What’s Indie Theater? (Part 1)

I’ve spent the better part of the last decade pushing hard to brand the work created by this “tribe” that I hang with (as John Clancy likes to call it) as indie theater. As chief promulgator of the term, I get asked a lot to define it.  Because I’m an expansive sort of fellow, I’m going to provide many answers to this question (at least 3, to start with), in this series of posts.

We’ll begin with the man who was the first to come up with the term “indie theater,” at least within my hearing. That would be Kirk Wood Bromley, a brilliant playwright whose works can be found on Indie Theater Now and who has just this week been selected as a new member of New Dramatists. Kirk’s company Inverse Theater won the very first Cino Caffe Fellowship at the 2005 New York Innovative Theatre Awards. In his acceptance speech, he suggested that the off-off-Broadway sector ought to rename itself “indie theater”:

Shortly afterward, I posted about this concept in my blog (at the time, the “nytheatre i”), endorsing the idea of re-branding our community for its audience; and it drew a healthy and positive response.

On October 25, 2005, Kirk sent me an email (which I published on the blog in full) that expanded on his thoughts about indie theater. Here it is, with emphasis added:

Hey Martin,

I’ve noticed over the last month that the Indie Theater thing is catching on, at least on your blog. As you mentioned, at the NY Innovative Theater Awards (maybe they should change it to the New York Independent Theater Awards?), I recommended we drop off-off-Broadway as a term, and replace it with Indie Theater, though I hardly think I’m the first to have suggested this.

I want to share a few thoughts with you and your readers about this “change of terms”—thoughts I’ve had since suggesting it that night.

First thought: I was taken aback at the post-NYITA party at how many people came up to me, strangers all, and told me that they had LOVED my speech and that they TOTALLY agreed with me about the “indie” thing. I think there’s a sign right there that there’s an urge in the community to ditch the “off-off” phrase. It’s like they tell you in school—always ask your question, no matter how stupid you think it is, because chance is many others have that question as well. I think that in making that suggestion, as obvious as it felt to me, I hit on a sentiment that many others shared.

Next thought: I think what’s interesting about the term off-off-Broadway is that it probably originates from a position of pride and power and conscious differentiation on the part of various artists in the ’60s and ’70s, when it “started.” There was off-Broadway, which was a natural offshoot of Broadway. Off-Broadway is more of a term of necessity (the necessity being that we don’t have or don’t feel confident enough in raising sufficient funds to be “on” Broadway), and in a sense, that single off grants it an air of artsiness, of difference, of being tastefully “off.” And in that sense, it’s an empowering phrase.

Then came off-off-Broadway, which has in its double “offs” a sort of playfulness, a “way off” quality, a “so far out it will blow your mind” quality, an absurdist, ironical, sassy, almost drunken (“I’m babbling…I can’t stop saying ‘off’…I’m so Dada”) kind of thing to it. You can almost hear them saying it. “Yeah, baby. We’re not just off. We’re off off.” So I think that when it originated, it was a way to declare one’s weirdness, one’s total fringe nature, one’s way-outness, which, at the time, was “super cool.”

I think, however, that this has changed. In a sense, the “off-off” in off-off-Broadway was co-opted by Broadway and off-Broadway. There are now shows that exhibit “off-off”-ness on off-Broadway, and even on Broadway. Urinetown comes to mind. Martin McDonagh. Mabou Mines. And, of course, typical off-off gurus like Albee and Shepard have had Broadway runs. And the list goes on. Off-Broadway is littered with stuff that is “way out there.” That is “way off-off.”

So for me, who started doing plays in NY in 1991, the “off-off” in off-off-Broadway just always felt like a slap in the face. It said to me “you aren’t good enough to be off-Broadway or on Broadway. We can do things that are as smart and hip and cultured as you can do, but we do them better and bigger and a lot more people come see them.” So, in this sense, off-off felt ghettoizing. It was a term that “fringed” me, but I was being fringed by people who had absorbed those parts of the fringe that they thought could make it in the big time. So really, the only thing that made off-off artists unique was that they weren’t good enough for off or on Broadway.

This is why the terms Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway are irrelevant now, in my mind. And worse. They’re insulting, pejorative, and marginalizing, and they go to your head when you work off-off-Broadway. At least they go to my head. In a sense, these terms are only there anymore due to Equity’s need to categorize productions so they can crunch their numbers. Should we let that define our scene?

So, with “off off” theater being done on Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway, one has to ask—what term should we use to describe that kind of theater that…that…what?

And that’s the question—what am I trying to describe with the term “Indie Theater”? And I think the answer is easy—I’m describing “artist-driven” theater, as opposed to “producer-driven” theater. That which, at every point in its development, answers the question “What do we do here?” with the answer “Whatever the artists want,” NOT with “Whatever the producer wants.” Theater that has as its sole goal the creation of something satisfying to the involved artists’ sensibilities, not the creation of something gratifying to the involved producers’ financial portfolio and its various budgetary outlays and speculations. Theater that is done to please the audience as the artist imagines it, not as the producer imagines it (and these are two VERY different audiences, for “the audience” is simply something we imagine as existing, something we create in our minds in its various forms, tastes, characteristics, demands, and then we create in line with that imagination, we create to “meet” that image).

Indie Theater is the term that describes the kind of theater that is done the way the artist wants to do it. The producer helps facilitate the artist’s vision (as opposed to the artist facilitating the producer’s budget). The artist is “independent.” The artist is “free.”

