Making new work for live performance demands every bit of fiber and muscle, sinew and strength, heart and mind just to make happen. Sometimes as an artist you wish to speak to the now; sometimes you wish to speak with and to the dead; at other times, you wish to interact with history, and at others still, with the vast unknown: future time, and real, nonlinear/noncircular time: time devoid of clocks and watches and markers – what I like to call “fluid time.” Form and content go hand in hand. The container must complement and/or frame the art object. Another way to think of this: the form must seem somehow invisible, as if upon witnessing the object, the viewer need think ”I can’t imagine this piece any other way.”
Often in the world of new writing for the stage, the talk tends to circle around ”formal innovation.” How is the play “different from other plays?” “What is new about it?” Etc. Form for form’s sake, however, does not innovation make. It need go hand in hand with content. Shiny new forms may be just that – attractive vector points on the page of Drama. When form and function are indivisible, then, only then does the work, in its distinctive unity rise.
We can point to artists that have changed and keep changing how we think about theatre and live performance through the ages. In Western Drama alone, names such as Euripides, Shakespeare, Brecht, Lorca, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, Edward Bond, Harold Pinter, Howard Barker, Adrienne Kennedy, Maria Irene Fornes, Richard Foreman, John Jesurun, Bill Viola, Mac Wellman, Koltes, Sondheim, Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp, Sarah Kane, Suzan-Lori Parks, Milcha Sanchez-Scott, Rinde Eckert, Enda Walsh and many, many more. The list is impressive, and wide-ranging. Think about the times when you feel as if you have felt awake in the theatre again – that feeling of wanting to put your hand on something, but not knowing quite how, how to even apprehend its occurrence, only the knowledge that it has occurred.
The first time that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was experienced must have been one of these times. The first time I saw Tim Crouch’s My Arm was definitely one of these times. It’s all about the moment. The moment of contact. It differs for each of us in the field, time and again, and also, depending on where we are in our own artistic journey/path. Consider, in the world of fiction, for example, encountering Virginia Woolf’s writing for the first time, or Jeannette Winterson’s, for that matter, or Colson Whitehead’s or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ or Chris Ware’s (in the world of graphic novels).
The awareness of new-ness is there. Sometimes quite blatantly in the markings on the page, in the manner, in effect, in which the page is marked, and sometimes in ways much more subterranean and apparent over time. Visionary work doesn’t occur in an instant. Sometimes it doesn’t even know it is visionary at all. Sometimes it just is: the expression of a moment, this moment, and the form, with craft and discipline and practice, finds itself at one with the content. Innovation, in other words, is not necessarily found by seeking out what’s new in the toolbox, or even if it is labelled or categorized by someone else as being new. Innovation is part of an artist’s journey – if they are lucky enough to strive for excellence and keep their ear to the ground. Street-wear in one city becomes fashion in another in a year or two’s time, to use one analogy.
The ground upon which you walk in the daily practice of the craft and re-visioning it – chasing the impulses that say “gotta make this now,” as opposed to “the market says I gotta make this” – is a slippery, often precarious and perilous ground of doubt and fear. Envisioning requires something of an imbalance, born out of resistance and challenge. Unlike, say, designing a car – however beautiful – innovation in the arts is not a utilitarian enterprise. The mark of innovation may not announce itself through sure test drive and an immaculate design; the mark may be rough and strange and misshapen at first and only over and through time find its proper alignment, and when it does so, then turn, and find another mark unknown that will pave yet another way. Innovation is not a static thing. And it cannot be quantified. No one can write like Beckett. Look at how many have failed trying to enter and imitate his theatre of beautiful failure and despair. Innovation, if the artist is alert to her/his/trans daily practice and willing to embrace the fumbles and stumbles and going sometimes wide or near the mark, yields. Think, for example, of when Caryl Churchill moved into writing for and exploring dance-theatre, and how as a result something as rare and unexpected and truly art-changing occurred such as The Skriker. Consider Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life – a play unlike any other that still, today, challenges and defies everything we think about when we think about new writing in English, at least.
How, then, to chart innovation and moreover, to support it? I don’t think there are any quantifiable graphs that can be made. How can there be if one is defying, with the art and its process, what is quantifiable to begin with? But I do think that time and space for dreaming and re-visioning are crucial. “Just give the money to the artists,” John Jesurun says, “and they will know what to do.” In effect, the job in the theatre industry, I think, on the administrative end, is to ask the artists what they need, and not to design a program geared toward innovation, because, unlike cars, to use that analogy again, art isn’t a numbers job. It’s soul work. It’s culture work, and it takes a whole lotta faith and big leaps just to make it happen at all, let alone grant it the space to happen.
Now, here’s the thing, and it is the tricky thing about theatre: it is a collaborative medium. So, unlike, say, hiding away writing the novel or the poem, it demands the testing of ideas and forms and signs in space in time. Here’s a little story: For the last several years now I have been looking for ways to experiment with dance theatre in my playwriting. But there are no viable funding opportunities out there that I can see anyway for an individual playwright who is unaffiliated with an existing performance ensemble to walk into a theatre and say “Hello. Can you give me a few weeks or even one day a week for a few months to play with movement and text and maybe even with different choreographers and actors to see what happens?” And there – unless we ask a funding body to create it – a sustainable program – sustainable for the artist fiscally as well as in regards to process – at a resident theatre, alternative or otherwise – on the books anyway to support an open-ended, none-product-driven endeavor, but one that only may yield artistic “dividends” in years’ time.
You see, an artist’s path is a path. It is not a series of results, and innovation, therefore, is not apparent. It’s trial and error and sometimes a whole lotta both before the lightning strikes, that is, if the pursuit and/or the stay on the path is constant. It’s much easier to give up and/or stay in the known groove than to venture outside into the wilderness of the field – and here I mean the field of art itself – intangible and metaphorical – and knock about and bloody well hope something will, with will and determination and skill and craft and talent, hold water. And even then, nobody may see it. You see, that is the other thing about innovation: sometimes you don’t see it right away. Sometimes it sneaks up on you. Sometimes it takes several viewings – in fact, I would argue that it does take several viewings – and listenings and soundings – to be witness-ed/seen/felt.
So, in this journey focused on artistic innovation, in this virtual salon attached to a conference: how do we begin to really query the field as a whole? Without focusing on, say, text-message and Twitter plays (although they’re cool and all that) as a way to talk about innovation? I ask you over these next few weeks leading up to our physical and virtual convening in Dallas at the TCG Conference and hopefully beyond, because we all know that the work, the true work of query, goes beyond one directed and actionable encounter, to ask yourselves how a path is made? How is a path nurtured and fostered and listened to?
What do artists want and need? And how are those wants and needs sometimes not compatible with a pre-determined funding cycle or applicable directly to an existing grant structure or production structure. Sometimes tech needs to happen for more than a few days for a new play. Sometimes an opening needs to be postponed and more rehearsals need to happen. Sometimes the draft of a play at previews is just that, and even after, after a play is closed. But the score – the ever evolving, human score, for which there is no number - is right before us, and it may need a little space for dreaming, and wrestling through the passages in the heart and mind – known and unknown – that make this odd, strange, ephemeral thing called art happen.
Caridad Svich received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre, a 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award for GUAPA, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the Isabel Allende novel. She has edited several books on theatre including Out of Silence (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press) Divine Fire (BackStage Books), Out of the Fringe (TCG), and Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes (Smith & Kraus). caridadsvich.com