An Interview with
Elfin Vogel
on the 
State of the Art
 in Theatre

by Michael Bettencourt

Elfin Vogel is currently a Ph.D. candidate in theatre at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is now in the process of completing a dissertation on sound design.  He has had a long career in the theatre as a director, producer, writer, translator, designer, and musician.  As a director, his work has ranged from classical theatre to new play development to opera and cabaret, and he worked as an artistic director and producer for River City Shakespeare Festival in Memphis (which he co-founded); Music, Theatre and Opera Company; Third Step Theatre Company; Knickerbocker Theatre Festival; and Wildbird Productions (all in New York City).  He has written screenplays, adaptations, theater reviews, and, most recently, two cabaret shows.

M:  What do you understand is the meaning of the phrase "state of the art"?  Does it apply to theatre, and if it does, in what way? We can consider theatre in the United States or your experience of theatre in other countries.

E:  All my recent experience is in the United States, so while I follow by reading in magazines and journals what is going on in Europe, especially Germany, I haven't seen a lot over there, not much that is really recent. "State of the art," in the most common usage, means that which is most up-to-date, the last level of achievement, and of course it's often used in relationship to technology.  Of course there is a large technological aspect to theatre, but technology isnot what makes theatre "state of the art."

M:  You made an interesting distinction there between "state of the art" and "is something the state of the art."  Is that distinction applicable to theatre?

E:  When you use "state of the art" as in "what condition are the arts in," that would be the more applicable reading, but I think it's not entirely off – for example, I'm thinking of a production of the Wooster Group's To You The Birdie.  There was a lot of video – video was a very prominent element of the presentation, very specific sound, a mix of performing with or against technological events.  And so you could say in that case that this theatre company, or this director, is exploring the "state of the art" as in exploring what current technologies can contribute to the art of theatre.  I also just read an advertisement for a play that this play is going to appear on a website, as a "pod cast."  Is it still theatre?  Is it comparable to a live broadcast of a concert, where the performers might be influenced by the presence of the audience, they might be inspired by the presence of the audience in the way that live performers are? But when you broadcast it and essentially record it, the relationship between the listeners and the players no longer has that feedback relationship of the audience and performers.

M:  Does this make the performance something other than theatre?

E:  I think that's true.  The most minimal formula, of A watches B while B impersonates C, which comes from Eric Bentley, that's still the formula for a performance. And while there are differences of opinion about whether there actually is communication between audience and performers, every performer knows the difference between a warm room and a cold room, or an enthusiastic room versus a quiet room, or a restless room, in a negative sense.  This can impact the quality of a performance and bring in unexpected or unpredictable elements.  This, of course, keeps defying the intentions of the performers and theatre makers, who do things that they feel will be understood a certain way or heard a certain way or seen a certain way and there's just no predicting if the audience will be receptive to it….All of this may still be preamble because we haven't quite gotten to the state of the theatre.

M:  Well, let's get to that.  This is the kind of question that gets asked at the end of the year, it has an inventory sense to it, knowing full well that whatever you say can be negated by any number of examples, but in general what would say is the state of the art of theatre in the United States?

E:  I see only a small fraction of what is presented, as does any of us.  Within the last year, at one point, I counted how many new theatrical events are offered every month and there are more new events than days in the month, so I would have to go two or three times a day to see everything that's offered in New York, which to me says that theatre is doing well….There's just an enormous amount of activity.  And I don't know the total attendance for these events, but I'm going on the assumption that everything that is done below the Off-Broadway level is losing money.  It cannot carry itself – well, partly by donations and a little bit of help from ticket prices – but clearly large numbers of theatre-makers do theatre because they are passionate about it and don't care if it costs them money or is done without pay or for marginal pay that doesn't have anything to do with living needs.  So, in other words, there is an enormous amount of activity that happens for reasons other than financial remuneration….

M:  So there's a lot of activity.  But what about quality, about what the theatre "says"?  Does that feed into the state of the art?

