Blog

Why is the Avant-garde so Over?



                        J. Kelly Nestruck’s recent article about ‘one person audiences’ certainly made me think.
Toronto’s Globe and Mail theatre critic talks about the rising number of shows that feature performers acting before a single audience member, sometimes behind closed doors. Many have treated this trend as a particularly new and experimental form of theatre. (And if that is not said outright, it is certainly implied.)
            Well I doubt this is anything new. After all, there is nothing new under the sun. I remember performing a one man show directed by Hrant Alianak many years ago in the Poor Alex Theatre. The play was a monologue about s/m sex (oddly enough NOT written by me) in which I talked for a good hour about graphic s/m sexual experiences. Well that Sunday matinee only one person turned up for the show (gee…I wonder why….). I dutifully performed, and Hrant watched from the wings. When it was done I duly stepped forward for my little bow and the single audience member just sat there looking at me. Afterwards in the dressing room Hrant shook his head: “The least that bastard could have done was clapped!”
            Alright, so my experience with ‘one person audiences’ may be by accident and not particularly positive -- but I’m sure there must have been intentional ‘one person audiences’ before this. I know that Clare Coulter used to go to people’s houses to perform a Wallace Shawn play years ago. I’m pretty certain there were at least two ‘innovative’ things going on there – after all few people would be watching the performance, and in their own home.
            But what really irks me is the notion that these ‘one person audience’ shows are experimental or avant-garde. One problem is that they seem to be all form and no content. For instance, Adrian Howells at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011 wrapped his audience ‘in a towel and hugged them.’ Isn’t this pretty much the emotional and intellectual equivalent of The Sound of Music?
            Earlier this year I was asked to invent a ‘one person audience’ show. I refused, for two reasons. I said that I was just a little bit famous in Toronto, and I therefore feared ending up alone in a room with A Sky Hater. But this fear of mine – along with the fact that apparently a lot of these ‘one audience shows’ involve bigger celebrities than me, made me think that the whole idea is not so much about creating a challenging theatre experience as it is about creating an opportunity to be alone with a celebrity.
            But also, my definition of avant-garde theatre involves a performance that --instead of confirming each audience member’s cherished and most closely held beliefs –- causes audience members to question their premises. When I was asked to do a ‘one person audience’ show it immediately occurred to me that I could, possibly a) get naked b) take a shit on the floor c) say some really horrible stuff about myself d) commit a sexual act with myself e) just fucking swear for awhile.
All this may come as no surprise. A critic once said “Sky Gilbert’s work is all about saying ‘screw  you!’ to Mommy and Daddy.” Well, I prefer to think of it as sticking the proverbial finger up the ass of the patriarchy. 
            So, to be honest, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t trust the potential single audience member with me; I didn’t trust myself with that single audience member.
 I think the kind of spectacle that makes theatre interesting involves acts that would get you arrested if you imposed them, behind closed doors, on a stranger. However, if instead those things are done on a stage in front of lots of people with a ‘4th wall’ in between, well, you usually don’t get arrested -- you just end up offending a lot of people -- cuz it’s a play.
            No. I am convinced that much of what is being touted as ‘new’ and ‘experimental’ these days is actually a chance to meet celebrities and hang out with your cool friends. Or else, frankly, Punchdrunk’s New York City megahit Sleep No More wouldn’t be so popular.  Yes, yes, I too have hung out in the preshow bar watching all the trendoid New York fashionistas trying to pick each other up at Sleep No More. And  -- as fun as that is to do, and as fun as it is to watch -- Tamara (1981) by John Krizanc, directed by Richard Rose, was a lot more avant-garde.
            I’ll say it: maybe capitalism has devoured the avant-garde like it has devoured everything else. Maybe that money-munching technology we all love so much has driven us to imagine that giving people a hug while surrounding them with a towel is somehow revolutionary.
 Maybe there just is no avant-garde anymore.
            Oh well.