What does it mean to be “out there”? The Walker Art Center’s annual “festival of performance alternatives” aims to offer an ever-changing answer to this near-impossible question. Out There is marking its 30th year, but the festival—much like the art it showcases—continues to defy easy categorization. Out There has always sought to give a presence to work that pushes the boundaries of what is typically seen on stage, but the nature of that work has seen much change over the years. From the rise of solo performance to the influence of technology on artists to the increasing abundance of nonlinear storytelling, the ways in which performing artists engage with and push the limits of their craft is in constant transition.
Walker Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither has worked on Out There for his entire 20-year tenure at the Walker, bearing witness to a decades-long conversation and transformation within the art form.
“Theater itself, like the word jazz, is something that’s either so expansive or so narrow,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who still really feel that if you use the word theater it needs to be primarily text-based and needs to have a dramatic traditional theatrical arc of conflict and resolution. In many ways the work we support in Out There almost intentionally flies in the face of what makes up a well-made play. It’s trying to pose a question: what could theater be? What if we reimagined what communication live between humans could be?”
An essential part of this reimagination has come from artists taking the risk of appearing onstage alone. While solo performance is a fixture of today’s theater festivals, it took works like Danny Hoch’s one man shows and Spalding Grey’s autobiographical monologues to bring this tradition into the mainstream. These early works brought a rogue, DIY exploration of identity to the performing arts scene that has persisted throughout the years.
“When I was growing up in the ’70s, a solo performance was just a monologue, not theater,” Mark Russell, artistic director and producer of the New York theater festival Under the Radar said in an interview with Bither in 2012. “Now solo shows are really considered part of the mainstream; there are so many of them.”
As with all performing art trends, once those foundational solo works took hold in the public consciousness, they opened the door for other artists to begin building and expanding upon the tradition. As the phenomenon of solo performance grew, Out There began showcasing artists—such as the Canadian-born Daniel MacIvor, who performed at Bither’s first Out There—who understood their history but weren’t bound by it.
“As one gets older, you realize that sometimes even things that feel brand new and fresh really have happened before,” Bither reflected. “And that’s the role of living within a museum-like practice—being conscious of history. What did Cabaret Voltaire do that laid the groundwork (even if artists today don’t know about it) that helped inform a lot of things going on now? What did Peter Brook do? Or Robert Wilson? Or Einstein on the Beach? Or the Wooster Group? Having a knowledge of those earlier innovators in the 20th century is helpful from a curatorial standpoint. That’s part of the job of a curator—to understand from where this work has come and try to put a finger on what’s really fresh and what we haven’t seen before. And even what is disturbing!”
Experimental performance art has long been stereotyped as intellectual, challenging, even difficult to watch. Ask someone on the street what they think of when they hear “experimental performance”: “fun” will not likely be the first word that comes to mind. In this environment lightheartedness is its own kind of rebellion. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, many artists began pushing back against the idea that work had to be, according to Bither, “severely formal and rejecting of anything resembling entertainment” in order to be innovative and rigorous.
“In this era, the lines between the formally avant-garde and a kind of more mass-acceptance of things are really blurry,” said Bither. “Artists no longer feel like they have to have half the people walk out of their show in order for it to have been successful.”
This trend meshes perfectly with the how Bither sees Out There. He maintains that the festival has always sought to both challenge and engage audiences. Out There has developed a reputation for quality and innovation that helps the Walker deliver audiences to artists who are less well known—a typical Out There season includes both artists who produce challenging, difficult work, and artists who aim to be both fun and radical. This mix has been effective at keeping audiences engaged and returning year after year, giving Bither and the rest of the Walker’s Performing Arts staff the freedom to take risks with performances that may not be as successful outside the context of Out There.
“I’ve become accustomed to being comfortable with questions rather than answers,” said Associate Performing Arts Curator Doug Benidt. “It’s also been fascinating to track the patterns of theatrical innovation both artistically and technically (or the refusal of such) and the resulting influences that spread nationally and internationally.”
