avant-garde theatre

avant-garde theatre
   The term ‘avant-garde’ (derived from a French militaristic term meaning ‘vanguard’) in avant-garde theatre refers to the pioneering innovation in a progressive, experimentally-based anti-establishment theatre. Avant-garde theatre seeks to artistically and aesthetically surpass existing forms of dramatic performance and expression of a denormalizing, stimulating theatre of the imagination. Christopher Innes argues that along with ‘anarchic primitivism’, ‘…anti-materialism and revolutionary politics, the hallmark of avant-garde drama is an aspiration to transcendence, to the spiritual in its widest sense.’ (Innes 1993:3)
   Located in non-theatrical spaces, fringe and even popular or mainstream venues (for example, the Royal Court’s discontinued annual avant-garde season), avant-garde theatre explores the psychologies and physicalities of the self. Assimilating myth, symbolism, ritual and art forms from other cultures to deploying music, mime, mixed media, performance art and other sub-cultural and popular cultural art forms in site-specific and other spaces, avant-garde theatre functions as an exploratory reflection of the unconscious and modern human condition. It animatedly revitalizes imaginations through a ‘theatre of mixed means’ by trampling largely British realist and naturalistic theatrical traditions.
   Preceding and flourishing during the late 1960s British fringe theatre explosions, specialist touring companies, small theatres and theatre laboratories emerged as places of artistic and technical experimentation including the freewheeling The People Show, Grotowskian-influenced Freehold, Charles Marowitz’s Open Space Theatre and the Roy Hart Studio which explored voice through sound, emotion, psychology and technique. Marowitz’s 1964 collaboration with Peter Brook on an Artaudian ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ season organically interrogated theatrical language through sublime physical performance, visceral atmosphere and abstract shock forms of verbal and non-verbal communication. The endless subjective-creative potentialities suggested by Brook’s theorizations of the stage in The Empty Space (1968) were demonstrated by his continuing indefatigable avantgardism. Alongside other paradoxically established avantgardist practitioners such as Stephen Berkoff and Lindsay Kemp, fringe venues like Battersea Arts Centre continue to feature anarchic experimentation by groups like the Empty Space Theatre Company’s subversive classic performative theatre, Fecund Theatre or Perpetual Motion’s energetic fusions of narrative, textual and live communicative forms. Yet the absence of a strongly avant-gardist tradition within a largely realist and naturalist British theatre is perhaps also attributable to the lack of extreme socio-political conditions necessary for such a theatre to thrive, with the future theatrical vanguard partly contingent upon cultural extremities to trigger their own imaginative extremes.
   Further reading
    Innes, C. (1993) Avant-Garde Theatre 1892-1992, London: Routledge (a foundational history of avant-garde theatre, albeit from a necessarily North American and European perspective).
   SATINDER CHOHAN

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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