Richard Schechner And New Theatre Richard Schechner envisions a “new theatre” in three of his major essays, “Happenings” (1966), “Six Axioms for Environmental Theatre” (1968), and “Negotiations with the Environment” (1968). He does not spend time discussing his famed “not not themselves” ideology of the performer or ritual ecstasy; instead he discusses a new genealogical hybrid termed the “new theatre” by Allan Kaprow. Schechner uses the traditional theatre as a comparison and first comments in “Happenings” “because it is unlike traditional theatre, the familiar locutions of these arts, e.g., dance, music, sculpture, painting cannot describe whats going on or provide criteria for which to evaluate it” (145). Still, Schechner does provide many a comparison between the traditional theatre and this new form. Schechner recognizes that the”theatrical event is a complex social interweave, a network of expectation and obligation. The exchange of stimulieither sensory or ideational or bothis the root of theatre” (158).
Knowing this, the author claims all theatre, both traditional and new, is a set of related “transactions” (changes in outlook and situation). How these transactions occur is what defines the art form. For example the traditional theatre “works from an organic system of correlations concerning character, story, and locale. Likewise, Susanne K. Langer states, traditional theatre “runs on a continuum of past and future as parts,” (147) organic parts developing the situation.” It involves a series of understandable transactions.
However, the new theatre lacks this destiny of time. “There the referents to everyday life are purely functions of sounds, textures, and images” (147). Schechner basically breaks down all the major components of the traditional theatre in a comparison with the new theatre. To start, the traditional theatre involves plot as a means of telling a story, but the new theatre involves images/events. There are three kinds of new theatre as Schechner describes in “Happenings”: the technological, essentially electronic event (a la John Cage concerts), the free-for-all happenings or party gone wild in which the event is roughly sketched by the author, a group of people are told to do something and another group is invited to watch/participate, and the “ceremony” (a la Kaprow) in which the participants are given a set of instructions which they are not to improvise on but simply do.
“All three kinds share autonomy and revitalization.” “Disconnections are made so that the isolated event or image can be seen in itself, seen as revitalized” (154). Schechner points out that the traditional theatre is action whereas the new theatre is about activity. In “Negotiations with the Environment” he further makes the distinction that the activity is usually “self-documentational” (197). As well the traditional theatre supports resolution, however the new theatre thrives on open-ended ness. For this reason, “shows tend to be often unrepeated and unrepeatable” (147)– for how can you repeat something that will give you a very different result.
Likewise, the traditional theatre revolves around themes/thesis, however in new theatre there is no pre-set meaning. “When audiences exist they are left to themselves to put together or make sense out of whats happening” (148). Therefore, the meaning can be almost anything, and everyone will most certainly have a different impression. The traditional theatre is oriented around roles; the actor is the most important figure. “He becomes a human being other than himself” (149). The new theatre, on the contrary, is task oriented. People are themselves simply doing something.
Their job is not to build roles or circumstances in which they are justified (149). This lends itself to intermedia performances in which “the production elements need no longer support a performance” (163). At certain times these elements are more important than the performers and so a new term “performing technicians” (163) is created. The performers are then free to be treated “as mass and volume, color and texture, and movementnot as actors but as parts of the environment” (178). Like the set and text, they are a part of the piece, not taking focus, but just facilitating. Schechner points out that the traditional theatre revolves around a stage, which is not necessarily true of the new theatre.
The new theatre tries to reach beyond the boundaries of space. Allan Kaprow is quoted in “Negotiations with the Environment as saying, “it doesnt make any difference how large the space is, its still a stage. Its pretty comfortable working in the middle, but as soon as you get to the edges you have to stop, I didnt feel like stopping” (181). Schechner, then, in “Axioms of the Environmental Theatre,” spends much time on two specific axioms referring to Kaprows edges, “all space is used for performance” and “the theatrical event can take place in totally transformed space or found space.” Schechner remarks that in “traditional theatre a special place is marked off within the theatre for performance, but in new theatre the space is organically defined by the action” (165-6). “Once one gives up fixed seating and the bifurcation of space, entirely new relationships are possible” (167) fostering a sense of shared experience among the group This experience can be achieved through transformed space in which the participants, using whatever materials are available and placing them wherever form the unplanned set (171) where the action will take place or something called found space.
Found space involves the given elements of any spaceits architecture, textural qualities, acoustics, and so on are to be explored. The random ordering of space is valid. The function of scenery, if used, is to point up not disguise or transform the space. Lastly, the spectator may suddenly create new special possibilities (172-3). Some have considered Freedom Marches examples of found spaces.
Schechner states in his “Negotiations with the Environment,” “a found space was interesting; found people were found alive” (186). So then is the traditional theatre found dead?–Perhaps dead in terms of new energies. In the traditional theatre the actors go by a script and the result is a product, however in the new theatre its free form, a process, one specific idea isnt beaten to death. The text need not be the starting point (axiom 6). “You dont do the play; you do with itconfront it, search among the words and themes, build around and through it.
. . and come out with your own thing” (180). Whereas the traditional theatre places emphasis on flow and clarity, the new theatre can be tangential and, somewhat chaotic, exploring many facets at once, creating something entirely “new”. Similarly, the traditional theatre is single focused, showing the audience where they should cast their gaze.
This is not true of the new theatre where, according to axiom four, the “focus is flexible and variable” (175). “Multi-focus will not reach every spectator in the same way” (175). Again, the spectator is free to interpret whats going on. As well, using local focus only a fraction of the audience can see or hear. However, “real body contact and whispered communication are possible between the performer and spectator” (176).
Local whirlpools of action make the theatrical line more complex and varied. The last comparison Schechner makes between the two forms of theatre involves the audience. In traditional theatre the audience watches, but in new theatre the audience participates or is non-existent. Environmental theatre involves the art of participation, a celebration of sorts (184). For Schechner and many others it can be a spiritual journey in which all involved share the idea that if people would see again, feel againnot as they did in the historic past, but as each one of us did as a childthen things would get better (155).
There are the ritual elements that comprise Schechners work in Between Theatre and Anthropology. Is the new theatre, then, more spiritual than the traditional theatre? That is not for me to decide but for those involved. Certainly, the new theatre fosters new involvements and new ideasvariations on space, time, and focus. Yet, we cannot judge which is better for they are two very different art forms. The theatre world is enhanced and enriched by new developments like the “new” theatre. Hopefully, both will be around for a very long time.