Recognizing a Third Stream in Performance

by Barry Drogin

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The sociological realm of singing theater is evolving in many directions in the United States. Within the traditional sphere of "opera," Opera America has documented an expansion of large houses toward increased investment in technology, including sophisticated stage pyrotechnics, electronic sound enhancement, and traveling "lawn concert" equipment. Although there are highly-publicized ventures into the production of new operas, these are, in fact, statistically insignificant. A host of smaller opera companies, funded by local civic-minded citizens, are bringing modest traditional fare to smaller audiences, sometimes in association with local orchestras and theater venues. New work at the smaller companies is rare, as well, except where composer residencies are present. The smaller companies typically have an educational mission in the local schools, which has resulted in fare accessible to young audiences. Opera for Youth, an affiliate of the National Opera Association (NOA), is involved in promoting this work. In the academic arena, the NOA has seen a small but healthy nexus of small-scale conservative contemporary opera work, on occasion using newer musical styles, but typically within traditional proscenium-arch contexts with normal character, plot and staging conventions. These works are used for pedagogical purposes, and require a high female-to-male ratio.

Outside of what is typically labeled "opera," there are multiple threads as well. Similar to the trend in the larger opera houses, there is a well-funded technological arm, typified by the recent work of Glass and Reich, as well as newcomers like Machover. Performances are typically in concert venues or alternative spaces used for dance and theater. Also similar to the opera world, smaller productions in alternative performance spaces are using low-cost cutting-edge technology as their primary means of expression. Microphones, sound processing, live and pre-recorded video and video processing are being explored and experimented with. And in the academic arena, primarily out of electronic music and multi-media departments, there are movements towards interactive performance.

I would like to suggest the emergence of another stream that both borrows and rejects elements of the other two I have identified. This third stream involves the attempt to move recent work in experimental theater over to the music theater context. Site-specific work, particularly of Anne Hamburger and En Garde Arts, and the elevation of street performers and buskers into a culturally-respected "new vaudeville" paradigm, have inspired artists in various fields to explore the possibility of performance outside of the institutional and sociological framework of box office/curtain time/reserved seating shared by opera houses, concert halls, dance spaces, theaters and, except in some performance art, museum auditoriums. Because of the absence of a structured revenue stream that the institutional framework provides, these alternative performances bubble up in large metropolitan areas. In New York, a tiny theater troupe performs “Subway Soaps,” un-announced original dramas in subway cars, revealing themselves as performers only after completion. Another tiny theater group performs for security cameras around the city, using silent-movie sign cards and mime as necessary for their "audience." A laundromat, King Sized Laundry, sponsors a weekly open-mike stand-up comedian night called Spin Cycle Comedy, which has inspired a unique style appropriate to its context. Gorilla Repertory brings Shakespeare to Washington Square Park using flashlights, the audience following the performers around from location to location. Another company has brought their West Side Story-like interpretation of "Romeo and Juliet" to a paved lot in Soho. A host of site-specific dance work is commissioned, and the New York International Fringe Festival has a street performance component; parked cars and telephone booths have been used as performance spaces. My scena, "Alamo!", which portrays a street evangelist, was premiered last year in Washington Square Park, an appropriate space for the work.

A colleague on the c-opera listserv has quoted Peter Brook’s "The Empty Space" as follows:

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theater to be engaged.”

Space, especially in New York, has economic and legal contexts. Public space is free, so restricting its use to paying audience members involves a deal with public authorities. Relying on the busker model in public spaces can be more appropriate, depending on police interpretation of free speech vs. loitering and public disturbance laws. Performing in the middle of a street can be both legal (with a permit, during a parade or march) and illegal (almost any other time). As in the MTA Arts for Transit program (including Music Under New York), the government may even fund such use. Use of privately-owned land is subject to trespass, but with the cooperation of the land owner, might be acquired with no or minimal charge. An abundance of seemingly public spaces which are actually private exist and can (and have) been used. These range from common spaces in shopping districts to clubs and even private homes, such as the original Dixon Place and Theater 4S.

An invited audience (through direct-mail or public advertisement) can still encounter performance in an unexpected way. Aspects of guerilla theater can invade an event. A political fundraiser invited a street performer as an unexpected treat. People may pay for admission to an art museum, and then encounter a performance. Various club scenes have provided venues for encountering experiments in performance art, drag theater (and music theater, including a lip-synching sub-genre), performance-oriented poetry and, of course, musical presentation. These have spilled out into the streets in structured ways, such as Wigstock and Florent's Bastille Day event.

There is use of technology, but it can be minimal. The most common use is miking, to compensate for bad acoustic environments. The Poemfone project used telephone answering machine performance --- poets were given a month, each, to create and perform 30 pieces, which “audience” members could call in and hear each day. As bandwidth increases and text-based Internet chat rooms transform into shared sound environments, the creation of interactive and non-interactive Internet performances will undoubtedly increase.

In some cases, the performer/audience role separation is clear-cut, but some creators blur the line. Roots in open jam sessions, open-mike nights and open theater, such as the Living Group, have led to more sophisticated experiments. In the classical music world, Pauline Oliveros has been a pioneer in using audiences as participants. Street performers of all types have developed audience-participation strategies. A burst of interactive theater performances, "Tony and Tina's Wedding" being the most commercially successful, have been tried in New York. These combine scripted scenes with improvisational performance in a unique way.

Performance artists have inhabited the other extreme. Rather than pulling the audience into the context of "art" and making them performers and creators, performance artists pull themselves out of the game of pretense, using rituals of presentation to become themselves and incriminate the audience. The closest ancestor of this type of performance is the circus, especially the side show. The audience is both fascinated and repulsed, implicated and ashamed, by many of these performances.

Creators in music theater are saddled with many cultural assumptions that have made entry into this third stream of performance difficult. The use of accompanying instruments is one such assumption, and many composers have become interested in the immediacy and possibilities of a cappella music. Many composers who use extended vocal techniques and homemade portable instruments find that they have taken a step towards using alternative performance spaces. Where there is audience interaction, the pre-notated music must allow for greater freedom in interpretation.

Breaking out of the advance reservation mind-set is another hurdle. Giving up on a set, lighting, and anything more than rudimentary props calls for a new aesthetic. And, of course, there is the isolation of performing for "free" in a profit-obsessed culture.

Underground art movements in all fields always have difficulty emerging into public consciousness. There are no magazines, television/radio shows, or critics devoted to covering these events. Although I have been collecting news clippings on these kinds of performance for some time, there is no label for them. Therefore, it does not exist. Or does it?

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007