No matter how deeply you bury yourself in new plays and new play creation and theory, theatre remains largely a reflection of where we’ve been (check your local listings). Right now I’m in two shows that combined are more than 800 years old. So the tone of this Culturebot article is bizarre to me.
The linked blurb seems to ask what some of our best modern art makers are thinking putting up chestnuts like Dionysus in 69 or Einstein on the Beach. To answer Culturebot’s open question: what this says about the health of the field is that the best companies in the country are humble enough to know that they are following a path and that someone created that path. If you want to break new ground anywhere it’s imperative to know (really know) how others have done it.
Dionysus in 69 was a turning point for performance art, and what the Rude Mechs have done (and are continuing to do) is mine the history of their field to illustrate for their audience what has come before. This interleaved retrospective adds depth (and context) to the form defying work, such as the recently closed genre jumble NOW NOW OH NOW, that they are creating.
The Rude Mechs (and the also-mentioned Gob Squad) don’t stop making the new to reflect on their past. The Mechs loving, deliberate recreation (not reinterpretation) of the Performance Group’s Dionysus in 69 as well as Mabou Mines’ B.Beaver Animations wasn’t in lieu of The Method Gun or I’ve Never Been So Happy or NOW NOW OH NOW, they were simply part of the delirious stew they have cooking at the Off Center.
Further, the Contemporary Classics Series is more than simply remounting. It is an examination of the techniques and thought processes that formed the basis of the original work. Those themes and techniques become engrained in the collective and manifest in the work they create themselves. The audience member who sat through Richard Schechner’s talk on Dionysus in 69 in the lead up to opening a few years ago would have easily recognized the DNA of the Performance Groups (and Schechner’s) love of game theory pushed through the Mechs own playful lens.
I am not unbiased. The Austin presentation of Dionysus in 69 was mind blowing for me. My experience began with Schechner outlining the creation process in a talk on campus at the University of Texas at Austin. He discussed the game theory inherent in his adaptation of the Bacchae, and the dangers in allowing the audience that much (even unwitting) control of the game afoot. Richard Schechner was standing there there talking about the blood and nudity and audience participation and game theory and my narrative loving soul curled up inside me.
After the presentation I told Kirk Lynn, one of the Rude Mechs ADs, that I wouldn’t be attending as the show contained roughly one of everything I hated about “avant garde theatre” and the preciousness it coats itself in.
He talked me into the idea of it being more than the sum of those overworn tropes and you know what?
It was so much more than the sum of it’s parts…
Everything we talk about on the highest levels of modern theatre making was already in the DNA of performance art in 1968. A piece done outside the architecture, updating a classic, using game theory as part of event theatre, audience engagement and audience empowerment, and the aching intimate vulnerability of the performers, especially Josh Meyer as the truly defenseless Pentheus hoping to survive the chaos that Euripides and Schechner rained down on him. The audience interactions were invitations not conscriptions and were joyous communal events. Indeed my only regret of the evening was my own hesitance in joining them. In short, it did everything Schechner was looking to do in ‘68 and now I understand firs-hand why it had such an impact.
In a field that slaps Miller, Williams and Chekov back on stage weekly with no new context or spin we should pray that careful, talented groups like the Mechs help excavate our history for us so that we can move forward having met at least the ghosts of our forbears.