- Mabou Mines: Making Avant-Garde Theater in the 1970s
The timing of Iris Smith Fischer’s book Mabou Mines: Making Avant-Garde Theater in the 1970s coincides with Mabou Mines’ last performance of the much-lauded and much-talked-about Mabou Mines Dollhouse, which after eight years touring the world experienced its last run in Boston in November 2011. With international interest in the group thus piqued, Fischer’s book provides a long overdue critical account of Mabou Mines’ origins and artistic methods. It is the first-ever book-length study of Mabou Mines, focusing particularly on the company’s early years together, as Fischer seeks “to make visible the work that is least documented and account for the events and decisions that established Mabou Mines’ defining ideas and methods” (3). She achieves this through an impressive collection of archival material, articles, reviews, and personal interviews. The result is a terse history of one of America’s most unique and oldest theatre collectives.
The challenge of Fischer’s study—a challenge she overcomes with much aplomb—is to reconstruct the group’s history despite the absence of a reliable archive, since, much like the creators of happenings or Fluxus events, members of Mabou Mines made no attempt at documentation, which was anathema to their desire to live and work in the moment. Fischer’s book thus provides a valuable narrative that documents even as it sews together much of the repertoire of the company’s earlier developments, which have long been overshadowed by the independent fame of many of its original members, particularly Philip Glass, JoAnne Akalaitis, and Lee Breuer.
When Akalaitis, Breuer, Glass, Ruth Maleczech, and David Warrilow founded Mabou Mines in the 1970s, they wanted to establish a collective ensemble with no clear delineations among actor/director/playwright, and so on. Each held the position of co-artistic director, and each assumed equal privilege in the devising of their theatrical pieces. The over-arching narrative to Fischer’s book considers Mabou Mines’ shift from its early aspirations—creating a socialistic, decentered collective of artists—to its later form as a “company of directors,” a transformation that the company experienced within a period of only ten years. Fischer indicates The Shaggy Dog Animation as a final point of departure, the last show in which Breuer would direct Akalaitis, and a moment when Mabou Mines started “to accommodate the strong egos of mature artists ready to take on their own, often larger and more complex projects” (133). She places great emphasis on the fissure between Breuer and Akalaitis, noting that Breuer’s self-discovery as a writer coincided with Akalaitis’s emergence as a director.
Mabou Mines’ shift in this regard is significant, for it indicates a general shift in the landscape of the American avant-garde during the 1970s: from communal troupes like Living Theatre and Performance Group whose performances were devised as cultural interventions to auteurs, such as Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman, who stamped their work with their own artistic style. While Mabou Mines started quite democratically—everyone involved was a member of the board and received equal pay—collective decisions became more and more difficult. Compromise became key; as Fischer notes, members eventually moved away from a “countercultural collective” toward a group of “directors who also appeared in each other’s work” (165).
While Fischer provides a deft summary of many of Mabou Mines’ key works throughout the 1970s, particularly the “Animations,” her chapter on their productions of Beckett’s work is most noteworthy. Fischer regards the Beckett period as a prime moment when Mabou Mines developed “a performance discipline of their own” (99), which helped establish its reputation in New York. Its productions of Play, Come and Go, and The Lost Ones not only “linked [Mabou Mines] in the public mind with Beckett,” but also opened up an opportunity for it to present Shaggy Dog at Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. Fischer notes that, despite Beckett’s infamous effort to shut down Akalaitis’s production of Endgame...