If Someone Calls My Name: Innovation in Theatre

by Zac Kline

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for If Someone Calls My Name: Innovation in Theatre

(Photo Credit: Blair C. Baker. 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).

Innovation says yes.

Innovation looks you straight in the eye, like a boxer going in for the kill and unapologetically knocks you out.

Innovation says: “How do you do?  Would you like to get in? Let’s go for a ride.”

I asked a director colleague what excites me in theatre. She responded: “Weird things, Ivo Van Hove.” And it’s very true that both “weird” things excite me and I do have a strong penchant for, and feel a strong connection to the Belgium-born, Amsterdam-based director’s work. But the question is, why? Because I think his work and the work of Toneelgroep Amsterdam does something and goes somewhere where I as an audience member have not been before. The ferocity of an animal on stage – literally and figuratively Teorema, the deafening muteness of war in a modern landscape in Roman Tragedies and the heartbreakingly thin line between art, life, love, loss and memory in The Opening Night. Being innovative means being aggressive and Van Hove is surely aggressive, and not just the physical grappling or food fights he places on stage. No, he’s aggressive with his intent. Aggressive with the knowledge that in order for theatre to do something, to feel like something and make us feel something, it cannot just spar – and a lot of theatre does – but has to actually punch.

Innovative theatre is a workout. Innovative theatre makes your heart race and your body jump.

Cock did that. Mike Bartlett’s superb play about fluid sexuality was directed by James MacDonald (in its New York production) with an energy, smoothness and precision that made it feel like this story – one that boils down to love, hurt and people who need each other – was being told for the very first time. Each cut of the dramatic razor, small or large, bled anew.

It’s hard to capture innovation in a bottle. It is of course being there, but also being there and letting it in. Here Lies Love (currently at the Public Theater), is a remarkable piece of theatre, not necessarily because of the story it tells or how the story is written, but because of the commitment it makes to itself and to its audience. David Byrne, Fatboy Slim and Alex Timbers have created a disco Wikipedia (and I mean that as a pure compliment) of the life of Imelda Marcos, a play in a dance club/a dance club in a play and in doing so they have wrought an innovative piece of theatre, because, they invite – no – demand that the audience participate.

We do not witness history, we participate in it. Here Lies Love understands that. It has the audience dancing, before we even recognize that we are. We are complicit with history, its rights and its many wrongs before we even realize what we are doing. We dance with the heroes, the villains, the in-betweens, we just dance. It is theatre that does not let us watch, but makes us be.

In a blink of an eye I was caught up in the sound and the sex of politics before I could take stock of the wrongs being perpetrated again-and-again. My heart was racing and I had fallen in love. Innovation is falling in love, and letting the audience fall in love with you.

When the lights came up at the end of Here Lies Love my wife who attended the show with me commented that she was not jarred back into reality with an overwhelming sense that she had stayed at the club too long, instead, for a moment she felt like the disco lights were reality, and this other space is not where she wanted to be. I too wanted to be back in the holy and broken space of innovative theatre.

I often ask my playwrighting students, many of whom are still in high school what would they like to see on stage that would truly excite them. The last time I asked, one student replied: “If someone said my name.” She was being literal, but there is something beautiful in the statement. Because it is what we’re all asking for in a way when we enter the theatre and what we are striving for as theatremakers. Here Lies Love said my name, so did Cock, so do the plays of Ivo Van Hove, as do so many others.

And so I am left to question and left with a challenge for myself:

Will I be innovative?
Will I say yes?
Will mine say yours?


ZAC KLINE is a New York-based playwright and dramaturge. His plays include: Messed Up Here Tonight (Renovations Theatre Company; Big Star California a piece developed with his wife the actress Blair Baker (Philadelphia Live Arts and Fringe Festival); Dead Author Songs with songs by Howard Fishman (Emerging Artists Theatre); Summit Avenue (Figment Festival) and many others. As a dramaturge he has worked with Caridad Svich on her American Quartet plays and is the lead dramaturge and a contributing playwright to Gun Control Theatre Action, plays on the topic of gun control that are currently being read around the world. He has also worked with Life Stories Youth Ensemble/The New Group and the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway. He is the co-editor of 24 Gun Control Plays (NoPassport Press) and wrote the introduction to American Quartet by Caridad Svich (NoPassport Press Preview Editions). He teaches playwrighting and screenwriting to underserved New York City youth with The New Group and Urban Arts Partnership. He is a founding member of Missing Bolts a small production group interested in music theatre and unique theatrical presentations. www.missingbolts.com.