Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 5. Nr. Juli 1998

Post-mainstream as a geocultural dimension for theatre

Knut Ove Arntzen (Bergen)


The concept of a geocultural perspective is methodologically seen as a derivation from geography. It is indicating a way to understand development in humanities that is referring to a global dimension as well as other references to contextualizations or layers of events, dealing with identity levels as well as social, political and other culturally related conditions. This should be conceived as a metaphorical way of using concepts, simular to the image of tectonic plates taken from geology. This metaphor can tell us something about what happens like for instance when layers of understanding are on the move in relationship to each other. One could also speak of segments of understanding across landscapes of complexity, where constellations of understanding always are on the move like erratic blocks. This is very much the case of humanities in a post modern perspective of shifting positions according to new information. Michel Serres has developed theories of complexity in the sience of humanitites, and he represents the point of view that interdisiplinarity is the result of recognizing this. There should be no surveillance of different points of view, but theory should more be declenching ways of understanding.

Mainstream to post-mainstream: Dissolution of centres

If mainstream symbolically is pronounced like the river Main in Germany, it is metaphorically connected with the old main economical Area in Europe since the Middle Ages based on traffic on big rivers like Rhine, Main and the Danube River. This system of big rivers is connecting Lombardy and the Alps whith Flanders and the North Sea. In European and American arts and theatre mainstream has been used as a concept to describe a general development of something being widely consumed and trendsetting. It is possible to differentiate between a traditional mainstream of conventional theatre on one hand, and on the other an experimental mainstream consisting of new ways of creating theatre becoming accepted, like for instance when the tableaux trend had its break through in European director´s theatre around 1980 with Peter Stein or Klaus Michael Grüber. This was also the case when directors from the visual kind of dramaturgy or theatre of images like Robert Wilson and Jan Fabre were invited into the big European operahouses. In dance it is a movement towards mainstream when Anna Teresa de Kersmaeker is invited to become the new director of the Théâtre de la Monnaie/De Muntschouwburg in Brussels.

Experimental mainstream could be conceived of as when non conventional theatre produced in maintream areas like Western Europe or the United States, has become a trendsetter of new theatre developments in general. This could also be said about the Belgian and Dutch Waves. When Theater am Turm in Frankfurt was organized to join the corporation of the Schauspielhaus in Frankfurt am Main, the status of an experimental mainstream could be said to have been stated. And when Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker, then, is guest performing at the Schauspielhaus in Frankfurt, the Experminetal mainstream can almost be looked upon as a settled mainstream.

Post-mainstream is a possible concept to describe what happens when mainstream movements both of experimental kinds are being exhausted, and according to logics that I will try to describe, mixes styles and traditions that were not possible to describe in a mainstream concept, like Grotowskian ways of working with visual performance or theatre of images, or theatre of images with realism, or taking elements from native rituals or storytelling traditions. Examples are to be found in post-mainstream areas like for example Québec in Canada, the Adriatic Sea area (Balkan and Italian sides) or Northern Scandinavia. It could be described in terms like interculturalism and nomadism in new art, and widely refering to the metaphorical concept of territories of difference. Third World theatre like in South East Asia or Brazil as well as aboriginal theatre in Canada and Scandinavia, Australia or New Zealand can be seen in this context. The Maori Theatre of New Zealand, for instance, is combining English playwright traditions with native rituals and storytelling. This is opening up for understanding theatre today without any separation between urban post-mainstream developments of an ambient kind and mainly rural or non-metropolitan theatre. Post-mainstream styles are that of mixed up techniques and traditions and can also be seen in connecetion with the concept of recycling and telling the world. These are concepts that I will return to, but first let me draw attention to geography and otherness as a context for understanding different kinds of cultural identities.

In Spaces of Identity, David Morely and Kevin Robins write that "[...] Geographical reconfigurations are clearly central to contemporary economic and cultural transformation", and then continue by asking "[...] How are we to make sense of the complex spatial dynamics? What is needed is an understanding of the competing centrifugal and centripetal forces that characterise the new geographical arena. On this basis we can begin to explore the implications for cultures and identities. More particularily, we can consider the significance of these developments for the geographical disposition that Edward Said sees as so much at the heart of western dominion" (s. 107).
This gives an explicit geocultural basis to establish the post-mainstream context. Such a basis can be further enlarged by introducing the way of looking upon the question of newness as attached to cultural transformation. In an essay Homi K. Bhabha, he underlines the importance of seeing cultural difference as a basis to understanding in arts more than traditonal esthetical values ("Beyond the pale: Art in the age of multicultural translation" in Cultural diversity in the arts). This explosion of so to say eurocentric esthetic criterias, has also an effect on work in a western context, by the way new contexts of decentralized difference is a part of the need to play with and make irony on established standards by playing with imperfection. This has become a part of the new energies that partly replaces esthetical criterias with questions of identities, like they can be found in social and anthropological spaces.

Re-telling the world and recycling theatre.

