Whatever happened to experimental theater?
In the 1960s, the idea of joining an experimental theater troupe was a noble concept pioneered by The Living Theater on the east coast and the San Francisco Mime Troupe out west.
I studied theater as an undergraduate but was mostly initially obsessed with Anton Chekhov. I had a theory most productions were badly directed and failed to appreciate Chekhov’s sense of humor, as well as his ability to poke fun at distinctly Russian personalities. Since American directors had little contact with those Russian personalities, Chevhov’s plays became drawn-out with long, pregnant pauses and bombastic emotions, instead of the light comedy the author had intended.
However, I did become fascinated with the saga of The Living Theater, and would soon learn about Jasper Grootveld and the Provo Movement in Amsterdam. Julian Beck and Judith Malina had drawn the audience into the play, and loved nothing better than ending a performance with the entire audience stripping naked and then maybe going out into the street to perform an ritualistic OM circle around the local draft board. But The Living Theater was quickly hounded out of the country and forced into exile in Italy. They were considered that dangerous. Grootveld, meanwhile, had a much different fate. Today, we know him as the founder of “the happenings,” and he’s considered a performance artist. But his performances were intended to provoke his audience into action, which is exactly what happened. Dressed as an African shaman, Grootveld threw a flaming hoop over a statue in Spui Square during certain special evenings. Marijuana is legal for adult use in The Netherlands as a result of these ceremonies, and that, my friends, is real magic in action.
Boy, did my mind get blown when I finally met up with Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Theater Project during their visit to the University of Illinois around 1972. Their version of Alice in Wonderland (see photo above) was the greatest adaptation of that novel ever achieved. The company also produced a version of Chekhov’s Seagull unlike any other production I’d ever experienced, and one that solidified my belief Chekhov was misinterpreted. Gregory is a Harvard grad, by the way, from the Adams House, once home to head jocks, but later a center of student activism. Gregory learned a lot from Jerzy Grotowski, who re-invented experimental theater through the use of extended improvisations combined with intense yoga and mudra exercises designed to open up all seven chakras to full power. Gregory and Grotowski were really in a class by themselves at the time, both masters of what I call Improvisational Ritual Theater.
Another part of this tradition that gets frequently ignored is Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who were pursuing very similar art at the time. The Acid Tests were a deeply spiritual endeavor, as well as an artistic statement and Kesey was a pioneer in performance art as well as master shaman and magician. The Pranksters, however, were surfing the fun vibe, while Grotowski, unfortunately, seemed completely humorless, which was probably his tragic flaw. I think you can understand the similarities and differences by just realizing one was based in Poland a few miles from Auschwitz, while the other was based out of Haight-Ashbury.
It’s strange how this tradition has largely disappeared from the planet. I keep the flame alive, however, when I get together with the Temple Dragon Crew. We manifest ceremony, ritual and improv energy for days, and frequently take that ball of energy to a big stage and show it off, like we did recently at the Munchie Cup in Aspen, Colorado, last August. We’ll be back next May.