One Hundred Years of Fortitude
A long-view case for laboratory theater in L.A.
By Bryan Brown & Olya Petrakova
The Los Angeles theater scene (particularly its intimate venues) has often, over the last few years, been compared to a laboratory. At its best such a comparison is meant to highlight the scene’s ability to act as an incubator for new work capable of moving into larger theaters or tour through exchange programs internationally (see Steven Leigh Morris’s recent concerns over the fate of the AEA referendum for one such instance).
However, the term laboratory is an overarching word in our culture today, what the cultural critic Raymond Williams called a keyword, and is therefore open to complex and often contradictory meanings. For instance, in response to Morris’s concerns, in a Bitter-Lemons post now taken down after that site’s re-design, Colin Mitchell defines laboratory theater as a “risk free experimental” enterprise that serves some members of the L.A. community but does not adequately represent the “entertainment” aspect of the L.A. theatre scene, though “risk free” can hardly describe most laboratories in the arts and the sciences, given the investments of time and funding in both. Furthermore, the dualistic juxtaposition of “experimental” and “entertainment” suggests a typical North American perception of laboratory theater stemming from the 1960s avant garde — where experimental is often equated with impenetrable, confrontational, shocking, unfinished, or exhibitionist, with the latter being seen as epitomized in the Performance Group’s Dionysus in ‘69 (see clip 21:30 of Brian de Palma’s film of D69).
Nevertheless, such work is primarily created in response to a commercial culture that equates entertainment with the superficial, thus the binary separation of “laboratory” work with commercial work – even though much commercial work emerges from the laboratory process of multitudinous readings and workshops.
An important influence of so-called experimental work was Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Teatr Laboratorium — the theater most often associated with the theater laboratory.
But the laboratory theater tradition started 50 years before Grotowski (1933-1999), with the quests of European intellectuals to take the best of the past into the future, while fulfilling the promise of a new century. Such seeking and striving was particularly potent in Russia and, for convenience, the start of the theater laboratory can be marked in 1905 with the creation of the Theatre-Studio by Constantin Stanislavsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold.
The notion of a laboratory theatre then expanded dramatically within Russia’s ecology of revolution that lasted from 1905-1928. This ecology promoted an inter- or trans-disciplinary thinking, wherein terms like experimental and entertainment, innovation and tradition, revelation and revolution were not opposites but complementary impulses that, when harvested together, could inspire new forms. Performance became an integral medium for human betterment, and the theater laboratory became a place for the creation of newly transformed audiences (spiritually, politically, socially).
At the same time, the theater laboratory was (less grandiosely) a space in which the discipline was advanced through committed investigation into the craft of performance. The idea of searching without a preconceived destination was essential, but the form of the search, or research, might be a new system of acting, the clarifying of the newly created director’s role and function, the discovering of new forms of scenic design, or the attempts of amateur clubs to guide their audiences towards a newly empowered understanding of themselves — what we might term placemaking or applied theater today.
Laboratory Theater Comes of Age
In order to better understand such a laboratory theater tradition, the Laboratory Theatre Network was created in 2012 with a grant from the Britain’s Leverhulme Trust. Organized by the Centre for Performance Research (CPR), the Network’s partners are Poland’s Grotowski Institute, Denmark’s Odin Teatret Nordisk Teaterlaboratorium and NYC’s Hemispheric Institute. However, the Network is by no means confined to these four institutions. Rather, it has comprised a number of theater- makers and scholars from Europe and North America, including the authors of this post Olya Petrakova and Bryan Brown of Los Angeles-based ARTEL.
Recently a concluding conference for the Trust’s backing of the Network was held in Falmouth, England, from February 27-March 1, 2015. Entitled “Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: 100 years of fortitude,” the conference aimed to collaboratively assess the history and trends of laboratory theater in order to propose new performance models that lie between mainstream professional theater and the theater/performance studies discipline.
