Innovation is in the doing. Does innovation come tiptoeing into the room, one small step at a time, or charge in full blown from the head of Zeus? Does it hit you in the face or insinuate itself subtly into your psyche? What can legitimately hold title to being innovative? How many times have we seen something new, a gimmick claiming to be innovative, cutting edge, that sinks beneath the surface of its time leaving no marker to inform and guide future generations? Interesting, but innovation must surely be inspired by having something urgent to say, to share, to convey in a way that has not been said before in order to freshly illuminate the information or ideas–the introduction of something new as in Promethean: to be boldly creative, original. Then it must be skillfully executed. If it is not, the experiment will be adjudged a failure, not worthy of notice even if contains some breath of freshness.
Can innovation be forced, learned, or are certain individual artists wired from the start to see things differently? One thing seems certain, innovation arises from dissatisfaction with current practice and involves experimentation to test new ways of communicating. The greatest innovators’ work cannot be replicated although when they were able to articulate the philosophy behind their unique world view, succeeding artists gained courage from their insights and techniques. This mantle of innovator can fall upon the writer as well as designers, directors, and actors. Each can have a role in evolving the way in which we can see our world and portray it on stage. Brecht and Artaud, as we know, left their footprints. Stanislavski and his followers, Boleslavsky, Strasberg, Meisner, Adler, and M. Chekhov, all left guidelines for actors. Then Mary Overlie deconstructed their vocabulary for directors and actors with her Viewpoints and Anne Bogart built upon those ideas. When those philosophies were translated into techniques they became recognized tools for communication and each was capable of helping to develop innovative artists. Many of the innovators were simply trying to find ways to define what they perceived to be true. All have bequeathed to future generations permission to experiment and trust new ways of practice. However, there is a price to be paid IF the young artist does not study and understand what has come before as a foundation and springboard for innovation. It is a costly price to be paid by ignoring or misunderstanding how theatre is created and an audience perceives. Once artists have a command of communicating, they have the skill and freedom to bend the rules to their own uses. Those who have not gone through the fiery process of inculcating craft are handicapped in their desire to innovate. Innovate what? Ignoring or breaking the rules is not in itself innovation.
I recall the great director Garland Wright who could take any play from the canon and stage it with a breathtaking vision. I know of another director whose productions always contain unique, BIG, ideas but who seldom has a success, success defined as an offering that is comprehensive and satisfying in some way to his audiences or theatre cognoscenti. The difference between these two gifted directors was that Garland began with a foundation in traditional theatre technique and practices. He respected the craft and was able to bend it to his specifications. The other director plunked ideas on stage without seeming to connect them to the text or action. The ideas could be brilliant on their own terms but they left the audience puzzled and angry. They only connected in the brilliant recesses of the director’s mind and he did not recognize the audience’s need to understand or at least feel their relevance. Innovation can be puzzling at first blush but at some point must be able to work its way into the psyche of its time and its ideas need to be part of some point of view that comprises a whole. I suspect that upon first meeting most innovative theatre is felt rather than understood. It is left to the scholars and critics to rationalize its importance. Have I just contradicted myself? Perhaps I’m being innovative!
One condition of important innovation is that it has to stick some place where time and examination can properly evaluate it and inspire reproductive artists to use the tools it leaves behind. This favors the playwright unless the other artists can document their explorations.
In my time I’ve seen the emergence of off-Broadway, off off-Broadway, and the regional theatre movement. At their height all have created important theatre milestones (but usually when they are starting out and take large steps because they have nothing to lose). Regional theatre alone remains as a viable place where innovation might emerge while a sizable number of artists are sheltered by academia, a place that seems to suck away their inspiration that once was borne of desperation and anger and replace it with respectable efforts. Regional theatre alone provides an ongoing structure that might shelter innovation. It might.
So what are the poor artists with a unique point of view to do in order to practice their work? Where can they find an outlet, a playground, a sympathetic artistic director? To paraphrase, no person is an island, and behind every great idea is someone who recognized it and supported it. If the director Alan Schneider had not recognized the genius of Samuel Beckett and persevered in presenting his works how long would it have taken for American audiences to see Waiting for Godot? The first audiences for this play fled the theatre at the act break and critics at its New York premiere loathed it. It didn’t help that the initial production at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami was advertised as “the laugh sensation of the century.” And would Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh have become little more than an unpublished manuscript from a great playwright after its Broadway failure unless Circle in the Square had not revived it giving us Jason Robards’s searing portrayal of Hickey?–a performance so colossal that the play could no longer be ignored. So perhaps the problem is not so much one of a lack of innovation but of the theatre’s ability itself to recognize and encourage it, properly mount it, and over time educate its public to understand and accept its vision. This requires perseverance and American theatre is not known for its ability to persevere in the face of daily mundane financial requirements. In the early days of TCG when I was head of artist services, when gifted innovative but unknown directors appeared I knew there were only a handful of artistic directors in the regions who would consider their ideas and even with those it was a long process to inform and convince them. My best advice to the unique voices was to start their own theatres. Some did and persevered. But then that requires having a whole other set of skills. Playwrights may have a somewhat easier task having a ready manuscript to share, something one can hold and ruminate upon.
But I recognize this examination of innovation is directed toward the TCG Conference participants, many of whom already have a theatre to call home. To foster innovation artistic directors must have a sixth sense, a hunger for and ability to judge unusual new work. When they do they must convince business people who comprise their boards of the value of risk taking. The truth is that all theatre is inherently risky and tied to success in execution. As we add that which is new and possibly unfamiliar, the danger of risk increases. So how do we progress? A friend employed by a large New York department store was provided a risk budget each year. It had to be spent on risky products or ideas. If it was not, she was called to account and had to explain why. There was no expectation that the risky idea must succeed. If it failed, so be it and if it succeeded so much the better. It was part of the corporation’s process of understanding its customers, to test its limitations and ability to grow creatively, and to look forward. After all, every artist knows one learns as much by one’s failures as one’s successes.
Arthur Bartow was Chair and, subsequently, Artistic Director of the Drama Department at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts sixteen years and served seven years as Associate Director of Theatre Communications Group. Among plays produced are premieres of Miguel Piñero’s Short Eyes, Elizabeth Swados’s The Beautiful Lady, and the New York premiere of Eric Bentley’s Are You Now or Have You Ever Been. He portrayed over 70 roles on Broadway, off-Broadway, Las Vegas, touring, stock, and recently as Amphitryon in Aquila Theater’s Herakles at BAM’s Fisher Theatre. He authored The Director’s Voice and edited Training of the American Actor.