Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
The below essay was originally written as a guest post for the League of Chicago Theatres blog.
All Theatre is Experimental Theatre.
There is a distinct subset of both the show-going and the show-making public that just read that sentence, specifically the last two words, and experienced an involuntary facial twitch.
Experimental Theatre. (There it was again.) It’s an immediate red flag, a toxic, ominous death’s head of a label that warns them away from a particular piece of alleged artwork.
If this is you, you know what “Experimental Theatre” means. You know what it is. You sat through your college friend’s latest project and met him or her in the lobby afterwards. He or she was sweaty and grinning and covered with what looked from a distance to be acrylic paint but seemed upon further inspection to be merengue. You accepted his or her vigorous handshake and hoped and prayed and hoped that you wouldn’t be asked what you thought of it what it meant to you how it changed your view of the world.
Some of you would rather die than sit through Experimental Theatre again. Some of you would have a clause put into your last will and testament expressly forbidding that Experimental Theatre occur anywhere in a 50-foot radius of the urn that contains your ashes.
There may be a particularly erudite dramaturg out there who will tell me otherwise, but to my current knowledge there is no record of which work of theatre was the first to be labeled “experimental.” There’s also no record of whether that word was used as simple statement of fact or as coded criticism; whether the label was first applied by the artist, or by an arbiter of the art. And as such, we have no understanding of the exact moment that “experimental” became distasteful and ridiculous.
I should be clear here: It’s perfectly valid to feel loathing for what you perceive to be “experimental.” Developing a personal aesthetic is one of the great adventures; if you happen to unearth an allergic reaction to the “experimental,” then applaud yourself for understanding a little bit more about the mystery of who you are.
But understand, still: All Theatre is Experimental Theatre.
In part this is a statement of the obvious: what you end up seeing onstage is the result of a long, interlocking series of trials and errors. The playwright may spend hours writing and replacing one specific word spoken by a character who doesn’t even survive to the following draft. The director may not find the exact person for the role, a person who must surely exist somewhere in the world but who didn’t find their way into the room for that eight-hour audition window, and so instead the director takes a chance on an unknown quantity who looks old or young enough. The designers push and pull at each other to meld their visions, the stage manager adjusts schedules based on last-minute emergencies. Everybody scrambles through the rehearsal process to create the final product.
The joke being that, in the theatre, there is no final product, there is only the product that has progressed to the point that it’s (presumably) ready for audience. The production is not the result, it is the next experiment.
This may be observable—watch as an actor’s line reading shifts mid-way through the run, fueled by a new understanding of how that line fits into the entire framework of the show. Watch the stage manager start the sound three seconds later to accommodate the unexpected laugh-line in Act Two.
This may be invisible—the director chewing over regrets in their head, vowing that if they ever revisit this piece that they will axe that particular child’s toy from the set, finding its symbolism cloying and unnecessary.
And the playwright…well.
The only real question there might be how many years go by before the next revision.
The unique strength of theatre as an art form is its organic quality. It happens in front of you, it happens one performance at a time, it is happening just a touch differently each time. It’s alive in ways other mediums can’t quite mimic, and its participants are, in the moment of the show, making choices, making discoveries…experimenting.
It is, one could argue, why we call it play.