Theatrical space as laboratory


Here are some words I wrote for school today:

Walter Benjamin’s 1936 “The Author as Producer” contains the following epigraph: “Il s’agit de gagner les intellectuels à la classe ouvrière, en leur faisant prendre conscience de l’identité de leurs démarches spirituelles et de leur condition de producteurs.”

The quote is from a 1936 open letter from Ramon Fernandez to André Gide that is in itself pretty interesting—you can find the letter in the original French at (it seems an English translation has been published but a cursory search isn’t showing it online). This bit, the line just after the one Benjamin quotes, is the most of interest to me:

“Tel est pour moi le point essentiel : l’intellectuel a besoin de la classe ouvrière pour se connaître lui-même complètement. Et comme l’ouvrier a besoin de l’intellectuel pour se penser lui-même, il existe entre l’un et l’autre un rigoureux rapport de réciprocité.”

“This for me is the essential point: the intellectual needs the working class to understand himself completely. And so too the worker needs the intellectual to think about himself; there exists an intensely reciprocal relationship between one and the other.”

While Benjamin’s reference to Fernandez (and indeed, the rest of the above letter) is very much caught up in global politics of the 1930s, this ties in nicely with the article’s later discussion of Brecht, and the idea of creative spaces as spaces for thoughtfulness, and as a two-way dialogue between “culture” and the world-as-lived.

Benjamin says of Brecht’s “epic theatre”: “It aims less at filling the public with emotion, even if it is that of revolt, than at making it consider thoughtfully, from a distance and over a period of time, the situations in which it lives.”

This latter is, perhaps obviously, an accurate if abstract description of how science operates. Thus the theatrical “laboratory.” (See Jerzy Grotowski for another iteration of the “theatre laboratory,” the Teatr Laboratorium.)

If the role of artistic and intellectual production is to encourage thoughtful examination of lived situations via a series of experiments, then as culture becomes a lived situation, so too must it be thoughtfully examined. The shifting of the apparatus, of the creative form, that Benjamin claims is essential in any truly revolutionary cultural output, then becomes necessary in order for creative forms to fulfill that role. The laboratory approach to art-making encourages experimentation with form, genre, and even the hierarchies of artistic production—see Billy Klüver’s description of the horizontal collaborative structure of the Pavilion project, and the manifesto of its press release. This kind of work makes an experimental proposal to its audience, rather than presenting them with a self-contained world of entertainment. From the Pavilion statement: “Eliminate the separation of the individual from technological change and expand and enrich technology to give the individual variety, pleasure and avenues for exploration and involvement in contemporary life.” Or to quote Benjamin, work that “is capable of making co-workers out of readers or spectators.”

This made me think (admittedly kind of tangentially) about the work of playwright Chuck Mee. Mee is the author of, among many other things, bobrauschenbergamerica, a play inspired by the work of Robert Rauschenberg, one of the artists involved in the Pavilion. His plays are textual collages, often working from a baseline of one extant text (a myth, a classic play, an artist’s work and biography), and remixing it with a variety of other sources. bobrauschenbergamerica, for example, was “developed in a workshop with Tali Gai, Jane Comfort, Kathleen Turco-Lyon, Rebecca Brown, Reba Herman, Alec Duffy, Jacki Goldhammer, and Carolyn Clark Smith and incorporates texts from them as well as from Robert Rauschenberg, Fred Becker, Philip Morrison, Walt Whitman, William S. Burroughs, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allen Ginsberg, and Laurie Williams.”

One of the things that fascinates me about Mee’s work is his restructuring of the format of “the play”—all of his works are available for download on his website,, with the following caveat:

Please feel free to take the plays from this website and use them freely as a resource for your own work […] pillage the plays as I have pillaged the structures and contents of the plays of Euripides and Brecht and stuff out of Soap Opera Digest and the evening news and the internet, and build your own, entirely new, piece—and then, please, put your own name to the work that results. But, if you would like to perform the plays essentially or substantially as I have composed them, they are protected by copyright in the versions you read here, and you need to clear performance rights.

The plays themselves are often extremely open-ended, containing very few stage directions, or impossible stage directions, or are composed of several sections that can be rearranged in different sequences to different effect. There are ambiguous references to the use of media, to be interpreted differently by every production. They are built to be malleable, to turn readers into authors, into experimenters. This doesn’t always yield the best aesthetic results in every production (of which there are many, since you don’t have to pay for rights if you alter the play enough), but this work occupies a place in between authorship/copyright and collaboration/open source that I think is really, really exciting. Theater as laboratory is where it’s at, seriously.

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