My niece Alice loves using her grandmother’s label machine.
She likes to spell out words she knows and affix them to the things around her. “Bunny” is somehow made more concrete and real once it has an official status indicator and “Baa baa” is better for having been appropriately categorized.
This is a natural trait, this need to put things in a box, to classify them to help us sort out where they go.
But labels having been causing me agita lately.
Back in the early aughts, when I had just finished my first year of college, my Dad picked me up with the clear the purpose to foster a father daughter bonding session on the long drive from Swarthmore back to Chicago. My father excitedly told me that he had borrowed a whole stack of CDs, all musicals, from the library. It would be a chance to bond over theater, my extracurricular interest that had expanded into actual curriculum in recent months.
It was sweet, immensely so. And yet, even at the tender age of 19, I felt a little weird about the gesture. It was because even by the end of freshman year I sensed that “Theater,” at least the thing I meant when I talked about it, was not the same kind contained in the CD’s he now so excitedly proffered.
And indeed Adrienne Mackey’s brand of “Theater” would turn out to be something else entirely.
When I tell the vast majority of people what I do I usually get responses that either include reference to Shakespeare or Broadway. Once in a great while, I get someone who went to the theater often who’d mention some great American play like Streetcar or Death of a Salesman. When I try to explain what I do, I usually feel weird. I have such a hard time articulating it. I have often found myself talking about what I am not doing – “I don’t work in traditional spaces” or “I trying drop conventions of linear narrative” or “I like to use the voice in non-traditional ways” – rather than what I am. And that always feels weird to me, because I never think about my work that way when I am making it. I never think of it as a reaction against anything. I just think of it as the way that I make stuff.
Over time, it started to depress me to talk about so and so’s cousin who played Mrs. Potts in the Beauty and the Beast musical or the latest production of Hamlet that stars some famous guy. In my twenties I would get mad about this, frustrated at this “muggle” response. But after too many instances of even the most patient parental types glazing over or looking confused about how to take the thing I was talking about and reconcile it under the label “Theater,” I think I’ve realized that it’s a little unfair to ask someone not to call up any of the most obvious reference points for the word.
A lot of the time when I talk about my work now I find myself saying something like, “It’s theater, well… sort of. It’s kind of like theater. But not like you think.”
Which makes me wonder: Am I doing “Theater”?
Some days I just don’t know.
I know that I was trained in theater. I know I’ve read a lot of plays. I know a lot about the history of the art form and have lots of opinions on its contemporary practitioners. I know that I see a lot of it. I know I talk to people about it a lot.
But I really wonder if I’m actually interested in doing it as almost everyone in the world defines it. When I don’t like being in a theater building, when I’m constantly trying to get off “stages,” when I rarely want to work on plays as most people define them, when I want to shake up the audience actor relationship, when I increasingly expect people not to sit and watch but participate, when my work starts looking more like a concert or a game or a tour… is it still theater?
When I was in residence at Drexel this past winter and created a traveling performance piece with the students I had the luxury of following behind the audience and hearing them talk in live time about the show.
One kid whispered, “What’s happening? I thought this was a play but the actors are everywhere and we’re outside. What is going on?!”
Another said to a friend, “You know the first time you watch cartoon network and you don’t understand what you’re seeing and it’s really weird but you think that you like it? That’s happening now.”
This tickles me, surprising these kids with an experience they didn’t expect. Some part of me was really proud to say, “Hey! I reclaim this crazy theater word and make you rethink what it is. And because you saw this and liked it you will now include this in your definition of what a play can be!”
But another part of me feels like maybe I’m doing a disservice. If that cartoon network quote kid really likes the thing he just saw, I don’t know that he’ll necessarily like “theater” as a whole. I heard a lot of these student audience members say they don’t like theater but they did like our play. I actually hear that fairly regularly. And when I describe my work I often say that I want to make theater for people that don’t think of themselves as a traditional theater audience.
And so I’m often loathe to use the word because the people I want tend not to be “theater people” and the audiences that tend to have a tradition of going to the theater aren’t often interested in the kinds of experiences I want to offer.
Some days trying to court “theater” audiences feels like advertising a folk performance at a heavy metal concert. Both audiences technically want to hear “music” but really there’s a point of diminishing returns in trying to treat the viewers as one in the same.
And, look, I know there are some labels for the different kinds of theater out there, but they are far fewer and far far less codified. Do the words usually attached to my kind of work – fringe, experimental, devised – actually say anything of substance? I don’t think so. Certainly not if you don’t know what that kind of work already looks like.
So I’m contemplating whether or not I’m going to call what I do “theater” at all. I’m contemplating how I can be proactive in labeling better. Because I think if I want a word for what I do that isn’t 90% not a good example, I’m going to have to find one for myself.