… One has only to read, to look, to listen, to remember.
Inside every good play lives a question. A great play asks big questions that endure through time. We enact plays in order to remember relevant questions; we remember these questions in our bodies and the perceptions take place in real time and space. For example, the issue of hubris
is an issue that humanity is still working on, which is why certain ancient Greek plays feel completely fresh and current. When I reach for a play on the shelf, I know that inside the book is a spore: a sleeping question waiting for my attention. Reading the play, I touch the question with my own sensibilities. I know that it has touched me when the question responds and provokes thought and personal associations—when it haunts me. Presently, everything I experience in daily life is in relation
to it. The question has been unleashed upon my unconscious. In my sleep my dreams are imbued with the question. The disease of the question spreads out: to actors, designers,
technicians and ultimately to the audience. In rehearsal we try to find shapes and forms to contain the living questions, in the present, on the stage. The act of remembering connects us with the past and alters time. We are living conduits of human memory.
The act of memory is a physical act and lies at the heart of the art of the theatre. If the theatre were a verb, it would be ‘to remember’.
During the mid-1980s, the late Polish theatre director and philosopher Jerzy Grotowski accepted a position in the theatre department at the University of California at Irvine. The university agreed to build a studio to his specifications and to bring participants from around the world to work with him on what he called ‘objective drama’. My friend, the actor Wendy Vanden Heuvel, travelled from New York to Irvine to participate in Grotowski’s research and upon her return I asked about her experience. ‘It was very frustrating at first,’ she said. Asked to work intensively from sun-down
, she and participants from Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, South America and the Middle East persevered for many weeks. Wendy’s initial frustration stemmed from her trouble locating a source of energy and physicality to get through the long hours. After extreme physical exhaustion, the other participants would access familiar patterns and codes from their respective indigenous backgrounds. This seemed to give them an endless reservoir of energy as they began to dance and move in ways that were unique to their particular cultures, in ancient modes deeply imbedded in their corporeal memories. But for Wendy, nothing
happened. As an American, she could find no deeply ingrained cultural resources that would help her to get through the endless nights. After a great deal of frustration and fatigue, and much to her relief, at last she touched upon her Jewish
roots and from that source she unearthed familiar codes of sound and movement deeply rooted in the Jewish culture. Her body remembered
Wendy’s story worried me because I am not Jewish. Confronted with the same sleepless nights and physical exhaustion, how would I have moved? What are my codes? What would my body remember? I was also intrigued. What is culture? Where does theatre in the United States come from? Upon whose shoulders are we standing? What informs my artistic sensibilities? What is the role of memory?
I decided to conduct a roots search to find my place in the continuum of the history of the American theatre. I wanted to actively remember the past in order to use it. Whom and what could I channel? I wanted to feel the past and its people in the rehearsal room with me and allow them to influence my choices as a director. I started by attempting to identify dominant influences on my work.
The most immediate influences were easily accessible. During the late 1960s, theatre in the United States under-went an eruption, almost a revolution. I moved to New York City in 1974 and the atmosphere was still vertiginous. This cultural insurrection and its practitioners were a rich source of ideas and passion: the Living Theater, the Open Theater, the Manhattan Theater Project, the Performance Group, the Bread and Puppet
Theater, the dancers at the Judson Church and individuals such as Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman and Meredith Monk. These artists felt almost present in my rehearsals. I was inspired and encouraged by their example and by their methods. They were the shoulders upon which I stood.
But it was the search beyond these immediate influences that became problematic. Much to my surprise and frustration, I discovered a serious blockage of information from earlier years. I could trace influences back to about 1968 and then everything stopped. I had difficulty channelling previous generations in any concrete way. I could not feel them ‘in the room’ with me. I wasn’t using them in my rehearsals. I was not fed by them ideologically, technically, aesthetically or personally in a way that felt substantive or practical.
Certainly I was familiar with the prominent individuals and great companies from the first half of the century. I was aware of the political engagement and aesthetic break-throughs of the Federal Theater Project, the Mercury Theater, the Group Theater, the Civic Theater, the Living Newspaper and individuals such as Eva Le Gallienne, Josh Logan, Hallie Flannagan, Orson Welles, Jose Ferrer, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets and so many others, but why did I have so much trouble accessing their wisdom? Why could I not use and own their manifest political engagement and passionate relationship to social issues that so clearly influenced how they worked and what they accomplished? Other than the stale influence of a watered-down version of the Stanislavsky
system, why could I not feel these people in the room with me? I felt cut off from their passion and commitment. I found it impossible to stand upon their values and ideals. Why could I not stand securely upon their shoulders? What happened?
