When I think of innovation in the theatre, I can’t help but summon up writing examples, which is understandable, since I am first and foremost a playwright myself. I’m always struggling to keep my writing fresh by treading on new ground, and the inspiration I draw from my colleagues is not to be underestimated. I have had many startling moments in the theatre when a particular writer executed something dramatically new and untried in his or her work. An experiment with language. A devising of new structural forms for storytelling. A rethinking of particular characters or tropes. An unconscious exorcism of the rules we follow when we write for the stage. But the one consistent thread that all my brushes with innovation have in common is the writers’ insistent and persuasive way of seeing. It begins inevitably with their singular vision.
My first experience with the kind of contemporary innovation came when I saw The Woman: Scenes of War and Freedom by Edward Bond at London’s National Theatre. Here this celebrated playwright took the familiar war myths of the Greeks and stretched them beyond what seemed dialectically possible in order to shed new light on our contemporary obsession with war. The fiery intellect of Bond shaped even the acting styles. I’d never seen anything like that before. But I quickly understood something about history. I learned that it’s not a rigid palette upon which human events are indelibly etched, but that the past is a living organism subject to the actions of the present. We changed the past every time we look at it, and in the theatre, we inhabit it to serve our needs.
Harold Pinter has long been an accomplished and admired writer, and most of us have been familiar with his works. There’s an approach to the world that brands his works with that unique Pinteresque touch. It’s a world where the unknown is just out of view, a world where people act out of a palpable sense of menace and madness. On that score alone, he is an innovator. But what he did with his masterpiece Betrayal completely upended our understanding of narrative structure. He reversed time and arranged his scenes (with some exceptions) from the last moment to the first. We began to perceive human impulses and gestures differently as we turned inevitability and fate on its head. Our concerns were not with how things would end up but rather how they would begin, for there the seed of crime was sown.
Suzan-Lori Parks is a writer I have been lucky to have known in my lifetime. I consider her one of our great geniuses. Each of her plays is a radical gem of striking language and syncopation. The molecules in her world operate in much the same way they do in Samuel Beckett’s darkest works. But as I saw in The America Play, Suzan-Lori’s molecules vibrate to the rhythm of Modern Jazz. In this work, we contemplate a new vision of Lincoln and his assassination and its place in post-modern African-American life. Plot and traditional narrative are dispensed with in favor of the sequence of gestures and repetitive text dynamics. Her play enters our consciousness not through the front door but through the back, where it sidesteps our received notions of history and politics and art. And still, the work crescendos toward a catharsis that catches us off guard, for in the end, her work is as rigorously emotional as it is intellectual.
I had another more recent encounter with the audacious genius of Taylor Mac, when his epic The Lily’s Revenge took the Magic Theatre by storm. The world according to Mac, represented over five remarkable acts, exhibited a kind of engorged Blakean spirituality. The spoken text in the work, both florid and profane, soared to such complex and ecstatic heights that it reinvented language. And its devotion to the body restored to us the joys of sweet carnality that AIDS had robbed us of back in the 80’s. Watching this work, I felt like much of the world must have felt when they first encountered the iconoclastic Romantic poets of the early 19th Century.
All four of these writers have an irrepressible and uncompromising vision of the world that runs counter to how we normally experience it. Executing that vision comes at a cost. It means dispensing with the familiar at the risk of alienating the audience. It means grinding against how things are usually done and butting against those opposed to “thinking different.” It often means the work doesn’t get produced, at least not immediately, for these works have an unmistakable surge about them. But for these writers and many others I have known and revered, there is no other option. It’s not about a conceit that one puts on for the sake of novelty like a new suit of clothes. It’s not done to be cute or opaque or fashionable. It is simply how they see. The processes of time and space, the modes of communication, the physics of the landscape they create are all subject to how they process the world. Theirs is a skewed, sometimes painful and often mysterious lens we look through, but given a chance, that lens can reveal something wholly unique and truthful about each of us. And that’s a straight-up lesson for the rest of us writers and artists. Arthur Rimbaud’s biographer Jean-Luc Steinmetz said of his Illuminations, “Rimbaud hallucinates and creates an epic.” In a sense, that’s what our most innovative writers do. The world is their hallucination, and it is up to us to make it ours.
“We created it…. Let’s take it over.”
-Patti Smith at the conclusion of “My Generation”
Octavio Solis is a playwright and director living in San Francisco. His works Se Llama Cristina, Cloudlands, The Pastures of Heaven, Ghosts of the River, Quixote, Lydia, June in a Box, Lethe, Marfa Lights, Gibraltar, The Ballad of Pancho and Lucy, The 7 Visions of Encarnación, Bethlehem, Dreamlandia, El Otro, La Posada Mágica, El Paso Blue, Santos & Santos, Prospect, and Man of the Flesh have been mounted throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and across the country. His anthology The River Plays is published by NoPassport Press. He is a 2012 United States Artists Fellow, a Thornton Wilder Fellow for the MacDowell Colony, a New Dramatists alum and a member of the Dramatists Guild.