Innovation and the Voices of Tomorrow

by Saviana Stanescu

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

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(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

As Caridad gracefully asked me to write something about innovation in theatre for the TCG blog, a myriad of ideas started to overlap and fight for supremacy in my brain:

I should write a text called “Challenging Aristotle. Brecht, Artaud, Grotowski, Sarah Kane.” No, “Presentation versus Representation.” No, “®evolution. Slice of Life versus Slice of Imagination”. No, I must address issues of commercialism versus risk-taking thought-provoking narratives in theatre and performance. No, I’d rather tackle the necessity of non-naturalistic plays. No, I absolutely have to write about the need for a political theatre, for plays/performances that dramatize the immediate reality, the current problems of our society. No, I should write about plays by women and some critics’ struggle to understand a “multi-climax” dramatic structure as opposed to the traditional phallic one in which dramatic events build towards one solid climax. No, I could shed some light on balancing hefty dramas and “light” comedies. No, it’s my responsibility as a Romanian-born NYU-trained playwright (dramatic writing and performance studies), who used to work as a theatre critic for a major newspaper back in Bucharest, to write about “innovation in context”, what is considered innovative in continental Europe where a director-driven theatre culture is still prevalent and what is deemed innovative here in the U.S. Wow, that was a mouthful :)

None of the topics above are truly relevant, I totally need to write about multi-ethnic cross-cultural interdisciplinary performance; about the role of theatre in fostering social change. No, it makes more sense to write about theatricality as an intrinsic link to innovation. No, it should be about the influence of TV sit-coms and dramas on theatre, the episodic, cinematographic structure. No, what has to be said is that mid/late-career artists need more support, after a life in theatre they should feel recognized, appreciated, stimulated, they shouldn’t have to agonize on how to pay the bills. No, I must do a rational analysis of the hardships that occur in a state-subsidized theatre system as opposed to the free-market one. No, it’s more interesting to write about the imperative of making profit versus the indulgence of art for art’s sake.

No, I should use this opportunity to talk about my own work, after all my Waxing West won the 2007 Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Full-Length Play”,  Aliens with Extraordinary Skills and my other plays reflecting the immigrant experience explore that unique in-between space of negotiation between the old and the new cultural values. I must write about hyphenated identities and the struggle&hopes hidden behind that little line. No, I just need to address the global illusion of the American Dream and how easy it can turn into a nightmare. No, that’s not the point here, this is a blog on innovation, I must write about poetic non-linear plays, plot-less dramas, in-yer-face theatre, multi-media performance, hybrid performance, interdisciplinary theatre, devised-theatre, docudramas, re-imagining the classics, site-specific experiences, audience-interaction, conceptual performance, dance-theatre, movement-theatre, poor theatre, environmental theatre, immersive theatre, post-dramatic theatre, contemporary performance, etc etc.

And then, as I was grading my Ithaca College Theatre Arts students’ manifestos, presented in our last “Contemporary Developments” class, it dawned on me. I should let them talk. They are the voices of the future, the echo of “tomorrow”. What makes them believe in theatre, what’s innovative for them? The assignment was to write a compelling plea for a form of theatre they believe in and hope to make after graduation in a one-page manifesto. I copy below a few excerpts from their texts. They give us some revelatory insights into the needs and hopes of the next generation of theatre makers. They are the ones carrying the “innovation seeds” in their backpacks.

Lucy Walker: For a Civic Theatre

Here’s my wishlist, for what I hope and know theatre could do and be, which would still let everyone else do what they want to do with theatre.