E:  Absolutely.  Let's take Chicago, which is an interesting show because it dramatizes a certain trend that we are facing in our culture in general, which is the excessive use of private experience as public entertainment.  I think there is a "de-privatization" going on in the last 8 to 10 years, which is happening on all kinds of levels….It starts with confessional novels, then it's all-revealing biographies, then bio-pics on television, and it's in theatre also.

I think there are two sides to theatre, as far as I'm concerned.  Theatreis, in some respects, very conservative.  The larger institutional theatres that address the broadest possible audience are conservative because they couldn't capture the broadest audience otherwise.  But I also think that an element in what makes theatre pleasurable is the enjoyment of memory, so that the fact that some large percent of what you see on Broadway is revivals is not only because we don't come up with really good new stuff, or really new ways of presenting the old stuff.  I think it is really that that conservative element in the audience wants to find something in the tried-and-true form, in a reminiscent form…It's not only a comfort.  I think the memory factor provides us with a profound confirmation of who we are.

Then there's the theatre that tries to explore the taboo areas ….Recently, since 9/11, we have seen, in reference to the "state of the art," an upsurge in political theatre, or in theatre that addresses social and political concerns in some way – it's become "acceptable" or in the mix again.  It hadn't been for quite a long time.  But this is even in things like The Vagina Monologues – though it's not such a new idea to explore certain sexual areas….

M:  In terms of that second type of theatre, is there really anything that can be done that will shock audiences?  Or is there an audience that's conservative and an audience that's not conservative and they don't meet?

E:  There's an interesting story concerning Loren Maazel, the conductor.  He recently said in Germany, where he does a fair amount of work, that you can tell "director's theatre" by the fact that someone is taking a dump on stage and that directors are exploring their personal anxieties, and he's disgusted and fed up with it, and thinks that it belongs, like that dump, in the toilet.  You don't see a lot of people taking a dump on a stage in New York – but in German theatre there is an exploration of the body that has gone much further.  But it is also because it is so much more removed from the interest in psychological realism in American theatre.  We are very addicted to psychological realism, even in non-realistic plays.  We want to understand the behavior.  We want to believe that theatre reveals hidden psychological motivations – the revelation.  Maybe it's a kind of perverted or transmogrified religious need.  We're very much driven by the hope for revelation, and ultimately for epiphany and redemption.  In a superficial way we can say it's the old Hollywood "it has to have a happy ending," but it's not just a happy end.  It's that the happy end is a secular redemption.  On an even more sublimated level, perhaps, it is this expectation that the behavior we see from moment-to-moment on the stage should be psychologically comprehensible.  And German theatre has long left that behind, which doesn't mean that you won't find it in German theatre.  There's a lot of theatre going on where you see behavior that has nothing to do with a psychological text that takes you from here to there….

That doesn't mean it doesn't happen here as well.  When Elizabeth LeComptehas a character take an enema on stage [in To You The Birdie], that's kind of going in the direction of German theatre.  Or take Lee Breuer.  He started years ago miking his actors so that they could talk as softly as they wanted – he found that different kinds of communication could be accessed, different kinds of expressions could be accessed, by eliminating the need for the actor to fill a room with his voice. 

David Savran, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and a noted author on theatre, wrote an article in Theatre Drama Review entitled "The Death of the Avant Garde."…He says that the theatrical avant garde has run its course.  And that may very well be true.  If you look at the people in the United States that represented the avant garde, most of them are dead or have stopped doing things or are just very old or, like Claude van Italie, seems mostly concerned with his yoga retreats up at his place in the country.  The Becks are gone, the Bread and Puppet Theater only has occasional performances.  Politically, there would be as much reason to do protest street theatre now as ever. Cindy Sheehan does street theatre, that's what her protest in Texas really is, and it's just appropriate that she performs for an audience that consists of new cameras.

M:  But why isn't that kind of theatre happening now?  As you said, there's more than enough materials, there was a resurgence of politically motivated theatre – but why isn't theatre being harnessed in the way it was thirty or forty years ago?