Performance art has never existed in a vacuum. Artists are constantly affected by the environment in which they create—as the world changes, art and artists change with it. The advent of the digital age has given artists both new tools and new subject matter; as the art world (and the world at large) has become increasingly globalized, and communication over long distances became a possibility, artists were newly able to access the work of their peers from all around the globe. Interdisciplinary work began skyrocketing, giving rise to entirely new aesthetic forms. The already difficult to categorize genre of “performing arts” became even more undefinable, as artists used dance, moving image, visual arts, spoken word, and every other medium imaginable in concert with ever-growing theater technology to create work that could not have existed in the past.
In his 2012 interview, Russell eloquently summed up these ever-changing notions of theater and performance.
I began to see that the best work was combining or moving between genres and disciplines. Those were the cracks where the light gets in. Those small transgressions are where the bright ideas come. Often, they come out of mistakes, and often they’re about challenging the structures or the regular way of doing things. “Performance” was a great way to put it, because the people who were making things were dancers who were starting to talk, or filmmakers like John Jesurun starting to make theater. Performance is a smooth and fluid place where a lot of this can live. Trying to capture or name this work is like trying to hold onto Jell-O, because it’s supposed to move.
Audiences have also constantly adapted their expectations based on their experiences inside and outside the theater. When nonlinear work first began appearing in front of audiences, it was considered highly radical. Today, nonlinear storytelling has burst its way out of the performing arts scene and into the mainstream media. Movies like Memento and Pulp Fiction have achieved iconic status in popular culture—their posters are more likely to be found in a college dorm room than an arthouse cinema. Bither attributes some of this acceptance of nonlinear storytelling to the way we interface with our devices on a day to day basis.
“[It used to be] if something didn’t seem like it was progressing in a logical way, where the story’s unfolding in a logical way, it was considered pretty inaccessible,” said Bither. “Now for people under 40, that’s just a given; you’re flipping through channels, flying through a million different things on your phone in a minute. Artists have absorbed that—the ability to kind of have jump cuts. People can follow work in a way they weren’t able to as easily in earlier times.”
The globalizing influence of technology and performing arts has also allowed the art form to grow beyond its traditional enclaves. The internet provided a platform for artists who no longer had to rely on museums, theaters, and galleries to showcase their work. It also allowed members of those cultural institutions to broaden their scope in the search for new work to showcase. But artists were not only looking for brand new spaces. Today’s artists have also developed a broader understanding of how a traditional theater space can be used. Now it’s typical for Out There artists to physically reimagine the Walker stage or to take their performance off site. Out There 2018, for example, will include a performance of Quizoola by the UK company Forced Entertainment, a six-hour improvised performance and social event at the Soap Factory.
The rise of the internet also introduced artists and curators to what could be one of the defining questions of our age: is digitization bringing us together or driving us apart? In either case, increasing use of smart phones and the expectation of constant communication and personalization create unique challenges and opportunities for artists.
“I think the trends in theater are towards a more intimate experience, a more participatory or involved resonance,” said Bither. “That’s partially due to all that’s available on people’s phones that if they can feel deeply engaged beyond just sitting in their chair and receiving. It’s important to have a social component.”
With the incredible access to content allowed by our smartphones, performing artists must take on the additional weighty task of making their work stand out—of justifying the presence of live, in-person theater in a world that increasingly encourages multitasking and fast-paced digital consumption. But Bither is optimistic about the ability of live performance to cut through the noise.
“Sometimes I wonder if we’re just making ourselves feel good or if it’s truly the case. But [theater], as a sacred kind of place that’s removed from the constant digital barrage that we all live with, that we are seduced into, can this be a refuge?” he asks.
“I’m completely convinced of the power of a collective gaze,” he said. “When you have multiple people all experiencing something in real time, in a kind of engaged electric moment in performance, it really changes the whole environment. It makes for such memorable energy. That flow back and forth between performer and audience is totally part of why you go see things live—you just can’t get that on any phone, on any virtual reality device, just that human concentrated energy, I think gives people something they can’t get as much from their digital devices.”
The world of theater and performance is constantly changing, and it is the responsibility of curators to witness and support that change. A typical Out There performance—to the extent such a thing exists—may not look like it did in 1989 when the festival began, but the underlying mission and character of the event remains the same. It is a place for upending expectations, for blurring boundaries between disciplines, and for daring to be out there.