Volume 24, Number 3 (1993) THEATER

Questions and Answers
Big Cheap Update
Compiled by David B. Feiner

The work of turning "out there" into out here has begun. In last Issue's "Up Front," Erik Ehn called on the small experimental companies that dot the map of American theater to assemble. he proposed an Art Workers' Hostelry, "a national service organization that provides art exchanges between small nonprofit theaters," by sending seed teams of artists from one progressive company to another to restage productions. AWH would raise funds nationally, but much of its activities ideally would be made possible through barter.

Below are excerpts of some responses Theater has received from leaders of the out theres. All these companies are devoted to AWH's aims: to bring experimental new work longer life and wider audiences; to further the development of a critical vocabulary responsive to such work; to foster collaboration between like-minded and often marginalized companies, with the aim of creating an organic national repertory company for experimental theater.

The next step is to get representatives from possible AWH participants talking. To that end, the University of Iowa will provide space for a Fall '94 gathering at which AWH could progress from planning to building. If nothing else, it would fulfill at least one of AWH's most important goals; to bring together artistically independent theaters and "make their experiments in poetry and reproach better known to one another and the country." -- D.B.F.

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Annex Theater, Seattle
Here is the node you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart, make them hate, fear and suspect each other. Here is the analogy of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here 'I lost my land' is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate -- 'We lost our land.' The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first 'we' there grows a more dangerous thing: 'I have a little food' plus 'I have none.' If from this problem the sum is 'We have a little food,' the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot. The silent, stone-eyed women; behind them the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take his blanket. It's wool. It was my Mother's blanket. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning -- from 'I' to 'We.'" -- (from The Grapes of Wrath)
Allison Narver, Artistic Director

Hillsborough Moving Company, Ybor City, FL

I read Erik's essay when the magazine arrived at my bookstore, out of which I also run my theater... Here are my BIG CHEAP ANSWERS to your questions about AWH:

The idea of an AWH is a terrific one and The Hillsborough Moving Company would wholeheartedly do everything we could to facilitate/participate. We are into the idea of a network of artists sharing like philosophies: i.e., that experimental theater does still exist and most of it is big and cheap and maybe we like it that way. The AWH could function not only as a means of restaging productions, but as a foundation for the creation of new works developed by two companies using combined resources. Such collaborations would be a welcome source of inspiration and divergence. AWH could also lead to expanded press and critical exposure, which would not only benefit our companies, but would also bring a broader view of the national theater world to each community. A video library would be an essential factor. Why didn't someone think of this before?... We could probably conceive a lot of reasons for AWH to fail but if we approached our productions from such a perspective none of them would ave ever seen the light of day...

Val Day, Artistic Director

Cucaracha Theatre, New York City

I love the idea of small avant-garde theaters forming a nationwide network, cooperating, collaborating, trading productions and raising money together. Exposing Cucaracha's work to different audiences would be wonderful. Working in downtown New York it's easy to lost track not only of what the rest of the country is like but of what audiences are like above 14th Street. I'd love to go to Tulsa and do a play...

...The grass-roots, community-linked, service-barter approach Erik described is a provocative proposition but I'm not convinced a good deal of fund raising won't still be necessary. Putting up visiting companies is possible, although not easy in New York, where we live matchboxes. But getting in-kind contributions and free air fares an so on would create an enormous amount of time and additional work for already over-stretched staffs. Bartering services in lieu of spending cash might become so labor-intensive as to prove impractical.

I think, ultimately, somebody will have to step forward and make this their project -- somebody not bogged down with running a theater company -- somebody who will raise the money and coordinate the participating theaters...

Richard Caliban, Artistic Director

Undermain Theater, Dallas

...YES, I THINK AWH WILL WORK. What will it take to get it going? Erik has identified the first element, the theaters that are going the work... I have always been a proponent of theaters forming caucuses that bring a like group of people together. Enough of TCG, which serves only the big Constituent members. How about an organization that links small theaters that share solidarity of spirit?

