Marianne Weems, co-founding artistic director of The Builders Association, was head of graduate directing at Carnegie Mellon University and is currently developing CMU’s Integrative Media Program in New York.
If we presume the structure of narrative to be a “story,” then we adopt the Aristotelian classic progression in which the protagonist is introduced, begins “his” journey, encounters obstacles, and triumphs over them. Traditionally the narrative structure of any work (be it film, play, or novel) can be divided into the three-act structure: setup, conflict, resolution.
In contemporary performance there are now countless efforts to problematize, deconstruct, unsettle, reverse, or disperse narrative. I’ve always liked the playwright Mac Wellman’s summary of these efforts, via the translation of the Finnish word juoksentelisinkohan: “I think I shall wander about a little without a particular destination.”1
From the early 1960s on, experimental theater artists demonstrated a fear of narrative in an enormous and violent effort to belie, deny, resist, and critique mainstream American theater. Whether evading the realism of Arthur Miller or the saccharine “story lines” of the musical, the goal was to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the packaged products of “Broadway.”
This aversion to conventional theater practices can also be viewed as a fear of narrative; it launched these artists into the territory of slippery signifiers, as seen in Robert Wilson’s theater of images, Jack Smith’s collages of 1940s Hollywood “exotic” B movies, or the Wooster Group’s various strategies to expand narrative. My work as a dramaturg with the Wooster Group allowed me to closely witness a variety of approaches; they have now become identified as “postdramatic theater,” but in the early to mid-1980s we understood them to be activist experiments in demolishing story. This was accomplished variously through the interpolation of a text with little obvious connection to the ostensible “play,” through the addition of complex movement sequences, exaggerated performance styles, highly formal approaches to music and costume, ambient video, and so on. The result was a sophisticated and sometimes hilarious refusal of stories and of the writers who made them; the playwright-writer-storyteller could no longer remain the master of “story” or identify a central meaning for the experience. Many meanings were conveyed; perhaps some were associated with the central text, but most were intended to problematize or open up a space for new associations to be formed.
Paradoxically it is interesting to note that while all these theater makers were eschewing narrative, visual artists began experimenting with it. Many visual artists were successfully delivering narrative meaning through brief (we might now call them Twitter-like) story lines: Jenny Holzer’s “protect me from what I want,” Barbara Kruger’s “your body is a battleground,” Glenn Ligon’s “I am a man,” and others. With the advantage of being in an art space that did not expect narrative, these visual artists could use short bursts of text to infer a narrative reading. Free of the conventional theatergoer’s demand that a “narrative arc” accompany anything taking place in a proscenium, those working outside of the proscenium found new ways of using rather than discarding narrative-like content.
Whether exhausted by our predecessors’ intolerance of narrative or inspired by other artists’ interest in narrative, it now seems that a generation of artists who came through the Wooster Group have rebounded. Many are now crafting radically different approaches and new ways to connect with narrative. My own approach with the Builders Association has been not to implode narrative but to foreground contemporary readings of a canonical narrative, for example, pairing The Grapes of Wrath with stories from the current foreclosure crisis in HOUSE/DIVIDED (2012), or pairing the story of Aladdin with the call centers of Bangalore in ALLADEEN (2003). Reactions to these strategies will still vary. For some, my work does not sufficiently tell a story, and for others, it is too narrative-y and too content-driven.
Other practitioners have returned theater to a space of language and narrative by turning a magnifying glass on the often excruciating process of storytelling itself. By creating a metaconsciousness of the demands of and for narrative, Richard Maxwell produces a stripped-down stylized storytelling. This pursuit also seems to inform the work of Elevator Repair Service, which unpacked F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby with an eight-hour verbatim reenactment of the entire novel. We can find it in the work of Nature Theater of Oklahoma, which meticulously stages casual audio recordings, again calling for examination of the apparatus of storytelling. For instance, its Romeo and Juliet “stages” the attempts of some family members to remember the story’s plot line, and their fragmented reconstruction of the story becomes a moving alternative narrative.
Mac Wellman, Speculations (2001), http://www.macwellman.com/images/speculations14.pdf. ↩
The Wooster Group, BRACE UP!, 1991.
Richard Maxwell, House, 1998.
Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Life and Times, 2009–.
Elevator Repair Service, Gatz, 2006.
The Builders Association, Alladeen, 1999–2007, and House/Divided, 2011–.