I quickly ascertained that between the years 1949 and 1952, the theatre community in the United States was struck by a cataclysmic event: the McCarthy era. This political attack forced everyone to radically alter or adjust their lives and values. Some fled the country never to return, some were blacklisted and forced to stop working, and others just changed, recanted, disengaged and shut up. Today we barely remember the McCarthy era and most of us are not aware of the serious consequences of that forgotten catalyst. Through a brutally effective mechanism, artists were directed to disengage from issues facing the real world. Without this social link, many turned inward. What many of us don’t realize is that this insipid political action has completely influenced the way we make work today. Like the consequences of Stalinism, the most effective political manoeuvre is one that is later forgotten. And we have forgotten because the actions of the McCarthy machine succeeded.
Born in 1951, I grew up with the notion that ‘art and politics don’t mix’. Now I had to ask myself, where did that maxim come from? Today we are largely oblivious to the repercussions of those dark years and unaware of the radical changes undergone by the people who were most effected by them. Their passionate commitment to the world around them and the kind of theatre that was born out of that passion is what I wanted to
learn from and use. But we missed out. The manipulations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities generally wiped out lifelines to following generations.
Artists, suddenly absolved from any personal responsibility to the world around them, altered their ways and means. Painters embraced Abstract Expressionism, a movement which glorifies personal expression removed from any outside context and appropriately born directly upon the heels of McCarthyism. Everybody looked inward. Playwrights bore the brunt of the new charge to avoid political engagement. Plays became increasingly about ‘you, me, our apartment and our problems’. The scope kept narrowing.
Fortunately, big-spirited playwrights like Suzan-Lori Parks, Chuck Mee, Anna Deâvere Smith, Emily Mann and Tony Kushner have begun to reverse the trend with plays that do re-engage big social issues. Examples are America Plays, Investigation of a Murder in El Salvador, Fires in the Mirror, Execution of Justice and Angels in America. These plays are renewed attempts to reconnect with social issues. As evidenced by the success of Kushner’s play on Broadway, an appetite abounds for socially relevant work. I would like to suggest that this reconnection with the world is an act of life. Herbert Muschamp, reviewing a book on the Bauhaus in The New York Times, wrote:
… Artists should not distance themselves from their times. They should leap into the fray and see what good they can accomplish there. Instead of keeping a safe distance from
the smelly swamp of worldly values, they should dive right in and stir things up… Modern Apollos want to make it in the marketplace; an artist’s integrity stands to be strengthened, not compromised, by reckoning with the social reality.
At the risk of vast over-generalization, Americans profess a lack of history. We are, as Gore Vidal designates us, the United States of Amnesia. And yet, we share an extraordinary history: rich, complex and productive. In an attempt to reconnect with sources earlier than 1968, I started to examine the genesis of the performing arts in the United States. My directing became an attempt to remember and to reconnect with an artistic heritage. I concentrated on plays by seminal American authors and new works about the history of such ultra-American phenomena as vaudeville, silent-film acting, and marathon dancing. I pursued my ancestors in order to be actively related to them.
… The Historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the
temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.
Memory plays a huge role in the artistic process. Every time you stage a play, you are embodying a memory. Human beings are stimulated to tell stories from the experience of remembering an incident or a person. The act of expressing what is remembered is actually, according to the philosopher Richard Rorty, an act of re-description. In redescribing something, new truths are created. Rorty suggests that there is no objective reality, no Platonic ideal. We create truths by describing, or re-describing, our beliefs and observations. Our task, and the task of every artist and scientist, is to re-describe our inherited assumptions and invented fictions in order to create new paradigms for the future.
… Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind… The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own—unaided by the describing activities of human beings—cannot.
If the McCarthy era dictated that art should have no connection to social and political systems, what remains is narcissism; the cult of the individual, the arrogant culture of the self.
What is culture? I believe that culture is shared experience. And it is constantly shifting. Ideas, in fact, are among the most contagious aspects of human culture. Imagine a huge field on a cold winter night. Scattered around the field are blazing fires, each with a group of people huddled close to stay warm. The fires represent shared experience, or the culture, of each group gathered around each fire. Imagine that someone stands up and walks across the cold, dark, windy field towards a different group gathered around another fire. This act of strength represents cultural exchange. And this is how ideas scatter.
