Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Off-Off-Broadway and the American Theatre


Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, John Patrick Bray.

    Okay, so in my first blog, I probably sounded really doom-and-gloom. Part of what I wanted to talk about in the first and the second blog was what we can learn from Regional Theatre, and Off-Off-Broadway’s place in American Theatre (and by “American Theatre,” I mean specifically the Theatre of the U.S.).  For me, Off-Off-Broadway IS American theatre.  Now, I’ve been reading a lot about the history of OOB, from Stephen Bottoms’ excellent PLAYING UNDERGROUND, David Crespy’s OFF-OFF BROADWAY EXPLOSION (which focuses primarily on early OOB playwrights), Leslie A. Wade’s SAM SHEPARD AND THE AMERICAN THEATRE,  to essays by Robert Brustein and David Savran.  I have to tell you folks that for many scholars OOB has been more or less written off. Oh, sure there’s THE FEMINIST SPECTATOR AS CRITIC by Jill Dolan, who champions the artists at the WOW CafĂ© during the early 1980’s; and there’s David Savran who has written several excellent pieces on the Wooster Group (I am going to keep saying “excellent;” please don’t imagine me using an “academic” voice – whatever that means! Picture instead that I’m channeling my inner Bill S. Preston, Esquire).  But if you read Robert Brustein’s “More Masterpieces,” or even a footnote in Wade’s book on Sam Shepard, there is the sense that outside of a few key companies, OOB imploded sometime during the early 1970’s and was never heard from again. HUH?!?! What happened? Where has the American theatre scholar turned to for inspiration? Are we in the academy just as much to blame for the canonization of commercial theatre as…well, the commercial theatre?!

    As a scholar, it is my hope to continue reinvestigating OOB, especially as it has come to be, for me, the quintessential American Theatre; and as a playwright, it is my hope to continue working OOB for the exact same reason.  Above all, it is my ambition to continue to merge theory and practice as a kind of living testament to my belief in the power of live, independent performance.    

    Off-Off-Broadway is presently at an incredible moment, in which it has the ability to define itself as a community (through the League of Independent Theatre, IT Awards, United Stages playbills, etc.), but without some of the aesthetic totalizing that we see in the commercial theatre model (which is why I went on my “grr-argh!” rant in blog numero uno).  I think about some of the groups that I’ve been involved with – including (re:)Directions Theatre, The Rising Sun Performance Company, At Hand Theatre, and Rachel Klein Productions – and each one has something completely different to offer to the American theatre. Granted, since I’m a playwright, these companies tend to focus on scripts rather than improvisation, dance, or performance art (outside of Klein, who is also a choreographer and a fine example of an American auteur). That they have in common. They also have me in common, for better or worse.  I’ll take just a moment to describe each of these companies, and leave my grandstanding to an academic journal one day down the line.

    The (re:)Directions Theatre Company’s productions include Marlowe’s Edward II, Bordertown, Figaro/Figaro, and Epicene (forthcoming as part of The Anything But Shakespeare Festival, which I believe to be the brainchild of Tom Berger; I may have that wrong).  This brief list highlights the company’s belief in classics and how the works of yesteryear can speak to the present (and of course I wrote an adaptation for them a couple of years back inspired by It Can’t Happen Here).  They have also been participating in the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, a festival now in its second year, dedicated to promoting social awareness by asking each company to dedicate their production in some way to a larger cause (for example, my production in the festival last year had a guest speaker affiliated with RAINN; we also donated part of our proceeds to RAINN). This year, they’re producing my play Liner Notes  - there’s a plug for ya!   

    Speaking of social awareness, the At Hand Theatre Company has a “green” agenda.  Their production of my play Trickster at the Gate (directed by Dan Horrigan) relied on two dancers to represent a storm; props were mimed; and programs were available as a PDF online.  The result was incredibly strong, winning excellent reviews from The Huffington Post and Stage and Cinema. Their focus is entirely on new works, seeking (I believe) to encounter as many emerging/established playwrights as feasible, in the hopes of attracting diverse audiences, and without causing harm to the environment.  That’s one helluva mission statement!  Meanwhile, the work they produce does not follow one aesthetic; that is, despite their green agenda, they are not producing theatre in/as an empty space. Rather, they are able to produce diverse material while following their environmentally sound mission statement.  Somehow, the theatre gods smile on them, as the At Hand has been successful at creating “great reckonings in little rooms” (to borrow the title of Bert States’ book).

