Here's a jaunty stage troupe in search of big themes
New York — "Theater isn't doing what it did hundreds of years ago," says JoAnne Akalaitis, "synthesizing all the arts -- visual, music, dance, performing, etc. -- and referring constantly to the history of the culture and the society.
"These days, there's nothing but frivolus theater -- why I'm neurotic and unhappy, sex comedy, etc."
Miss Akalaitis conceived the stage production "Dead End Kids," presented by the Mabou Mines theater troupe. Billed as "a history of nuclear power," in its first half it outlines "the development of science," from alchemy to the discovery of radiation. The second half shows that she feels happened next -- the mushrooming of atomic technology into a potentially devastating force.
Part meditation and part nightclub routine, the show moves constantly between tragedy and farce, concern for the present and hope for the future. Miss Akalaitis has worked with the company as actress and director since 1970 and has won three Obie awards for her achievements.
For the past five years, Mabou Mines has been in resisence at the Public Theater in Lower Manhattan, where "Dead End Kids" has opened an indefinite run. When the engagement ends, the troupe hopes to tour the show extensively.
I spoke with Miss Akalaitis backstage at the Public. As I joined her, she was making a quick phone call to her young daughter, and she later excused herself to dash off and pick up her son from school. She is a parent as well as an artist, and her parental feelings -- as well as political and aesthetic ideas -- played a crucial role in the genesis of "Dead End Kids."
Are you pleased with the current state of theater.
It's hard to analyze what's going on in theater now, because it's sort of floundering and falling apart, largely for economic reasons. What happens on Broadway has little to do with real life on any level -- economic, social, moral , political. And what happens Off Broadway is hard to track down and define. A lot is determined by the need just to survive to produce plays. There's not enough freedom for Off Broadway even to find its way. It's too economically and spatially limited. . . .
Does that go for Mabou Mines, too?
We almost went under this fall, but we were saved by a grant, just in time. We haven't had enough money to continue with the kind of work we've been leading to -- more diversified, less intimate work, connected with technical resources. Theater must somehow be in touch with the culture -- not only politically and socially, but also technically -- or people won't be able to respond to it.It'll seem like a relic.
Your work is bold and sophisticated, in many ways. Would it "go over" in places very different from New York?
I tend to be very optimistic about audiences. I believe they're smarter and more open than many people think, and I keep having good experiences with this. We might make changes during a tour, to be more accessible. We made changes in the topical references when we played in Australia last year, and we didn't since it didn't damage the piece. We don't want to hurt or confuse people.
But we alwaysm mean to be entertaining -- never obscure or opaque or intellectual. We want to be smart and good, but not elitist or specialized.
When theater is good, it expresses images that are in the collective unconscious. That has little to do with history or reading or how intelligent you are. It depends more on how openm you are to this encounter, and that's the bottom line. From the combination of audience, acting, words, design, and lights, the image must pops out! and that's what the beauty and mystery of good theater really is. . . .
Today, not many artists deal with "objective material," such as scientific development or the threat of nuclear disaster. One exception is Thomas Pynchon, who incorporates technical ideas in his novels, but he's a rare case. Are you looking to fill a gap?
I've been more and more interested in science and "objective material."
"By "objective material" I mean lots of things -- science, social issues, history. I've been increasingly dissatisfied with the subject matter of the arts. It's just neurotic, self-expression, narcissistic, and decadent.
It's a limited vision of artistic expression. After all, the idea of romantic love is basically a modern post-industrialage thing. And it's only an idea! But somehow we've gotten trapped into having this as the primary aim of our lives, along with money and power. Theater got trapped in that, too.
How do you use technical resources in a show about the dangers of technology?
It does seem like a contradiction, but I mean basic stuff: speakers, not thermodynamic lasers. There is a danger that our kind of theater can, and does, become over technologized. But we should be able to use these resources, without being used by them. Basically, we're still an actor's theater, concerned with formalization of language, development of style and technique, and acting.
In the first act of "Dead End Kids," the history of science begins with alchemy. How does the idea of "magical thinking" relate to your later suggestion that today's technocrats often don't know what they're talking about?
The use of magic is a metaphor, and it's also there for theatrical reasons. . . . I consider alchemy to be the beginning of the history of physics. Alchemy came at the dawn of the scientific age, but it was still connected with the old world of harmony between man, God, and nature.
When an alchemist worked, he not only hoped to discover secrets of the universe. There was a corresponding internal work, too. The alchemist worked not only to transform nature, but to transform himself.
But things have changed since then. As the world became overtechnologized, and life was compartmentalized, it became possible for someone to do a job that had enormous consequences in the universe, and separated from his life and from the spirit of mankind.
From the '20s on and especially into the '30s and '40s, scientists were on a great adventure. Yet they were separated from the consequences of the adventure , and even from the adventure itself! They went home at night and slept and then went back to work the next morning. And this has had devastating results.
Do you consider "Dead End Kids" a political play?
Absolutely. In rehearsal, we discussed what effect we wanted to have on the audience and what the effect would probably be. We discussed what political theater is and whether it's really possible to attain it.
And we wondered whether our audience would end up being the same old avant-garde that eats everything up and intellectualizes it, and that's all. We wondered whether we could reach a middle-class audience and possibly transform them. We're very interested in performing our work for a broad audience -- not just our friends and fans.
Can theater shake people up like that?
It has, in our history. One of the great things about theater is that it's live. It's maybe the only life things left. Television make you passive, and film is wonderful, but it's still a product.
Theater has enormous power because it's immediate -- even as a propaganda tool, to say it bluntly. In the past, theater has shaken people up, destroyed their security, and caused them to consider enormous moral questions.That's what the great Greek plays are all about -- the unspeakable, the unnameable. That's what we wanted to do: to talk about the unthinkable. And also to give people information!
In a way, then, you and Mabou Mines are trying to change the direction of theater, toward issues you feel are too pressing to be ignored.
Since I do theater, I have to respond to what's in my consciousness, what's on my mind. And since I don't do anything else but theater, I have to do the best I can within these means. But I happen to think they're incredible means with great power, not only for political issues, but for many issues that touch people's lives.
When theater does take on current issues -- as the Living Theater did in the '60s, for example -- the impulse often comes from the left rather than the right. Why?
At least in recent times, people on the right tend to feel more secure in the world situation. Meanwhile, the people on the left want to change everything. Have we ever had a really left-wing president so the right could polarize itself and form a right-wing theater?
Also, when the right does approach theater, it takes different forms. Look at the Moral Majority -- their form of theater is singing songs at rallies. It comes from wanting some ideals in life during a difficult time, or from needing companionship and verification.
Of course, we're working in New York now, and many of these people are in the middle of the country. We need to go where they are and see what would develop out of that.