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A Good Fast
By Caridad Svich


"We note that theater has ceased to exist for some people,
and for nearly everyone."
-- Salvador Dali

I'm in a place bankrupt of history,
In a place called Slaughter:
A land's gleam --

Buy the poster, the T-shirt, the DVD, the soundtrack, the cell-phone cover, the CD-Rom, the backpack, the sneakers while you sip a cappuccino, a double latte, a decaffeinated herbal tea, a Martini, a Cosmopolitan, a mojito, and a smoothie as you smoke a filtered cigarette, a Dominican cigar, an ecstasy slim wearing your Nicotine patch and downing your next dose of Prozac. If speed as in faster, fastest, and faster still is the way we live now in the age of text messaging, digital cameras, cyber-gaming, cyber-sex, and good old-fashioned burlesque revived for a new time then the sheer proliferation of entertainment gambits, opportunities, and blatant merchandising cash-ins which vie for our attention is indicative of the seemingly insatiable appetite that has been created over the last forty-odd years for instant hits of pleasure in American culture (instant hits which have been mega-co-opted by Japanese youth culture at a rate of lightning cubed).

The ravenous eye burns through flesh straight through carcass. Divulge, it says, and indulge everything you desire. A ceaseless appetite makes the eye keep seeking. Hold one pose and another. Burn one image and another. Flesh becomes silver spools cradled by gluttonous hands. The spools turn and spew orbit-less wonders of earth-bound profanity. Food is crap, life is crap, love is crap. Everything's damn plastic. You open a cardboard cup of pasta, you eat. Sustenance is important.

The American audience has not only more options to choose from for their entertainment buck, but more ways to satisfy the need for cultural nourishment. The twenty-screen cine-plex is the standard by which many audience members measure their quality time. If you can't get tickets to one movie, then go to the next. Discrimination is low. Maximum experience is the prime. And when satellite TV, cable, and the net are also on the list of "things to do" the compartment space for experience grows smaller and smaller as the options expand. The media, the great monster we all love, keep the news spinning as if there's no story they haven't buried.

On this stage war is another dot midst the many wounds bled for our ready gaze. Our theatre is in the inch by inch diagram we have constructed for the pleasure of endless confession: the dais we have set forth for the revolving mannequins to question our privacy. Hah. We call out. And our voices splinter the silicon dream.

One war begins, another is interrupted, and while sheer hatred increases all over the globe and the effects of nationalism and tribalism are witnessed from one country to another, political maneuvers are set in motion by unseen strategists behind the walls of power (strategists indebted to the global-fueling economies of illegal drugs, oil, and cheap labour). These maneuvers emerge retooled and reshaped in the blunt-speak of government officials, puppet kings, and late night TV pundits. Meanwhile, civil liberties continue to erode, the poor sink lower and lower on the economic ladder, health care is a luxury afforded by the very few, and the appetite for consumption grows in exponential degrees as proto-teens dominate the fashion and music markets, and thirty and forty-somethings seek greater and greater release for anxieties that they cannot name, or whose names change every two years according to the next and next medical study published on the pages of USA TODAY.

This is reality split and turned inside out for a new century, where the body of murder sits inside a tabloid celluloid Polaroid strip ready to be worshipped. Trinkets sold on the late night TV of hope springing ever eternal.

Within the swirl of this culture, American theatre is a micro-speck, a blip, and at best, for most, a tourist attraction to be visited once a year at the price of $100-150 dollars a head (which is what the standard Broadway musical event tends to go for these days). As a result, this form means less and less to the culture at large, as tattoo parlors, thrift shops, and computer software supply stores are crammed one against the other, fighting for deep pockets made slim by the economy. The fact that theatre is not integrated, as it is in other countries, into the fabric of culture, into the national or community discourse - in other words, theatre matters in many parts of the world, but not in the US - has created a schizoid phenomenon I call the "theatrical puddle for the eminently theatrical." In this puddle actors, writers, directors, producers and designers swim with furious fins to stay alive. One eye looks toward the future, while another at who will jump into the puddle next and take up whatever space is left to make your voice heard and/or seen.

