A theatergoer who plays his cards right these days can have some groovy experiences with actors. Warm, tender hugs and kisses. Orgies, with multi-sexed dionysiac hands feeling hungrily on all parts of the body. Passionate kisses. For sublimated typed there are dancing, gifts of flowers, verses or sweet nothings whispered in the ear - even intellectual conversation. And for those whose interests run to the exotic, there is - rather was for three heady (or should we say footsy) evenings - toe sucking.
All the way from the depths of the East side to Broadway, actors, apparently on the rebound from years of alienation on cold Brechtian and absurdist stages, are loving it up with audiences in a perfect frenzy of involvement. Some of the milder forms may be experienced in "Hair", in which hippie-actors bestow posies and kind words on members of the audience, and in "Tom Paine", in which it is supposedly possible to make intellectual chit-chat with actors on-stage during intermission. But one must move downtown for robust physical contact. For warmth and tenderness there is "The Concept", Daytop Village's production at the Sheridan Square Playhouse, and for dancing, orgies and whispered secrets, there is "Dionysus in 69" the Performance Group's work in a converted garage at 33 Wooster Street. The toe sucking was an episode in Megan Terry's "Changes" presented by the La Mama Troupe earlier this year and directed by Tom O'Horgan, who has scored three hits this season - "Hair", "Tom Paine," and "Futz."
These intimacies are not being bandied about casually. They represent an intensive drive on the part of advanced theater experimenters to inject new blood into the theater. The ideal theater of these experimenters would be ancient ritual drama in which the whole tribe participates, ending the separation between actors and audiences. Looking toward this ultimate goal, they are trying to bring the audiences into as close contact with actors as possible. In their new theater the well structures play, presented by actors carefully trained in diction and deportment, gives way to loosely structures scripts, enacted by vigorous young performers who are more concerned with physical agility and self-expression than traditional acting techniques. Words, although they may be numerous, are not in themselves interesting or moving. The words are like cues that set off stage activity, and the actors, unpolished and often unpretty, are stimulated to bring up basic responses to a variety of basic stimulations. This is essentially visceral, grunt-and-groan theater. The goal is to reach out to the audience with fresh effects - new staging, offbeat subject matter, improvisation, and an acting style that may be best called Action Acting (like Action painting, in which the activity of the artist in the act of getting the paint on canvas is the moment of truth). The idea is to create a new experience in both actors and audience.
However, novel effects, by definition, quickly wear out and constant escalation is needed to create surprise. New taboos must constantly be broken. Nudity, still handled with some inhibition, must inevitably get bolder, today's near copulation is likely to give way, in the not-too-distant future, to the real thing, fulfilling a prediction Kenneth Tynan made about two years ago. After the actor-to-actor copulation, will it be actor-to-audience? In "Dionysus in 69" members of the audience are pulled on stage for an esoteric group grope, presumably intended to create a state of sympathetic excitation that would, under perfect conditions, move everyone to rush on stage and join the orgy, much as earlier in the play the audience came on stage and joined the rock dancing, initiated by Dionysus. After that much involvement, surely the next step must be programmed rape of the audience by the actors - or perhaps vice versa.
Of course, sexual relationships are not the only kind possible between actors-and-actors and actors-and-audiences. Violence is also interesting. British director Peter Brook had the maniacs rush threateningly toward the audience at the end of "Marat-Sade". But that was tow years ago and the audience remained safe behind the invisible audience/actor barrier. In New Orleans last winter at a production of Ionesco's "Victims of Duty" performers forced bread down the throats of various members of the audience. And a year ago at the International Theater Conference in New York, Polish drama theoretician Jan Kott observed that because of all the shocks that are being given by the real world these days, there is a need for real shock in the theater. "We get that from sex and violence," he said. "It is possible to show love making on the stage today, but, " he added with a tinge of regret, "it is still impossible to murder." But of course, that was last year.
