Summer theater enjoys a certain freedom. The Tony awards season is long past, allowing a welcome remove from awards bidding and the politics that come with it. In other words, plays needn’t have a larger objective than to excite audiences. This is also the season of the theater festival. There are lots of them, the farther off Broadway, the better. In June there was ANT Fest at Ars Nova. In July, there’s the undergroundzero Festival; NYMF (dedicated specifically to musicals); and East to Edinburgh. August will bring the NYC Fringe, the largest festival of its kind in North America. All of these festivals celebrate art that is bold and risk-taking. Yet all seem to have a strange relationship with the word “experimental”, that oft-used, amorphous term that means anything from boundary-pushing to esoteric. Why are some artists, arts companies, and arts festivals reluctant to call themselves “experimental”, even when their work seems to fit the description? It may be that calling yourself “experimental” implies pretentiousness, but, more than that, I think it suggests that a work be known for its otherness. Paul Bargetto, the artistic director of the undergroundzero Festival, who admits to having a mixed relationship with the word, says that the term is used unnecessarily in American theater. In European countries, he says, what we call experimental theater is simply called “theater”. Or “theatre”.
Frequently, when we think of a work as experimental, what comes to mind are the ways in which its form diverges from the norm. Perhaps the show is performed in an unconventional, site-specific location; Or the performance blends multi-media like video or projections alongside the actors. Or the work eliminates the fourth wall between actor and audience, inviting the viewer to participate as a performer. But none of these are new inventions. The Wooster Group has incorporated video projection into its theatrical work for years. And the Living Theatre has embraced audience interaction since its founding in 1947. Are those experimental techniques still experimental?
I have found that “experimental” is as limiting a word as “risk-taking”, another term used frequently in the conversation about theater. Theater critics and bloggers often bemoan the state of American theater for not taking enough risks. If what they mean is that theater should be penetrative, not simply pleasant and entertaining, then I readily agree. Director, actor, and playwright Andre Gregory said this in an article in the Guardian last winter: “Passive theater doesn’t force you or seduce you or charm you into asking questions. [It] tells you what to look at onstage, and when you come out, you say, ‘Gee, that was good!’ or ‘Harry Sterns sang that song well!’ Active theater demands that you ask serious, challenging questions of your own life, the culture, and the society we live in.”
I would call that good, smart theater, which may or may not be “risk-taking”. The two best plays I saw this spring – 4000 Miles and Tribes – were thought-provoking and beautifully written and acted. The term “risk-taking” didn’t come to mind in either show, but I found both works to be transporting and powerful. Tribes, in portraying a deaf man within a hearing family, explores the expansiveness and the limitations of sign language. It was incredibly evocative in a way I had never experienced onstage before. 4000 Miles examined an intergenerational relationship in a way that was poignant without ever once becoming saccharine.
I’ve always admired theater that assumes the audience is smart and perceptive. Ditto for TV shows and films. Maybe that’s the key, whether the show is a large Broadway production, or Tribes at the Barrow Street Theatre, or an undergroundzero show performed in a storefront space in Bushwick. Good theater assumes the viewer will be attentive enough to meet the work halfway, not simply sit back and receive.