a manifesto for a non-traditional theater

Generally, when theater-goers imagine theater and how it works, certain basic assumptions come to mind. Actors are hired by a director, scripts are handed out. Everyone sits around a table in a drafty rehearsal hall and reads perhaps less than superlatively. Following which a stage manager hands out pencils and "blocking" begins. A typically six-week schedule is devoted to dividing the play into units, a director coaches actors to move, speak and gesture in certain ways, music is added in the fifth week, there are two costumed previews, and the play is considered ready to open. The rationale underlying this school of production may include the need for profits to keep a subscription season afloat by finding out what an audience likes and providing it in the form of "entertainment." Opposed to this commercial school of production is a practice in which the theater's underlying goals are strikingly different, leading in turn to an entirely different rehearsal process.

Such a theater is Theatre of Man, an experimental San Francisco theater company funded by the City of San Francisco, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and local foundations. Dedicated to re-defining the role and the expectations of a theater and to forging a new performance language, Theatre of Man has worked since its inception in l969 developing techniques towards creating original material in a developmental rehearsal process.

The performing imperatives of this theater are quite different from traditional ones. The assumption that actors will make gestures and movements in a confined area generally called a set, most probably located within a proscenium, and that an audience seated in another area will watch, is called into question. Even the reasons an audience might want to come to a theater are being challenged, and finally, the process whereby material is readied for the public is radically changing and expanding.

To begin with, Theatre of Man assumes that the task of theater is to renew, both actors and audience, and that to do so, the theater must create shared ceremonies which celebrate themes and events beyond the scope of individual lives. The work of the theater must be grounded as well in a social matrix, that is, it must reflect present society's deepest fears and highest aspirations. Through the use of collective images, that is images created by the interplay of the bodies of the actors moving in space, theater must express the possibility that people can find fulfillment in working together. At the same time, theatrical expression must make positive use of the theater's limitations, that is, the work of human beings moving in the space must be the basic unit of presentation in creating atmosphere and setting, as opposed to reliance on lavishly funded sets and costumes. And finally, the theater's objective and practice must reflect and adapt to changing societal and aesthetic needs.

An original text created in the actual rehearsal process becomes a particular group's unique expression, yielding a kind of urgency and authenticity in performance which can almost never be realized through an acquired text. The rehearsal process must therefore include improvisations through which the actors may contact relevant felt and remembered experience. At the same time, ways must be found to re-create living, physical equivalents of the textual metaphor in the actual space and time of rehearsal, such that no matter how highly symbolic the event, it acquires an immediacy available in performance to actor and audience alike.

To these ends, in l972, Theatre of Man began developmental rehearsals for "After Eurydice," a piece dealing with sexual consciousness, which occupied a ten-month developmental rehearsal period. Drawing on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the company found a basis on which to build the archetypic, dream-like images of the piece. Although, according to the myth, Orpheus is thought to have led Eurydice out of hell, and contrary to the gods' warning, looked back to verify that she was actually following him, consequently losing her forever, Theater of Man textually re-interpreted the myth in order to demystify it. In "After Eurydice," Orpheus possesses the image of an ideal woman. But when finally he really sees the person Eurydice, he loses his perfect image of her. She can no longer exist merely as the figment of his romanticized imagination.

The rehearsal process fell into four phases. Phase one occupied a period in which ways were discovered to translate questions dealing with sexual role expectation, socialization, women's and men's work, world view, ideation, sexual fantasy, and language, into a specific theatrical language with a view to developing material for incorporation later in actual performance. During phase two, work was begun with playwright-in-residence, Doris Baizley of the Mark Taper Forum, in order to develop text which could help codify these experiences into a more formalized framework. During this phase, scenes were written and re-written and worked on by the company to test their validity both from the standpoint of theme and of dramatic viability. Material was tried, and either modified, accepted, or entirely rejected. Phase three consisted of readying a formalized text and score for performance, and in the course of that process, creating exercises designed to intensify the emotional and physical commitment by the actors to the highly symbolic events of the text. Phase four consisted of a two-month performance period during which the text underwent further revision and modification dictated by the necessities of clearer communication vis a vis the audience.

Because the company felt the need to explore the basis of sexual consciousness and how it actually affected their lives, the group's objective was to find rehearsal techniques to investigate these themes, and to develop a performance piece which would stand as an expression of their feelings and their discoveries. When the group had worked together for a sufficient length of time to have evolved a commonly shared artistic language, the material began to suggest theatrical events which could make use of the personal reality of the actors in the actual rehearsal space.

Insisting on shifting the surrogate reality of the theater to a reality more consistent with a primary event yielded a much finer, more emotionally charged variety of meanings than could possibly have been presented by the words of the text alone. Thus the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice came to transcend its narrative bounds to become grounded in actual, real-time event by using the specific and concrete parameters inherently available in the company's rehearsal space.

The task of the experimental, non-traditional theater is to develop a new artistic language. The point at which this newly forged language consistently takes root marks the moment when the life of the theater transcends re-enactment to become authentic, primary event. Likewise it becomes the moment in which the new theater defines itself.

Cecile Pineda, director, Theatre of Man
San Francisco, 1974

---excerpted from "Experiments in the Underground: a manifesto for a non-traditional theater" by Cecile Pineda, unpublished, 1974