The present movement has actually been several years in the making. The Living Theater was moving in the new direction in the early 60's when its directors, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, were studying the Total Theater theories of Antonin Artaud. Under the Becks, the company had developed an intensely personal style and was thrusting toward audience involvement. In their production of Jack Gelber's "The Connection" actors harangued members of the audience in the lobby during intermission, and in Gelber's "The Apple", Beck auctioned off a spontaneously created action painting during each performance. With the Living Theater's production of Kenneth Brown's anti-authoritarian drama, "The Brig," real life erupted onto the stage when the cast gave a performance in a theater besieged by Internal Revenue Service officers who had come about a little matter of unpaid taxes. The audience got involved by clambering over rooftops to get into the padlocked theater.
Shortly afterwards the Becks took their theater to Europe, where for the last four years they have enriched a style of acting and staging that is deeply related to their passionate belief in the need for radical social change (They are Gandhi-ish anarchists). Their influence on all experimenters is enormous and is likely to become even more important when they return to the United States for a tour this fall.
When the Living Theater left for Europe four years ago, the Off-Off-Broadway movement was just developing a full head of steam and the young inheritors of the post-Albee theater, mainly under the influences of Albee, Beckett and Ionesco, were writing highly concentrated skits that were like bleak, inconclusive screams of pain. The lone actor, or small number of actors on the bare stage delivered ambiguous, often hysterical lines and left - leaving the audience cold and numb with shock and an intensified sense of loneliness.
An early sign of a development in an entirely new direction was the remarkable and uncompromising work of Joseph Dunn at the Bleeker Street Workshop in 1965. Somewhat ahead of his time, Dunn, influenced by Artaud, produced works by Ferlinghetti and Arrabal in a frightening and compelling environment designed in a loft. Members of the audience were ushered in, grimly, one by one, and exposed to nearly two hours of intellectual and sensory pain in what appeared to be a blasted-out world populated by tormented beings. It was difficult to walk out, even if one were being reduced to an emotional pulp, because one would inevitably walk into actors - sometimes on motorcycles. They were all over the place.
At this period, Joseph Chaikin, who had worked for many years with the Living Theater, was deep in experimentations with his newly-formed Open Theater. His idea was to develop new acting techniques that would break through what he felt were the limitations of the Stanislavsky-based Method. Also at the same period, Tom O'Horgan was busy creating a company out of actors who had performed the works of young and still unknown writers at La Mama and other Off-Off-Broadway spots. And Richard Schechner, editor of the Drama Review, which at that time was attached to Tulane University in New Orleans, suddenly became extremely interested in Happenings. Happenings, a development out of action painting, had just gone past their first surge and lost their sense of urgency when Schechner, liking their freedom and spontaneity, claimed them for the theater.
Chaikin, O'Horgan and Schechner were later to be exposed to the work of Jerzy Grotowski, director of the Polish Laboratory Theater, an experimental group that performs only from time to time for small audiences in Poland. Grotowski believes the future of the theater depends upon close contact between actor and audience and he has many elaborate theories about how actors should work to produce theatrical magic. Schechner's current production of "Dionysus in 69," a contemporary take-off on Eurinides's "The Bacchae," follows the Grotowski idea that the classics should be freely appropriated by modern actors and directors for their own uses. The strange acting techniques in "Dionysus" also follow Grotowski's idea that the actor should shift between his real self and his role and that he should change roles and styles rapidly during the performance. However, it is inevitable that the intense, highly-disciplined Grotowski theater of ultimate confrontation should undergo dilution in the hands of a group of American kids whose basic philosophic stance is the holiness of Do Your Own Thing.
A final important factor in bringing about the current theater scene is the socio/political development of the past couple of years. With the hippies holding love-ins and political activists holding bash-ins with the police in such Total Environments as Whitehall St., Grand Central Station, Washington Square Park, the Columbia campus and the Pentagon, and experiencing the exhilarating sense of communal acting-out and dramatic confrontation on a basic brute level, there was drama everywhere except in the theater. It was clearly time for a change. Alienation and its alter ego, Pop, may be seeing their last days this season.
