Playwrights John Guare and Derek Walcott, sharing a bare auditorium stage at Massachusetts’ Amherst College, warmed to their subject. “People think of poetry as that thing with quotation marks around it,” Guare asserted with an emphatic bracketing gesture, “that thing you can point to and say, ‘Oh, there’s the poetry! What is more important, what we’re here to talk about” (a quick fraternal nod to Walcott) “is not poetry in the theatre, it’s poetry of the theatre. That can be supplied by Jennifer Tipton or Ming Cho Lee or Karl Eigsti, as much as it can by Tennessee Williams or David Mamet or Sam Shepard. We’re talking about the atmosphere around the play that creates the poetry…”
Guare was dropping names, none of them unfamiliar to his audience, an assembly of nearly 350 theatre artists and professionals from across the United States and abroad. The trio of designers he had cited—Tipton, Lee and Eigsti, along with John Jensen and Eugene Lee—were to appear that afternoon on the same stage, part of a rigorous, wide-ranging agenda for Theatre Communications Group’s fifth biennial National Conference.
‘What is, ultimately, the emblem of poetry in the theatre?” Guare challenged his listeners. “What makes a play a piece of poetry?”
It was a grand, unanswerable question, one of dozens of such questions raised and debated at the June 27-30 meeting, titled “An Examination of Process: Exploring Creative Collaboration in the Theatre,” and supported by a $15,000 grant from ATST. For the participants it was a gathering rich in transcendent moments: epiphanies about the art and practice of theatre, reverberating snippets of performance, unexpected connections among forms, disciplines and far-flung cultures.
Theatrical poetry was only one of a cluster of themes which emerged from the four days of intense interaction on Amherst’s summery green, century-and-a-half-old campus. The presence of eight prominent international artists, representing Latin America, Europe and Asia, nourished a continuing concern with “the other”—the perception and understanding of other peoples, other cultures, and the role that theatre art can play in their lives.
The exploration by playwrights of contemporary events and issues—exemplified by James Reston, Jr.’s Jonestown Express at Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, and Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice, based on the Dan White murder case—raised highly charged questions about theatre’s social and political responsibilities.
Those questions gained a wider context with the evocation of the devastating 10-year Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China by actor-director Ying Ruocheng (who recently played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman in Beijing); of the nightmare of brutal artistic repression in Latin America by Brazilian director Augusto Boal; of the struggles and absurdities of artistic life in the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc countries by expatriate playwrights Vassily Aksyonov of the U.S.S.R. and Janusz Glowacki of Poland.
The ideal of internationalism was set forth by incoming TCG president Lloyd Richards at the conference’s opening session. Introducing the keynote speaker John Hirsch, artistic director of Canada’s Stratford Festival, Richards said of Hirsch, “He is a person who has never recognized national borders or language as a barrier, but has acknowledged ignorance, intolerance and insensitivity as the thresholds that must be bridged.”
Hirsch picked up the theme, declaring, “We learn from this thing called art, which forever has been a mirror for man and society—but it is not good enough nowadays to simply learn about ourselves. We have to learn not only to tolerate other people and other cultures,” he cautioned. “We have to learn to understand them.”
Hirsch’s point was brought to vivid life by the reunion at the conference of playwright Arthur Miller and his Beiiing leading man, Ying Ruocheng. In a compelling conversation spiced with affection and humor, Miller said of his ground-breaking 1983 Salesman, the first modern Western play to be directed by a foreigner in the People’s Republic, “My only theory about the production was that the actors would become most American if they became most Chinese—which is to say, if they became most human.”
Miller and Ying—who traded anecdotes with Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s John Dillon, director of a recent Salesman production in Japan, and moderator Peter Culman of Baltimore’s Center Stage—pointed out that there was at the moment greater artistic fluidity and less rigidity in China than has been evident in many years. Ying’s own Beijing People’s Art Theatre will stage Amadeus this year, and work will begin in October on O’Neill’s Anna Christie at Beijing’s acting conservatory.
Miller, who once confessed to a long-suppressed desire to play Willy Loman himself, read the poignant “Dave Singleman” speech from Salesman, and was echoed eloquently in Chinese by Ying.
