Well, that was different
Have you ever walked out of a show scratching your head and wondering what in the world you just saw? If so, chances are you experienced a piece of experimental theatre. While traditional productions tend to be relatively straightforward and easy to grasp, avant-garde artists reject dominant methods of producing and writing plays and do their own thing—whatever that may be. Since theatrical norms are constantly evolving, experimental theatre is, too. In order to go against the grain, you’ve got to know what those in the status quo are serving.
And that’s what makes experimental theatre so hard to define. It’s constantly in flux. Turn-of-the-last-century French playwright Alfred Jarry is generally credited as the godfather of the genre. His masterpiece Ubu Roi, an absurdist satire of Macbeth with lots of puns and potty humor, caused riots and, ultimately, a theatrical revolution. His artistic descendants include Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Peter Brook, Jean Genet, Luigi Pirandello and, more recently, Richard Maxwell, Mac Wellman, and Young Jean Lee. Though the movement may have started in Europe, NYC has long been a hotbed for avant-garde shows. Heck, we’ve even got a half-century-old institution called the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club down in the East Village.
Of course many elements once considered experimental—nudity and profanity, breaking the fourth wall, interacting with the audience, nonlinear structure or no narrative at all—are now commonplace onstage. It’s hard to remember back to a time when international entertainment brand Blue Man Group felt radical, or when few audiences had been exposed to immersive Sleep No More-style shows, both examples of once-new forms becoming normal (or worse, popular!). These days, with so many festivals and artists proudly claiming the experimental label, it just may be time for another Jarry-like theatrical coup. So the next time you see a production that truly pushes boundaries and makes you go, “What the heck?!” give it some props along with your applause. It’s hard to be truly avant-garde in the 21st century.
— Raven Snook