Part 2: Can Boston Support Fringe Work?
This article is the second part of a series in which Boston theatre artists chat with Andrew Child about their hopes for the next decade. Check out part 1 here.
"I think there's a lot of cowardice in Boston theatre," Explains M Sloth Levine, a playwright and director who recently left Boston to make their art in New York City. "I would like people to take ownership of their creative power and stop looking to other cities and other awards ceremonies for permission to produce certain plays." Levine is far from the only artist who feels ready to challenge standards of theatre in ways that Boston just can't seem to get hip with. Their play The Interrobangers has already had a reading done by The Art Garage since their relocation, but when asked if they could see the piece garnering any attention in Boston, they reasoned, "I don't think anyone would have put up the money that it needs to be produced." The reason? In addition to the puppetry and special effects called for in the script, Levine feels that the queer perspectives in the work would not appeal to Boston's powers-that-be.
"So far, NYC feels much more welcoming to my work. There's a stronger feeling that people want to see and produce diverse voices, and are especially open to how diverse voices are delivered in new styles. When there are moments of diversity in Boston theatre, it is almost always through naturalistic dramas in apartments. It's essentially the same play over and over with the issue of the day pasted in. And nobody is willing to use tools outside of theatre. Film, music, innovative design is nonexistent inside of theaters."
Ramona Rose King, a new play dramaturg and producer for HowlRound, cited a few leadership changes at different institutions as pointing to a promising decade, but ultimately echoed Levine's frustrations, stating, "I'd love to see more formally-experimental work, which I think you can find in other similarly-sized cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. Though lots of different subject matter is being covered, I find most work in Boston is pretty conservative and traditional in its form."
Does this ignorance of experimental work matter for Boston theatre's future? Local experimental playwright, Rosa Nagle seems to think so. She reasons, "I feel that TV and film have a huge impact on our society today, so much more impact than theatre, because theatre has none. I believe that instead of playwrights continuing to create 'traditional' theatre, the proscenium model, we should embrace these outside genres. Let's change the standard model. Too many people don't go to the theatre anymore. Let's create theatre that has elements of TV and film. We'll stop being the entertainment for old people, as many think, and we'll become a vital, 'must see' genre, like 'must see TV', and movies you 'must see this season'." Nagle passionately extolled the vitality and virtues of experimental and fringe work, ranging from site-specific presentations, immersive productions, and the inclusion of multi-media techniques in theatrical works.
She laid out a framework of what makes a work 'fringe' or 'experimental':
"A straight play with a dance hook, or, a traditionally structured play, 3-Act format, that is naturalistic, but sneaks in a couple of scenes of 'weird', is NOT experimental. Nope. Not fringe. Think: Does the piece use time and space differently? Does the piece break the 4th wall? Does the piece deviate from the 3-Act format? Is the piece constructed in non-linear methods involving 'circles', such as landscape, spider web, nesting dolls, and double helix? Does the piece combine different media? Does the piece rely on Abstract thinking? Does the piece abandon the natural voice? Does the piece present non-human and/or Abstract characters? Does the piece combine 2 or more of the aforementioned things? Does the piece need to be performed in a nontraditional space or outdoor area? THIS is how you describe fringe."
Why do these artists all seem to feel so strongly that these works could be a lifeline for the survival of theatre as an art form? Nagle hazards that breaking down traditional theatre barriers can engage new audiences on new levels. "It is very important to our style, and, I believe, vital to the future of theatre because this is the one thing that TV and film cannot provide their audience."
While she sees great potential for avant garde artists to reawaken a culture in which theatre can flourish in the next decade, she fears that Boston is falling behind NYC, Chicago, and many cities in California in its engaging with non-traditional works. "Fringe theatre is, at its core, anti-establishment. The best way to learn how to create anti-establishment is not from the establishment, the established MFA programs at the top two Boston schools for dramatic writing. No. Academia has a stronghold on Boston theatre, as it is. As it stands, if you want to succeed in Boston theatre, you must have an MFA from one of two top colleges. And, that's how it is. For fringe, learning is often hands-on training. In NYC, if you ask around, most fringe is produced by a group of friends who get together and create something new. So, fringe workshops outside of academia, like you find in NYC, is a good direction Boston can move in. Creating fringe often requires a hands-on approach, outside of the classroom setting." Nagle points to the resources at Boston's creative writing center, Grub Street, and other community-based writing groups through libraries as potential fields outside of academia in which writers can develop their works.