There's no time anymore, not to waste. After you've been tranced-out raved up pumped down blissed out broken by every beat and kicked in the solar like an avalanche, there's no sense thinking how it all done end: somehow, some other you got be in this half-bit state. Talking bout mean time.

Competition has always been fierce in the arts, as it is in other businesses (and yes, for all high-minded purposes, at the end of the day, theatre is among many other things, a business, while also being for some of us a life, a religion, a creed, a way station, and the best pleasure principle we can name) yet the very shallowness of the puddle has made competition even fiercer. There are fewer and fewer venues where new work is produced, because the empires of profit are governed by the economics of security rather than risk. The comfort of staging the familiar, be it a revival of an old play or musical, or a new work written in a familiar popular form, maintains the theatrical status quo. A large pool of artists, thus, vie for the same five or six slots open to new plays during the theatre season. In addition, amongst this large pool of talented dramatists (and the US has one of the deepest, strongest talent pools around), there are those who see their time in the theatre as no more than a stepping stone to work in the true communicative mediums of our culture: film and television.

If theatre mattered at one time in US society (the era of vaudeville and burlesque; the age of melodrama and birth of naturalism; and during the 1940s and 1950s when television ironically brought theatre excerpts courtesy of variety shows into millions of homes that had never seen a scene from Death of a Salesman, or heard a song from Annie Get your Gun), that time is long past.

The early symbiotic relationship between the new baby form television and live theatre created a strong interest in the US for live performance. There was genuine excitement among tele-viewers for who would be on the next Ed Sullivan Show, Milton Berle show, Red Skelton show, and Steve Allen show. Audiences were eager to see Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady, and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. In turn, these performers began to move into film. As the television variety show came to an end, and rock n'roll and the Vietnam war shifted audiences' musical tastes and socio-political concerns, Hair was among the last of the Broadway shows to be showcased on network airwaves (the televised annual Tony Awards notwithstanding).

The 1960s was a time of revolution in the US and theatre was indeed part of it. Experimentation with form and content, the breaking down of barriers between performer and audience, the work of Grotowski, and the revived interest in the spiritual polemics of Antonin Artaud signaled clearly through the flames of culture. Plays moved out of the literary canon and into the performance space. Artists wanted to do away with the shelf-life antiquity of the printed word in favor of live, raw, in your face, in your space work. Plays and texts were ephemeral, as ephemeral as the act of performance itself.

Subsequently, it is hard to trace a continuum of work, to document and notate material created in the last fifty years, and let alone try to connect the dots in the university system where contemporary theatre still means to the average student the works of Beckett, Pinter, and maybe Mamet. In fact, with the rare exception of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, most American theatre students' view of contemporary work (at the undergraduate and sometimes graduate level) jumps from Harold Pinter to David Mamet (not an unlikely jump, since Mamet owes a significant debt to Pinter as a dramatist) but this means that the work by other artists -- Maria Irene Fornes's clear-eyed ballads, Caryl Churchill's polyphonic dreams, The Wooster Group's acid visions, John Jesurun's poetic meditations, Erik Ehn's spiritual epiphanies and Sarah Kane's pulsating elegies for humanity -- has been left not only on the margins, but in the basement. Adventurous professors go into the basement every once a while, just like Bob Dylan did before he went electric, and expose students to works by these artists and others, and suddenly missing links in form, theatrical grammar, and design are filled.

This is a distant planet, and we're all in pup tents by ourselves living on cool, fast pop full of sugar, munching on Zero Bars, depending on our collective short-term amnesia while we thrive on extremes. Only an inborn sense can tell you this is woe-ness. All we can hope for is an act of retrieval.

Students are the future. They are the present and future audience. Now that the subscriber model of the not-for-profit "commercial" theatre is waning and the subscriber audience's median age is sixty, theatres are scrambling to find the new audience, the audience that was not cultivated or encouraged to see theatre in the last forty-odd years. We have a profound deficit, as it were, of audiences educated to the theatrical experience, and interested in seeing theatre as a natural and necessary part of cultural life. The dependence on the subscriber (and God bless the subscribers because for the most part they are the audience that grew up going to the theatre, and thus are some of our most educated audiences around) has left the not-for-profits in a bind. Meanwhile junk culture has overrun our society, and theatre means less and less to the average Joe walking down the street and has created an insular and incestuous artist subculture where artists make work for other artists, go to see each other's shows, and talk to each other about each other's work.

