Is the theater worth the trouble? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself lately, and it turns out I’m not alone. “In the fall of 2019, in the wake of a disastrous workshop of a new play of mine, “ Sara Farrington writes, “I felt lost and hopeless about my work and about the avant-garde in general. I was depressed, and thought about leaving the theater entirely.”
Instead, she set out to interview other longtime theater artists, wondering how they kept going, given that whatever “glory” they derive from their art “requires years of soul-crushing psychological and physical labor and an almost religious calling to continue in the face of constant resistance. “
The result is The Lost Conversation: Interviews with an Enduring Avant-Garde ( 53rd State Press, 306 pages.) Farrington’s two dozen interviews with New York-based artistic directors, directors, designers, actors, choreographers, playwrights and multi-hyphenates took place between December 2019 and December 2021, a time in which the question of survival was on everybody’s mind.
“How are people gonna come back from all this loss and make theater again?” Jessica Hagedorn says in the last interview Farrington conducted, on December 19, 2021, which is the first one in the book. (The conversations are organized in no particular order that I could discern, certainly not chronologically nor alphabetically.) “We thought we were out of the woods. And now we’ve got these sneaky variants kicking our ass.”
Through most of her interview, though, Hagedorn sounds more positive than many of the others (which may be why she’s first.)
SF: Did you ever go through a period where you were like, ‘I can’t do this anymore? I want to do something completely different with my life?’
JH: No, no because I love it and I’d miss it. The only time I stopped performing and writing plays was when I was writing my novel, Dogeaters.
That took her ten years. Such pauses seem common: André Gregory left the theater for twelve years. But he too returned, and he too is among the most optimistic:
SF: I wanted to ask you about insurmountable theater obstacles
AG: I’ve never run into them…You know how Harry Truman said “The buck stops here?” As a director, I’ve always used that assumption. If something goes wrong, the most important question to ask is: What have I done to make it go wrong?”
Farrington writes that conducting these interviews “renewed my courage and commitment..” But it would be hard to argue that “The Lost Conversation” is a self-help book. Many of the artists (all of whom have been around for decades) complain a lot, expressing nostalgia for the New York theater scene of the past, with its more encouraging environment — because grants were once more plentiful; New York was less expensive; there were no non-profit theaters that acted exactly like for-profit corporations; there was more of a sense of community.
“Why do you think there was such an explosion of innovative avant-garde work during that time specifically,” Farrington asks Ping Chong, talking about the 1970s. “Was it as simple as cheaper rents? “
“That and hallucinogens,” he replies. Later: “New York back then was a much culturally richer place than it is now….it’s a horrible time for the young today. “
(Not everybody looks back quite as fondly. Anne Bogart: “Now Manhattan is for billionaires, but it wasn’t back then. It was a trashy city when I was a young director. And I made theater on the street before the words ‘site-specific’ or ‘immersive.’ I was making theater on street corners and rooftops of course, because that’s all I had. It didn’t feel easy, it wasn’t like, Oh my god, I’m part of a movement! It was more like, Why the fuck can’t I get a theater?”)
If it’s not a fount of uplift, “The Lost Conversation” does profile lives lived persistently, if not always happily, in the theater, with Farrington routinely asking such basic biographical questions as where they grew up, when they first got involved in theater, how they came to create their best-known works or enter their most fruitful collaborations.
“The Lost Conversation” even answers, obliquely, a question that Farrington never explicitly discusses, but is something I most wanted to know: What exactly is avant-garde theater?
Something of a definition of the avant-garde can be pieced together in the well-written introduction by Kate Kremer, the volunteer editor in charge of 53rd State Press, the book’s publisher, a non-profit collective that for fifteen years has published the work of emerging and experimental theater artists. Kremer locates a central paradox that all avant-garde artists seem to share (at least all those included in the book) — a “sense of deep, familial love” that is entangled with “questions of money. Each of these artists speaks of doing the work for the work’s sake, not for the money, but it takes money to work for something other than money.“ (As Richard Foreman puts it: “Most of the people that I knew that were making experimental art in those days came from families who had money.”)
The avant-garde is also about “rupture,” Kremer writes, “of breaking with the past. The artists profiled in this book built their theaters in opposition to old methods, in response to old absences, cruelties, assumptions. Such opposition requires engagement—you must understand what you’re pushing against.”
I wondered how these veteran artists, some of whom are nearing 90 years old, could still be said to be breaking with the past. Weighing in on the avant-garde, choreographer Bill T. Jones (now 70) sees his work as breaking with the present. Farrington asks him: “Do you get the sense that theatermakers, and audiences for that matter, need everything to make sense?”
“That’s a generational thing…It’s hard now to explain to young dancers what “associative” means…[His non-linear work] raises questions like: Well, why do you want the audience to work so hard? Why don’t you just say what you mean? Are you obfuscating? Is there a reason you’re being obscure? All those things make for interesting conversations. Quite frankly I’m still trying to ask those questions right now with every piece I make.”
Why is the book called “The Lost Conversation?” Sara Farrington writes that after spending 90 minutes with co-founder of Mabou Mines JoAnne Akalaitis, she discovered that her recording app hadn’t worked. “Well, I guess that was the lost conversation,” replied Reid Farrington, her husband and partner in avant-garde art.
But I love Kate Kremer’s riff on the lost conversation inherent in theater, so much so that I’ll quote it at length:
“The explicitly anti-commercial, anti-capitalist purpose of this press—the reason that I am willing to devote to it so much unremunerated labor—is to document and disseminate experimental writing for performance—to, in Richard Schechner’s terms, ‘find a way of passing on performance knowledge.’…
“Schechner, looking to disrupt the age-old primacy of the playwright, was unsatisfied with publication as a means of transmission. It’s true that playscripts register only a fragment of an ephemeral form, that even as a text is preserved, there’s an underlying tone or vibration or, say, conversation that is lost. Or perhaps the conversation is not lost so much as displaced or delayed. As it circulates through libraries and bookstores, living rooms and bedsides, the book becomes a site of memory and potentiality, a conversation unspooling among people distant in time and space. Theater is ephemeral: something is always being lost. Books help us feel that loss; without them, the work ends up forgotten.”
Theater artists interviewed in The Lost Conversation:
Jessica Hagedorn, Richard Foreman, Karen Kandel, Lee Breuer + Maude Mitchell, David Henry Hwang, Bill T. Jones, Lola Pashalinski + Linda Chapman, Eduardo Machado, JoAnne Akalaitis, Jennifer Tipton, Jeffrey M. Jones, Anne Bogart, Robert Wilson, Deborah Hay, André Gregory, Ping Chong, Gloria Miguel, Black-Eyed Susan, Nicky Paraiso, David Van Tieghem, Mac Wellman, Kate Valk, Adrienne Kennedy, Ching Valdes-Aran