E:  I think that as far as the formalistic structures of theatre are concerned – a lot has been experimented with and played out and played through.  For a hundred years now, we've done abstract sets, anti-illusionistic theatre, Brechtian theatre, street theatre, absurd theatre, Dadaistic theatre – every element that you can take apart and by overemphasizing a particular aspect by isolating something and making that the focus of the performance – all of that has been done in some form or other.  I think that it has become very difficult to offend anyone anymore, and short of literally killing – the "snuff" play – or flaying somebody or torturing them…

M:  But the purpose for shocking is not just shock.  If you shock people, or if you offend them in a particular way, they won't come back – they need to feel that there is a pursuit on their part, that they are looking for something for new. But perhaps people are not looking for something new, either.

E:  In high-school I had this sculpting teacher – I did a lot of wood sculpture then. When you do wood sculpture, you hit your thumb or some part of your hand because you use a big mallet and hit a small carving tool with it.  He would say, "Pain makes conscious."  And so, shock theatre as theatre that in some way raises consciousness [is hard to do well because] a lot of political theatre, protest theatre, ends up preaching to the converted…and that is one of the problems, to do theatre that is consciousness-raising in the sense of how in the 60s and 70s people wanted to do events that were consciousness-raising. Yoko Ono sitting on a stage and letting people cut off pieces of her dress…even though she didn't allow them to cut everything off – there was something involved in the formal act that was going on that was shocking to the people who saw it.  This refers back to my earlier point about "deprivatization."  It was shocking when she did it back then, it was an act of defiance to say, "So you want to look at me?  I'll not only let you look at me, but in order to look at the way you want to look at me, you have to cut off pieces of my dress.  You have been doing it with your eyes for long enough, so let me show you how it feels to actually do it."  So, it is difficult to do – or to find – theatre that raises consciousness through pain.

M:  Your point about Yoko Ono is an interesting one because there it's shocking because it's about revealing certain relationships about power between men and women that have not been acknowledged.  It's the shock of recognition of something that had not been recognized, which is certain kind of shock – it's not the only kind of shock – whereas there could be other kinds of shock which is "I just want to throw something in your face and make you so angry you'll walk out."  Which tends to counteract what you really want to achieve.

E:  I think of the Living Theatre and some of the things they did, particularly in Europe, especially Switzerland and Germany, where they were just as controversial as in the US, or Dionysus 69, where the epiphany of the show was reached when a female audience member stripped naked and actually copulated with the actor playing Dionysus on stage.  After that happened, the need for this performance became superfluous.  You couldn't ever expected to replicate that. But an interesting thing about this is that a lot of these group efforts depended on charismatic leaders and the willingness of performers to subject themselves to group therapy sessions. Now we have people who go on Oprah or Dr. Phil and talk about everything in large forums and it's become a national spectator sport.  Or Jerry Springer, who reveals the more brutal sides of how people treat each other and behave toward each other.  You couldn't possibly motivate, after Jerry Springer, bringing a group of actors together and let them do primal scream until they were willing to bear everything.  It's hard now to find the set-up that would give any kind of formal challenge or novelty in presenting the performance, this kind of radical or "this shakes me up" experience.

M:  And shakes me up in a way that leads to me understand something about myself  –

E:  Yes – be it political, be it psychological or whatever.

M:  Is there, in the state of the art, a need for, a place for, an avant garde, but not necessarily in this form so that the conservative/repetition/memory track doesn't take over?  I mean, that could lead to kind of sclerosis of theatre, in the sense that everything becomes a revival, even a new play, because of its feel, because of what it does.  So is there a need for a avant garde to leaven the other side? And if so, how would we do that now? Or can it not be done?

E:  A difficult question to answer.  I think the globalization today of everything has made this more difficult to do…We did a color-blind production in Memphis many years ago, in the early 1990s, of The Winter's Tale, and the 70-something-year-old mother of the actress who played Hermione (who was a white actress) said that when she saw her daughter as the wife of a black king, it kind of made her stomach turn – but it affected her.  And look at what's happening in New Orleans right now.  We can see that there's an ingrained racism, and so if we do theatre that challenges racism or addresses questions of racism, you could still find an audience that you might wake up with what you do.  And it may be a production of the least political of Shakespeare's late romances but done with a color-blind casting that could raise consciousness.  And the fact that in this town that was more than 50% black, we drew a 50% black audience, which none of the other theatres at that time did, and that was something noted by people.