This incestuousness has encouraged a cottage industry of confessional theatre driven by the monologue form, where performers either tell their own stories to varying degrees of success depending on their talents as dramatists and actors, or tell fictionalized stories of the rich and famous, since celebrity culture is so dominant a force that an audience can be somewhat instantly generated if a performer is playing a recognizable figure from tabloid or literary or fashion history (and sometimes all three!). These figures represented are usually modern celebrities which means they are figures drawn from the well of trauma and recovery. If reality TV and pseudo reality theatre do anything, it is to heighten our culture's fascination with not talent, skill, art or virtuosity, but with psychological trauma, drug addiction, and the rehabilitation of the psyche.

I live in the shadow space of your darkening eye, which magnifies what it most sees fit but is not fit to be seen. And you take all the crap I give you and turn it into bite-size samples of damn wisdom I don't even have time to swallow.

Confessional drama, both of the solo variety and the multi-character kind, has dominated the US stage since the 1980s, although its seeds can be found in the realistic dramas and musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. The increasingly private nature of theatrical work, despite its ambition and potential scope has stopped work from actually speaking to the culture in which it is being made. Is it any wonder that even some of the most passionate theatre artists have stopped connecting successfully to their audience?

The disillusionment of the avant-garde and the high cost of making theatre both in the not-for-profit and commercial arenas have caused a quiet retreat among the artistic community. Many of the US's most talented artists do their work abroad. Witness the case of opera and theatre director Peter Sellars, who actually started out making theatre in the US, but has ended up doing one-off stands in this country with varying degrees of critical success or audience interest over the last twenty years. His staging of The Children of Herakles at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an example of his rare theatrical forays in US established theatre. Media artist John Jesurun, whose groundbreaking plays with film and video were initially on the cusp of experimentation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, continues to create spiritually rich, imaginatively designed work that is seen in Japan, Mexico, Germany and France more often than it is in the US. Linguistic dynamo Mac Wellman, whose influence hovers strongly over the work of celebrated dramatist Suzan Lori-Parks and many others has an energetic, playful, obsessive interest in fragmented Americana-scapes, and builds his texts around the eternal political question, "how is it that we got here?" Yet Wellman's work, even when rarely presented in more high-profile houses is summarily set aside as work by a theatrical eccentric. And while to some extent this is true, so was it also true of eccentrics like Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and Walt Whitman, artists who found in the field of literature a more amenable home and critical reception for their visions.

When master artists are dismissed, ignored, or forgotten, what happens to those of us who are following in their footsteps, who are inspired (almost as an act of social rebellion) to continue to make theatre?

The world is thin. It evaporates in my hands. Rules are imposed and then taken away. What has happened is gone and we don't even remember it. We live now, right now, and future tense is just out of sight. Flatlands, lowlands, prairies, plains…I'd damn look to set down, but got no-where to set down.

The roads available for work are few yet remarkably varied. The university remains the safe haven for many artists working with radical form and content. Self production is another way artists are making their work seen. Keeping costs low and materials cheap, many of the self-produced theatre-makers and ensembles around the US are looking at European models to create a new way of subverting the established paths available to artists. Dah Theater of Yugoslavia is an eleven-year-old ensemble that has been touring their highly political, personal work over the years. Their interest in international exchange and in training younger artists has made them one of the most inspiring ensembles to have hit US shores. Dah has become one of the model companies for fledgling ensembles based in Chicago, Austin, Seattle and New Orleans.

Tired of waiting for established theatres to present their work and of waiting for the theatrical machine to change, young US artists are creating companies and putting on their work in alternative venues, and are finding committed and passionate audiences. Rude Mechs in Austin is one such company. Creating texts from within or commissioning work, artistic director Shawn Sides and her cohorts have not only created a loyal following for their work but with the success of their adaptation of Greil Marcus's history of punk, Lipstick Traces, which traveled to New York, and later had a national tour, and will now play internationally, they found themselves positioned as one of the most exciting companies in the US in a long while. Texas, in fact, with its wide open spaces and unmistakable twang has yielded other companies. Austin has been a hotbed of the roots and alternative music scene for quite some time. Capitalizing on this, Rude Mechs and Salvage Vanguard have made it a point to create work or produce already-existing work that incorporates music in a novel or profound manner.

