This post is less in the angry spirit that you will find in an upcoming screed directed at a certain critic, than a bemused realization of my own tunnel vision when it comes to contemporary audiences, their expectations (and knowledge about the history of Off-off), the problem of marketing, and the place of education therein.
In retrospect – of course! I shouldn’t be surprised at the reactions of certain audience members, even ones I know to be quite well educated about theatre, to the first two plays on the Tetragrammaton bill. Words like ‘weird”, “odd”, “peculiar” and “strange” have popped up more than once. These adjectives are of course appropriate, but I expected them to come chiefly from civilians, people who know very little about the theatre and its history over the last sixty years or so.
There are two levels to this:
La MaMa being an “Experimental Theatre Club”, I opted to do something really unheard of and use my time there to produce some “Experimental Theatre”. The definition of what that may consist of may vary from person to person; to me it means work that is truly challenging either formally or politically or both. I have no end of crowd-pleasing show biz projects waiting on the shelf to be produced, but I chose to honor the opportunity I had to toil in Ellen Stewart’s workshop by doing work inspired by the sort of theatre that had been produced there in its early days.
This isn’t out of the blue, either. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I’ve been producing this kind of work off and on for over twenty years. The vaudeville stuff has gotten better known, but the other work has been rolling on (most recently with my “Nihils” show at Dixon Place just a few weeks ago). This time out, I simply took advantage of my increasing association with old school carnydom by choosing plays with show biz as a theme, perhaps causing people to erroneously assume they would get plays that WERE show business, instead of being ABOUT show business. But I was quite clear in my marketing materials that these were “absurdist plays”, with development pedigrees at various experimental theatres.
Still…the surprise that the work is “peculiar”. If they mean my work is peculiar because it is in fact NOT experimental, then the commentators are on much more solid ground, and this is the main source of my bemusement, because, far from being substantially new or different, I consider the territory I’m staking out to be well trod! And as with vaudeville, my tunnel vision causes me to expect greater familiarity with my obsessions (obscure or otherwise) than the audience possesses.
This is the second level. These plays are actually homages to the experimental plays of the 1950s and 60s…plays I fully expected and expect people who work downtown to be familiar with…and for the most part they clearly aren’t. In reality, my tent show comes by way of the psychedelic, Greenwich Village era of bohemianism, the theatrical equivalent of the blues of Janis Joplin or the underground comix of R. Crumb. (Tetragrammaton, incidentally, was once a nickname for a certain run of LSD).
“Universal Rundle” is a tribute to the Sam Shepard of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Because he is a movie star and a big name and all, I just kind of assumed that large numbers of people would have, like me, voraciously read his amazing wealth of plays…not just the audition monologues from “True West”. It is clearly not the case. And that’s fine, I guess – it’s my own silly obsession. “Universal Rundle” owes its existence especially to Shepard’s play Back Bog Beast Bait (1971), but also The Holy Ghostly (1969), The Unseen Hand (1971), Operation Sidewinder (1971), and really just about all of his work prior to the mid 1970s. The trope of long, indulgent monologues, meant to be blasted like jazz solos…that’s a borrowing from Shepard. It is a conscious artistic choice — not an error or mistake of some sort — to employ them. Rundle also takes inspiration from the works of playwright Jean Genet, with the constant role-playing of characters creating multiple layers of theatre.
There’s other stuff in there (stuff drawn from the folk/ blues and black literature movements) which I’ll talk about in another post, but my point is, there’s nothing new there. It’s been done – and done RIGHT HERE. But no one seems to know it anymore, and there is no counter culture, and people nowadays don’t have the same frame of reference. It’s like going to France and doing a Neanderthal show. You’re in the right theatre; but that audience is long gone.
Similarly, The Strange Case of Grippo the Apeman, as has been pointed out, resembles Waiting for Godot, but really mostly in so much as Bob Laine is wearing a derby. In reality, it was more consciously based on Shepard’s Geography of a Horse Dreamer (1974), and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (1957). (Both of these mostly for the structure and the situation – the voices come from other sources). But of course both Shepard and Pinter owe something to Beckett, who’s the father of the whole movement, hence my quite overt use of the word “absurdist” in talking about this show, which in light of all this strikes me as quite conventional, the more I think about it. Not “peculiar” at all.
It may be that this work is not experimental in ways that happen to be the trend right now, it is outside recognized modes of contemporary experimentalism or investigation. But I would interject that a lot of the techniques I’m exhuming STILL haven’t made it to the commercial stage, probably never will. So I am repeating an experiment, but it is still an experiment. Scientists repeat experiments all the time.
At any rate, we’ve one week left to go in this show. If you’ve not yet seen the Tent Show Tetragrammaton (or even if you have) hopefully some of the remarks here (much of which I meant to make an essay out of prior to opening night) will be of some assistance in appreciating this “weird” damn show. Tickets and info are here.