Theatre Out of the Theatre

by Bertie Ferdman

in National Conference

Post image for Theatre Out of the Theatre

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

We had to take theatre out of the theatre… in order to create theatre it is necessary to leave it behind; and so the first thing to do is to find another place where the theatre can express itself.”[1]

Such was the context for Armand Gatti’s—the French playwright, journalist, experimental director, and political activist— decision in 1964 to stage his Durutti Column in a factory. The play’s main character, from the Spanish Civil War, had never set foot in a theatre, so to stage him there would have been taking him out of his element, as Gatti would later explain: “cutting him from his context, from the air he breathed, from all that made him what he was.” Gatti thus made a conscious political choice to dis-locate “theatre” from its high-art and historical bourgeois associations so that audiences would experience Durutti in his terrain. Gatti was not only a central figure to the populist theatre movement in postwar France, but was also one of the pioneers of theatricalizing living spaces for political ideals. Using his experiences as a WWII resistance fighter and subsequently as a journalist to inform his writing, Gatti’s productions broke not necessarily with the fourth wall (in terms of actors interacting with the audience) but with the barriers that existed between theatre and the communities it sought to represent. As opposed to staging dissidence, Gatti sought to restructure the stage itself.

When I think of “best practices for breaking down the barriers between communities and theatre,” I immediately think of instances where theatre took me out of my comfort zone, to places and situations I would normally not have encountered and that forced me to question my own preconceived assumptions about theatre, and about life— be it about another culture, another class, another race, another gender, another language, another time.

Visiting my family in Buenos Aires in the spring of 2006, I went to see a piece called La omisión de la familia Coleman (The Omission of the Coleman Family), written and directed by Claudio Tolcachir, a play about one middle-class family’s socioeconomic decline amidst Argentina’s financial crisis. The theatre, called Timbre 4 —which literally translates to “Buzzer 4”— was a house located on Boedo Avenue #640. The person who took our tickets reminded us to keep quiet and keep the clapping down because the next-door neighbor went to bed early. I remember how the theatrical use of this real and disintegrating private dwelling—peeling paint, broken furniture, a tiny spiral staircase—moved me beyond the world of fiction. After all, I was sitting in what had most likely been someone’s actual home in the middle of Boedo’s working class (now somewhat gentrified) residential neighborhood. But what I remember most vividly was my walk getting there, late evening (productions in Buenos Aires tend to start around 9 or 10pm), feeling completely lost and scared (there was no GoogleMap at the time) and somewhat disconcerted by this neighborhood that did not seem would house “a theatre.” By the time I meandered my way to Timbre 4, I had spoken to numerous of Boedo’s residents and felt acquainted with its run down streets and buildings. Going to the event had forced me to interact, notice, and become aware of the real-life environment the Coleman family came from.

If my experience at Timbre 4 was short lived, it reminded me of a similar and longer lasting theatre-meets-neighborhood moment from years before, while rehearsing and performing at the Five Myles—558 St. John’s Place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn—in director Phil Soltanoff’s devised piece Strange Attractors (2000) and his adaptation of Peter Handke’s The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other (1999)—both of which had originally been created at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Five Myles was founded by Hanne Tierney, who wanted an art studio and performance space that was specifically “not in an art ghetto,” like what Soho, Williamsburg, Bushwick, or Long Island City eventually became. She named the space—a garage now non-profit whose mission is to advance public interest in innovative experimental work—after her photojournalist son, Myles Tierney, who was shot by rebel troops while covering the war in Sierra Leone in 1999. Although her original intentions were not necessarily to build a community center, Five Myles soon became a neighborhood hang out with an open door policy. Before we even begun rehearsals, I remember Soltanoff telling us that the theatre was in a block that was owned by a community of people who had been there for years, and that we were guests in that neighborhood. Many local individuals of all ages would come and go while we rehearsed, some ended up in the show’s prologue and others worked the box office. Many came to the dress rehearsal and gave notes, and most came to the opening night party. A few young girls, ages 8-10, would often come by after school and play with us. One girl in particular, Mika, became attached to one of my fellow cast mates, and invited her to her birthday party at her home, which my friend attended. Their relationship lasted for a few months after our performances, but eventually faded.

Back then it was difficult to get “Manhattan” people to come to see a show in Brooklyn, especially one in Crown Heights. It goes without saying that the vast majority of the spectators coming to see the shows, as well as the cast, was white, in a predominantly and historically black neighborhood. The experience of performing at Five Myles was not only about making a show, it was for me also about bringing to light economic and racial disparities in New York City. While I am well aware that these encounters or “breaking of boundaries” between theatre and community do not necessarily erase existing inequalities, and are riddled themselves with complexities of access based mostly on race and socioeconomic class, the mere self-awareness or choice of location can often inform reception beyond just “the show.” Not only can we as artists encounter a new place and its community through the process, but audience members alike will walk into a neighborhood they would not have normally gone to and might not feel comfortable in. In 2000, after only nine months since it opened its doors to the community, Five Myles was recognized with an OBIE Award, with the following description:

“Avant-garde theater, some critics like to argue, is elitist and self-absorbed, speaking only to a narrow upper-class audience. These critics, obviously, have not been to this exciting new theater space, where magnificent contemporary works fully engage the folks in the neighborhood.”