New music, new opera and the spoken word movement in poetry have also impacted artists making texts rooted in hip-hop, and electronica. The galvanizing effect that music can have on an audience and the jump-cut manner in which you can tell a story through music, though not necessarily following the now classic US musical theatre tradition, is making artists create a wide range of hybrid forms in pubs, clubs, bars, and galleries. Mixing cabaret, and poetry, ambient sound, and fractured personas, these new pieces owe a debt to the early American musicals.

In the commercial theatrical world, John Cameron Mitchell's playful rock cabaret deconstruction of Plato's Symposium, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, capitalized on a post-AIDS gay subculture sensibility that was rooted in a mini-glam rock revival in the club circuit. MTV took an early lead on the televised musical by producing a hip-hop version of Bizet's Carmen. Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (and now his pop staging of La Bohème on Broadway) and Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine worked at different but equally inventive ends of the visual spectrum in film to create a new form that paid homage to the classic American musical and its ingrained tropes while also pushing at the form to create what has already been deemed a new media hybrid. These more commercial ventures do not exist without their burgeoning counterparts and forerunners in US alternative theatre.

Mixed media artists The Wooster Group and Mabou Mines have been exploring alternative, unique models for performance for the last thirty-odd years. Marianne Weems and her company The Builders Association have been working with new technology, dramatic presentation, and collaborations with architects and musicians to international acclaim. Richard Foreman continues to make work at a regular rate despite changing trends, fashion and economics. Anne Bogart and the SITI Company have profoundly impacted actor training in the US. In Britain, young companies like Frantic Assembly, Station House Opera, and Peepolykus are re-invigorating young audiences with their highly physical, generally non-narrative, music-driven work, inspired by the active presence of Sheffield's Forced Entertainment and the magical work of Improbable Theatre. Through producing company Cultural Industry, Improbable had a world-wide box-office success with their dark (and somewhat improvisational) musical adaptation of Shockheaded Peter.

But what about artists who are not part of a company? Playwrights, for example, tend to work alone. The work begins in a room, on a screen, in a notebook and slowly filters its way out toward a shape that can be called a text suitable for performance. With American theatrical taste still stuck in the grooves of realism, playwrights have had a tough time of it in the US if their interest goes against the dominant theatrical mode of representation. We live in a culture that is constantly articulating. But the origin of art is the gap between consciousness and the difficulty -- indeed, the impossibility -- of fully articulating consciousness. How to develop or sustain consciousness and silence without over-articulating in a culture that rewards verbal fake insight?

What do I got to owe you, eh?Bastard children of loose-lipped America, loose-hipped wanderers with acid leaves?I am the bastard prince born of a bastard king out of the belly of nothing but a stack of old records and mutable beliefs. Call me as named. Expect nothing of me.

Critics and producers have cottoned to the notion that a play exists first as an issue to be marketed to an audience that may wish to discuss it at some length after the show. Only later do they recognize that a play must happen which can contain this issue. It is as if to say that Ibsen's Ghosts is only a play about syphilis, and that Shakespeare's King Lear is only a play about real estate. As ludicrous as this may sound, it is not far from how plays are described to audiences and (more destructively) developed in the other US cottage theatrical industry which is defined as "development." Good intentions abound as plays are funneled through a development machine that has pockets in different parts of the country.

Our theatres have become museums: interested in archiving experience instead of living it. Fringe venues, which used to welcome new writers (and just remember that Shakespeare, Marlowe and Brecht were all new writers once) are in the process of redefining themselves, as they too have become high-pressure sites for the birth of the next hit (witness the Urinetown phenomenon). The re-converted studio space/ gallery/ coffeehouse/ bar concept is beginning to set the standard for how theatre performances will live in the next twenty years. Audiences sit at the bar, bring their drinks into the house, and watch the show. The atmosphere is loose and joyous, and the point is that the audience is being welcomed back into the theatre. An effort is being made to seduce an audience into actually walking into a space, because the possibility that something thrilling will happen is great.

