In the comedy Tootsie, Bill Murray's playwright reveals the kind of reaction he wants from his grim, unpopular scripts: "I don't like when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play. It touched me. I cried.' I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, "Hey, man, I saw your play ... what happened?"
As recently as a few years ago, I'd see a bold, baffling head-scratcher every few months in Atlanta. Frequently, 7 Stages provided the venue for productions that exploded the rule book for narrative expectation and naturalistic human behavior. Stark set and costume designs left vivid after images when the space went dark. The theater's 1997 production of Irene Maria Fornes' Tango Palace borrowed Salvador Dalí's surreal aesthetic for a power struggle between master and servant (Don Finney and Peter Ganim) that made perfect sense on the level of dream logic. In 2004, 7 Stages immersed a classic Greek tragedy — and the audience — in a techno-scored rave with the attention-getting title Iphigenia Crash-Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart. The company's funny, devastating revivals of Waiting for Godot were the "easy" ones.
So now where are Atlanta's challenging, difficult plays that stick with you and inspire questions like "What happened?" Theaters seldom pin their hopes on avant-garde shows to be cash cows, but the nation's tough economic times, changing audience tastes and some personnel transitions at Atlanta theaters have conspired to make the hard plays, well, hard to find.
Plays that make cerebral demands on their audiences engage a whole different set of mental muscles and give people's attentiveness, analytical powers and receptivity to new ideas a workout. Without such shows, we'd never discover anything new or surprising — our grey matter would go all flabby. These days, I probably see the same proportion of smart, solid plays I ever did, often with jazzed-up chronology or unexpected casting choices. I see very few with advanced degrees of difficulty, and just because I didn't always understand or review those proudly nontraditional shows, it doesn't mean I don't want them around. I miss those weird, fucked-up plays.
Difficult economic realities have contributed to pushing experimental plays to the margins. Despite its international renown, 7 Stages has cut back on its programming, although artistic director Del Hamilton describes the choice as temporary. "This is a year when we're trying to make a dent in our deficit. We made a conscious choice to pull back and prove to our funders that we're managing our affairs," says Hamilton.
He acknowledges that some of the theater's former supporters don't come out as often. "People who had been 7 Stages frequenters have gotten older and had families. We have lost a base of support from natural attrition." Partly to attract newer, younger audiences, the playhouse hosts poetry slam tours, collaborates with local rock musicians and works with artists from outside the theatrical arena.
Even adventurous but more approachable fare is struggling in the current economic climate. "The Alley Stage Series was a casualty of the recession," Theatre in the Square managing director Raye Varney says of the company's provocative productions like Jesus Caught the A Train or Blue Door in its smaller secondary space. T-Square cut the series to one show in the 2008-09 season, and hasn't yet been able to revive it. "The Series has always been a 'loss leader' for us. We do them almost entirely for outreach to patrons we don't reach on the Main Stage."
Since corporate donations have declined over the past decade, theaters are depending more than ever on ticket sales, so the stakes are high with potential flops. "Unfortunately, many of us are in the position where one show that fails badly at the box office can sink the theatre," says Varney. In 2009, Aurora Theatre secured Georgia Gwinnett College as a sponsor for its Lab Series, making relatively risky scripts more viable. But where a play like September's time-skipping monologue The Circumference of a Squirrel may take greater narrative risks than the company's mainstage fare, it's relatively tame compared to truly avant-garde work.
Similarly, Jewish Theatre of the South staged untested, provocative but comprehensible plays for years until the Marcus Jewish Community Center discontinued the company in 2008. Its replacement, the Center Theatre, focuses on more popular works such as its December show, Hairspray.
With companies such as Synchronicity Theatre weathering significant transitions in personnel, the staging of challenging plays seems endangered, if not on the brink of extinction in Atlanta. Contemporary productions might tinker with chronology or casting, but rarely at the risk of losing anyone.
Actor's Express has always seemed fearless in many of its programming choices, particularly with such bold, enigmatic scripts as Finn in the Underworld or Thom Pain (Based on Nothing). But artistic director Freddie Ashley finds that artistic experimentation has limits. "The audience at [Actors' Express] is always ready for a challenge in terms of content, but I think that avant-garde aesthetics aren't something my audience is as interested in. One of the things that defines avant-garde aesthetics is nonlinear storytelling, or sometimes even focusing less on story than on atmosphere and aesthetics. I think audiences typically respond to well-told stories. Avant-garde theatre will challenge these expectations rather than satisfy them directly," says Ashley.
Hamilton sees experimental theater as serving a function comparable to actual science. "Experiment is part of the scientific method. In the aesthetics of the avant-garde, experimental arenas, we're taking a guiding principle to find the truth of the human experience." If the theater world were a corporation, the experimental playwrights, directors and theaters would be the research and development department. 7 Stages plans to produce at least three "experiments" next season, including a play about Georgia outsider artist Howard Finster by Atlanta's Pamela Turner.
Hamilton believes that if theaters program exclusively for their core supporters, they'll never attract new audiences. When and if the economy makes its long-awaited turnaround, companies should feel the freedom to extend themselves creatively, and produce works that inspire reactions like, "I don't get it, but I think I like it." When art is concerned, understanding can be overrated.