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TBA Online: News & Features: April 2014

Art & Craft: Towards an Offensive Theatre

Wednesday, April 9, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Stuart Bousel

A couple years back, when I was first asked to join the Individual Services Committee for TBA, I hadn't realized that one of the perks would be getting to help plan the annual conference. More recently, when throwing out panel ideas for this year, I hadn't realized that my idea to include a panel on "offensive theatre" would be taken so seriously. Now, less than a week away from facilitating said panel, I'm tasked with coming up with some kind of context and structure for it…not the least of which should probably include a definition of "offensive theatre." While I was absolutely serious when I proposed this topic, the truth is that I am really no more certain of what defines "offensive theatre" than the majority of people I tell about this panel—all of whom, however, seem very excited about it.

So, why the excitement? I suggest the reason is that all of us, at some point, have seen something that offended us. While praising the shows we've loved is, of course, every theatre artist's preferred way to pass the time, we tend to get more verbal (and emotional) mileage out of the things that rubbed us the wrong way. Since "offensive theatre" could probably be loosely defined as that which really went the distance when seeking to mortify the audience, the desire to talk about something that really pushed our buttons probably also has some of that extra fire behind it.
Additionally, we seem to be in the midst of a cultural trend, extending far beyond theatre, where pushing the boundaries of "good taste" has not only become more of the norm, but something of an expectation. It seems not a day goes by without some public figure, entertainer or otherwise, saying something calculated to get as many people posting and tweeting in anger as possible—and then retreating from the angry mobs behind the shield of "satire." One would think, glancing around the Internet, that we were living in an age of Molieres and Chekhovs, but I'm not entirely sure that's true. Of course, maybe I'm just not in on the joke—but offended people, by definition, aren't going to be.

As a playwright who considers himself largely a satirist (and also a romantic—is it even possible to be both?), and as a social commenter who has authored one or two intentionally inflammatory blog entries in his time (you can read my defense of stirring shit up here), the question of where the line between provocative and offensive is drawn is always of interest to me. It's rarely, I will be the first to admit, a very solid line. Though I consider myself someone of "good taste" and fairly refined sensibilities, as an audience member I'm not easily offended, because the only things truly offensive to me are boredom and flagrant insincerity. Yet, even as I say that, I must admit that I, too, have attended shows where my discomfort level moved out of the theoretical/ideological, and into the actual/personal.

However, the moments when that happened were rarely connected to intense events onstage. Over a lifetime of seeing theatre, I've seen plenty of nudity, violence, rape, murder, racism, child abuse, sexism, homophobia, and whatever else the "average" theater goer might deem offensive, and I've been largely unphased (and sometimes, truly bored) by it. That said, sitting in the audience of PianoFight's Duck Lake, listening to Rob Ready's character spew for ten minutes about why people shouldn't put on Shakespeare or the classics any more, I definitely got pissed off—probably, in part, because I was directing Twelfth Night at the time and struggling to figure out what (if anything) I had to say with it. PianoFight's show was offensive because at the time I felt like somehow, despite my being one of a hundred people in the audience, the remarks were somehow directed at my particularly sensitive position on the subject. I didn't feel like having to confront that issue, at that moment, in that way. I mean, I wasn't attending something called "Duck Lake" to be challenged, you know? Of course, Rob was the first person I asked to be on this panel.

Brainstorming additional panelists with Laura Brueckner (whom I suspect is the most excited about this panel of anyone), we found that it was far easier to come up with people we thought would either classify themselves or be classified by others as "offensive theatre"-makers than it was to clearly define "offensive theatre." Within 48 hours, we had our panel filled with an inspiring and diverse collection of creators: solo-show artist and stand-up comedienne Kat Evasco, puppeteer Nick Knave, performer Phil Wong, producer and director Russell Blackwood, Naked Empire Bouffon impresario Nathaniel Justiniano, and playwright Megan Cohen, each known for having generated work that divided audiences between the provoked and the offended. Recognizing that audience experience is highly subjective, what unites these particular artists is their stated desire to confront the easy and comfortable. Each of these artists skates on the edge of something, hoping the audience will skate with them—while being very clear that it is, in fact, an edge. 

We could have added another five or six people easily, but had to limit our numbers to keep the panel at a manageable size. One of my favorite conversations (thankfully recorded on Facebook chat) happened with someone we weren't able to squeeze in, but I think it's a good place to end, or really, begin the conversation; to me, it gets to the heart of the matter of, if not what "offensive theatre" is, then possibly "why do we need it?"

The Soon-to-be Infamous Facebook Chat

HIM: Figuring
out how to get people to laugh during stories about sexual abuse is one of my prouder moments as a playwright.

ME: Well, a lot of humor comes from the shere absurdity that such things happen.
I have always found a lot of funny in the uncomfortableness of sex period.
Like… you know, when you catch yourself
in the mirror, having
what you think is hot sex,
and you suddenly
realize just
how fat you've gotten?
It's a mortifying moment… but why stop before you cum?

HIM: Ha! Totally!
It's that moment when the reflection betrays you, and then you start pondering why you're so winded when that wasn't always the case, and then you figure if this were an actual liability you wouldn't have gotten this far
in the first place…

ME: Right, and then you either accept it or start to get off on it in a new way, and either way, complacency or relishment, you're sort of pissing on your own values, which makes you think about if you ever
really had those values in the first place, and if who you are is really who you are, or just who you want- or think you want- to be.

HIM: Right. Isn't growing up just the best?

Stuart Bousel will be moderating the "Slapping the Monkey: Offensive Theatre" panel (11:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m.,  Studio A, Berkeley Rep) at the Theatre Bay Area Annual Conference on April 14.