Non-traditional theatre: What works?

In the past few weeks, I’ve heard or read three different theatre works that strayed outside the boundaries of conventional, Aristotelian form. For me, two of them worked, and one did not, though I should state that in the case of the third piece, I have several friends who hold a contrary opinion to mine.

The first piece, which was a staged reading, is getting its world premier in  Minneapolis this weekend: An Outopia for Pigeons. This is an absurdist play whose characters include a sperm whale named Charles Bronson, the pre-Revolutionary preacher Cotton Mather, a supernatural Gourmand, and the last living carrier pigeon, who just happens to be named Martha Washingon. The play was written by Justin Maxwell (who will be by thesis advisor). As you might guess from the character list, this is a very wacky piece, where history and modern cultural references collide with abandon. At the same time, there is a poignancy about the fate of poor Martha, who is unwilling to accept that the are no more of her species and is valiantly trying to construct a refuge for them.

Closer to home, I saw Andrew Vaught’s Possum Kingdom, a play staged out of doors in a stand of trees where a ramshackle village representing the village where the denizens of this kingdom eke out a living searching for “brosia.” The setting was marvelous, and of the three plays, this one is the closest to having a standard narrative, but I never felt grounded in the world that Vaught created. While the characters viewed the possums as their enemy (in competition for “brosia”), their true nemesis was either the civilization upriver, or the character who claimed to represent it.

Finally, this weekend, I participated in Cry You One, a site-specific performance co-produced by ArtSpot Productions and Mondo Bizzaro. I say participated because this is not an afternoon of sit-down and just watch theatre. You walk, you dance, you cross a river, you are serenaded and told stories. It’s an ecological parable that’s part theatre, part education, part nature walk, part fais do-do, and part sacrament. There was no “story”, but I loved it.

So, can I find some commonality? I can. The pieces that I liked had two things in common: something to care about, and a bridge for the non-linear, non-story sections. In An Outopia for Pigeons, I could identify with Martha, and the comedy provided the bridge. Cry You One gave me a connection to the environment, and eased the path between the disparate sections with music and physical action.

The need to identify with and to feel for the protagonist is a requirement for both standard story-telling and non-traditional forms, but traditional drama uses the action as a driving force to keep your attention. When you’re using non-linear techniques or you’re not providing a dramatic narrative, you need something else to keep the audience engaged. If we apply this test to more famous works, it seems to hold. Without the vaudevilles and the intrusion of Pozzo and Lucky, Waiting for Godot might not hold us, regardless of how much with empathize with Vladimir and Estragon.  When Robert Wilson plays with time and story in The Black Rider, there is music, color, and light to take hold when the story seems to vanish.

Aristotle would probably point out that those pieces were relying on spectacle, which he deemed inferior to plot, and when you see another special-effects-loaded film with nothing but spectacle, you’d probably agree.  However, when used in an absurdist or non-narrative framework, spectacle can provide a form of glue that successfully substitutes for traditional narrative. 

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