New dramaturgical tendencies in a visual based project theatre, came about several places in Europe in the 1980s and the 1990s. Project theatre took further the idea of group theatre, but in the sense of small working core groups. This gave a more open organizational structure than the free groups usually had. The point of departure often, then, was a person or core group which had no affiliation with any particular stage or ensemble. Artists were recruited to the project as the need arose. The emphasis is based more and more on playing with textual presentation as well as visual elements; as much in opposition to textual representation as well as to a dominating visuality. Different ways of using textual elements was a development in direction of using text in the following way: As based on the need of understanding text as intermediation of references in a non-illusionist way. Textual elements can thus be looked upon as visual implications with regard to tableaux and pictorial elements. This means that actors are reciting, acting and dancing according to textual elements based on improvisations and personal resources. They speak monologues and change between slower and faster movements, marked by a steady and sharp timing. Patterns of movements are taken from the dance and theatre from the Belgian and Dutch waves of the eigthies, like from Rosas, Fabre or Needcompany. The key observation that then can be made about dramaturgy, is that new ways of composing and paraphrasing texts and personal improvisations are searched for. The actors are now, by the late 1990s, moving away from a strict self-referential style of conceptual performance. This is in direction of a more direct communication, which is more and more dispensing with the apparently "cool" expression of the 1980s. This also means freedom in relation to technical requirements, which are changing from one way of expression to another, mostly with regard to non-hierarchic staging processes. Performance like acting in direction of going inbetween real-time and being interpretative is used to compose and to paraphrase textual fragments. This again is combined with personal improvisation, involving dance and show-like playing. Theatre again turns into something to be enjoyed in a direct and ambient way, instead of being reflected upon as conceptual art searching for esthetical perfectionism. I think this aknowledgement has found its way into the writing of dramaturg Marianne Van Kerkhoven at the Kaaitheater in Brussels. In the seasonal program of 1990/91 she tried to characterize their productions by using "telling the world" as catchwords. I would like to understand it in the direction of a kind of re-telling, in the sense that dramaturgy is being turned into pointing  towards a new kind of narrative theatre, but still retaining fragmentation and means of expression which are put on an equal footing in the sense of a visual dramaturgy. The difference could be said to be that different kinds of expressions this way are being mixed up, like Grotowski style with popular comedy and a visual dramturgy. This kind of mixing can be understood as a recycling of different decades, mixed up with traditional or classical theatre. Recycling and re-telling the world could be keywords in ways of understanding theatrical developments in the 1990s that also might be applied to arts in general.

Quite concretely seen, it indicates that elements of style from passed decades are melted into new syntheses, among others the re-telling the world. I really don´t believe that Van Kerkhoven is thinking of any ideological or pedagogical way of telling or explaining the world. It is, I think, not anymore possible to use theatre in the sense of wanting it to enlighten the world, or even being ideological or "explaining" in any sense. A re-telling the world to day would probably be in a post-ideological sense, and aiming at paraphrasing the world in multidimensional ways, also with regard to different kinds of identities. This, certainly, will have to be based on the search for new dramaturgical forms and techniques, covering up new ways of discovery and understanding without ideological or economical legitimation. One also has to be very conscious about the media as far as video and television is concerned. It has got an enormous impact on how audience perception is being developed, and the task for theatre makers, then, could be to manage to apply a "magical" atmophere, which can only take place in live situations with direct contact between action, performance and audience. This is the only way to develop immedial communication with the audience, instead of wrapping the audience into the kind of illusionism that Richard Foreman wanted to unveil in his production of "Radio is Good. Film is Evil" at the New York University, in 1987, when he questioned communication in a mediatic atmosphere. I think that Ritsaert ten Cate was aiming at the same goal in his serial projects called "Theatre beyond Television" at the Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam by the middle 1980s. This also came to its expression in Baktruppen´s production of "Tonight" in 1994, where they used the ambience created from a shared space between audience and spectators. And by adding internet technology they gave the communication a virtual dimension.

My point is that after the theatre has been through the conceptual phase, a new mixture of recycled styles has appeard by the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, working both with the potential of Laboratory theatre and the more conceptual, visual kind of dramaturgy partly based on experiences from performance. But there has been a new way of putting references and using direct communication into it, which could be spoken about as re-telling the world or even as a new-mimetic movement which is reflecting illusion as something virtual. Recycling deals with the way textual materials are used in visual theatre, as well as understanding text as a free intermediation of references, without being obliged to be psychological, but rather working on the basis of non-illusion. These references may be related to cultural indentities of both an urban and an ethnic kind, and thus creating a new theatre of energies. Synergy is dealing with the joining together of different elements, and one could say that a theatre of new energies is the interplay of different energies declenched by cultural identities and inter- or multiculturalism as well as the cetrifugal and centripetal forces David Morely and Kevin Robin were speaking about in geographical terms. This is at the stake of understanding what post-mainstream is like.  