Another playwright, Melinda Lopez, took a stab at how consumption of theatre differs from the consumption of alternative mediums, observing, "Theatre is always in process. If we get used to a Broadway model- where the play has been curated and polished to an inch of its life- we lose the opportunity to grow with an individual artist. But audiences have to be wiling to test, and try and grow and learn too! How do we nurture a culture of investment- and not one of 'fee for service?' Theatre isn't consumable like television. An audience has to be willing to 'not know.' There is risk and danger involved. I think that's actually kind of sexy."
However, this 'risk' is one that theatre artists need to grapple with, as adventuring into unfamiliar territory asks audiences not only to gamble their evening's enjoyment, but also, too often, exorbitant amounts of money. Where a questionable choice in Netflix binging can be rectified with the click of a button, an adventurous outing to see an in-progress work at a Boston theatre is apt to take a more significant toll. "Its hard to take a big risk when some ticket prices are over $100. The barriers for audiences are significant. It's not a lack of talent that limits the growth of this art form." Lopez highlights the work of Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, whose 'Radical Hospitality' efforts have seen reserved tickets to each of their performances for those with financial barriers to attending the theatre. While neither she nor I could find anyone in Boston employing the same principles, groups like Open Theatre Project and Hub Theatre Company have begun offering pay-what-you-can tickets, which is a great first step. Another Minneapolis theatre she urges emulating is Ten Thousand Things, who bring their performances at 'pay-what-you-think-its-worth' prices or to alternative spaces like prisons and homeless shelters. (So, for those keeping track, Boston should be paying attention to work in Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and San Diego, to name a few.)
Lopez continued, "I think (overpriced tickets are) slowing our growth. Thats not an issue that artists have control over necessarily, but it is a problem for a theatre looking to grow audiences, and recruit the kinds of board members that are willing to experiment. Which all art needs. People will walk into an art gallery, and try out the most progressive and explosive kinds of visual art- music too- but theatre is such a fundamentally conservative art form (I mean expensive)- even though it's so critical to creating societal dialogue."
M Sloth Levine certainly seems to agree with Nagle's and Lopez's diagnoses, adding, "There's a big movement among some populations for new voices and modes, but none of the money is spent in those directions. When it is, the people actually profiting are always the cis, usually white, people in charge. So much of Boston theatre is made off of the backs of students and young people who are not being paid fairly. And when diverse voices are let into the process, it is ALWAYS for the benefit of the hypothetically uneducated older, white, cis audience. It's always queerness as education for the cis heterosexual, black pain as a lesson for white people."
What do these pro-fringe Bostonians recommend for those of us wishing to engage more with less conventional theatre this decade? To combat an adherence to those institutions which are exploiting the voices of marginalized people without appropriately reimbursing them, Levine encourages artists and audiences to engage more with smaller groups, specifically highlighting the work of Entropy Theatre, Fresh Ink Theatre, Front Porch Arts Collective, Plenty Collective, and Sparkhaven. (Side note, they added: "Stage Source is one of the most important forces for good in New England theatre and deserves way more support.")
Ramona Rose King advises that young Boston artists should "go see as much work as you can, from the fringe level to the big companies. See full productions, yes, but perhaps more importantly, go to works in progress. Readings and workshops are more likely to be free, so it's easier to see more of them, and the artists/producers involved are more likely to be around so you can actually introduce yourself afterward."
Nagle seems to second the idea that social interactions with other Boston-based artists may become increasingly important to our art form, urging, "if, as I say, experimental theatre is the wave of the future, and we, in Boston, must embrace experimental theatre, then we, in Boston, need to befriend one another. We need to create a fringe community. And, trust me, fringe is the future, for experimental theatre is what will keep theatre thriving in America in the decades to come. If we don't change, we will be obsolete in 50 years."
On staying relevant, Lopez chimes in, "Don't bore your audience. Don't fleece your audience. Don't lie."
Interested in checking out upcoming experimental works by local artists?
Read more about M Sloth Levine here.
Read more about Rosa Nagle here.
Read more about Michael Rosegrant (featured in Part 1) here.