Startle me. That's all I want now. Lots and lots of sparks. In every part of my body. Little rushes of intense feeling. Pure thrills.

The best "theatre" I've seen in the last five years has been not in the theatre but elsewhere: on the rock concert stage, in clubs, raves, galleries, fields, aircraft hangers and shopping malls. Yes, shopping malls. Though architect and curator Rem Koolhaas is often vilified for his aesthetic commitment to shopping as the new wave, his Prada boutique in Soho (which replaced the wonderful Guggenheim Soho museum, another instance of one art space being subsumed by a commercial space for obvious consumption) is in and of itself a theatrical event.

The audience walks in, is greeted, and admires the beauty of a floor, a skylight, the design of a building. Buildings are rock stars these days. See the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and you understand why it's now not necessarily the art inside the building that draws the audience but the building itself, the beauty and elegance of the façade. What is inside has become irrelevant. Lest the irony not be lost on the consumer, you can do yoga in the morning, have tea in the afternoon, read the latest bestseller about Life's simple pleasures, and fill your inside just fine. Or so you think. But what is true is that American audiences are craving for something more. The speed of our lives, the anxiety we have become accustomed to day to day (before and after 9/11) has conditioned us to eternal want because what we are offered most of the time to enrich our beings as humans on this earth is junk, great big flashy shiny expedient glorious well-crafted ad-savvy junk. It is what we have become used to. And like any aspect of culture, theatre too has become enamored of and used to junk.

Celebrity culture overrides decision-making in favor of the bottom line. Stars are called up to adorn plays and fill the empty seats so that the evening out becomes little more than haute cuisine lite. Audiences walk out of their junk experiences on short highs, on sugar rushes, as forgetful of what they have seen as of what they ate at their local diner. I don't say "restaurant" because often restaurants serve better, more satisfying, more adventurous courses than our theatre.

Now of course I am skewing the perspective just a bit. I am fashioning this text on embroidery and exaggeration. But in a culture filled with overweight children, anorexic teenagers, and caffeine-addled adults, it is not improbable to suggest that there is a deep vacuum at the center of how we live and why.

I am reminded of a story told to me by a young Asian British playwright who described the experience of witnessing a reputable actor who also happens to be steeped in the griot tradition act in a play. Now the production itself was fine enough, but what she was most impressed by was the direct act of communication that was occurring between performer and audience, between the story being told and the act of listening to the story. In griot, the storyteller is the messenger, and the audience is waiting for the message to be delivered. There is a promise between the teller and the tale, between the tale and listener, and the promise is fulfilled in the moment, in the act of telling. A story is handed down to be told again, to be repeated and absorbed into the culture.

Our stories live in the news reports of kidnapped girls raped and murdered, in the diffused stories of war played out on our screens, and in the television dramas and comedies that visit us daily. "Frasier," "Friends," "The Practice," "Everybody Loves Raymond": the stories of these character-vehicles have become as familiar to us as the Greek myths were to the audiences watching Sophocles's and Euripides's plays. But the difference is that "Frasier" doesn't depend on our involvement as an audience for the story to be told. The plastic mediums are encased in themselves. They repeat ad infinitum in and out of time. "The Practice" competes for the same place in the public's imagination as reruns of "Law and Order," "Saturday Night Live," and the TeleTubbies.

I try my luck in the modern age and ask myself "Is this it? Like this alone, together? When did this start? Last night? A quarter of a century ago? Or was there something pivotal that turned ten years into a different age: a reflecting pool of extreme desires, of skeevy impulses and moving trucks?

Theatre is about time. The essential nature of time passing. Like other forms of live performance, it demands the audience's attention, and the stories are constructed with the knowledge of time as their measure. Meter, tempo, rhythm, silence are all elements of theatrical constructions of text and space. But how is an audience who has been conditioned to receive their stories outside of temporality and outside of mythology supposed to truly engage and interact with the plays or events being designed to satisfy their appetite for amusement, instruction, pleasure, and catharsis?

