thorough way, does not make its meaning more complex. Just as genre language can seem too simplistic, "complex" descriptions ("a multicultural dance ensemble, using technological innovation and digital soundscapes to challenge the conventions of ballet") seem flabby.

In essence, I simply hang a flag on this issue to show 1) how far away theatre seems to be from other popular arts in describing itself and 2) suggest a way that we might communicate with a potential audience member.

If someone is a member of "our audience" (whomever that may describe) I don't need to worry about reaching out to them. I need to concern myself with the vast majority of the public that doesn't go to say theatre and honestly doesn't notice we're here.

It's time to think about how to reach people outside this circle.

George Hunka said...

True. But we also have to consider exactly what it is that our theatre is offering. Many people who have stopped attending plays are well aware of what they find there: that's why they've stopped going, and they're smart enough to see through these rebranding efforts. They know what's there, which is why they don't want to go.

This is why I continue to insist that it's not enough to just keep doing what we're doing and find a different name to put on it. Playwrights and theatre artists have to think about exactly what it is on our stages -- why we're there in the first place. Perhaps some of them would be better off and more successful elsewhere -- in film or television, or social work, or politics.

One must have faith of whatever kind in the theatre. I like Howard Barker's, when it comes to questions like marketing and branding: that if we do the kind of theatre that attracts a contemporary audience, we will be doing something that can't be found elsewhere in the culture, the arts, or society, and the audience will find us, to have that hunger for theatre sated.

Freeman said...

George,I think that's where you and I usually part ways on the subject. In the end, I suspect somewhere in the middle is what will work.

I don't personally believe that the theatre that is currently presented is fundamentally inadequate or that the reason that audiences don't attend is because they know what is there and don't respond to it. On the contrary: they simply don't know what there is and they don't prioritize discovering it.

I would contend that if the average "hipster" came to see Elevator Repair Service or the Wooster Group or the Debate Society or trucked out to the Pretentious Festival this summer, they'd find a lot there to enjoy, to get engaged by, to feel excited about.

I'd agree that there is plenty of theatre I feel could turn them off, and that is the only theatre they hear about. Legally Blonde: the Musical isn't exactly about to start making a downtown theater fan of the Gen-X and Gen-Y set. then again, Spring Awakening is a good sign.

There are tons of plays to appeal to all sorts of audience members. There's success and failure all over the place. In music, there's crap and there's brilliance and each finds its audience. So should it be with us.

I think blaming the artists (you just don't write or create what will draw audiences) doesn't do us a service. There's a lot of good work out there. The question is... how can we connect the right audience members with plays they will feel speak to them?

Philucifer [aka Charlie Willis] said...

I've never understood people's ingrained distrust of labels. It seems to me they're only a problem when they're either inaccurate or used dismissively. Aren't labels helpful for quickly finding the things in which we're interested? The fact that Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" is kept in the "fiction" section of the library in no way diminishes the complexity of his work. It simply helps to me to find him by weeding out what I'm not looking for at the moment.

Nor does it keep me from wandering into the non-fiction section to find a biography on the man.

Alison -- I can't say anything for sure, but I'm tempted to say that theatre (here at least) is already made up of fragmented communities of taste. I just don't see how it automatically follows that they're not interested in trying the unexpected, or don't flow between several groups of tase. As I said, I love the "Qui Nguyen" genre (or the Vampire Cowboys genre) -- and I wasn't just trying to be funny. I know what that genre IS from experiencing it. And I would be more than happy to go see other shows in that genre. If I went to see something that labeled itself that, and it really and truly WASN'T that, I'd be disappointed. But that doesn't mean that I couldn't enjoy the unexpected veering away, or even expansion of boundaries of what I believe that genre to be.

And now I'm not sure what I was trying to say in the first place, but I AM pretty sure that it's gotten away from me . . .

George -- I'm going to have to go with Matt on this one. I think there ARE a lot of artists out there putting out crap, but there are also people doing exciting, compelling work. Now -- I will admit that I think there are holes in what's offered that are waiting to be filled. There are audiences not being served. But I think that's always the case, just as it's the case that when an audience isn't being served, there are artists who are particularly suited who take up that gauntlet. But I don't think that throwing out the entire theatre community with the bathwater is fair, or even deserved.

I'm not the audience for "Legally Blonde". I don't even speak that language. But there is an audience for it, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

What I do think is wrong is the number of people who believe that's ALL that theatre is. That there isn't anything deeper, more complex, more meaningful, or more spiritual to be found.

Hell, THAT'S tragedy.

Malachy Walsh said...

This IS a great post. And a great discussion.

It's interesting that George abhors marketing for it's oversimplification of ideas when not all marketing does that.

It seems to come from an oversimplified understanding of what marketing is and can be.