M:  So perhaps there's a path to follow in "de-deprivatizing" things, in the sense of a larger picture to draw from, something that's not just the palette of the self, because clearly racism is personal but it's also a large public elephant in the middle of the room.  So maybe in the sense that if theatre-makers became more impersonal they could actually discover more shocking things to talk about than in digging deeper into themselves – perhaps because after Jerry Springer, there is not a lot more that can be mined from the self.

E:  I think that we are headed for a time when this badly hidden secret of America being a highly stratified class society, this terrible myth that America is a classless society, has to be dealt with and we have to re-discover a humanism that breaks through class....And in this pseudo-democracy that we live in, we are very very strongly moving toward a society with a moneyed aristocracy that is so rich that they are no longer concerned about "earning" or "consumption" but the exertion of power and of influence.  By calling our society "consumerist," that's a really clever way to create a false equality among consumers – it makes sense to import everything from China and sell it through Wal-Mart because it allows the non-wealthy person a level of consumption at their depressed earnings, which creates a quiescence of sorts.  I can buy a lot shit for this little amount of money I have, and as long as gas prices don't prevent us from driving over to Wal-Mart – I'm veering a little from theatre, but it's a question of where do the themes come from that we deal with in theatre….I think this country is in a precarious state, which this recent catastrophe showed, where the fragility of this covenant – that somehow we can contain poverty, we can keep the poor from looting the rich – it was very revealing that one of the first acts was to send in troops ready to shoot to kill, to protect property – the moment they were getting a restive and destabilized by this weather catastrophe, we have to send in 50,000 heavily armed soldiers to contain 10,000 potential looters....The covenant is that we will create the illusion of taking care of the poor – we keep them enough in fear through fear-mongering in regards to terrorism, scare them enough and offer them enough anodynes to palliate them, and in the meantime you rip them off as best you can.  These things, it seems to me, can be thematized again in theatre.  It is not necessarily that you have to come up with an incredibly different way of making theatre – all the techniques are there and have been tested.

M:  There's ready-made material there – so maybe if there is a lessening of focus on self, on self-revelation or epiphany or redemption and accessing these kinds of themes – that could bring even more vitality to the vitality of theatre that is already happening.

E:  It was an interesting experience to see the recent revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  The reason why it was shocking in the early 60s was that it bared a level of aggressively battling for each other's souls, or soul against soul, portraying the basic family unit as a place for violence and aggression and mean-spirited manipulation….Now when you see this play, it's almost lame.  The production, which has no intention of emphasizing any present-time relevance, isoutmoded like the many opera production are outmoded.  In opera, they save the old sets because opera is a very expensive art, and producers will bring them back for decades.  And that's what they did with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  You could smell the mothballs.

M:  Which allows the audience not to focus on what the play was about in the earlier context that you were talking about, but "Was Kathleen Turner great?  Was Bill Irwin okay?"  It becomes about all that.

E:  It's also that what was once jarring and problematic about it is now common, and it's on the daily news.  This is not to take away from the talent of the people on the stage, especially the actors playing the secondary characters – it's a pleasure to watch them act.  On that level I had very good time in the theatre.  But the whole enterprise is utterly irrelevant.  You don't go away thinking that I have to re-think the way I talk to my wife.  Even on that primitive "did I learn a little something?" level, it doesn't really offer anything.

M: It seems that part of the on-going state of the art is moving – I think Howard Barker said it one time, that shocking theatre is not about shocking people, it's about making them realize that they knew something they didn't know they knew.  It's the shock of the realization that something you didn't know is there, or something that you wanted hidden, in now undone.

E:  Luckily, the education in this country is so bad that from generation to generation you keep getting audiences that are utterly ignorant of almost everything, and if you just get them to come to the theatre, you could do some good.

M:  And on that note –

E:  Not completely.  I recently saw a production of Pericles that was verywell-done because it told the basic story of loss and self-recovery and was very moving.

M:  In part because it's not "personal" in the way that we understand "personal," but it still has personality to it because it speaks to larger themes in our lives. 

E:  Yes.  I think it's about moving towards a truly existential understanding of what it means to be human – that's the most radical thing you can talk about, and not enough people do that.

M:  A much better note to end on.


The Art of the State

When our fearless editor suggested the topic "The State of the Art," I balked.  What, really, could I say about the state of the art of playwrights and playwriting?  Of the universe of plays written and submitted in the course of a year, I get to read only a small slice for a few small theatres, and I've detailed what I've gleaned from that task in other essays for Scene4.  It's not been a bright gleaning.  Most of the scripts I've read lack a flair for finding and sifting the story lode in such a way that an audience will become rapt enough to forget their bladders and daily head-chatter.  Most of the scripts ground themselves on the narrow sandbar of domestic drama/comedy, re-hashing re-hashes of dysfunctional families, limping-along relationships, sentimentalized good-personism, and so on.  Very few of the scripts adventure anything, test anything – they seem content to reflect and repeat.

As for the state of "the theatre" – one can read the surveys by Theatre Communications Group to flesh out what one knows by intuition: theatre is a struggling business, as it usually is; artistic directors are constantly geeing and hawing between commercial and artistic choices, as they usually have to; the "theater-going public" is mostly white and aging, yet a profusion of "fringe" festivals draws in that cherished "younger crowd" with the hope that they'll replace the graying cohort.  Which is to say: theatre is dead, long live the theatre, as is usually the case.

The art-form of theatre, in the list of today's "entertainment options," does not rise very high on that list because it is not a mass-form of art, like movies or music downloads.  A play does not open on multiple stages on a certain date, it does not get airplay, it is not lateraled from computer to computer through file-sharing, and so on.  In the cultural ecology, it occupies a specialized niche, like some form of a Darwinian finch that can only eat seeds of a certain oval shape that are colored ochre – and the habitat that produces those unique seeds steadily dwindles.

But then I had another thought.

We live in a time of military war and assaults on logic and the mendacity of religion, and the reason these enterprises succeed is that they have successfully employed the techniques of theatrical production to make their cases stick.  Now, some may consider it a secular form of blasphemy to say that theatre forwards propaganda, that an art-form often self-described and self-missioned as wanting to explore the ambiguities of the human condition would become the engine for the persuasions of propaganda.

But take a look at Brecht.

Brecht wanted to re-formulate the algorithms of the theatre of his day because he wanted his audiences to understand the world in particular ways.  He was artist enough not to frog-march his attendees to his conclusions (well, at least most of the time), but in the end he wanted his ticket-buyers to go away with something about themselves changed – mostly bettered along certain socio-politico-cultural lines, but at least (re)moved and (re)armed – and thus fashioned his productions to get done what he wanted to get done.

He did this (and to some degree every artist does this) because he understands, as George Orwell did, that "every work of art has a meaning and a purpose – a political, social and religious purpose," and that the reason for investing the blood, sweat, money, and belief into the work of art is to make that purpose "viral" throughout the audience so that they become infected with a new idea and, in turn, pass it on to others, who in turn…and in turn…and so on.

In other words, artists are propagandists because theatre and propaganda ("propaganda" in both our modern sense of manipulation and the Catholic sense of "propagating" the faith) are not opposites but terms that describe different locations on a continuum of persuasion.  And because a continuum is all about slurred shades and not sharp points, we can glide through the continuum from, say, a Beckett play consisting of a single human exhalation (in which no one is forced to think of anything except the constancy of his or her own mortality) to the blatant political and social (re)arrangements of a Living Theatre or a Wooster Group or a Mabou Mines.

There is nothing insulting in naming artists as propagandists – artists self-name as "artists" because they believe they have something to say/offer/sow and reap, and learn their craft to do just that (and hopefully make a living at it).

