There’s something appealing about the term ‘avant-garde’. Perhaps because it doesn’t evoke a particular form of work. In spite of the clichés mentioned here, for me it doesn’t conjure up eyeball munching, nude dancing or a preoccupation with insulting the audience. It’s more about pushing a form to its limits, making the work you want to make and not caring what anyone else thinks. And it’s a bit retro, it conjures up different times, writers such as Antonin Artaud, Tristan Tzara, Alfred Jarry – performance that is obsessive and uncompromising and hard. Avant-garde theatre has sharp elbows. Ironically, the term conjures up the old, not the new. But it’s definitely better than ‘experimental’.
The discussion in the Observer by Vanessa Thorpe references recent comments by Mark Ravenhill, who is talking about the avant-garde within playwriting rather than art/theatre in general. I think it’s within the new writing theatres and playwriting that there is the biggest problem – because most writers depend on being spotted by a producing theatre or company to get their work seen. Of course theatres are rejecting brilliant avant-garde plays by unknown writers. They always have and always will. Beckett’s plays weren’t recognised until he was 47.
“I was simply left wondering how such naive tosh managed to scrape past the Court’s normally judicious play-selection committee.” Michael Billington on Blasted
Sarah Kane on Crave: “I think of it more as a text for performance than as a play” (Kane cited in Saunders)
It was OK for Kane to say that as she was already seen as a playwright by then. But there’s a risk that if you start to say this kind of writing is not playwriting, then it gets kicked out of the canon, out of the new writing theatres and confined to devised theatre companies (who usually don’t want to work with scripts or writers anyway) and student productions. Or in Kane’s case – the rest of the world where it’s performed regularly.
Looking at Howard Barker proves that something is seriously wrong with the theatre and new writing industry in this country. I love Kane’s work, and her attitude and her writing on theatre. She is incredibly important. But as a playwright, Barker is in a different league. As Kane said – in a few hundred years he’ll be like Shakespeare. The fact that his current work is practically ignored in this country is a crime. He may be a nightmare to work with. I don’t know, never met him. But who cares? He’s the best living British playwright.
Mel Kenyon suggested that Kane couldn’t have gone further “the body of work was absolutely complete”. (About Kane: the playwright & the work)
Maybe that’s how Kane felt at the time, she wrote in 4:48 Psychosis:
How can I return to form,
now my formal thought is gone?
But I disagree with Kenyon, I think she would have kept writing and kept experimenting. She was a writer. You can go further. The worst thing about people’s attitude towards ‘avant-garde’ work is that there is some assumption that it’s all been done – so let’s get back to naturalism and story. It’s harder to do it badly.
As well as this plague of TV style naturalism there’s an obsession with story in theatre at the moment. Theatres, playwrights, competitions, everywhere, looking for writers with ‘stories to tell’. ‘Be very clear about what your story is’.
“Narrative is not destroyed by the non-linear, it is merely disguised. Disguised as something else, which is where the poetry comes in” Mac Wellman
Kane on the Bush theatre:
“If I wrote a report saying a play was absolutely dreadful, I could be pretty sure that it was going to be on in six months, and it was always to do with form”
New writing theatres are drowning in story and naturalism while there’s a drought in experimentation with form and language. Language play is seen as a distraction from character and story. Characters speaking in similar voices are seen as proof the writer doesn’t know their craft. But Kane’s don’t. Barker’s don’t. Wellman’s don’t. Churchill’s don’t. Crimp’s don’t. Beckett’s don’t. Sarah Ruhl’s don’t. Marius Von Mayenburg’s don’t. etc. – those writers use language, form, image, theatrical innovation as an integral part of writing, part of theatre, and not as something that is toyed with to the detriment of the quality of the work.
“I genuinely believe you can do anything on stage. For me the language of theatre is image” Sarah Kane
Part of the problem is in the barriers that are placed between performance art, spoken word, new writing, devised theatre, performance art, academia and ‘the real world’ (London). Artists should have a choice regarding what genre they operate within. If they say it’s a play, then it’s a play. It’s too easy to dismiss avant-garde playwriting as ‘performance writing’ or something ‘other’.
Of course avant-garde theatre has small audiences. We need smaller audiences. Peter Brook said ‘oh for empty seats’ - we need theatres and funders willing to support work that won’t reach large numbers of people in the short term. That’s the work that makes an impact in the long term.
We also need theatres, directors and actors who are able to produce the work. Work that doesn’t fit a three week rehearsal period. And into a – character motivation, character journey, what’s at stake, what’s the subtext – kind of analysis.
This tentativeness in approaching and producing avant-garde plays seems to have something to do with how directors and actors train, differences between university and drama school, a narrow therefore inbred route into London theatres and the wall erected between the work of companies such as the Wooster Group and Odin theatre (for instance) and British new writing. A bit of cross-fertilisation would be good.
In moments of desperation I do haphazard google searches:
‘linguistically innovative plays’
‘directors interested in experimental writing’
etc. It’s pretty futile.
I emailed Mac Wellman, and he replied:
- obviously it wd be better if we cd talk in person. Of course, doing non-naturalistic work is hard nay where; but you shd persist– one never knows; best wishes, Mac Wellman
It was nice of Mac to respond, and maybe we will talk in person some time. That’s just how it is, we’re all busy, we’re all fighting.