Theatre Lane: No Outlet?

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Theater Lane

Theater LaneFor 15 years I’ve been driving to campus and turning into the parking lot behind my building, but it was only a few days ago when I noticed the street sign that stands on the corner of the entrance: Theatre Ln – No Outlet. I must admit, upon seeing it, my first inclination was to laugh wryly and make a mental note that “No Outlet” was the 21st century’s polite way of saying “Dead End.” There are days when that seems all too accurate, and apparently this was one of them. Indeed, as I walked to my office on this grey October day, I found myself thinking how the miserable employment figures from Actor’s Equity provided grim evidence for the sign’s message, reflecting the vanishing outlets for theatre artists to share their gifts with the public.

But ultimately, I couldn’t stay mired in that cynical frame of mind, because I was about to start my day in the company of young artists whose buoyant goodwill, dedication, humor and sense of hope regularly prevent me from losing faith in the theatre’s possibilities, even when it feels as if the American theatre eats its young, as I wrote a few weeks ago in “Saturn and the Arts.”

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As I went down the hall to put my lunch in the refrigerator, and then unlocked my office door and sat down at my computer, that sign continued to resonate as my mind searched for the right metaphor. If there is no outlet, perhaps theatre is “unplugged,” a low-tech, acoustic medium that relies less on flash and spectacle than on authenticity, simplicity, and emotional honesty. That made me feel a little better about the signage.

Then I started thinking about what it means to enter a place that has no outlet. First, you have to regard it as an end in itself, not as a way of getting somewhere else. It is a destination point, a place where you stop.

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More importantly, in order to find one’s way out again, one must retrace one’s steps. To exit, you have to turn around and go back the way you came until you come to the point where you began, but arrive there having been changed by what you’ve seen. As a theatre historian, this interpretation had its attraction, as I find many of the ideas and techniques of theatre’s past could, if adopted by a clever artist or company, provide new life to a medium that seems in search of a direction.

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Todd London's "An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art"When I returned home that evening I found a copy of Todd London’s new book, An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, waiting for me. As I sat down with this plain yet elegant anthology and read London’s introduction, I could feel the energy there that originally drew me into the theatre, the energy that emanates from the words and ideas of passionate, idealistic people. The introduction, which bore the promising title “Tickets to a Revolution,” began with one of my favorite quotations — the opening paragraph of Herbert Blau’s 1964 manifesto, The Impossible Theater:

[My purpose] is to talk up a revolution. Where there are rumblings already, I want to cheer them on. I intend to be incendiary and subversive, maybe even un-American. I shall probably hurt some people unintentionally; there are some I want to hurt. I may as well confess right now the full extent of my animus: there are times when, confronted with the despicable behavior of people in the American theater, I feel like a lunatic Lear on the heath, wanting to “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.”

It was as if, almost 50 years ago, Blau had written the mission statement for my Theatre Ideas blog! Flipping through the table of contents, I felt a jolt of energy as I saw articles by Frederick H. Koch, Robert Gard, Harold Clurman, Hallie Flanagan, John Houseman, Maurice Browne, Margo Jones, Zelda Fichlander, Joseph Papp, Robert Brustein, Nina Vance and many others whose visionary words led to a revolution not, as London notes, when they were heading large institutions, but “when they were kids with an attitude and a world to change.” Kids like those I teach every day, kids entering Theatre Lane. “I will steal from Blau,” London continues in the introduction,

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and say that the purpose of this book, like his, is to talk up a revolution, but not the coming revolution – rather, the one that happened over the course of the past century. I want to share with you some underlying ideals of that revolution, as I understand them, in order to reignite those ideals and the challenges they pose. Possibly the biggest challenge of all is the one that requires us to believe, with the fanatics, that we can make a new kind of American theater (i.e., a new kind of world); that the present doesn’t hold the reins of the future; that what might be isn’t dictated by what is.

“The revolution at the center of this anthology,” he says, “is a revolution of idealism.”

Like Blau, like London, I believe that theatre will only be reignited by idealism, by impatience, by animus, by faith, by subversion, by a willingness to speak truth no matter what the cost. We can light our torches on the fire last time, the flames of which smolder beneath the wet leaves of our over-cautious, over-produced, over-institutionalized American theatre. Like Theatre Lane, the only way out is to track back to where we started in order to rediscover what got us here in the first place.

And so I have decided to devote the next seven editions of Interrobang!? to the seven chapters of London’s book, riffing on the various anthems sung by my theatrical forerunners. I will use London’s topics as starting points, which are:

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1) What Is America? / What Is an American Theater?
2) About Us. By Us. For Us. Near Us.
3) Amateurs or Professionals?
4) The Genius of the Individual, the Genius of the Group
5) Theaters or Institutions?
6) Toward a Political Theatre
7) The Artist’s Journey: School, Studio and Stage

In addition, my hope is to find others who are interested in reading along with me and gathering together on a bi-weekly basis in some electronic forum (maybe Google+ or some Skype-like conference call place) to kick around thoughts and reactions to these essays. Todd London has expressed interest in participating, depending on the schedule. If you are interested in joining me in this endeavor to fan the embers of the past back into flame, email me at walt828 at gmail.com.

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Who knows: maybe Theatre Lane isn’t a dead end after all!