How To (Not) Get Socked in the Jaw: Experimenting with Theater, 1915/2013

by Sherrine Azab

in TCG Books

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(Learn more about the An Ideal Theater salon, and how you can participate, here.)

There’s a thing I really like to do.  Sometimes I do it on paper; sometimes just in my head.  Mostly I do it in private, so I can be as grandiose or as radical as I want and need to be.  I create my own artistic ancestry.  I can’t trace it by blood–there isn’t much art running  through my bloodline.  This is more like my chosen artline, created by other means: investigating different sensibilities and aesthetics, giving myself over to pure gut reactions, being moved by something, searching for common ground, and through sheer coincidence…you know, the other ways you make kinship.

I mention this because, reading the chapter and manifesto in An Ideal Theater on the Washington Square Players by founding member Laurence Langner, I see that I can now add another ancestor to my artline.  In these fabricated ancestries it’s never a feeling like: “YES!! EXACTLY!! THAT’S WHAT WE’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT!”.  But there is an instant recognition of the roots of my values and the values of the company I co-direct with my partner Jake Hooker– A Host of People.

It first hit me when I read Langner’s account of taking his friend from Dayton, OH to see Nijinsky and the Ballet Russes:

“Gee, Lawrence,” he said angrily, turning to me as Nijinsky leaped miraculously through the air, “how I’d like to take a sock at that guy! Why doesn’t he work for a living?”

I mention this to show what we who pioneered in the theater had to meet and overcome in the philistine attitude of the American public toward the arts, an attitude which was generally prevalent except for a small hand- ful of people in the larger cities who were looked up as cranks, eccentrics or “sissies” by their fellow rugged individualists.”

To me, Langner took a big, first step in inviting his friend to see something that would be foreign to him.  I wonder if he did the work of the next step–expressing to him his own passion for Nijinky’s work and the art of ballet, attempting not just to educate his friend, but to share with him his excitement about the Ballet Russes and how the strange, angular choreography differed so vibrantly from other ballets.  Very often, I feel this is something that we as a theatre culture have failed to do.  Still today many people feel excluded–having decided that art and theater (especially of the off-beat interpretive variety) has become an insiders club for those who make it and for those who study it…for those in the know.  And yet we know that does not have to be the case.  We know that.  Theater can find people, if we help it a little.  It doesn’t have to run in your family–it’s not genetic.  It didn’t run in mine, but it still found me.  And, once found, I pursued it.  We just have to find more ways to open more doors…more points of entry…more ways for theatre to find the people.  And when it does find them we have to be ready to help them catch it.

I’ll return to that later.

The second moment of connect between me and these new chosen ancestors was delivered in their manifesto:

The Washington Square Players believe that a higher standard can be reached only as the outcome of experiment and initiative…so we believe that hard work and perseverance, coupled with ability and the absence of purely commercial consid- erations, may result in the birth and healthy growth of an artistic theater in this country….

We have only one policy in regard to the plays which we will produce—they must have artistic merit.

For me, and for our company, artistic merit goes hand in hand with experimentation.  The Washington Square Players’ sense of experimentation was driven by making a statement against the work being produced in the commercial theater.  The not-for-profit theater sector has grown so much since 1915 that I don’t really ever consider the commercial theater something A Host of People (or our friends and colleagues) are pushing up against.  It is something that exists separately for a different purpose (in fact, sometimes I see Broadway and touring shows as a potential gateway drug for other theater…our theater.  If only it was more affordable for me and the general population we might be able to make that gateway wider).  But we theater-makers have to spotlight why our artform is relevant.  We live in a time where the quality and accessibility of TV, movies, the Internet, and video games is powerful.  I certainly consume some of these forms as a means of escapism that’s useful and enjoyable–instant and accessible.  But that is NOT why I go to the theater or why I make it, or why I want people to come experience it.

