THERE is no stage in the room. Seven chairs are arranged in a line, no more than two abreast. The audience faces a luminescent sarcophagus. Suspended above it is the horizontal figure of a woman, actually a hologram. A disembodied voice speaks words by playwright Samuel Beckett, ``Imagination dead? Imagine.'' Then comes music, the Beatles singing ``Imagine there's no heaven.'' The sarcophagus glows; the hologram rotates. More words, more music. The performance lasts 14 minutes. Shakespeare, you might say, had it easy. A pen, paper, an exceptional imagination, and some immortal lines of dialogue -- all staged with some actors and a few banners; mankind talking to mankind. It is a mode of theater that has endured for more than three centuries.
But what are those seven audience members, including two theater critics, witnessing above? Theatrical techno-gimmickry? Or state-of-the-art theater?
That 14-minute fusion of technology, classical text, and rock music is helping establish a new aesthetic foundation for American theater. The latest work-in-progress by New York's Mabou Mines, one of the country's oldest experimental theater troupes, ``Imagination Dead Imagine'' is one of hundreds of attempts to reconcile theater with today's culture.
It is a movement that has as much to do with the advent of technology as with the evolving role of the avant-garde. And it is centered on that new generation of artists and audiences demanding and creating an updated, if not altogether different, art.
``Theater has to reinvent itself in the next generation,'' says Peter Sellars, artistic director of the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington. ``Because traditional theater is no longer relevant to a whole generation, and the most exciting developments today are electronic, theater must remake itself from an electronic standpoint.''
``Traditional literate theater in this country is dead in the water,'' says monologuist Eric Bogosian. ``You're talking about [an audience] relating to a stage after a million rock concerts.''
``The theatrical tradition in the United States is very young,'' says Elizabeth LeCompte, artistic director of New York's Wooster Group, one of the country's most respected avant-garde theaters. ``As a nation we're so used to turning to TV for entertainment and to European traditions for serious art. It will take years for the American art theater to find itself.''
Interviews with dozens of directors, actors, playwrights, and producers across the country reveal a growing consensus that theater in America must find new techniques and new criteria to become a truly viable art form. To function within the cultural mainstream and not founder on the shoals of elitism, theater must not only appeal to a new audience weaned on film, television, rock music, and video, but it must also attract its artists from among the same ranks. Theater, which relies on the spoken word, must come to terms with a culture distinguished by unprecedented levels of sensory sophistication. Indeed, some observers today regard Steven Spielberg as the Shakespeare of our age.
``There is still a place for traditional drama, but it must adapt,'' says John Jesurun, the Obie Award-winning playwright, who is a filmmaker and sculptor by training. ``Because everything we see today has been recorded, it is very rare to go into a theater and see something live.''
``There is a whole different vocabulary today,'' adds Elizabeth Dunn of New York's La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, one of the country's oldest avant-garde producing theaters. ``People are reacting to the video image today the way people used to react to the spoken word.''
The effects of this impulse are already being felt. In the commercial arena, they are seen in the high-tech spectacular -- the so-called ``event'' drama, such as ``Cats'' or London's latest, ``Time'' -- which relies on elaborate costumes, gigantic sets, pop music, and lasers to achieve its effects. In the regional theaters, a handful of artistic directors and designers are creating unorthodox, highly visual approaches to classic plays. For example, Robert Wilson's version of ``Alcestis,'' Lucian Pintilie's staging of ``Tartuffe,'' and Peter Sellars's production of ``Ajax'' suggest that the trend toward a new hybrid aesthetic is taking hold.
Nowhere is the new aesthetic more pronounced, however, than among the experimental theater artists. Unlike the state-supported, national theaters of Europe, theater in America has always been a scrappy, bootstraps operation, dependent on the energy and enthusiasm of its individual participants. What constitutes the current artistic foundation for contemporary American theater was forged two decades ago by the collective-minded avant-garde artists of the 1960s. The recent explosion of new talent, however, is gravitating toward other disciplines -- music, dance, performance art, vaudeville, and storytelling -- and away from traditional narrative theater.
