Experimental Theatre and the Challenge Facing Modern Playwrights

Anthony J. Piccione

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist
  • @A_J_Piccion

When creating new theatre, one of the goals that many playwrights and directors have is to be innovative and experimental. Often, they attempt to introduce different concepts and ideas into their work that may help differentiate their work from that of other artists, in the hopes of changing people’s perceptions of what is or isn’t possible in theatre. This could refer to deviations in the way actors present themselves and the story they are telling their audience, the incorporation of other art forms – such as music, dance, film or visual art – in a way that has never been done before, challenging the idea of what sort of reactions theatre should get from their audience, or new ways of playing around with the structure or substance of the plot…if there is a plot at all.

However, many of these basic examples of potential experimentation have already been done before in theatre, in one way or another. With this in mind, I think it’s worth asking: What exactly qualifies as truly “experimental” theatre in the year 2016?

Indeed, there are many styles of theatre that are still considered to be experimental, but have actually been around longer than any of us have. When discussing this topic, many theatre scholars still seem to think back to certain historical “avant-garde” styles of theatre – such as expressionism, Dada, absurdism and surrealism – which largely date back to the early to mid-20th century.

The irony of these “avant-garde” styles – given how long they’ve been around – is that they can no longer be truly considered avant-garde. How can one consider such styles of theatre or performance to be “experimental” or “innovative” or “cutting-edge” if writers have been turning to these styles for the past century? 

Generally speaking, to say that anything is “experimental” would suggest that it involves some sort of creativity or originality that is not seen in more traditional styles of theatre. So one would think that experimental theatre – or experimental art, in general – would require creative thinking that is far more radical than anything else that is out there right now. 

To be clear, I mean absolutely no disrespect to the brilliant artists involved in these historical “avant-garde” movements today. However, as creative and as far-reaching as these “avant-garde” styles might still be, to say that they fit the definition of experimental theatre – if they’ve been around for this long – would be questionable, to say the least. It might still be a fascinating experience for an audience that has never been exposed to such performances before, and whether they are still non-mainstream styles of theatre is another story. Nonetheless, the question remains: are “experimental” and “avant-garde” still appropriate terms to apply to theatrical styles that have been around for this long? To a certain extent, maybe. For the most part, however, it’s hard to say that the people involved in such performances – as talented and creative as they may still be – are achieving the supposed goal of doing something radically different from what has been done before by past generations.

With all of this in mind, what’s left for today’s generation of artists in the theatre community? How much can be done to push the remaining boundaries of theatre and performance? 

Personally, I’m not necessarily of the school of thought that says there is absolutely no room left for experimentation in theatre. I would certainly hope that there will always be opportunities to be creative and original in your art, and to be a great playwright or director, even if the style of future plays and performances is always destined to be reminiscent of many past styles that came before it. 

Having said that, I think it would be fair to say that it would be difficult for one to come up with an entirely original style of theatre today in the 21st century, given how much has already been done in the long history of theatre. It would seem that all that’s left for today’s generation of artists in theatre is to take what’s been done before, and make it their own. In order to create a style of theatre that is distinct from other styles, one has no choice but to take various elements from past styles. While this isn’t, by any means, a new method for artists, it is seemingly more necessary than it was in the past. 

Perhaps I’m wrong, and there are still some final frontiers left in theatre, still waiting to be explored. I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers. I don’t think any single person in theatre does. In any case, I believe this is an important discussion to be had, as we think about what new stories and performancess we can bring to our audiences. I hope that this topic is one that those of us involved in the creation of theatre continue to talk about. I can already say that it’s a topic that I personally intend to keep bringing up in the future – including through future columns at On Stage – as I feel that no art form can remain relevant without constant attempts at innovation and revitalization.

Feel free to tell us what your thoughts are on this topic by letting us know in the comments section. We always like to hear what our readers have to say about topics such as this.

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Playwright, producer, screenwriter, actor, poet and essayist currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Mr. Piccione and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione