Experimental forms of theater

Back in the 1960s and 70s, the New York City art world produced an experimental type of theater and a new language for the performing arts in which text no longer played the predominant role but was combined with imagery and influences from the visual arts to create more complex and inter-disciplinary works for the stage. Robert Wilson or, in the late 70s, the Wooster Group, pioneered, each in their own distinctive way, this new, experimental language and introduced an approach to the performing arts whose influence on contemporary work is still unsurpassed. At the time, Bonnie Marranca – a distinguished American specialist on theater and the performing arts – spoke of the «Theater of Images,» the title of her first book, published in 1977, in which she wrote about the theater of artists such as Wilson, Richard Foreman, Mabou Mines and the emerging Wooster Group. Co-founder in 1976 of the Performing Arts Journal (PAJ) which was later renamed the Journal of Performance and Art, a triannual periodical that is still published today (as well as also being a publishing house that specializes in the field), Marranca is the author of several well-known books on theater («Performance Histories» was published this year), a professor of theater at New York’s New School as well as an expert on the work of Robert Wilson. Marranca is currently in Athens to give two lectures on the relationship between the performing and visual arts. Her lectures will focus on Robert Wilson and the Wooster Group, whose latest production of «Hamlet» will be presented next month at the Athens Festival. Marranca’s visit is an initiative of the theater department of the University of the Peloponnese and the Fulbright Foundation. The lectures in Athens will be presented within the context of the Art Athina events and are co-organized by the National Theater’s Common View Project (a project that investigates the relationship between theater and the visual arts). Marranca will also present her lectures in Nafplion (the seat of the theater department of the University of the Peloponnese). Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies is also a co-organizer of the event. During her visit to Athens, Professor Marranca spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the development of the avant-garde performing arts in New York and current directions. Her focus was on the dialogue between the performing arts and visual arts and technology. The generation that appeared in the 60s and 70s was the first to pave the way for current developments. «In effect, the first time that people trained in theater moved in the direction of the visual arts was the generation of Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman – or the Wooster Group a bit later. These people got away from the idea of the text as this hierarchical element in theater. They were the ones that began to create works that could be looked at in terms of architecture, or design or technology – the use of media is especially strong in the work of the Wooster Group – or sculpture and was also closer to the tradition of surrealism, or dada. They created a theater that was different from the American theater of psychological realism, dominant until then, but which was also different from the politics of the Living Theater founded by Julian Beck and Judith Malina or the Performance Group founded by Richard Schechner. It moved away to something that was more formalistic,» said Marranca. This was long before the advent of cyberspace and years before knowledge became more interdisciplinary and the experience of our world more intercultural. «This theater anticipated where society went. It was John Cage who first talked about a library of recorded sounds, who had that idea of the archive and the database. In other words, this world book of knowledge and images as our database. It was Cage who first talked of the distribution, rather than the ownership, of knowledge. The cosmopolitan process of Wilson’s theater, if extended to the world of cyberspace, changes the very nature of the way we think of art and authorship, composition and interpretation and the notion of boundaries between art forms,» said Marranca. Experimental forms of expression that were influenced by the work of this early but still active generation continue today. Bonnie Marranca mentions groups like Temporary Distortion, the Builders Association and, as a European example, refers to the innovative work of Romeo Castellucci. She also says that the major source of inspiration for the most avant-garde forms of expression comes not from conventional theater but from the visual arts. «The new ideas are really generated by the visual arts and culture and media and not by theater. The question is what is avant-garde today? Can we speak of an avant-garde? What does it mean to experiment today? I think that all the excitement today comes from the world of media and visual arts and culture. There are not, for example, new people with any great new theories about theater. The energies of people are going into new kinds of performance that have to do with the image and movement and with technology.» However the excitement that surrounds the hip, at the moment, world of the visual arts does not necessarily mean that the bulk of the work produced in the field is of high standard. «I was at the Whitney Biennale recently and was shocked at how conventional the video artworks were. While there is an excitement in the art world, there is also a lot of average work going around the world looking the same. There is too much work or video that is autobiographical and self-indulgent, painting that is perhaps cartoon-y or childish and there is so much commentary on social crisis that does not go beyond the level of a magazine article. One thing that does concern me is that so much that is produced today presents issues in a journalistic way. I think that what we are missing are great works of the creative imagination, even if it is dealing with the catastrophic imagination. Of course, there are always great artists in every field. Joan Jonas, for example, one of the pioneering artists in video, continues doing brilliant work. She has gone back to performance, combining film, drawing and text in her work. I think that there are very serious artists and then some who are not, some things are events and some things are history,» said Marranca. Another point to consider is the fact that, although our cultures are becoming more visually oriented, our perception of imagery is often simplistic. «I often wonder, when I teach my students, why it is that they often cannot grasp avant-garde art, why it is that this generation that has been raised with images is so slow in developing reflexes to complex imagery. What I have realized is that their knowledge of images is influenced by corporate culture,» says Marranca. In «corporate culture,» art, entertainment and commerce are all brought together in images that imitate the more avant-garde exemplars but which really only offer simplified forms of entertainment. Through her books and projects at PAJ, Bonnie Marranca helps keep the distinctions between mass culture and experimental, quality art separate and breeds an appreciation and in-depth understanding of theater, the performing arts and their development. Currently, Marranca is working on the subject of «performance drawing» (the use of drawings in the performing arts), a subject that she feels has been neglected and which will be the focus of one of PAJ’s coming issues. PAJ also explores international art. Marina Kotzamani, an associate professor at the theater department of the University of the Peloponnese (and also the organizer of the lectures event), is preparing a study on contemporary Greek art in relationship to the performing arts for PAJ. «I am interested in parts of the world or regions that may not be covered as extensively,» says Marranca. Her visit to Athens is an occasion for the Greek public to learn more about challenging ideas in the field of theater and the visual arts. «Wooster Group: A Dictionary» (Fri 5 p. m.) and «Thinking about Wilson» (Sat 3 p. m.) at the Helexpo center (39 Kifissias, Maroussi).