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July 20, 2010


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Bold Experience That They'll Thank You For Later

Or, as some would call it, Eat Your Spinach Theatre!

Scott Walters

Amen, brother. Every once in a while, I look at Theatre Heute, or America Theatre magazine runs something about a continental production, and I look at the pics and read the description and think, "Really? Europeans put up with that?" No doubt George Hunka doesn't share this opinion...

David Cote

I think you're conflating England and the Continent--wrongly--on this point. England is, by and large, producing narrative, mainstream plays.

The sort of audience-offending regietheater (direct against the text, fracture narrative, use boredom and confrontation) which you refer to is much, much more prevalent in Germany and the Netherlands/Sweden/Denmark. English theater, by and large, has a very small tradition of truly opaque, avant-garde theater. Have you seen work by Improbable, Complicite and directors Rupert Goold and Katie Mitchell? It's very accessible, intellectual, humanist and narrative-based. Never mind if they use multimedia or postmodern staging techniques. They are based in narrative and are exceedingly careful to bring the audience along for the ride and make them feel like they had an entertaining, uplifting, and intelligent experience.

On the other hand you have a playwright such as Howard Barker or the company Forced Entertainment, which are much more aggro, recondite and opaque, but again, they're the minority.

Reduced funding to the National Theatre is not a blow against snobby, pretentious, Eurotrash auteurs. That's my two cents, at least.



The last time I had to sit through one of these smug lectures, it was delivered by a Brit. It was at the TCG conference, and a young (under 35) British director there on a fellowship decided to raise his hand and lecture Bill T. Jones that he was underestimating his audience's intelligence by putting a narrative arc into the musical Fela! and that he urged Jones (in the most condescending way) to reconsider and understand that narrative is frequently unnecessary. After all, he (The British Douche) had had a lot of success in his native England doing non-narrative works in basements, and he thought the American Commercial Audience would really respond to bold experimentalism, so long as Bill T. Fucking Jones wasn't so timid about it.

Jones dispatched him with a lot more politeness than he deserved, asking the man if he knew anything about Fela Kuti and, when finding he didn't, explained the necessity of narrative to doing a musical about him, not to mention the necessity of having a successful show on Broadway so he could push the experimental envelope further with his next project.

I agree that the Brits don't go in for regietheater as much. If you sub in "divised work that frequently shows the necessity of defined roles for directors and playwrights within the rehearsal process, a la Shunt" in the above, you'll get the British version of the thing I'm talking about.

Obviously, there are exceptions. Some divised work is good, as is some regietheater. I just think they're few and far between, and in the former, they tend to be groups that actually bother to differentiate clearly defined roles within the process a la The Debate Society or The Civilians or Complicite.

David Cote

Douchey Condescension knows no geographical boundaries, but the English excel at it, no doubt. (Just glance over the comments on any Guardian blog post.) The guy you refer to was clearly talking out of his butt, and actually, I think experimental English directors are bit intimidated by the American avant-garde, which is a hell of a lot more bizarre and robust than their scene.

Ian Thal

The Brits also have a more developed tradition of mime and slapstick violence which I find exciting. We Americans don't put enough mime or slapstick on our stages.

Otherwise, I have to agree with David. From what I can tell, the British theatre holds a huge amount of respect for the playwright and the text. The tradition of dispensing with texts or, depending on the individual instance, either playing with the text or doing violence upon the text, seems more popular with continental directors.

In fact, the only French director I've seen in the last several years who cared about narrative clarity was Marcel Marceau.



You did read my followup comment in which i clarified and responded to david, right?

Ian Thal

Yes, I did, Isaac. However my point was to simply voice my own agreement with David by citing my own observations. You really shouldn't take it so personally every time I post a comment.

That said, I really don't know why one should bother being resentful of a British director's critique of American theatre. Based on your account, it's not like he even had a coherent argument.

Theatre is very important to the Brits and they like to fund it and have great moral sentiment about it. I happen to admire their dedication to physical training of their actors and the importance they place on living playwrights. I'd even say my tastes probably skew British (and European.)

Whatever the British (and European) admirable contributions to world civilization (even to theatre) they have no monopoly on either civilization or theatre, so I simply refuse to be intimidated by them or their opinions, even if I am envious of their public art funding.

Timothy Childs

I of course sympathize with your reaction to a degree, Ian, but I don't think we should ever be happy that arts funding is cut. Until NTLive, a program funded largely by the government no doubt, those who couldn’t get to London to see National Theatre productions were out of luck. I'd hate for such wonderful programming to come to an end simply so that they could have a 'better understanding' of our own lack of government support.

Tim Childs

Ian Thal

Tim, it is Isaac who is expressing schedenfreude towards British theatres losing public funding-- not I.

My remarks were chiefly aimed at the silliness it is for American theatre artists to be intimidated by a single British director's comments on American theatre, as Isaac seems to be.

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