Econo-Art Theatre Company

at the Project

When was the last time you attended a play where the actors threw raw liver at the audience? How about actors taking the stage by climbing over the backs of the spectators’ seats? Or a play that finished with an actor hanging by one ankle 12 feet above the stage and doomed to continue there until all members of the audience had departed?

Long before the Berlin Wall came down, the fourth wall–the one “separating” the performer from his audience, constructed on the principle of “aesthetic distance”–was being stormed. Alan Kaprow created the first happening 31 years ago, though the roots of these revolutionaries go much further back. Their motto: the words of Antonin Artaud, “Between Life and Theatre, there will be no distinct division, but instead a continuity.” Their purpose: breaking down individual isolation and complacency and replacing them with the perception that we are all involved with one another. Their technique: anything that would shock audiences out of their illusion of invulnerability and thus clear the way for an open, unprejudiced discussion of ideas.

This “theater of attrition” (as one contemporary critic dubbed it) lent itself superbly to agitprop and guerrilla performances, and so became associated with social causes. When the riots and marches finally subsided, so did their collar-grabbing vehicle. By the mid-70s, this brand of theater had almost completely died out–except for the students who rediscover Artaud every spring to this day.

Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience was fresh and startling in 1966–but how about in 1990? We’ve been exposed to slasher movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Uptown Poetry Slam, and Andrew Dice Clay; we may not be as easily shocked. But Handke was not interested in turning stomachs or evoking derisive laughter. His assault on us in Offending the Audience is an intellectual one, and the Econo-Art Theatre Company production shows us it’s no less excruciating, no less educating, and no less exciting despite our jadedness.

Director Mark Lococo’s notes to this production are intentionally misleading: they describe a mythical-philosophical Strindbergian Nietzschean epic. What we see when the curtain is literally ripped from the stage, however, are 11 actors dressed in street clothes, looking at us just as we look at them. Exactly as we look at them–motionlessly, with fixed, unblinking, deadpan stares. Then they tell us that this will not be the play we expected, that this will not be anything we expected, that they are not “playing”: “We are no pictures of something. Our bloodcurdling screams don’t pretend to be another’s bloodcurdling screams. . . . This is not the world as a stage.” They are no kinder to the audience than to themselves: “You look enchanting, but you don’t make an evening. You are not theatrically effective.”

They negate our expectations of theater in surprisingly minute detail, walking among us, sitting by us, leaning over us–the houselights are up, so we don’t even have the anonymity of darkness–speaking directly into our faces and gazing directly into our eyes. Some of their speeches are projected onto the walls via slides, and one actor aims a video camera at various members of the audience, who are sometimes not aware that their reactions are being broadcast on a screen in full view. None of this is done in an overtly threatening manner–no physical contact is made, no projectiles are hurled–but in a peremptory and cold-blooded fashion that comes across as far more intrusive than flat-out anger or aggression would be.

Having made it clear to us what this evening will not be, the actors go on to talk to us of time and reality. They propose that stage time and audience time are no different–that the 50 minutes taken up by a performance are no different than the 50 minutes taken up by any of our activities, no matter that a playwright may claim to cover decades. The same is true for reality, they tell us–words mean the same things onstage and off, there is no magic hidden meaning to the events onstage, and we are not escaping anywhere by going to the theater. “There is no demarcation line here. We and you do not constitute two halves of one world.” They accuse us of neglecting this fact, jeer at our sheeplike docility, our terminal inertia. By the time their attack is complete and the final invective–“You fellow humans, you!”–has been flung in our faces, we have been put in our places most thoroughly, but we have also been brought to a realization of our transgressions. This interrogation, far from being offensive, has been therapeutic, breaking through our denials and opening our eyes so that we can be healed.

If this type of therapy offends the audience, it is a necessary offense. Cinema and television have lulled us into thinking that an audience is a passive creature–that we have only to receive from the performers and give nothing back. That fourth wall keeps getting rebuilt, despite the efforts of Artaudian experimenters nearly 30 years ago. One of them, Peter Brook, remarks in his book that performance requires a performer, an audience, and an empty space. And the audience has the responsibility of responding actively–intellectually, emotionally, or both. A physical response often occurs too.

This should not be news–as long ago as 323 BC, Aristotle announced that the purpose of tragedy is to invoke pity and fear, without which catharsis cannot occur. Now, in 1990, comes the Econo-Art Theatre Company to remind us that we’re shirking our duties. I’d thought my conscience was clear–haven’t I always preached Brook’s gospel?–but I was still intimidated enough by Handke’s accusations to engage in a four-and-a-half-minute staring contest with the video camera.

A major hazard in daring the crowd to take action is that they may do it. That fourth wall protects actors as well as audience. Once it’s been struck down, there is nothing to stop audience members from throwing the liver back. Another risk is that, although nobody was seated after this show began, the doors are not locked and anyone may leave at any time–indeed, the actors challenge us to do just that. The Econo-Art company is to be commended not only for its disciplined, razor-sharp performance but for its courage in taking on the prodigious risks inherent in confrontational art forms. (The idea of confrontation is contagious. I will admit to a touch of sadistic glee at the thought of my colleagues being grilled at future performances.)

Offending the Audience is an ensemble piece, essentially a monologue for ten voices, which makes it difficult to single out any one performance from the troupe’s uniformly superlative ones. Director Lococo keeps it all moving with split-second timing; with the assistance of Rob Rownd’s slides and video, he keeps this extremely wordy nonplay visually interesting. See it now–it runs through May 19–and never again view a play in the same old way.