Sunday, November 05, 2006

On being a laboratory theatre (Warning: Long post)

I've (first person singular pronouns will usually refer to me, Jon Stancato, Co-Artistic Director of the company) decided to write our first real entry on an aspect of the company John Clancy noted interest in when we spoke last week. A lot of theatre companies on our scale in the indie theatre community have the word "experimental" theatre somewhere in their mission statement. When we first sat down to write ours (almost 5 years ago), we felt it was important to call ourselves a "laboratory theatre."

Now, the only other lab theatre we knew of then (and the only one besides us that I can think of today) was Jerzy Grotowski's Polish Lab and we knew for certain that our aesthetic and mission had absolutely nothing to do with that company and its legacy. Nevertheless, we liked what the term lab theatre conjured up: artists working with scientific diligence to discover what is or is not possible, every so often discovering something valuable (which a commercial enterprise could put on the market and sell).

I guess the primary difference, as far as I see it, between a laboratory theatre and an experimental theatre, is that a lab is focused on the research (which, in addition to study and discussion, often necessitates many experiments) while an experimental theatre is focused on an experiment ("to test or establish a hypothesis" according to M-W). It seems the former model can start from a place of uncertainty, where the latter requires a starting principle.

Like it or not, we're stuck with the uncertain laboratory approach--we have NO CLUE what our next project will be (after Kill Me Like You Mean It closes at the end of January)!!! We can't plan our next production because we can't project what our lab's collective knowledge base will be so many months into the future. We like to think about each new show as somehow filling in gaps in our theatrical understanding left open by the last completed production. After The Man Who Laughs, our incredibly earnest heart-string-tugging live silent film for the stage (script available in Playing with Canons), we wanted to see it it was possible to connect as fully with our audience in a world that reveled in artifice as much as The Man Who Laughs celebrated sincerity. That led us to Stage Kiss, our original Elizabethan gender-farce in blank verse...

So what's next after an absurdist film-noir for the stage? We'll keep you posted. Though we do know that at some point over the next 2 years we'll need to approach the last two installments of our CineTheatre Tetralogy (4 years, 4 productions, 4 classic film styles adapted for the stage...), but I think the film styles we choose will be entirely dependent on what shores this current project deposits us on.

One last thing about a laboratory theatre: with the exception of labs supported by academic institutions, research labs today often must create some commercially viable product to keep their doors open and their Bunsen burners burning. It was always our hope that our lab theatre would create a product with a shelf-life longer than our too-brief performance experiments. The closest we've come to this so far is the publication of The Man Who Laughs in script form (Thank you, Martin Denton and the New York Theater Experience). Perhaps (we can dream, can't we?), productions of MWL will dot the country, nay the globe, and we'll rake in the royalties, reinvesting the money into our humble little lab...

(I see how once you get started on the first post, others seem to naturally follow. Expect some future posts on our looooong developmental process, the Great American Play, and stage combat)

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