Let’s try a little test. I say, “Experimental Theater.” You say, “_________.” Did you say something negative, or at least not altogether positive? I bet so. The term “Experimental Theater” has become essentially a label for a certain style of performance which was (in broad strokes) “generated” from theatrical experiments by a handful of specific companies in the mid-20th Century. For most, the term no longer refers to any actual “experiment,” and many of us have come to associate the term with (I’m just going to say it) bad theater.
This bums me out, as I like theater, and I like experimental theater – in its true sense: that is, theater which is actively experimenting with form and content. However, perhaps there is hope that we few hold-out champions of a much-maligned form can help refocus the term. Last week, I toured a recent production to an “experimental theater festival” at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, my alma mater. After the performance, one audience member kicked off the post-show discussion by saying, “I understood all of that, which leads me to ask, what was experimental about it? I’d just call that ‘theater’.”
The comment implied that in order to be “experimental” the work must be impenetrable. His label of my work as simply “theater” was therefore a compliment that he could actually understand what was happening. He was very intrigued and not at all critical in his tone, and it opened up a wonderful discussion around the idea that (in my view anyway) “experimental” performance is determined by the nature of its process rather than the appearance of its product.
I’m not insinuating that one discussion with 75 theater-goers in Southern Illinois can precipitate a sweeping tide of refreshed understanding of what it means to experiment with theater, but it’s a start.