That’s why I think Indie Theater is the right term. It can exist at any level of theater. I did several plays in the late ’90s at tiny spaces downtown with a producer who insisted on dramaturging and casting and cutting my plays so that they would be “more appealing to a larger audience.” This was not indie theater. It might have looked like it, but the sacrifices I made to get produced compromised my independence, so “size” is no signifier of indie theater. Indie Theater can exist even “on” Broadway.

Of course, that’s rare. But it happens. The fact that it happens in a 2,000 seat house doesn’t matter. And that’s the other reason I like Indie Theater as a phrase, because I can feel an artistic alliance with artists who appear on Broadway or off-Broadway, if I feel they are acting independent of a producer. They don’t have someone telling them what to do. They aren’t writing or directing “for the bottom line.” They’re indulging their artistic interests and obsessions, and they’re playing to their ideal audience, not some imaginary stupid audience that producers tell them “you have to appeal to in order to stay running.”

And this isn’t to say all producers are evil or ignorant or condescending to audiences. There are times when a producer simply serves an artist’s vision, and that can be independent theater. The important point, I think, is that the artist is in charge, not a producer who is restricting the artist so that she or he can remunerate an investment.

Off-off-Broadway, as a term, is bad for the brain, in my opinion. Bad for the ego, and when you’re not getting paid, the ego is all you have. Because you’re always wondering “When do I get out?” You’re always asking, or it’s always there in the back of your mind, “When are the powers-that-be going to come and tell me I’m good enough to be off-Broadway or on-Broadway?” The financial aspect obsesses you, but the “recognition” aspect is almost as important. You want to be “lifted up.” You want to be accepted by the popular kids.

But the problem with this is that you forget you are free. When you’re doing Indie Theater, no matter where you’re doing it and how much you’re getting paid for it, you should always take a step back from your gloomy self-pity and say to yourself “I am thankful at this very moment for everything I have, because I am free.” There are artists all over the place that are not free, and that is the problem with producer-driven theater. Some of these artists would perhaps say they’re free, but that’s only because the goal of pleasing the producer-imagined audience has so seeped into their unconscious minds, that’s just how they create now. They haven’t succeeded unless they’ve been able to “make a hit.” A true artist doesn’t give a damn what the audience says about her or his work. She or he only gives a damn if her or his work has achieved the goals that she or he set out for her or himself. The free artist is her or his only true audience, and it’s that audience that she or he seeks to please. That is a free artist. An indie artist. All else is mental slavery, which is very cool now in America. Look at American Idol. Hey, I think I’ll stand up and sing in a way that will hopefully please the most people. Being pleased with yourself because others are pleased with you is a state of frozen infantilism, but that’s very cool now in America. It’s very cool to pander to everyone. That’s a sign of strength and talent.

I want nothing to do with these people or anything that they think or produce. Let them have their money. I have my freedom.

Third thought: I went and saw Memoirs of my Nervous Illness last night, on your recommendation. I liked it. And part of what I liked about it was that I felt I was watching Indie Theater. I wasn’t watching off-off theater. This theater was not twice removed from any kind of Mountain of Gold where everyone’s happy and beautiful and rich. It was right where it was. In a theater, at the center of itself, very much “on,” being done by artists doing exactly what they wanted to do in exactly the way they wanted to do it. They were free, independent artists, and knowing that was half of what I loved about the experience. It was brave and free.

For me, at this point in our culture, with so much being created by hyper-programmed, hyper-market-tested, hyper-budget-conscious mega-entities, the vision of a free artist doing what she or he wants, even if what she or he wants to do is not completely realized or recognizable, is far more satisfying than watching a bunch of artists doing what their producer told them to do because that’s what they all think I’m going to like. I’d rather watch my neighbor sing in his backyard than see a Super Bowl Halftime show. There’s humanity in the former, there’s nothing but lucre in the latter.

Of course, some will argue that Indie Theater is too vague a term, that it’s too hard to define it, that you can’t ever know where the decisions came from when you’re seeing a production. But I think that vagueness is a strength. It will bring discussion. More discussion than “it’s off-off because it’s in a 99-or-less-seat theater.” Indie is a badge of honor, and there will be discussion as to who can wear that badge. And individuals and collaborators and organizations will strive to wear that badge, at every level. It will become a “way of working” that production teams will aspire to, instead of a bleak condition of financial non-success that production teams are stuck in.

And my final comment: this notion is not new. Look at music. Just look at music. If you’re someone with any musical taste, there’s one thing you look for in music—a free artist making music as she or he wants to. You know the sound of crappy pop when you hear it, and you don’t want to hear it. You want to hear a musician being free to compose and perform what she or he is hearing. And the freedom of the musician is by and large what turns you on. Watch the Bob Dylan special on PBS and you’ll see that “indie” has nothing to do with popularity. Billions can become enthralled with someone simply because she or he is indie. It is an attractant!

That’s what I hope Indie Theater can signify. Artistic desire realized, free of all external considerations. Theater that is loved because it surprises and challenges and expresses an uncompromising effort toward attaining a new discovery that the artist set out to discover without any safety net or map or formula or power telling him where to turn, how to act, what to grab.

Fact is, the choice is the same as it’s always been—liberty or death.

Yeah, it’s a lot to take in, but that’s what Kirk is like. I was planning to cut it down a bit, but I don’t see what to cut. It’s all kind of essential.

It’s idealistic, too; that’s part of its appeal for me. I don’t even know if Kirk would agree with all of it anymore. But this manifesto is what got us started.

3 thoughts on “What’s Indie Theater? (Part 1)

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