It is the dawn in America of performer-led theater with ideological roots in the destruction two decades ago of playwright-centered production. What Richard Schechner's Performance Group, Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater, and Julian Beck's Living Theater wrought in the '60s is fueling today's eclectic artists -- Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, Ping Chong, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, and Martha Clark. ``We're back to where the play, the writer, and the performance are rather inseparable,'' Mr. Sellars says.
With the exception of monologuists Gray and Bogosian, the methods of this new wave are largely nonverbal and often dependent on pop-culture elements; speech has become secondary to visual and aural concepts. These artists are finding a home for their iconoclastic talents in mainstream markets: Ms. Anderson has just released her first feature film, ``Home of the Brave''; Eric Bogosian is appearing on the HBO cable TV channel; Martha Clark's recent ``Vienna: Lusthaus'' played Off Broadway. Their success suggests that a mass market and not just an avant-garde audience exists for these new multimedia performances.
``It's parallel to . . . music in the '60s,'' says Ross Wetzsteon of the Village Voice's Obie Awards committee. ``There were the masses and Bohemianism, and then suddenly there was mass Bohemianism.''
This coming to terms between the counterculture and mainstream theaters, between pop culture and high art, is evident among directors now working in the regional theater. This movement includes such American directors as JoAnne Akalaitis and Peter Sellars, as well as the East European cadre of Andrei Serban, Lucian Pintilie, and Liviu Ciulei, whose work largely marries avant-garde techniques with classical texts.
When coupled with hybrid work by Mabou Mines director Lee Breuer in ``Gospel at Colonus,'' and Wooster Group director LeCompte's ``LSD,'' this deconstructionist approach to classics represents one of the first movements in mainstream US theater away from British-influenced classic theater.
This melding of the avant-garde with the mainstream, however, signals more than stylistic shifts. It also points to significant social changes.
``Theater in the '60s had a different cultural and political place than it does today,'' says LeCompte. ``Most theater today has joined the [established sources of] power.''
``The avant-garde is usually born out of legitimate social confrontation,'' adds Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. ``That doesn't exist anymore [in today's society]. As a result, the avant-garde is not a political force, but an aesthetic and metaphysical one.''
Evidence for this changed aesthetic is found in the current attenuation of political theater, the predominance of dream-like narratives, and the proliferation of storytelling. It is theater that points to a preoccupation with the individual.
Most of the political theater groups founded during the '60s function largely on the fringes or have diluted their messages. The recent play ``I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges,'' by Luis Vald'ez, founder of El Teatro Campesino, is an unabashedly mainstream comedy. Among those theater artists now generating the most comment, Martha Clark and Robert Wilson are fashioning pieces that function largely as dream narratives, as does Richard Foreman's new production, ``The Cure.'' Other titles that suggest reverie include John Jesurun's ``Deep Sleep'' and Meredith Monk's ``Turtle Dreams.''
Among solo performers, the trend toward individuality is even more evident. As Eric Bogosian describes his work, ``I'm exploring being me in 1986. Laurie Anderson says she conceives of herself as a satellite dish; Spalding Gray's monologues are all self-confessional.''
Even among mainstream theater artists, there is a subtle shift. ``I notice a lack of metaphor among playwrights today,'' says Lloyd Richards, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference.
These trends suggest that an entire culture, not just an art form, is reexamining live art, as opposed to recorded entertainment, reassessing the value of human intimacy in the face of impersonal technology. ``Theater doesn't lead, it reflects,'' observes LeCompte.
The conclusion of that collective exploring may be a long time coming. It may, in fact, be exactly what theater means.
``There is a hunger to see the human presence acted out,'' says Zelda Fichandler, artistic director of Washington's Arena Stage. ``As long as that need remains, people will find a way to do theater.''