The commercial theater got its first whiff of the New Thing with "America Hurrah" and "Viet Rock," which had both come out of the Open Theater. At the Open Theater workshop, playwrights create their work along with actors and directors from the start. As is natural, body movement and staging become more important than words. Although "America Hurrah" has been hailed as an important piece of social satire, it is actually very bland and its success may perhaps be attributed to the fact that it caught a mood of disaffection with the Johnson administration and the whole American scene just emerging in liberal audiences.
The appearance this season of three successful plays directed by Tom O'Horgan brings the new physical theater, with its vigorous ensemble playing and gut-to-gut audience contact, officially into the commercial theater world. "Hair" brings uptown the delights of East Village sweat and grime processed into a romantic Broadway package. It is basically a musical developing out of the tradition of "Oklahoma!" and "South Pacific," with St. Mark's Place replacing Bali Ha'i as the idyllic spot far from the daily bustle that the tired businessman can dream about. Audience-actor contact in "Hair" is geared to delight middle-aged couples who don't have a hippie of their own at home. Who wouldn't want to take a flower from a love-child? But it's only when they freak out on your living room floor that you get really involved.
As for Tom O'Horgan's staging of "Tom Paine," there is a mistake in the manner of involving the audience. The cast has been having a wild time, exhibiting La Mama-style physical exuberance, singing, playing instruments, undressing, rocking and rolling in a boat, drinking gin and, in general, whooping it up with one another. One would think they might invite the audience to step up and join them. Instead, at intermission, the actors suddenly plunk down at the edge of the stage and confront an audience which has remained decorously quiet and seated throughout the orgy, and they ask the viewers for some thoughts about Tom Paine. To be sure, some basic facts about his life have been shouted from the stage during the uproar. But why should the audience be required to put these into an intellectual structure? In fact, they generally decline the opportunity.
With "Futz" director O'Horgan puts the audience back into its traditional passive role, but the cast is evidently unable to do without some togetherness. They sneak up on you in the dark theater and just sit in the aisles making an unearthly humming. You could probably grab one of them if you tried, but i wouldn't recommend it. They're very acrobatic and strong.
"The Concept", staged by Lawrence Sacharow, may set up some painful some painful conflicts in the sensitive theatergoer. The "actors" are young men and women who have undergone group therapy for drug addiction at Daytop Village, and they enact a typical emotional progression from rage and despair to self-acceptance and openness to love. As they move offstage and into the aisles at the end, they open their arms and ask hungrily of individual members of the audience, "Will you love me?" The chosen one is obliged to rise and proffer a prolonged fervent, if platonic, embrace. Afterwards many members of the audience freely approach actors with hugs and kisses. It all seems very spontaneous and moving until you start thinking all this emotionalism erupts like Old Faithful every night the show is on and it's been going for a couple of months now.
The matter of programed spontaneity also creates something
of a credibility gap in "Dionysus in 69." In this play, as in the
O'Horgan plays, the actors have rehearsed for many months and their highly
polished crudity belies the concept of immediacy that is an important part
of the philosophy of this theater. Director Schechner has pointed
out that primitive ritual is performed over and over, yet the participants
presumably remain totally turned on to the deep meanings of their actions,
and he has suggested that the same might be true for performers in a play.
However, this gives theater people the burden of shaping productions that
reveal the deepest psychic currents of our complex and volatile society.
This seems a rather large order for young people who, although thoroughly
dedicated, lack deeply-rooted philosophical concepts. . It
is precisely this lack that makes the writing of full-bodied relevant plays
so difficult, even impossible today. It is possible that gesture
and design based on a makeshift dogma of protest can be compelling enough
to truly involve an audience? Proponents of the New Theater make
an important contribution by showing up the unnecessary limitations and
rigidity if the old theater, but when the gimmicks run out, they may find
that the powerful voice of an authentic playwright is still needed to save
the play. And where will they find one if the new "writers" can only
create sensory awareness exercises with the director and actors?
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