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At the 2008 TBA (Time-Based Art (TBA) Festival in Portland, Oregon, I saw two productions that put a serious crimp in my long-standing skepticism about "postdramatic theater." One was a six-hour piece (originally from 1996) called Quizoola! by the British experimental theatre company Forced Entertainment, and the other was a new, fifty-minute work by that company's artistic director, Tim Etchells, Sight is the Sense That Dying People Tend to Lose First, written for and performed by the New York actor Jim Fletcher.
Both these works were squarely in the vein of the German scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann's much-discussed "postdramatic" paradigm for the cutting edge in international theatrical innovation during the past several decades. I am not a habitual user of this term, as many have become since Lehmann's book appeared in English in 2006. "Postdramatic" becomes a Procrustean absurdity when applied indiscriminately. It seems to me just the right description, however, for the kind of artist or group whose work really is driven by a loss of patience with drama per se. Companies in the vein of Forced Entertainment have broken faith with the very idea that staged fictional stories can ever operate with powerful critical force in a media-saturated world where story-patterns are cheapened by overexposure and audiences are chronically distracted by peripheral matters like self-referentiality and celebrity worship. Since 1984, this group has negotiated such obstacles by staging the failure of various performances to take conventional or traditionally entertaining shape.
In First Night (2001), for example, eight performers were dressed up as if for a bright and lively vaudeville performance—promising singing, dancing and comedy—but in fact they had no such acts prepared. With their mouths frozen in broad, grimace-like smiles, they vamped for ninety minutes with disconnected anecdotes, verbal attacks on the audience, and ominous predictions about the future. Bloody Mess (2003) worked from a similar premise except that its ten performers hailed from a half-dozen different theatrical idioms: a couple of clowns, a pair of grooving dancers, a woman in a gown obsessed with an operatic death scene, an actor in a gorilla suit tossing popcorn at the audience, two rock-gig roadies who played air-guitar and imposed smoke-effects and flashy lights on the others. These figures collided, competed for attention, and confided their various incompatible desires to the audience. [End Page 1]
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In a public lecture in Portland, Etchells said (quoting Baudelaire) that his company's basic relationship to the theatre was like "the child's elemental relationship to the toy: how can I break this?" Forced Entertainment's fundamental impulse, he said, was "to pick [the theatre] up and start banging it or clanking it against the wall or throwing it up in the air to see what happens to it, what kind of things can be done with it, what kind of relations can be constructed with it." The company's "breaking" impulse has been twofold, he added. On the one hand, they have overloaded theatre with "more than it can possibly hold," more people, objects, layers of material, strands of image or text, as in the pieces just mentioned. On the other hand, they have emptied theatre out, "slimming it down to almost nothing, to a few people or even one person on a nearly bare stage," absorbing tedium and "social breathing" into the experience, as in the pieces done at the TBA Festival.
When he speaks like this, Etchells sounds like an acolyte of Samuel Beckett, despite his evident disdain for the words "play" and "playwright." One gathers that impression as well from reading his remarkable collection of essays and performance texts, Certain Fragments (1999), which contains more original and provocative thought about the nature of pared-down performance than I have seen from anyone else currently employing it (including New York figures like the playwright Tom Donaghy and the playwright-director Richard Maxwell, whose work Etchells admires). Forced Entertainment's smaller, quieter pieces are grounded...