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Theatre and Social Justice (January 2020): Alternative, Radical Theatre

by Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco

Alternative, Radical Theatre

Anti-mainstream and anti-commercial, alternative and radical theatre developed amid the political and social ferment of the 1960s and 1970s. These theatres eschewed the form and content of mainstream theatre, instead experimenting with a wide variety of techniques, styles, and spaces for producing theatre that spoke to contemporary issues—civil rights and the Vietnam War being especially prominent—in a startling, and to many offensive, manner. Some theatres, particularly those of feminist groups, organized as collectives in which all company members shared in creative decision-making. Theodore Shank’s American Alternative Theatre (subsequently enlarged and revised, and published as Beyond the Boundaries) and Restaging the Sixties: Radical Theaters and Their Legacies, edited by James Harding and Cindy Rosenthal, both profile these alternative and radical theatres. Shank covers The Living Theatre, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Performance Group, Bread and Puppet Theater, Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Open Theatre, and Squat Theatre (transplanted from its native Hungary). Harding and Rosenthal’s collection explores eight theatres (five of Shank’s along with El Teatro Campesino, At the Foot of the Mountain, and Free Southern Theater), for each providing an overview and looking at its contributions to political theatre and its legacy.

In The Theater Is in the Street: Politics and Performance in Sixties America, Bradford Martin considers public performance outside of established theatre companies. He looks at the work of the SNCC Freedom Singers, the Diggers (in San Francisco), Art Workers’ Coalition, and the Guerrilla Art Action Group. David Román’s Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS focuses on the role of theatre and performance in gay identity and protest in the 1980s and 1990s. Looking particularly at AIDS, Román writes that “the formation of AIDS theatre not only responded to the AIDS epidemic but also shaped the ideology of AIDS.”

Book-length studies of some of these theatres and their founders, including published memoirs of artistic directors, provide detailed histories of the individuals and/or their work and sometimes include full production scripts. The Living Theatre’s cofounders and artistic directors, Julian Beck and Judith Malina (who were also life partners), both wrote memoirs. Beck wrote The Life of the Theatre (which was republished after Beck’s death in 1985 with an introduction by Malina), and Malina wrote three books: The Enormous Despair, The Diaries of Judith Malina: 1947–1957, and Full Moon Stages: Personal Notes from 50 years of The Living Theatre. Much has been published on The San Francisco Mime Troupe, which celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2019. R. G. Davis, the founder and artistic director of the company until it reorganized as a collective, published The San Francisco Mime Troupe: The First Ten Years. Claudia Orenstein’s Festive Revolutions: The Politics of Popular Theater and the San Francisco Mime Troupe situates the company’s work firmly in European and early American popular theatre traditions. The San Francisco Mime Troupe Reader, edited by Susan Vaneta, provides a four-decade history (1960s–90s) with representative play scripts and song lyrics. And Michael Sullivan, longtime company member and playwright, put together The Plays of the San Francisco Mime Troupe 2000–2016: The Bush-Obama Years, a free PDF that can be downloaded from the troupe’s website.

Other useful, focused works include Harry Elam’s Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka, which considers the formative years (1965–71) of El Teatro Campesino, and Black Revolutionary Theatre, spearheaded by Baraka and not covered in other major studies, as preeminent examples of social protest theatre of the late 1960s. Eugène Van Erven’s Radical People’s Theatre profiles US, British, French, German, Italian, and Spanish antifascist and collectivist theatres that focus on the working class and emphasize comedy and satire. In The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention and The Radical in Performance: Between Brecht and Baudrillard, Baz Kershaw examines British post–World War II political theatre enacted in alternative, community, and street performances, which was deeply informed by postmodern social and political theory.

 Since so many of these alternative, radical theatres are rooted in populist theatrical traditions, Popular Theatre: A Sourcebook, edited by Joel Schechter, is a valuable resource because it covers much of the foregoing. The last part, “Political Theatre as Popular Entertainment,” is particularly valuable: it includes material on Dario Fo, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Frantisek Deák, and Utpal Dutt. Researchers will also want to consult TDR/The Drama Review, a quarterly academic journal edited by Richard Schechner, which is devoted to deep investigations of experimental, avant-garde, intercultural, and interdisciplinary performance and its political and social context

Works Cited