I think—and I hope—that House of Gold will be a very new kind of theatre experience for many in Woolly’s growing audience. Watching the show take shape over the past few weeks, and talking with energized and quizzical audience members after the first preview on Monday, I found myself searching for new language to describe the show. In many ways it reminds me of some of the productions I’ve seen in Poland and Bulgaria over the past year—incorporating live video in the action, presenting characters in multiple time-frames, creating a complex layered experience rather than a simple linear narrative, etc.
Last week I came across a rather nifty overview of Postmodern Theatre on—ya gotta love it—Wikipedia. We’ve become accustomed to hearing the word “postmodern” in connection with art and architecture, but not so much in theatre:
“Postmodern theatre is a recent phenomenon in world theatre, coming as it does out of the postmodern philosophy that originated in Europe in the 1960s. Postmodern theatre emerged as a reaction against modernist theatre. Most postmodern productions are centered around highlighting the fallibility of definite truth, instead encouraging the audience to reach their own individual understanding. Essentially, thus, postmodern theatre raises questions rather than attempting to supply answers.”
I think this applies to House of Gold fairly well. Playwright Greg Moss is mining the brief life and the larger cultural phenomenon of JonBenet Ramsey to reflect on the way we relate to children in our society. He’s not telling us what to think, but raising a set of provocative questions in a way that is dazzlingly theatrical and somewhat open-ended.
Wikepedia goes on to list a set of “Postmodern Techniques” in theatre. I’ve had a good time analyzing how these techniques match up (or not) with Woolly’s production of House of Gold:
- The accepted norms of seeing and representing the world are challenged and disregarded, while experimental theatrical perceptions and representations are created.
- A diverse pastiche of different textualities and media forms are used, including the simultaneous use of multiple art or media forms, and there is the ‘theft’ of a heterogeneous group of artistic forms.
- Narrative need not be complete but can be broken, paradoxical and imagistic. There is a movement away from linearity to multiplicity (to inter-related ‘webs’ of storying), where acts and scenes give way to a series of peripatetic dramatic moments.
- Characters are fragmented, forming a collection of contrasting and parallel shards stemming from a central idea, theme or traditional character.
- Each new performance of a theatrical pieces is a new Gestalt, a unique spectacle, with no intent on methodically repeating a play.
- The audience is integral to the shared meaning making of the performance process and are included in the dialogue of the play.
- There is a rejection of the precepts of “High” and “Low” art. The production exists only in the viewers mind as what the viewer interprets, nothing more and nothing less.
- The rehearsal process in a theatrical production is driven more by shared meaning-making and improvisation, rather than the scripted text.
- The play steps back from reality to create its own self conscious atmosphere. This is sometimes referred to as meta-theatre.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about how these techniques relate to your personal experience of House of Gold. While “postmodern theatre” may not be a perfect description of the play, you may find that it provides an illuminating lens. It certainly helped me to articulate some of the ways in which Greg Moss and director Sarah Benson are quite intentionally positioning themselves at the leading edge of American theatre.
~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director