But if "artists as propagandists" is allowed, then it is also true that somewhere on this continuum propagandists can be artists.  And it is here where theatre – the techniques of, the live energy of – exerts its greatest power – not on Broadway but in the megachurch of Rick Warren (author of the very hot The Purpose-Driven Life), the spin doctors, the advertising board rooms, the permanent campaigns of politicians. 

This is not to say that the theatre these and other groups make is good theatre, if "good" is defined the way Edward Albee once described it in a lecture, as a catalyst for change, that it should be dangerous, that it should reveal all of our shortcomings and complacency, hopefully inspiring us to live our lives more fully. "The job of the arts," Albee said,"is to hold a mirror up to us and say: 'Look, this is how you really are. If you don't like it, change.'"

But, then again, most "theatre" theatre doesn't come anywhere near this gold standard (including Albee's plays).  In fact, it goes in the opposite direction, re-playing for the care and comfort of the audience the lessons of our culture's dominant curriculum about the psychological, social, economic, and political make-up of its deni(citi)zens, those patterns of behavior most in line with the corporate capitalist regime that instructs and assesses our lives.  Nobody today comes out of a performance of any major theatrical production feeling changed (or even motivated to change) because nobody goes in to the production with the desire to change anything about himself or herself. Far from seeking out something "dangerous" that will reveal one's "shortcoming and complacency" (i.e., one's insufficiency and failure as a human being), people go to the theatre to be entertained – moved, yes, engaged and intrigued, yes, but not, at the end, ready to re-form the very quick of their lives because they have now had the motes extracted from their eyes.  To expect this to happen, to write this down as a caption under the picture of "good art," is to expect the blossom of religious conversion to burst forth – and this is just silly because we long ago jettisoned the Greekish notions of theatre as a religious communal event or that anything on a stage would offend us enough to lob rotten produce or storm out in protest (or solidarity, as in Waiting for Lefty).  Audiences want to come out of the theatre no different than when they walked in — they just want to feel satisfied that their two hours haven't been wasted.  If what they have seen is "dangerous" (whatever that word means), a threat to their souls, they are more than capable of distancing themselves from the information (like quarantining a virus) – and most likely, when word gets out on the street that this is a "dangerous" production that is "good for you," people will stay away in droves.

(As a digression: doesn't the bathroom mirror in the morning after a sleepless night due to the ever-running anxiety tapes that play through in our heads do a much better job of lessoning us about our "shortcomings and complacency" than the latest museum-like re-production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

But you can come away from a daily onslaught of clever advertising ready to buy.  You can come away from political campaigning ready to be a voter/non-voter.  You can exit from Rick Warren's megachurch reaffirmed in your fight against the devil and his industrial output of sin.  You can plan ahead to set aside time in January to make sure you catch the new commercials at the Super Bowl half-time show because, at that moment, they are the best show in town.  You can be righteous and involved when it comes to arguing for the right to invite a landslide-download of pirated MP3s onto your hard drive.  And this is because the theatre of the efforts behind all of these pitches to become involved in life are blent seamlessly into our lives – theatre as a part of who we are, what we do, how we breathe.  Theatre that gives us something back for our time invested (even if it's not always a good something).  Theatre that doesn't pretend to be a medicine for our own good.  Theatre that confirms rather than demands confession.

Is there a lesson here?  People far smarter than I can answer that question, and the plain fact is that I don't know. Theatre is a minor art form in our culture, yet it still has the power to draw people into its orbit because the live, sweaty thing that happens on stage is unique for both audience and actor. That bond, that intimacy, has to become the source of any re-imagining of theatre as we move into the 21st century – not spectacle, not a solely commercial calculus, but that umbilical that makes being a living human being worth being a living human being.  It is intimacy, not danger, that drives theatre's heart/art.  That's what the propagandists can't really reproduce, though they can form pretty good fakes of it, enough to fool most people.  This is what theatre needs to re-claim if it's going to continue saying that it should have a claim upon our fortunes and our lives.

Michael Bettencourt is a writer and playwright


©2005 Michael Bettencourt
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine




october 2005
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