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The Fabulous Invalid Looks Ahead : We’re likely to see more performance art and audience-participation theater in the ‘90s

Predictions for the theater in the 1990s? Certainly.

1--It will continue to exist. Some theater people seem to need reassurance about that. They are hereby reassured. If the movies weren’t able to put the theater out of business; if records couldn’t do it; if radio and TV couldn’t; if the VCR couldn’t (the big challenge of the 1980s)--it is a pretty tough form.

It is sometimes thought of as an old-fashioned form. This is to confuse the container with the thing contained. The play may be old-fashioned, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about watching a play. If this is true, then it’s also out of date to watch Michael Jackson at Dodger Stadium. Live performer plus live audience equals heat. That won’t change in the next decade. But:

2--Theater will face dangers. We mentioned one of them in last week’s column: self-censorship. When playwrights start deciding not to write that play because it will only get them into hot water, then the theater is in hot water. It’s time for the National Endowment for the Arts to treat artistic freedom as something to be proud of rather than as something to halfway apologize for. How ironic that just as the Soviet artist gets the censor off his back, the American artist has to start worrying about offending Southern congressmen.

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Another danger for theater in the ‘90s: rising ticket prices. This is especially a danger on Broadway. Top Broadway ticket price in 1979 was $27.80. Today it is $55. Certainly the cost of living went up over the period, but not that much. This is a fine way to push the intelligent, not necessarily affluent audience to the video store. On the brighter side:

3--The decentralization of the American theater will continue. Roughly twice as many Americans attend shows at resident theaters like the Mark Taper Forum and the Los Angeles Theatre Center as attend them on Broadway--15 million to 7 million or 8 million. The resident theaters offer reasonable ticket prices (a $28 top at the Taper), strong acting, superior design and scripts that do not insult the intelligence.

Here is the real American theater and our playwrights are writing for it. Robert Anderson, author of “Tea and Sympathy,” used to say that a playwright could make a killing in the theater, but not a living. Not true today. Canadian playwright George F. Walker received a dozen resident-theater productions of his “Nothing Sacred” in 1987 without benefit of a New York showing. Bill Cain’s “Stand-Up Tragedy” (which also premiered at the Taper) is building a similar national audience this season. Prediction: One day in the 1990s, the Pulitzer Prize for drama will go to a play produced in Denver or Minneapolis, and the New York Times will declare that resident theater has come of age. Actually, it did so years ago.

At the same time, the ‘90s could see:

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4--Fewer theaters. At first glance, this might not be a bad thing, particularly in Los Angeles where too many young actors still think of the theater as a cheap way to audition for sitcoms. Should hard times come, the number of storefront theaters in town will definitely dwindle. If the houses that go in for champagne receptions and “industry nights” are the ones that fold, that won’t hurt the cause of serious theater at all. However, it’s equally possible that it will be the serious theaters that will fold--places like the Odyssey and the Matrix. We still miss Peg Yorkin’s L.A. Public Theater, one of the losses of the ‘80s. Less isn’t always more.

One source of help for serious theater here could be The Industry that all these actors in storefront theaters are trying out for. Were all three actors’ unions--SAG, AFTRA and Actors’ Equity--combined into one, a certain percentage of the payroll cost for each feature film and TV segment could go to a live-performance fund, similar to that of the American Federation of Musicians. Or, The Industry could simply donate more money to the theater, in return for its having developed so much of its talent. One can hope that this will happen in the 1990s, but don’t hold your breath.

So much for structure. What will the plays of the ‘90s be like? To begin with, they might not be plays. The ‘80s saw the rise of audience participation theater: pieces like “Tamara,” “Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding” and all those murder-mystery weekends. There will be more of these entertainments, and it’s possible to imagine their technique being applied to more serious material, even to a kind of psychodrama. Leading an audience down that path could be tricky, but also could liberate some extraordinary energy. We have never forgotten some experiments along these lines 15 years ago at San Diego’s Crystal Theater.

The ‘90s are also likely to see more performance art, which we notice is more and more going simply by the name “performance.” This is a very wide category, somehow stretching to include the pageants of Robert Wilson and Robert Longo and the solo work of Eric Bogosian, Laurie Anderson, Karen Finley, Spalding Gray, Tim Miller, et al.

Performance art got its act together in the ‘80s. What seemed to develop was a consensus that exhibiting oneself on the stage wasn’t enough. One had to have a self to exhibit. “Performance” today seems quite structured, very aware of its frame. Will some wild man come along in the ‘90s and throw a brick through the window?

Karen Finley was the wild woman of the ‘80s. But her last performance at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) a couple of weeks ago was a surprise. Finley took the leading role in a play that she had written herself, “The Theory of Total Blame.”

Moreover, it was a family play. Its language was raw, its imagery hairy, but its concerns were the ones that keep coming up again and again in American drama, from Eugene O’Neill to Sam Shepard--Why didn’t Mom and Dad get along? Why did Dad leave? Why do I feel like such a nothing?

The American theater will continue to be well supplied with family plays in the 1990s. Also, it is safe to predict, there will be plenty of gospel musicals and revivals of “The King and I.” Beyond that, the crystal ball clouds.

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