    The Rising Sun Performance Company stresses ensemble above individual members, so each produced piece is carefully considered in terms of how it meets the core company’s needs. Whether an original work such as DeCADEnce, their “Aspire to Inspire” series, or productions such as William Kern’s Hellcab, the RSPC seeks to produce work that truly serves the needs of the group, while maintaining a completely non-equity agenda. Akia, a woman of many hats, is at the helm of this group, and her ability to multi-task is astonishing.  The Rising Sun was my introduction to the world of OOB; if you haven’t seen one of their productions or festive cabarets, then now is the time to change that. That little empty space inside you, the one that makes you toss and turn at night and question why your life is lacking some kind of meaning, will be filled.

    Rachel Klein of Rachel Klein Productions is one of the most unique auteurs the OOB stage has to offer. A critic once compared her work to Tim Burton’s.  I completely understand the parallel:  when you watch a piece directed by Klein, you recognize her aesthetic. Each one of her works is, in some ways, haunted by her other works. This is true of Tim Burton, Guy Maddin, and Robert Wilson as well; each is an aesthete. There is absolutely no mistaking their work for anyone else’s, which is what makes their work so special, and in many ways, so hypnotic.  With Klein, though her focus is on a world of the macabre (achieved with music, movement, lighting, and above all, costumes and make-up), she has the ability to match her artistic nuances with each piece she directs, so that it does not obscure the meaning of the playwright’s work.  Speaking from experience, with Klein there is the spirit of director-writer collaboration in which each brings their unique vision to the table, and the marriage of the two is incredibly fruitful.

    There are a number of other companies that I could go on and on about whose work I have some familiarity with: The Vampire Cowboys, whose Beginner’s Guide to Deicide brought a post-modern blend of stage combat, puppetry, stage combat, media, stage combat, and inspired musical numbers (and did I mention stage combat?!); The Rabbit Hole Ensemble, a Brooklyn-based company which has produced a number of re-imaginings of classics, including Neal Bell’s Shadow of Himself (based on the oldest extant written work  – Gilgamesh), and a post-9/11/ post-Katrina  Candide; there really are too many companies to list here! 

    What I am suggesting, with these first two blogs, is that Off-Off-Broadway *is* American Theatre: a mix of singular people escaping totalizing definitions outside of the basics of location and theatre size, who still have the ability to work within the structure of a community.  As we continue to build our community through the IT, United Stages, the League of Independent Theatre, etc., it is my hope that we keep these differences, and resist the temptation to move towards a commercial aesthetic.  My wife told me of a museum educator who said to her that America is not a melting pot, it’s a salad bowl. We’re all mixed together, but we’re not blending; each distinct flavor contributes to a new whole. If you want to be a radish, be a radish!  In the world of OOB, you’ll fit right in. And isn’t that most excellent?



  1. Good post, JPB, and good of you to mention Playing Underground. There are other good books that you didn't mention, but ask any of the old timers, and they'll all tell you that Stephen got it right best; and he's a heck of a nice guy, too. If you wanna go back in time, you should also check out the terrific pic's on Robert Patrick's blog (very google-able).

    While I agree with you that OOB died some time ago, I bet we have different reasons. The one thing we didn't do is bury it like we should have. Maybe a big ole New Orleans-style processional is needed and a glitter-covered coffin. OOB is dead - long live Independent Theater! (And for those who use OOB/Indie Theater, cut it out - I'm lookin' at you Mr. Denton.)

    OOB died because it's in relation to one spot - Broadway. OOB used to mean the 4 main theaters (Cino, Judson, LaMama, Genesis) and the others surrounding it downtown. Then 99-seat theaters began to multiply. They grew uptown, too, and in midtown, brooklyn, queens, etc. So, what were we gonna do, start Off-Off-Off Broadway? That's silly. The branding got all askew until the indie film and indie music scenes dictated an Indie Theater.

    Indie Theater can be one big umbrella that includes OOB, uptown and up uptown, the borough scenes, performance art, site-specific work, even work in other cities. It is not in relation to any center of theater or gravitational pull - it stands on its own, wherever it stands. But it will take continued, diligent branding. This blog and the fine folks who run it are doing a good job of it, and I hope that you will join in with your future blog posts. Support your local Independent Theater in word and in deed.

  2. Thank you so much for your response! I will be sure to check out Robert Patrick's blog. You bring up a really good point about branding and the indie theatre; I really appreciate your feedback.

    Thanks again!

  3. Thanks for posting such a great blog!
    (And thanks for the shout out!)