The Network has always been committed to incorporating the Americas into its purview, but travel impediments had kept it from being able to host a conference in the United States. Luckily, this final gathering was able to invite a handful of companies and scholars from the U.S. to more fully round out the North American aspect of the laboratory conversation. Alongside ARTEL, members of SITI Company, Double Edge, and Urban Research Theater were able to attend.
The three days were jam-packed with PowerPoint presentations and group discussions about the various strains of laboratory theater practice arising out of the United Kingdom, the USA, and continental Europe. Discussions often focused on organizational structures, such as horizontal versus hierarchical (Ellen Lauren gave a particularly illuminating presentation of how SITI developed from these tensions), women’s roles in companies, institutions and training (a topic often overlooked but readdressed powerfully in Ali Hodge’s Core Training), legacies and lineages (with a particularly plucky discussion of the rock’n’roll approach to laboratory theater-making in 1970s England), as well as practical application.
Three very different work demonstrations and performances were made by Ang Gey Pin, Moon Fool and Theaterlabor, each highlighting the range of aesthetics emerging from a laboratory tradition while illustrating the depth of commitment to the craft that’s central in a laboratory process.
Gey Pin and Moon Fool both come from a song-based tradition (think Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards or Gardzienice) but apply their musicality to dramatic action in strikingly different ways. Theaterlabor on the other hand is an ensemble of a completely different breed. More akin to Odin Teatret, Theaterlabor embraces the challenge of new approaches for each project. They have created large open-air spectacles, dance-theater collaborations, art installations, and operas. Their performance of Seance was a darkly comic journey of possibly true personal narratives recounted in a physically compelling style reminiscent of the Russian director Yevgeny Vakhtangov’s work with statuary and gestural structures.
The Network has done much to advance the history and rationale behind the laboratory theater tradition, and as the conference ended, it was clear that despite the numerous variations there are fundamental elements to a company grouped within the tradition: a theater laboratory is an organization committed to training, long term ensemble practice, discovery of new aesthetics, diverse social commitments, and the archiving and sharing of knowledge. Boiling it down, the authors of this post believe a laboratory’s key components are investment, ensemble as family, and the desire to advance knowledge for the field.
Back to Los Angeles
Bringing this back into the world of Los Angeles theater, we can look at a recent Facebook post by L.A.’s intimate theater veteran and television star French Stewart advocating for a “Pro-99” Actors Equity Association (the U.S. actors/stage-managers union) referendum vote to support theaters of up-to-99-seats. (The referendum resulted in a landslide vote of support for L.A.’s small theaters and that result was resolutely ignored by the union.): “99 pays me with beauty. And citizenship. It gives me the opportunity to be an art prospector. I’d like the right to measure my own wealth,” Stewart wrote.
Stewart’s statement sits nicely alongside one made by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo when asked to describe his experiences of touring Europe during the mid-1980s: “Musicians [in the States] weren’t afraid to go out and work really hard for satisfaction more than success. That’s what it came down to – you were working for some other notion of glory than financial.”
The “great reckonings” that have taken place over the last century in the little rooms called theater laboratories are primarily ones of a personal investment to a process and to a family. The work ethic of continual commitment to these twin engines is the search for some other notion of glory outside the conventional terms of experimental or entertainment.
And such commitment has advanced the theatrical culture. Angelenos who saw SITI’s Rite (performed by Ellen Lauren less than a week after presenting in Falmouth) can attest to how the search for new forms and new engagement continues in the American laboratory tradition. Equally, the L.A. scene itself produces compelling laboratory work with wildly different aesthetics and end results. A brief list of notable companies includes Theatre Movement Bazaar, Critical Mass Performance Group, Ghost Road Company, Rogue Machine, Bootleg Theater, 24th Street Theatre, Poor Dog Group, Son of Semele and Sacred Fools.
May the continued legacy of laboratory theater serve the LA theater scene well, as new choices are made for what, how and most importantly why we do what we do.