In our culture, which is rapidly spreading around the world, collective action is suspect. We have been discouraged to think that innovation can be a collaborative act. There has to be a star. Group effort is a sign of weakness. We revere the cowboy riding out alone across the prairie. We are brought up to make money and spend it on our-selves. People are considered successful if they get rich and appear on television. Commercial success is applauded.
I want something else. I looked for a connection to an earlier American culture in order to find an alternate route into the future.
The McCarthy era was not the genesis of American paranoia. The theatre in the United States was not born a commercial entity although it became, to a large extent, dependent upon its mercantile viability. Choices were made and adjustments followed. To remember the people and the events and to re-describe them is to use them, to climb up on their shoulders and shout out loud.
Our cultural inclinations were forged by historical, social and political events and by people who had the courage to stand up and make their way across the cold field, to make choices: Rosa Parks, who wouldn’t sit at the back of the bus, the factory workers who went on strike, Lillian Hellman, Martin Luther King, artists and scientists who broke classical rules. Our culture is contrived from social interactions and by the adjustments we make to change. When translated into different contexts, they have a chameleon capacity to change meaning—sometimes only slightly, sometimes radically.
The genesis of theatre in the United States makes a fascinating story. In order to sketch the landscape of our contemporary theatre scene, I will attempt to ‘re-describe’ the history of performing arts in the United States. I will outline some events and jump from era to era to show that the shoulders upon which we stand are complex and diverse, driven by contradictory impulses and complicated agendas.
I decided to start from the very beginning. Chaos theory suggests that all phenomena are complexly connected and intertwined. A butterfly bats its wings in Honolulu and eventually engenders a typhoon in Japan. I wondered if I could locate the Big Bang in the theatre in the United States, for then I might be able to follow the repercussions and see if our experience today is the result of the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings several hundred years ago. I wanted to see if the macrocosm contained the microcosm of the start.
The first play ever produced in the colonies was Ye Bare and Ye Cubb
. It was performed in Fowkes’
Tavern, a pub on the eastern shore of Virginia in 1665. After the initial performance, someone accused the play of blasphemy. The case was taken to court but the judge complained that he couldn’t pass judgement on a play he hadn’t seen. Therefore, the second performance of Ye Bare and Ye Cubb
was performed in court! Afterwards, the judge ruled that the play was not blasphemous on the grounds that it was entertaining
Is this event in 1665 a microcosm of the macrocosm of what the American theatre became? Is entertainment the bedrock of American theatre and the basis upon which all judgement of theatre originates? If the European humanist tradition perceives art as reflection, do we know it mainly as diversion?
The hard-working/hard-playing men who carved out the frontier craved live entertainment, the sleazier the better. Yet a puritanical ambivalence prevailed by marked resistance to theatrical presentations. Plays were denounced as snares of the devil by anti-theatre literature with titles like ‘The Theater, the High Road to Hell’. The pioneers of the American theatre had to carve their stage out of a wilderness of bigotry and prejudice.
Another notable aspect of the growth of American theatre is the tremendous difficulty of its genesis. Population was sparse and it was extremely difficult to get from one place to another. The rigours of daily living in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are almost beyond our twenty-first-century comprehension.
Until 1775, Virginia and Maryland were the only two colonies which did not have anti-theatre laws at one time or another. Theatre’s progress was
impeded not only by moral prejudice, but by a rigid belief among the middle classes that stage productions were frivolous and wasteful of precious time. Even music confronted fervent religious resistance. In 1778, with the Colonial forces fighting for life and liberty, the Federal Congress adopted a law prohibiting theatre in any form.
Despite this resistance, a tremendous diversity of entertainment appeared in pre-Civil War America. The variety of ethnicities settling the colonies accounts for the heterogeneity: wagon shows, magic-lantern presentations, panoramas, circuses, minstrel shows, show boats or ‘floating theatres’, wild-west shows, melodramas, and travelling Shakespeare companies. Following the Civil War, literally hundreds of companies toured Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
A minstrel show was the first theatrical production exported from the United States. White men in blackface sang and danced parodies of slave plantation entertainment to the great amusement of the European theatre-goers. Vaudeville—the word stems from the French voix de ville, voice of the cities—managed to incorporate sketches from the diverse urban immigrant groups under a single roof. For the first time people from different ethnic neighbourhoods came together who, under other circumstances, couldn’t understand one another’s languages and customs. Vaudeville was a loud and lively environment where cultures got to know one another through entertaining sketches and dramas. This highl...