EAT!: the manifesto
It wasn’t my intention to be a founding member of an experimental theatre company in Lubbock, Texas. EAT! Grew out of political and practical necessity in order to produce Wonderland In Alice: the Uncertainty Principle.
EAT! is not attempting to overturn the present theatrical ruling body, or deliberately criticize or poke fun at established theatrical forms. Such things may be outcomes of our work, but not our purpose.
We want to do theatre the way we want to do it. And we want to do it differently.
Doesn’t it seem like madness: an experimental theatre in one of the most conservative cities in the country, right behind Salt Lake City or Provo, Utah. How can one attract an audience for potentially subversive, sexually graphic theatre in such an atmosphere?
I remembered something else I was told during my week long orientations when I arrived at Texas Tech: the university has its own strain of gonorrhea. And Lubbock one of the highest rates of high school pregnancy.
I remembered also my Victorian history. I read somewhere that Victorian England had a 4 to 1 ratio of prostitutes to men. Someone told me when Republican National Conventions arrive in a city, whorehouses put on extra workers to cover the increase in demand.
In short, where there is a majority of conservativism, there is a minority of liberalism. Or, to look at it another way, licentiousness doesn’t exist despite a majorly conservative society—but maybe because of it.
Not only is Lubbock ideal, but Provo or Salt Lake City might be a potential hotbed of experimental theatre.
This is in danger of becoming a manifesto. So be it.
This is also in danger of becoming a masturbatorial diatribe about the virtues of EAT! A laundry list of our wonderful accomplishments, how INCREDIBLE our first show went, and how SAD for anyone who didn’t experience it. It is necessary to talk about our first production, it isn’t necessary to jerk off and call it journalism.
As much as I don’t want this to become all about me, it’s necessary to talk a little about me—being a founding member of EAT! and author of Wonderland in Alice: the Uncertainty Principle.
I’m a third year PhD student at Texas Tech, focusing on playwriting and theatre history/theory/criticism. I have an MFA in playwriting from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and a BA in English from UCLA. My first play was produced when I was 17 and this year alone I’ve had three plays produced. Wonderland is slated to be produced this fall in New York, and I’ve begun work on the next EAT! production, also slated for this fall.
I have a strong background in traditional dramaturgy, Shakespeare, realism, and classic English Literature. About a year ago, I finally admitted I was bored with realism and the well-made play, that I’ve only been pretending to find it adequate to express myself.
EAT! is a way for me to say, “Fuck it all. I’m sick of traditional theatre and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Theatre history is full of people who have felt the same way and did something about it. Whether EAT! fails or not, our intention is to stop bitching about how boring we think most theatre is and start doing something about it.
EAT! was a product of necessity. There is no venue available in Lubbock, of which I am aware, that allows for experimental, non-realistic theatre. If we wanted to do it, we needed to do it ourselves.
In theatre, “doing it ourselves” is often the most practical means of doing new theatre.
At this point, it’s necessary to define “experimental.”
“Alternative” or “non-traditional” would have worked well to describe our work, but “experimental” allows for a broader range of theatre works. Experimental theatre allows for theatre that doesn’t follow traditional dramaturgical structure. “Traditional” is what structures the great majority of television, movies, and theatre. Pieces are focused around psychologically realistic characters, with plots based on action, arching at a climax and finding resolution of some sort. Aristotle usually gets invoked at this point.
Experimental throws all those rules or traditions out the window.
This doesn’t mean that what we want to do, and have done, is necessarily innovative or new. Experimental theatre has existed on the fringe of mainstream theatre (realism and melodrama) for at least a hundred years. I personally am not claiming to be a vanguard of the next wave of drama. I think I can speak for everyone in our company when I say that all we want to do is do theatre in a way that is differently creative than what we are used to.
I for one want to do a kind of theatre that inverts the traditional hierarchy of the collaborative process. Too often what is called “collaboration” in theatre is truly as collaborative and creative as a battle or invasion.
Actors, technical people, directors, etc. are often pawns of producers or subscription audiences, producing work not for the sake of art, but for a higher, often unquestioned agenda.
“Producing work not for the sake of art:” that’s a dangerous phrase. Let me poke at it a little: EAT! has not been focused on profit or even mainstream acceptability.
It’s more productive to focus our efforts on creating works of art, not products for mass consumption. We’ve fortunately have the luxury to be able to do so, supported by generous benefactors. We’re in an enviable position of being able to do what we want versus what we are being told we want to do.
Yet, I have to ask the question: why would anyone want to do theatre they don’t want to do?
Or, do many people in theatre actually know what they want to do? How many are simply told what they want, and are taught to be grateful to participate?
Perhaps I should talk about our process. It too is experimental.
In the past I have written scripts with certain actors in mind. In the spring, I had the opportunity to do so for students at Frenship High School, students of Topher Payne. I interviewed the students, got to know them personally, asked what kind of role they would appreciate having (or not having). I structured the play and characters according to what the students told me, and the result was Pulp Fairy (the title chosen by the students themselves).
I learned more during that process about collaboration with actors than I ever had. I wanted to work with college students. Not just because college students had more advanced training (there were Frenship students who were very talented and effective), but because I could be more open, graphic. More myself.
