Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Do We Need In-Yer-Face Theatre?

by Matthew Falduto

(This is the first in an ongoing series of short pieces about theatre. The intent is to spark conversation, so please feel free to write a comment if you'd like. If you have a theatre topic you'd like to write about, email ictheatreblog@gmail.com with your idea.)

A production of Blasted by Sarah Kane
In the 1990s, a group of playwrights started a revolution in the British theatre world with plays that challenged audiences, attacking the senses in provocative ways. One of their plays was called a  "disgusting feast of filth" and another was labeled "gratuitously nasty, brutish." After viewing one of these plays, a critic asked, "Should this sick play have been presented at all?" This movement became known as In-Yer-Face Theatre. In-Yer-Face Theatre was all about being confrontational, attacking the cultural norms, particularly those relating to sex and violence. The plays didn't allow the audience to remain detached from the action. Rather, audiences were forced to experience the pain, and oftentimes the degradation of the characters. It wasn't comfortable to watch these plays. Nudity, filthy language, humiliating violence, simulated sex acts on stage... the point was to make the audience squirm. To challenge them. To go on the attack. To be in their faces.

I've been reading a lot about In-Yer-Face Theatre lately, reflecting on its premise that art should shock, should attack, should offend. And I'm torn. I've always believed in pushing theatrical boundaries. I had no issues producing a show about a serial killer (The Pillowman) or one that features Jesus as a gay man (Corpus Christi) or even a show that at its heart is about incest (House of Yes). But when I think back on these plays, none of them were all that in your face when compared to Blasted by Sarah Kane, the play that earned the "disgusting feast of filth" label I mentioned earlier. Blasted features masturbation, rape and cannibalism, all of which happen onstage. 

Of those three plays I mentioned earlier, Pillowman was the only one that was difficult to experience. In fact, I had to actually turn away when the child appeared on stage. I just couldn't watch it - it touched something deep within me as a father of three daughters. But the fact is we never witnessed the murder of the child on stage. I suppose that's why I question the need for In-Yer-Face Theatre. Is it necessary to force the audience to witness acts of depravity to provoke a reaction? Do we need to see a rape on stage to know it happened? Or is it enough to see the beginning moments, to know what is about to happen, and then ...blackout? One could even argue that is more effective as our minds create a more vivid horror than any simulated act on stage. I turned away from Pillowman because my mind was creating the horror and I couldn't stand it any longer.

The other side of the argument is that witnessing the acts in person is a more visceral experience for the audience. We can control what we think, but we cannot control what the actors show us. Perhaps that visceral experience will have a greater impact? I believe theatre should be impactful and challenge the audience's perceptions. So I end this piece as I began, still torn. I can say for certain that I will keep pushing the boundaries, challenging myself and my company to discover new ways to impact our audiences. And as I read plays, I will have to determine if there are lines I will not cross.

I should end this piece by noting that I'm no expert on the In-Yer-Face Theatre movement. There are other aspects to it - the deconstruction of narrative, character, and setting of Kane's later plays for instance - which are worth deeper investigation. I am focusing solely on the explicit sex and violence and the question of whether they need to be on stage. I look forward to any comments you might wish to make.


Jaret Morlan said...

I think its most important that theatre/art be allowed to shock, attack, and offend. Especially if it has something to say. Like all creative products, theater affects people differently and everyone, ultimately, has their preferences. If the art has something to say, then we have a responsibility to defend its right to express.

Personally, I often feel that the theatre in Iowa City has become very silo-ed. Each company seems to have cut its little niche and has, one-way-or-another, limited itself to simply pandering to its established audience. No one truly seems to want to push the boundaries.

You reference Dreamwell's productions and I think those are good examples of the type of the niche Dreamwell has...so what would be a shocking show for Dreamwell? A children's play? Rodgers & Hammerstein?

Theatre will always be, for me, an exploration of art, of self, and of humanity in any and all capacities. This includes the ugly stuff too...and for most of us, we're not gonna willingly look at the ugly, unless it is right up In-Yer-Face...which is probably why the movement is so important.

Thanks for the thoughtful and exploratory piece.

James Trainor said...

What Jaret said. Also:

It's a bit of a strawman, isn't it, to put the intention of "you're trying to make me uncomfortable" onto playwrights like Kane? The idea of "this person is attacking our cultural norms" and the label of "In-Yer-Face" itself says more about the audience then about the playwright. To be fair, a lot of the critics who blasted Blasted ate their crow after Kane's suicide, but I'm having trouble thinking of a better example of the cultural deafness of the western media than writing an obviously disturbed but brilliant young woman's heartfelt work off with "you're just doing this to make us squirm."

Is Blasted a good play? Well, yes, and no. Consider for that Kane was not much older than Brecht was when he wrote Baal, which is a very striking but sloppy and histrionic play. Excesses in general are typically accepted from young artists, and in this lens, Kane's are just an egregious example. But is the play about those excesses? I would say it's about the lack of empathy in our society and the inability to respond to trauma with genuine compassion. My glasses may be a bit rose-colored, because it's been a while since I read it, but nobody mounts a production solely to put oral sex on stage. The hate sex is a metaphor for something else... something going on between Ian and Cate that's actually more disturbing.

Finally, I'm generally offended by the idea that certain art should be ignored because it makes us uncomfortable. The problem with the "shock" label is it projects the problem onto the artist rather than admitting, "I'm uncomfortable." If we own up to that, the artist has the opportunity to say "you know what? A bunch of people in Rwanda were just really really uncomfortable. Also, they're dead. I think you can handle squirming in your cushioned seat for 90 minutes." Sexual violence and brutality happen every day, all over the world, and hiding them doesn't do anyone any good. What better place to talk about it than the one of the few artistic mediums left when we're all in the same room at the same time?

Placing the violence that is typical of a warzone in a "civilized" city is a metaphor that should be shocking. It should wake up us and make us think about the differences between the first and the third world. The problem is that (some) audiences don't want to have that uncomfortable conversation; it's much easier to say "hey! You said a bad word."

ICTheatreGuy said...

Excellent thoughts, gentleman. Thanks for sharing them.