Notes on Oobleck '95
by Manny Festo
No Director! No Director! No Director!
The players boast in the program that they work without a director. They desperately need one. –CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 6/88
We endorse George Bush for President of the United States. –CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 11/88
Theater Oobleck has no Managing Director, no Artistic Director, no Technical Director, no Musical Director, no production directors. This is now second nature to us; second nature to a degree that we are surprised when people are surprised by it; second nature to a degree that the whole thing seems rather mundane to me and I must admit to having to strain a little in order to manufacture the BRASH EXCLAMATIVE TONE with which I proclaimed NO DIRECTOR! above and which I will try to maintain below. The fact is that the Director is a newcomer to the theater, and he/she (usually he) has served his purpose! He came in as the Outsider to reform the Theater. Now he pretends he has always been there! Here’s a quote from an article someone gave me years ago… I forget the author’s name:
Putting the burden of innovation on the director is like putting the prime minister in charge of the revolution, for the director, insofar as he remains a director, cannot help but defend that kind of theater in which he has a place of importance, suppressing those ancient models of the theater which do not require his services.
But what’s the point?
Our aim is to empower ourselves as individuals and as a collective.
But how do you achieve a unifying vision?
The whole notion of a unifying vision makes me sick. One of the many problems with theater today is that it’s stuck in high-modernist gear, in the ethos of the Unifying Visioners who will, with a grand gesture, direct a play by O’Casey or O’Neill, Synge or Inge, and thereby Recreate The World. And Performance Art, contemporary theater’s brazenly Post-Modern wing, tends to bear the monophonic imprint of the solo (Unified) performer. But a play with nine people in it by necessity expresses nine (or nine million) points of view. The Unifier’s job is to channel/repress those points of view. The audience, entering the interpretive/coercive funnel of the Director, often forgets its own interpretive freedom, its own ability to make the work it sees on stage.
But how does anything get decided?
Through near-endless, often-ugly, makes-you-know-you’re-alive argument, debate, discussion. And if, after all this brou-ha-ha, there’s no agreement, we have something called Actor’s Prerogative. The person on stage most-affected by the decision at hand (for instance, it’s their line, or their prop) gets final say. Actors don’t realize how much power they have. Every moment of every play in every theater on every stage belongs to the actor. She can do anything she wants. Say anything! Do anything! This is obvious, but the actor is trained to ignore the obvious. Actor’s Prerogative is the faith of the collective in the individual. Actor’s Prerogative is the mechanism for ending one debate and moving on to the next one. Is there a happy side-effect to this? Can the freedom that each performer feels on stage be felt by each audience member and encourage them to sense their own freedom vis á vis the play?
Oh, come on. You are just eliminating one kind of hierarchy —the director— and replacing it with another: the hierarchy of who can argue loudest, harangue longest, brow-beat best.
True. But we’re trying.
Without anyone providing an outside perspective, don’t you risk egotistical, claustrophobic, and or solipsistic performances?
We use Outside Eyes throughout the production process… people who come in for one or a series of rehearsals to give extensive notes. This can often result in a cacophony of conflicting opinions. The challenge for the actors is to sort out these conflicts, decide who you think is right, find threads of consistency in these points of view, and to act on what you discover. And if an actor gets overwhelmed, they have the right to say, “No personal notes for me today.” Or, “I only want notes from so-and-so.” Or, “We’ll never get this scene blocked. Let’s have so-and-so block it for us, and we’ll go on from there.”
But you do original work. Without a director, who keeps the playwright’s power in check? What keeps him or her from running amok?
It is an all-but-hard-&-fast rule that the playwright must act in the show. This mitigates the author’s power by making her/him “just one of the bunch.” Caught in the whirl of a scene, she can’t stand at the back of the theater, barking out directions. He must retain solidarity with his fellow actors, enter the script with them, share the pitfalls and pratfalls—he’s one of them! And the other actors are free to re-write lines. If they’re in a polite mood, they usually remember to mention it to the playwright first, to give the playwright first crack at solving the offending line or scene or act.
Actors re-write lines? What about ownership of the text?
What about it?
Like Bread & Puppet , we believe in a theater that is created cheap and is cheap to see. Our pricing policy runs from $8 to $10 suggested donation, more if you’ve got it, free if you’re broke.
Cheap empowers the actor! Who wants to be in a play where everyone comes out talking about the Cool Helicopter, the Amazing Chandelier, the Conquering Artifice? Cheap empowers the numerous visual artists we have worked with, artists who labor daily, cheaply and miraculously, and who have created beautiful pieces for our shows.
Historical and historo-fictional characters walk across the stage. A rat shits, looks at the audience, and says, “How gratuitous.” There’s no good way to sum up the variety of works that we’ve produced.
But they often present a gladiatorial exhibition of competing (sometimes plagiarized) texts. (Among these texts are The Borrowers, Buckley’s spy thrillers, folk tales about tricolici, Gertrude Stein, Sam Shepard, Wilhelm Reich….) Which all fits in nicely, in a form & function way, with our process. Each text brings a point of view onto the stage, as each actor brings her own.
Are the plays political? Yes, very, but in a town that prides itself on the politicality of its theater, that term has limited descriptive value. (For instance, when the well-heeled Steppenwolf audience cheers the endorsement of terrorism at the end of The Song of Jacob Zulu: is this a political moment?)
Some are feminist re-interpretations: of Marivaux’s La Colonie, of Yeat’s Leda and the Swan, of ancient tricolici myths. Some directly confront the politics of everyday life (the politics of work, in Tomorrow the World and Service Sector) through farce. Some assume a Revolution and set us down in crazy Post-Utopian Universes.
The form these varied texts take vary as well. The forms, in one way another, tend to explode the texts they contain. “Small,” psychological subjects (the relationship between a mother and her son, or a man struggling to figure out what it means to be “gay”) take on larger-than-life trappings (science-fiction time travel or WWII adventure story). Some of our works are of the play-within-a-play variety, and attempt to expose the process of the creation of a text (Marilyn Quayle’s Embrace the Serpent, Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum)…and, hopefully, our play, thereby, exposes its own creation.
For some plays the subject is form. They employ theatrical forms (performance art, puppet shows, Robert Wilson directorism, the biographical “one-man show”) and turn them on themselves. And at the end of Laugh Red Medusa, Laugh, Laugh the actors are left on-stage at the end wondering how they can end their play while avoiding the “masculine trajectory of beginning-middle-end.”