Word spread that I wanted to work with college students. There were college students who wanted to work with me on a new script. Topher wanted to direct another piece of mine.
It seemed impossible to schedule such a huge project in conjunction with the departmental demands at Texas Tech. Then a miracle occurred: summer rep at Texas Tech got canceled. This meant that a huge pool of actors would be in Lubbock all summer with no production demands. We jumped on it.
There were no auditions. I was willing to work with anyone wanting to work with us, regardless of experience.
Our cast became a rogue’s gallery of actors. We had those who had been shunned from being cast at Tech for personal or political reasons, those who had very little or no experience on stage, and those who had been so routinely type cast they had no experience playing other roles.
One actor told me she had only been cast as a bitch or a slut. For her, I strove to create roles that were not that in order to give her something fresh to do.
Having no script, we started with company meetings/parties. China Young (Wonderland’s Alice and “Cruise Director” of EAT!) would host these meetings. Always late at night (after everyone had gotten off work, summer classes or any other production rehearsal in Lubbock—I myself was directing True West for Hub Theatre), we would gather, drink, and toss ideas around. I had determined our first script would be based on Alice in Wonderland, and it made it easy to talk with our actors about ideas.
I also had the cast fill out surveys loaded with personal questions.
What is the most horrible act of violence you’ve ever seen (both real and fictional)? What food have you used during sex (or would want to use)? Favorite sexual story (either something you did or someone else)? If you were a piece of furniture, what would you be?
I used their answers to construct characters, themes, dialogue, etc. I doubt the cast itself realized how influential their answers had been in molding the script. I should apologize for not clarifying this work in the program, giving due credit to the actors who had contributed so much to the construction of the production.
Next time I will.
Most theatres would laugh if I walked in and proposed beginning a rehearsal process without a script. Our own people, completely on board with what we wanted to do, often didn’t know how to work within this process.
These theatre majors from Texas Tech didn’t know how to deal with the process of collaborating in the construction of a script. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how to either. I was making much of it up as I went along.
This is why the party-meetings were so important: we theatre people are taught to rally behind a script. A script becomes the glue that often “begins” a production. Without a script, EAT! was in danger of evaporating before it began.
The cast needed to bond and the easiest way to do that is with alcohol.
I wrote the script in two weeks. Such speed is madness and smacks of sloppy work. But I really do write that fast. I wrote Pulp Fairy in as much time, and produce from three to five hundred pages each year. I’ve been writing producible plays for seventeen years and have carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands as a result of this enormous output.
Of course, it’s not all good work. But it’s work nonetheless.
We had a gorilla rehearsal process. In “real world” theatre, rehearsal space is an expensive part of a production process, often running anywhere between $50 and $100 a night depending on the location.
We were extremely fortunate to have had our spaces donated to us. Some of the donations were withdrawn halfway through our rehearsals. This required us to “steal” spaces on the Tech campus. But we got it done: with a cast of eleven, thirty plus characters, and three major dance/movement pieces.
Our current home is the First Unitarian Universalist Church on 42nd Street. Those lovely people took us in, script unread, when other spaces in Lubbock turned us away due to our explicit content.
Our turnout was startling. We had been told to expect very little for a show being done the first weekend of August. Though summer school was still in session at Tech, we were going up against summer musicals and having to deal with a depleted student population. Nevertheless, with a house seating 65, we brought in approximately 165 people over three nights.
What was so potentially objectionable about Wonderland?
The language, cross-dressing, a vulva puppet, same-sex kissing, a gay marriage, bisexuality, dead baby jokes, a Jesus joke, an abortion joke, a hookah smoking worm with syphilis, and an ocean of vomit. Not much, really. I was holding back.
I wanted to include bestiality, golden and/or rainbow showers, human sized genitals, and pedophilia. But this is Lubbock after all. I didn’t want to alienate audiences our first time out.
Now we can afford to get a little risky.
It isn’t a tenet of EAT! to be sexually explicit or deliberately shocking. It’s not even a personal goal of my own work. I’m not out to shock for the sake of shocking (though I’ve been accused of it several times).
EAT! wants no restrictions in subject matter. Any and all subjects must be available for discussion. That was what Wonderland was essentially: a two hour discussion about the emotional and intellectual nightmarish struggles of a person living today. These struggles include sexuality, gender, quantum mechanics, particle physics, love and death.
We are in the planning stages for a second production slated for this fall. Last count of actors interested was around sixteen. Though Wonderland was collaborative, this next piece, tentatively titled MFMD-ing, will be more so. I want to open up the pool of collaboration to include those people belonging to the TTUT Independent Theatre Project group on Facebook: people who aren’t interested in participating in the gritty physical aspects of the production (such as acting, tech, etc), but would like to have some part in the formation of the script.
There has been much discussion of future productions. Carol Churchill’s work has been suggested for production in the spring. I personally favor new non-traditional plays. Whatever we do, our immediate goal is challenging yet simple: strengthen the foundation for this company in order to ensure that there is a venue for experimental theatre in Lubbock. We want to create something strong, create a tradition, so that when our founding members move on, EAT! can continue.
I think Lubbock would be sad to see us fade away.
Facebook Group: Experimental Artists Theatre
This was printed in Volume 1, Oct. 2008 issue of Art Rag Magazine