Post-mainstream as a geocultural dimension

This, in turn, leads us to the notion of a post-mainstream development, which I would define in the following way: When neo- and post avantgarde mainstream movements are exhausted, like was the case of the laboratory theatre by the late 1970s, and which now by the middle 1990s apparently is the case with the conceptual theatre of a visual kind of dramaturgy. Other areas than the mainstream areas will, then, be actualized as new centers of creation. This indicates regionalisation and the need to look at what happens in remote or marginal areas of creation. Regionalisation means like what is now happening in the Adriatic area of both Italy and Slovenia or Croatia, and remote and marginal areas would mean Arctic as well as new developments in Northern Europe and Northern America, in countries like the Scandinaivan, Canada and Québec. The next step would be to realise the full scale of globalization, which opens up to understanding post-mainstream as possible hybrid forms of recycling in a geocultural dimension. One could then also speak of recycling not only as different styles but as a way of understanding theatrical cultures in a persepctive that has broken away from mainstream as part of dominating centres. The notion of a geocultural dimension allows us to speak about difference in theatre culture both in relation to esthetics, dramaturgy as well as identities and new energies. Theatre research can benefit from the use of concepts and metaphors from geography as well as cultural studies in general. A concrete example that I would like to mention at this point, is concerning a southern hemisphere production, namely the Market Theatre production in Johannesburg, South Africa, of "orpheus....i mean euridice....i mean the natural history of a chorus girl" from 1998. It is a hybrid production of theatre and dance using white and black actors and dancers, choreographed by Robyn Orlin. A chorus girl is trapped in a hospital and being confronted with her real-life real-time experiences. But to illustrate further on the question of geocultural positions, I would like to turn to a northern hemisphere experience.

Spaces of identities and a Norhtern Hemisphere theatre

A geographical metaphor for theatre as a "Northern Hemisphere Theatre" refers to a post-mainstream area connected to a geocultural dimension. Reflections upon layers of geocultural perspectives and comparison as theatrical events in different countries is an approach to this way of thinking in geocultural dimensions. Geographical and climatic similiarities can be related to society, structures and politicial/historical differences and similarities. Why, for instance, is there an identity connected to the countries around the 60th parallell and what consequences does it have to know about it? References to the polar situation and the atlantic position would be a part of analyzing Scandinavia in relationship to Canada, a work that I am doing as a part of a larger project. The aboriginal situation as a common denominator between Middle and Northern Scandinavia and Canada is one aspect to be mentioned, and artistic reflections on polar positions and arctic artefacts is another area of research in this way of contextualization. This is the question of artscapes as a cultural reflection based on defining cultural situations and comparing them. This for instance can reveal that regionalism is a common way of thinking in Scandinavia and Canada. There is also the attempt to compare Canada and the Nordic countries in general, like when the Canadian minister of culture recently (in a radio communication, P2, Norway, 3.4.1998) expressed her interest with regard to shared culture and history between Canada and Scandinavia.

This can be applied to theatre. Then it would be appropriate to ask questions like "are the Scandinavian theatres reflecting Europe?" or "what is the situation of Canadian culture at the borderline between USA and Europe?". In a broader sense this also leads to the question of theatre and post-colonialism. The question for Scandinavian would be if its theatres´ identities lie with Europe or elsewhere with regard to both historical perspectives of the growing forth of national theatres, as well as with regard to the contemporary situation. One could analyze the mainstream complex with regard to innovations and theatrical events, and thus see how there is an interplay between the European context as such and the effects of discovering specific identities and emphazing the marginal position with regard to Europe. Canada, on the other hand, is culturally seen as a country situated in between or on some kind of a borderline between Europe and the US. Québec and French Canada especially are different from the Anglophone mainstream although there are parallells, like in the emergence of collectivist theatres like Espace Libre in Montreal or Passe Muraille in Toronto in the 1970s. In Québec the theatre situation is expressed by a very distinct development in theatre which takes the character of a European continental orientation as opposed the to English of US American mainstream traditions. I would say that the development is marked by the fact that impulses are taken more from north-western continental Europe like Belgium as well as the United States than from England and France. This can bee looked upon as a strategy to become free from the (post) colonial grip. This encourages a need for experimentation in which Québec leads, because of its opposition to English speaking American general culturual influences. This also affects English-Canada. Québec absorbes impulses coming from Europe that finally have created a wave that  is exported back to Europe for instance by directors like Robert Lepage and Gilles Maheu. When such geocultural patterns have been discovered the time has come to look for possible exchanges between geoculturally related areas both by academic research and also through cultural exchange by productions and workshops . An example of a workshop was the Bergen-Montreal exchange with Bergen International Theatre and Les 20 Jours du théâtre à risque in Montreal, 1996/1997, resulting in workshop productions on both sides. This is how I would like to outline a post-mainstream position as a geocultural dimension.

Previous editions of this paper have in 1997/98 been presented at conferences in Cholula, Mexico, Amos, Canada and Innsbruck and Schlaining, Austria, and by May/June 1998 this is a further reworked edition of the paper as it was presented at the SAVAL conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is still to be presented at conferences like the IFRT conference, Canterbury, UK, and the Experimental Theatre Conference, Shanghai, China.

© Knut Ove Arntzen (University of Bergen)

home.gif (2030 Byte)buinst.gif (1751 Byte)        Inhalt: Nr. 5

Webmeister: Angelika Czipin
last change 24.11.1999