Don’t Call Me “Experimental”

Young Frankenstein
Young Frankenstein
Production photo by Paul Kolnik

I’m not an experimental artist and odds are neither are you. “Experimental” is an institutional term, a State designation that really means “unpopular”. If you go into academia, you may find yourself working in the Experimental Theater, which is usually a nice, big, clean black box with more dimmers and instruments than were ever on all of Ludlow Street, ever. And in the Experimental Theater you’ll be working on a quasi-contemporary, realistic, narrative-based play that never made it to Broadway.

Not a lot of experimenting going on there.

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The same voice that names us “experimental” will sometimes mumble “alternative” or “fringe” and always the dead, dreaded marketing term “cutting-edge”. The limit of these adjectives is that they are relational, they only have meaning as signposts pointing back to the Main Street(stream). It’s like telling someone that the address of the cool bar is three blocks east and a block south of the Civic Center. If I don’t know where the Civic Center is I’ll never find the bar. And if the audience doesn’t know what Mainstream Theater is or looks like, they’ll never know what they’re looking at when they see my stuff, they’ll only know that it’s “alternative” and “experimental” which they’ll translate for themselves as “kind of weird” and “not approved by the Mainstream”.

In New York, the go-to term is “downtown”. I’m a “downtown” artist and I make “downtown” shows. Leaving aside the frankly criminal fact that the fabled café theaters of the West Village are long, long gone and the explosion of storefront spaces on the Lower East Side only resulted in what most explosions result in, a big noise and then a lot of scattered debris, the use of “downtown” is a sharp and clever distinction that keeps me and mine in an artistic ghetto, one we can carry with us and set up whether we’re in Red Hook, Long Island City or the wilds of Washington Heights. In New York, “downtown” means “no money”. Downtown is where you have to start and then if you’re lucky and work hard, you climb onto the uptown express.

When you look at these words, “alternative”, “experimental”, “fringe”, “downtown”, you begin to see the larger predicament. Let’s take my company, Clancy Productions, and, randomly, three other New York companies: the Neo-Futurists, the Wooster Group and Gemini/Collisionworks. None of us are mainstream, so therefore we are all “alternative”. We’re grouped together comfortably and unthinkingly as “downtown” and “experimental” theater groups working in New York City.

My company makes concrete theater, theater that is focused on the act and fact of the theater-going experience. You’re always aware that you’re in a theater, you’re asked to pay attention to and enjoy the artifice of the event and in the end, if you’ve been paying attention and we’ve done our job, you’re more conscious of our collective responsibility for and involvement with each other.

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The Neo-Futurists aim to present actual life on stage by creating a world in the theater which has no pretense or illusion. Gemini/Collisionworks examines the world and the mind through collisions of unlikely ideas, media, art forms and techniques, believing that these collisions (often violent, always directed) cause gaps to appear through which can be viewed the “machine language” of how the world (and our species) actually works (or doesn’t).

And of course the Wooster Group is dedicated to bringing their unique blend of Noh theater and classic 70s hip-hop choreography to the Amish communities of southeastern Pennsylvania.

Streep & Hoffman: not starring in downtown-theater-based movies

There’s some commonality and cross-over there, but you wouldn’t mistake one of our shows for one of Gemini/Collisionworks and you would recognize a Neo-Futurist show and know it wasn’t the Wooster Group. But to the larger world, what groups us together is that we’re not shooting for Broadway and the odds of our next show being made into a movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep are long. We’re defined by what we’re not. And that’s never going to be an accurate definition.

The best image I can find is that drawer that everyone has in their kitchen where you keep the tape and the batteries and some string and birthday cake candles and a remote from an appliance that broke three years ago. That’s where we all live, nestled next to the novelty Holy Mother nightlight and an old water pistol. We’re there, because we’re not a plate or a tablespoon, something you use regularly and has earned its own place.

But there’s very little experimenting going on in that drawer.

I can’t speak for the other three companies, but Clancy Productions isn’t trying to find anything new or discover a new genre or form. I frankly don’t believe there’s that much left to discover on the continent of Theater and I’ll be happily surprised to be proved wrong. When I think of genuinely experimental artists, Picasso or Lennon and McCartney, artists who progressed and changed from year to year, finding and mastering a style only to keep pushing on, I’m humbled and amazed but I don’t feel much kinship. Finding and honing a recognizable style is a pretty big step on its own, but the truly experimental artist abandons a style as soon as it becomes recognizable and heads happily back into the lab. Think of Beckett deciding to write in French in mid-career, precisely to avoid style. And so he ends up with a body of work that is still unmatched in the dramatic canon.

So call us what you will, but don’t call us experimental. How about “contemporary”? It may not be sexy, but at least it’s accurate.