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A Host of People exists to elevate the use of imagination in our society–or, more directly, in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our cities — even in our workplaces.  So we make art that strives to spark the imagination;  art that invites the viewers’ inherent sense of play to participate in the completion of the piece, making way for personal interpretation. As long as the invitation to help us create our imagined worlds is made clearly, our experiment becomes making experimental work that is inherently populist!  It’s theater finding its people. Now this is where I think we, “experimental” art-makers are to blame–we have kept the validity of personal experience in artwork a secret for far too long, perpetuating the idea that there must be some prerequisite of knowledge in order to belong.  Once you lift the veil and reveal that every interpretation, every reaction, is valid then you’ve truly made a piece of theater for everyone!  We can then get passed the reaction of “I didn’t get it”, or “it was over my head”.  Then we can start getting into the experience of it.  I believe that the practice of activating our imaginations in this way is something to carry into our everyday lives and challenges.

In part at least, this seems to be something the Washington Square Players were on to, too.

Walter Prichard Eaton, then a drama critic, summed up the achieve- ments of the Washington Square Players as follows:

“It accustomed a public, small perhaps, to look with interest on experimental work, and to relish the unusual work done for the sheer joy of the doing. Finally, it left among the workers themselves a sense of incompletion, of a vision striven for but not attained, a realization of mistakes, but a belief nonetheless that the vision was a sound one, that in a spirit of cooperation and united purpose some day it was not unattainable.”

I believe that as theater-makers, we need to not just continually push the form of theater, but we should be pushing the form of our theater audiences.   This doesn’t have to mean pandering to demographics, but it might mean completely rethinking how we structure, organize, fund, market and create our theater.   We relocated our company from New York to Detroit, in order to both grow the work we want to make and also to expand our audience beyond our theater community in NYC.  We believe in spreading our country’s artistic capital to U.S. cities and sites well beyond its assumed cultural capitals.  Clearly this has happened before and has never stopped happening, but it often seems to go unnoticed by those in the highest positions of power in our field.  This is how the imagination revolution will continue to spread — artists in communities connected to other artists in other communities.  Here in Detroit, we have more room in our lives to think and experiment with new methods of opening the doors to the art curious.  We won’t always be successful, and we will certainly make mistakes, and progress will probably be slow, but I believe in small actions that can be added to other small actions which can be fused with still other small actions…

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The Washington Square Players ended abruptly after 3 short years due to the U.S. becoming involved in World War I.  And in those three short years they produced 62 one act plays and 6 long plays.  A Host of People comes at the work with the same voracity but with a different focus.  We create 1-2 new shows a year and a few small events.  And, just as importantly, we go to community events and help out where we can and we have sometimes awkward conversations about what we do.  It’s part of our job to work through the awkwardness and to invite our new neighbors to come to our next show.  We seek to find those art curious and we open the door for them.

If I were to indulge myself in fantasy about theater-makers of the future looking back, tracing their artlines back to me and my colleagues (inspired artists, making new work from Detroit to New Orleans, Des Moines to Albequrque), I hope that they would recognize in us that we were making  something new, capitalizing on the moment we find ourselves in–this digital age that is at once expanding and shrinking under globalization.  I hope they would understand that we were carving out a role for the theater and all live art experiences in response to the two dimensional screens we give so much of our attention to.  And they would see that we were still making the art we want to make as artists, it was — it is –  just more inviting…to nurses who are sitting next to musicians who are sitting next to gardeners who are sitting next to an accountant who is sitting next to a dancer who is sitting next to a bus driver who is sitting next to my aunt who is sitting next to a lighting designer who is sitting next to my neighbor.  Yeah.  That sounds like an ideal theater to me.


SAzab HeadshotSherrine Azab (www.ahostofpeople.org) is a director focused on the creation of original devised theater, as well as a producer and performance curator.  She is the Co-Host, with Jake Hooker, of A Host of People, a Detroit-based theater company.  Since relocating from Brooklyn to Detroit, their work has been seen at the Performance Lab at Detroit Contemporary, ArtLabJ, and the Sidewalk Festival of Performance Art.  Their new work, Life is Happening to Us Again, will premiere in Detroit in Spring 2014.  In NYC, her work has been presented at The Kitchen, The Ohio Theatre, HERE, Dixon Place, & the Bushwick Starr, among others. She has also made and presented work during two residencies in Berlin. Sherrine holds a BFA in Original Works from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and a postgraduate certificate from the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University.  She is a member of the 2008 Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, an Associate Artist of Target Margin Theater, and is currently on the staff of the Network of Ensemble Theaters.