Consumer culture has eaten away at our audiences and artists. We are both equally craving something more even as we persist in taking in, indulging in as much as we can. Because of course cultures need stories. They are what make order of our chaos, even if momentarily. That order allows us to think about our lives, reflect upon them and move on. The substance of Shakespeare's tales, Marlowe's tragedies, Euripides's ecstasies, Genet's catastrophes, Williams's fantasies, Garcia Lorca's linguistic and imagistic symphonies, and Strindberg's un-resolved mysteries of the human heart retain their impact over time, even if they are cut up, deconstructed, parodied and reduced.

The human body is the message, the human psyche and consciousness are what theatre examines, probes, nudges, and from where it tells its stories. The craving is within. The craving doesn't stop. Because craving is linked to desire, and desire is what drives our yearning. Hunger does stop. And it is hunger that I propose we defeat.

I propose we stop our junk hunger, our theatrical fix, by not doing, not making, not having art for a while. By stripping away and giving ourselves a good fast because I think that is what we need to move forward. If we fast ourselves of art, of theatre, and truly examine why it is that we do what we do, why we wish to see stories, see bodies on stage or in a space reflecting ourselves back to us, outside of the rush of the contemporary, of the ad campaign, of the lottery ticket that looms over our heads in the hopes that we will all one day be millionaires, then I think we will find the necessity for theatre again in our culture, and make it part of our daily discourse, and not an aberration, or something to be checked off our cultural list as something done for the week. Theatre should not be dutiful but rise out of need and passion and social voice. Theatre is a public voice in the public forum, and while its ancient, creaky ways will never be truly as mobile or fluid as the plastic mediums, its very creakiness, crankiness, orneriness, and stubborn insistence on the human at its center (and this includes puppets too) gives it its greatest power.


Let us empty our bellies and minds of the soft porn that has been ruling our lives.
Let us rid ourselves of irony's steely crutches, and be passionate, and risk feeling.
Drop your guard. Let yourself show. Be exposed.
Be dangerous. Be tender. Let time bend and words loop and spin.
Starve yourself of everything.
Stop all entertainment, turn off all the channels, shut down the airwaves.
Acquaint yourself with silence. Listen for a long while. For hours, for endless time.
Think about getting old and dying.
Think about not being scared.
Learn in the fasting silence what it is that you really want to say, have to say or need to say to another human being.
And once you've fasted a good fast, a nourishing fast for society's whole (hole),
Then slowly speak, put words on paper, and make your words count.

Make them light and quick as the wind. Let them have gravity and grace.
Speak with no words. Speak with your body. Pulse with the light.
Take up animation. See what else you could be.
Embrace myth. Take back the classics. Make new classics.
Be epic, large, unwieldy, frank, sensual, and strange.
Use popular forms to be radical. Stage texts in stores, garages, basements, churches, clubs, cathedrals, and parks. As we have done for centuries.
Put works in print. Use print as a new stage to make voices heard. Distribute plays as if they were flyers, put them in people's hands. Make them natural in their very unnaturalness. Make them secretive, sexy, and underground.
Crave to listen, to witness stories being told.
Reject everything anyone has ever told you about theatre. Follow no rules.
Follow all rules. Make rules.
Make, make, make. After a good fast, and what has come from it,
focus again, yes, on making.
By hand. By tongue. By breath.
breath, ha, release, through the mouth, on the tongue, about to be given shape,
breath holds promise, body human, word found, utterance without word, breath sustains,
breath contains, the whoa wow endless bountiful smallest ha
By just being.
Make senseless acts of beauty.
Share words, stories, gestures, signs, images, moments. Link one story to another.
Pass things on. Be a messenger. Shout like a griot from one village to another.
Watch the village move, sway, ripple in waves from the shout of your story.

This is the message. Take no prescription. The dose allowed is zero. Make it count


[An earlier version of this text was presented at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University in November 2002, and at New Dramatists in New York City in February 2003.]


©2003-10 All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or distribute in any form without express permission. Hunter Department of Theater . 695 Park Avenue . New York, NY 10065 .