A Brief History of the Open Theater


The Serpent:
The Evolution of a Ceremony



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The Off/Off-off Broadway Movement The Living Theater The Open Theater
The Off/Off-off Broadway Movement
-"The changes occurred because the theatre as we had known it, the theatre of character, of problems and resolutions, the theatre of beings forming uttering intelligently formed, balanced sentences, the theatre of significant scenes, of fortuitous events, was no longer working for many of us...We began to understand in the 60s that the words in plays, that the physical beings in plays, that the events in plays were too often evasions, too often artifices that have to do not with truths but with semblances."-Arthur Sainer, The Radical Theatre Notebook

The early developing Off and Off-off Broadway movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s sought freedom from the constraints of conventional theatre. The musical and the psychological drama dominated the mainstream theatre of the times. According to University of California professor Theodore Shank, these productions were "intended as business ventures and, if successful, they were packaged and toured." This notion of theater as a packaged commodity offended the creative sensibilities of those who wished to work outside of commercial success. Members of this new movement observed the psychological and physical constraints built within the theatrical space itself; in his book, Astonish Me: Adventures in Contemporary Theatre, theorist John Lahr notes, "The audience is compartmentalized...There is a ghostly, static uniformity of one-point perspective...Each seat is pointed towards the stage; numbered, raked, isolated by armrests from the next viewer...the message built into the architecture is 'sit tight'". To the alternative theatre movement, the constraints of conventional theatre represented a dangerous illusion that evaded the tumultuous reality of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The alternative theatre movement aimed to break these commercial and psychological restraints by bonding spectator and audience and by lessening the theatrical illusion of an imagined space and time. Conventional theatre taught the spectator to lose himself in the fictional onstage time, space, and characters; conversely, alternative theatre relied on the spectator's complete consciousness of the present. This present is the real time and space shared by the audience and the performers; only when the audience consciously perceives the present can they perceive the theatrical experience as relevant to their lives, and not as escapist fiction. The primary importance of the spectator's consciousness of the present is that he is an active force in creating the theatrical event rather than a passive observer of a ready-made production.

Life, Revolution, and Theater: The Living Theater
-"Life, revolution and theater are three words for the same thing: an unconditional NO to the present society."- Julian Beck, co-founder of the Living Theater

The Living Theater was the first troupe to explore this break from illusive theatrical restraint towards a reality based theater of socio-political consciousnessness. Married couple Julian Beck and Judith Malina formed the Living Theater in 1951. The troupe enacted a politically defiant theatre that reflected their politically defiant stance, which included participation in sit-ins, Vietnam War protests, and peace marches. They used this defiance in their art to stand against society, but also to connect with the spectator.

The Living Theater's most successful production, entitled Paradise Now(1967), embodies the troupe's fusion of political statement and avant garde theatrical performance. The play begins with a procession of statements representing established society: "You can't live if you don't have money." "I'm not allowed to take my clothes off." "I'm not allowed to smoke marijuana." The play invites and accomodates the unexpected, and spectators would often in response erupt in anti-war chants, remove their clothing, roll and pass around joints, or engage in communal sexual exploration. The show requires conscious, active audience participation in order not to take in a message, but to enact the political statement itself.

The Living Theater blazed the trail for alternative theatrical exploration, and their merging of politics and theater set the stage, either by example or for opposition, for avant-garde performance troupes to follow.

The Open Theater
-"I believe that we are on our own in trying to expand and develop ourselves, but it is all in vain unless we collaborate and pool together for an ensemble."-Joseph Chaikin, founder of the Open Theater
-"Chaikin found in the Open Theater the chance to innovate an acting and staging technique appropriate to non-naturalistic material."-Robert Pasolli, A Book on the Open Theater

The "radical loosening"(a phrase coined by theorist Arthur Sainer) of theatrical threads in the 1960s created knots. Living Theater actor Joseph Chaikin left the troupe in 1963 because they were more concerned with political activism than with artistic experimentation. Twice, Chaikin had unsuccessfully attempted to create actors' workshops within the Living Theater due to lack of interest and participation. While Chaikin appreciated the unorthodoxy of the Living Theater's work, he discovered that the actor doing unconventional theater needed special training to successfully perform it.

While the Living Theater began their theatrical exploration from the outer realm of politics and the community, Chaikin began his exploration from the inner experience of the actor and his relationship to the community. In the 1960s, acting as a craft had reached an impasse; since the emergence of the Theater of the Absurd in the 50s, actors struggled with ways to perform the difficult non-naturalistic material. Chaikin's "sound and movement" acting technique took from Method acting the process of beginning from the actor and his personal impulses; however, Chaikin developed improvisational exercises to free the actor from the constraints of Method naturalism. Chaikin felt that naturalism lacked the ability to look beyond this emphasis on the sole, subjective individual.

Chaikin's focus on the actor in relationship to the real world emerged in his use of the ensemble. Chaikin relied on the consciousness of the performer in relationship to other performers rather than a fictional character in a false setting with false relationships. Chaikin's notion of the ensemble differed from the Living Theater's conception of the ensemble. While the Living Theater's style was primarily confrontational and oriented outward towards the audience, Chaikin's Open Theater tended more towards seclusion of the work within the confines of the troupe itself.