A similar cultural bridge was forged in the lecture demonstrations of Tadashi Suzuki, the innovative director of Japan’s Waseda Sho-Gekijo and, in recent years, a trainer of actors at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and the Juilliard School in New York. Suzuki’s rigorous physical training is designed, in his words, “to restore the wholeness of the human body in the theatrical context by employing the unique virtues of Noh and Kabuki to create something transcending current practice in the modern theatre.” His work was exhibited on video and in performance by Suzuki-trained actor Tom Hewitt of Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage company and Shiraishi Kayoko, the leading actress in Suzuki’s own company.
Shiraishi’s fiery but intensely controlled Japanese-language incarnation of Cassandra in a scene from The Trojan Women (one of a half-dozen Western classics Suzuki has mounted in his style) riveted the conference audience and prompted a tumultuous ovation. Shiraishi had evoked similar enthusiasm at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, where critics called her “an actress of blazing intensity” and “a fierce mystical presence.”
The more familiar work of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company was surveyed by one of its joint artistic directors, Terry Hands, in a conversation with John Hirsch and Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum. Hands described the RSC as an “ensemble of directors” held together by “the belief that the actor is the most important person in the theatre.” Hands contrasted the commercial orientation of U.S. theatre with an “internal mandate of service to the community” which is traditional in British theatre.
The porcelain face, its mouth a painted seam,Derek Walcott
a stream, a rivulet yawns like a wave,
from which you hear the storm-haired, gathering scream
of agony bellowing from your primal cave.
The conference’s global themes were paralleled by examinations of theatre’s role as a forum for society. Jonestown Express, James Reston, Jr.’s collage-like dramatization of the Guyana tragedy of 1978 in which 913 people died by mass suicide, came under intense scrutiny for its use of incendiary topical material. Reston and his collaborator, Trinity Rep artistic director Adrian Hall, defended their fictionalized, subjective approach from earnest and eloquent criticism. The play’s creators seemed fascinated by “the iridescence of evil” rather than its moral illumination, charged Derek Walcott.
Reston, who had earlier examined Jonestown in his book Our Father Who Art in Hell and in a controversial National Public Radio documentary, contended, “There are some things in real life about which the theatre can tell ‘the truth’ in a way which journalism and ‘the facts’ can never approach.” He said the play attempted to tell “a truth which goes beyond historical accuracy.” At the same session, moderated by playwright Richard Nelson, Emily Mann outlined the development of such plays as her Vietnam drama Still Life and the recent Execution of Justice, seen at Actors Theatre of Louisville, emphasizing her aim of exploring “our growing ambivalence about right and wrong.”
A very different context for issue-oriented theatre was limned by Augusto Boal, the Brazilian director, playwright and theorist who is currently based in Paris. In a wide-ranging discussion of his socially committed theatre work, Boal detailed the variety of life and culture in Latin America, criticized U.S. economic policies there, deplored the methodical censorship in many countries of dramatic literature and other arts, and described with remarkable humor his own arrest as a “dangerous artist” and his torture in a Brazilian prison.
“You are oppressed also,” Boal told his predominantly American audience, using rhetoric that recalled his influential book Theatre of the Oppressed. “The forms of oppression are not the same; the methods are not the same. But you should never lay down your arms and say, ‘We are not going to fight any more, because all over the world there are people worse off than we are.’ That does not help our struggles throughout the world.”
Attention turned to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as dissident novelist and playwright Vassily Aksyonov, whose 1975 book Metropol resulted in his expulsion from the U.S.S.R., and expatriate Polish playwright Janus Glowacki, author of the widely produced Cinders, talked about the Kafkaesque tensions between the artist and the socialist state.
“In a country with a permanent lack of open public life such as Russia, theatre becomes a significant tool for expressing the views of the so-called advanced intelligentsia,” Aksyonov noted in a flavorful account of the artistic flourishings and reversals of post-revolutionary Soviet history.
Glowacki, who described in heavily accented English the grim but grotesquely comic machinations of censorship in Poland, said American audiences “would be at a loss to understand the allegories and allusions” of contemporary Polish theatre. “Not one single decent comedy has been written in Poland in the past several decades,” he asserted. “A play about what people really laugh at would never be passed by the censors. The situation is even worse for tragedy.” Playwright Michael Weller, who moderated the discussion, praised the work of artists such as Aksyonov and Glowacki as “a reminder that the will to live freely and authentically and normally has not been forgotten or crushed.”
Theatre people from different countries make up a kind of united nation: a theatre of nations. And cultural activities can be a window to the world.Robert Wilson at TCC’s 1984 National Conference
“What makes a play a piece of poetry?” Guare’s rhetorical question got an answer some two hours after he asked it from lighting designer Jennifer Tipton: “Poetry is an expression of complex ideas with an economy of means, using shape and form,” she noted, agreeing that in the theatre it is unequivocally “visual as well as oral.” In other sessions, speakers connected the idea of theatrical poetry to the influential and controversial work of Robert Wilson, to the forced allegories and evasions of theatre in politically repressive nations, to the interpretive role of the director.
The latter topic, investigated by artistic directors Robert Falls of Chicago’s Wisdom Bridge Theatre, Gregory Mosher of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Fontaine Syer of St. Louis’ Theatre Project Company, Robert Woodruff of the Bay Area Playwrights Festival and moderator Arvin Brown of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, revealed some spirited disagreement about directorial approaches. “You can’t just march into the pages of a play and muddle around,” contended Syer, a believer in careful analysis and distillation. “Why not?” argued Woodruff, who prefers to use the script as “a taking-off point,” and sees the value of “coming into the process through the back door.”
“We need the courage to smash material reality and reach for another world that exists simultaneously,” contributed young director Peter Sellars, returning in another session to the poetry theme. His senior colleague, Guthrie Theater director Liviu Ciulei, capped the topic with a ringing declaration that poetry is “not only words, it is a state of grace.” (But the last word on poetry, in fact, came from a poet, as Derek Walcott gave a stirring reading of several of his theatre-related works, including a short poem written during the conference and inspired by the performance of actress Shiraishi. There were other performances by Mabou Mines actor Frederick Neumann, who read a Samuel Beckett text, and the ebullient actor-singer Roy Brocksmith, who put his stamp on songs by Brecht-Weill, Gershwin and Stanley Silverman.)
Sellars and Ciulei, representing two generations of theatrical experimentation, were joined in an appraisal of the contemporary avant-garde by Elizabeth LeCompte, artistic director of New York’s The Wooster Group, and Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. Ciulei struck the clearest note in the lively, sometimes dogmatic discussions as he advocated “theatre with the pulse of today” and praised “the curiosity and even the failure of the artist who tries to understand his own time.”
He might well have been speaking of any of the four theatre-makers who gave accounts of their innovative work in a session on new forms in the theatre: eclectic performance artist Meredith Monk, whose multi-media collaboration with Ping Chong, The Games, will open the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in October; internationally acclaimed director-designer Robert Wilson, whose 1976 collaboration with composer Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, will be revived in the same series; director-choreographer Martha Clarke, whose dance-theatre work The Garden of Earthly Delights, based on the painting by Bosch, will be restaged in New York this November by the Music Theatre Group/Lenox Art Center; and composer Richard Peaslee, who collaborated with Clarke on Garden and other works.
Creative process was the focus of the session. “I don’t think it is necessarily the responsibility of an artist to understand what it is that he’s doing,” avowed Wilson, prompting a question about the place of moral responsibility in his highly aesthetic work. “As performers we have to be both blind and deaf,” Wilson contended, defending the merit of an artist’s unmediated instinct. He said works such as Einstein, which lasts more than four hours, “set up an environment or situation where we can respond authentically, therefore becoming more aware of what we’re actually experiencing.
Wilson also railed against “cultural isolation” in America, and called for the formation of a national cultural policy, echoing keynote speaker John Hirsch’s ideal of “international understanding, cultural humility and respect for the strangeness of the other.”
It was one of the innumerable connections forged, one of innumerable circles completed.
Meredith Monk described her own work in a memorable phrase that could equally apply to TCG’s ambitious, culture-bridging assembly. “I create a larger-than-life experience,” she said, “that raises questions about the world.”
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