What we must do now is find a leader with the unique vision of a poet, someone who has the creativity to throw out traditional notions of what is possible and allow the train to jump the track. Someone who can be a business-manager/facilitator/new-age-shaman to guide the group and make decisions, without taking the already overburdened artistic directors [of member theaters].

...Most of the possible constituents fall into the Broke By Choice category, but the artists who work for those theaters still have to support their families and themselves. Leaving town would have to be limited to the few artists on salary or in a work environment liberal enough to allow them to walk away from their jobs for two to three weeks or longer... Or perhaps AWH could provide a small stipend to those in need, to avoid the prejudice of exclusion because of poverty.

Erik's notions of trade and barter are very refreshing but might prove impractical in a city [such as Dallas, which is] built on money and The Deal. Dallas does not have the liberal, progressive environment that San Francisco enjoys (though we do have an environment uniquely welcoming to pioneering spirits). I would suggest some tinkering with the AWH to accommodate different geographic considerations...

Raphael Parry, Artisctic Director

Tulsa Theatreworks, Tulsa FL

In Tulsa, the phrase "experimental theater" is nearly redundant; here, audiences are likely to regard as "avant-garde" any production that doesn't include Broadway show tunes or Neil Simon one-liners. It is an atmosphere that engenders a disconcerting sense of isolation. Accordingly, the notion of connecting with theaters from other areas that have similar operating structures and operating goals is highly appealing to us... Theatreworks clearly would benefit greatly from sort of umbrella organization that would facilitate the sharing of scripts as well as exchanges of relevant ideas gleaned from the experiences of other fringe theaters...

We would like to see the AWH structured to allow inclusion of theaters in a variety of stages of development. Theatreworks is in only its second season. We opened our first production in a community which traditionally had been supportive of the arts but which had essentially no existing audience for experimental theater. We are still in the process of developing in local theatergoers a framework for appreciating unfamiliar stage work; moreover, we are currently working entirely with artists and administrators who rely exclusively on day jobs for their incomes. At this point, it would be extremely difficult for us to assemble groups of artists who could afford to spend four to six weeks out of town -- most of the people we work with don't have the opportunity to leave their jobs for periods of such length.

Not that Theatreworks would not have anything to contribute to the AWH. We would make available to other constituent theaters scripts that we develop. We would be happy to host a team from another theater... It would be wonderful to feel that there was some sort of cohesion to out here, that the work we do could have some impact beyond each of our separate wildernesses...

Bret Masterson, Artistic Director

Postscript: The Next Step

We're mid-step of the step; i.e., to be as we are in front of each other.

Conceive of our status quo as a dialogue with a particular audience: the assembled ratty masses -- ourselves. So, for example, Scott Feldsher from Sledgehammer has this NEA observership gig -- perhaps as he shakes hands across the country he is slipping a shiny snail-trail of identity behind him that others of the Assembly may follow. I'm on my way up to Annex with the Saint Plays, and I will do what I can to expand and explore AWH methodology through the experience. Val Day is working on a new piece with Mac Wellman, an ur-circuit rider/writer.

This step will land and then there's the step after that: a face to face meeting out of which will come concrete proposals for the sharing of work and workers. I hope that the University of Iowa's offer of a meeting space for September 1994 will bring together a group of 15 or so theatermakers. The task of sneeching (begging and bartering) plane fares, beds and food to get and keep us there is under way. Allison Narver and Andrea Allen at Annex have come forward with an offer to sere as signal boosters and contact people.

The investigation of new forms of assembly (as artists and audiences) is naturally related to questions of money, worship, and ethics. As we move forward into a territory where art, service, economic reproach, and uncensored witness are able to operate in the precence of one another, weneed to evolve our Esperanto: a language that is fully aesthetic and fully political without a need for translation or exaggerated similes.

Erik Ehn
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