The theatre events I enjoy writing about most are just that: events in and of themselves, often unrepeatable, not so much because they might be contextualized with a specific site in mind, but more so because they are specifically rooted— situated— in a specific context, place, and community of people. Theatre-making is very much about framing a situation, one that often isolates the rest of the world. I think of the lights going down, the curtain rising, and voila! the show begins, but there is a long tradition of wanting to address the behind the scenes, the process, the production, the expectation, as part of the whole. I am therefore particularly interested in artists that do not separate their work from the conditions under which it is produced. The latter is an integral component of the first. Nothing goes unquestioned: from the choice to have box office or not, the price of the ticket or the decision to make it free, to the location, the entrance, the neighborhood, the duration, the choice of seating (or walking, or running, or standing, etc.), the casting, the “start” time, the number of spectators, the desired audience, the interaction with audience, everything becomes part of “the show.” Some examples include:

  • LAPD and John Malpede’s work in general, in particular RFK in EKY (2004), a multi site and itinerant performance, which recreated Robert F. Kennedy’s War on Poverty tour over the original 200-mile route in southeastern Kentucky using the original landscape and its community (with an all-local cast of hundreds);
  • Mary Ellen Strom and Ann Carlson’s Geyser Land (2003), which took place in a 25-mile strip of land between Livingston and Bozeman, Montana with about 1300 audience members (350 at a time) boarding the ten-car passenger train to re-examine a contested historical narrative of conquest and colonization;
  • The Apartment (2009), directed by Michael Ronen based on Franz Xavier Kroetz’s Request Concert (Wunschkonzer, 1973), which was presented in the private apartment of the director of the Arabic-Hebrew “Jaffa Theatre” and portrayed by an Israeli-Palestinian actress and an Israeli-Jewish actress;
  • The Peacock of Silwan (2012), developed with nine Israeli and Palestinian actors, which dealt with the Jewish takeover of houses in Jerusalem’s Arab village and was held in the home of an Arab family in the old city of Acre as part of the Acco Festival of Alternative Theatre, forcing (mostly) Jewish spectators to visit that neighborhood and enter their home;
  • Melanie Joseph’s The Foundry Theatre and their Dialogue Series;
  • Matthias Lilienthal’s X-Apartments Project;
  • Lola Arias and Stefan Kaegi’s Ciudades Paralelas; and Headlong Dance Theater’s This Town is a Mystery.

There are, of course, countless other artists, curators, and artistic producers that continue to forge aesthetic production with social production that creatively and uniquely situate each theatrical event based on its meaning, content, and its community. In some way, these artists are reaching out to theatre, like Gatti, by stepping outside it— taking theatre out of theatre— in order to re-locate its vitality, its honesty, its power.

Bertie Ferdman is a contemporary performance aficionado whose research specialties are in immersive, participatory, and site based theatre, as well as live art developed in urban spaces. Originally from Puerto Rico, born to Argentinean parents, she is now half French and lives in Brooklyn. Her articles and reviews have appeared in PAJ: Journal of Performance and Art, Theater, Performance Research, Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, and TDR (upcoming). She is also a regular contributor for HowlRound. She curated numerous international events and exchanges at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, including two symposia on Site-Specific Performance (with Gülgün Kayim and Frank Hentschker); the US performance premiere of Rodrigo García’s Accidens; and “Urban Performance,” a talk with urban “scénariste” Maud Le Floc’h and the late Neil Smith. For over six years, she was Artistic co-Director (together with Suzi Takahashi) of Ex.Pgirl, an intercultural, all female performance ensemble, with whom she created Ablution, Waving Hello, 10 Plates, and Paris Syndrome, commissioned by HERE Arts Center. Bertie is co-editor, with Tom Sellar, of a forthcoming edition of Theater on Performance Curators, scheduled for publication in May 2014. She is currently curating a special section for PAJ on Performance and the City, which will be out in January 2015. Bertie is Assistant Professor in the Department of Speech, Communications, & Theatre Arts at BMCC, City University of New York. She is a graduate of Yale College and the Lecoq School of Physical Theatre in Paris, and received her PhD from The Graduate Center.

[1] “Armand Gatti on Time, Place, and the Theatrical Event,” Modern Drama 25 (1982): 71.