I wish for:

- a theatre not of believability and naturalism, but of emotional authenticity which understands you don’t need the exact fluffy rug from the exact historical moment to access the exact core of the material (basically everything Grotowski said about getting rid of all the junk hiding the performers)
- a theatre open to all sorts of genres and styles, encompassing total art under the umbrella of theatre, retaining the joy and spark of theatre while losing the creativity-stifling rules of pure art and the fourth wall; who says the living newspaper is done with?
- a theatre valuing humanity over plays, and process over product
- but yet, still a theatre in which art for art’s sake is possible, and it is possible to be overwhelmed by visual, physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual beauty of a piece that just hits you and makes you suddenly understand something you did not before (…)

Kaylyn Syvret:  (…) Where are the new and innovative writers? I have to believe they are out there and are just not being given the chance to showcase their new works to a broader audience. Nowadays, commercial theater, and even sometimes regional theater, is very focused on revivals of old classics. I understand that revivals have their place; they are recognizable, they sell tickets, put butts in seats and keep the finances of the theater world above water. However, as someone who loves theater, I still have to hope that other people, who truly love theater as well, will still come and see a new work simply for the sake of experiencing a new set of ideas, instead of just for the title.

Sam GatesThere is obviously a gap growing and we, as theatre artists should be afraid. I know at first, this sounds pretty silly, but trust me that our art is on track for extinction. Like many other historic inventions throughout the history of mankind, we improve upon our previous achievements. From science to the a-track to basketball, we refine, we adapt, and we perfect an invention. Many people (outside of this class, of course) argue that theatre is one of these old inventions, which we have already improved upon with – the movie. Sure, you could say that theatre will be like books, still in existence and just less popular, but the costs associated with theatre continue and will continue to rise, while books can now be published electronically for free and distributed for a small fee. Same goes for radio and for film – electronic media at our fingertips that theatre is slowly losing the competition to. This is why my charge, my goal for theatre, is to help theatre evolve further into being an art form of integrated multimedia while telling the same complex, stimulating stories. This theatre is not too different from our theatre today – it just needs more integration of technology and greater accessibility. (…)

Sara Stevens: When I think about the theatrical world today, it is difficult not to think about my place within it, and in an ideal world that kind of theatre that I want to create. Right away I come to one definite conclusion, I would like to be a theatre artist in a world that seems to have a place for me. What I mean by that is I get so discouraged sometimes thinking about what my options are in terms of next year and the years to come. I feel extremely unlucky to have fallen in love with new work, work that captures an audience and forces them to think about a social issue, or work that is inspired by Artaud and Brecht, because I seem to get the idea that if I want to create this theatre I will never be able to create rent. Maybe I am wrong, and maybe this manifesto is supposed to be an uplifting piece about how passionate I am about theatre that gets in peoples faces, makes a statement, challenges the art form as we know it, but I can’t write that paper knowing that I will hopefully be getting a weekly 50 dollar stipend to maybe possibly get to observe other people making that kind of theatre. It seems like there are 2,800 applicants at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. for internships, while Broadway houses of plays sit empty and with plays full of dull content, and everyone rushes to get the hot tickets for the next movie musical. I guess in conclusion, I like theatre that is challenging, that does more then entertain (although I certainly think there is a place for that kind of theatre) and my goal for the future is to find some way to not just make theatre that challenges and evokes emotion from its audience, but also pays my bills. Lets call that theatre, “Theatre that challenges and evokes emotion from its audience but also pays the bills.”

Saviana Stanescu ( is a Romanian-born playwright and scholar. Recent productions include: Ants at NJ Rep, Aliens With Extraordinary Skills (Women’s Project, Ego Actus, NYC; B Street Theatre, Sacramento; Know Theatre, Cincinnati, Teatro La Capilla, Mexico City; published by Samuel French), Waxing West (La MaMa Theatre, 2007 NY Innovative Theatre Award), For a Barbarian Woman (Fordham/EST). Her plays have been developed at: NYTW, Lark Play Development Center, EST, NY Stage&Film, Long Wharf, New Group, PS122, HERE, etc. Saviana founded Immigrants Artists and Scholars in New York (IASNY) and curates playgroundezero and New York with an Accent.  Currently she teaches Playwriting & Theatre Studies at Ithaca College.

  • Irina Culic

    I wish for a theatre that presents in sensible, beautiful, empathetic, tensioned, strong, imaginative, and clear ways social problems and conflict-infused issues that are otherwise hard to understand, hard to talk about, hard to see from another one’s point of view, ethnocentric, classist, or simply politically charged. In other words, to spell/ perform out hard things and life-making issues in an intelligent and beautiful way.