person_pin Dangerous Theater

by Richard Weems

Published in Issue No. 26 ~ July, 1999

In his great book on theater, Peter Brook, The Empty Space, Brook delineates the different types of theater he recognizes. There is the Deadly Theater (that which fails to recreate itself for its representations and relies merely upon complacence, standardization, or an otherwise lack of creativity), the Holy Theater (that which transcends through any one particular show into something beyond us all), the Rough (vulgar) Theater, and the Immediate Theater (that which asserts itself in the present moment).

There is one missing…the Dangerous Theater. Theater of Danger. The theater that challenges our very assumptions of performance and our part in it, even as spectator, and denies us a safe place to hide.

Then again, how could Brook have not forgotten it? Indeed, the Dangerous Theater pervades all of his book, for how can theater not be dangerous if it revises all we know and lets us leave in one piece only if we agree to accept that we are leaving not entirely as we entered. Deadly Theater is deadly only unto itself. Dangerous Theater, for starters, puts at risk the version of us who was perfectly happy and content to live in this world before having seen what we have seen.

Consider the following example: I lent my friend BJ my GWAR concert tape. I had told him many a tale of the Scumdogs of the Universe, for I am a big fan. I told him time and time again that, to really know the GWAR experience, nothing matches witnessing live the geysers of blood shooting from the stump of a recently decapitated O.J. Simpson, or the hanging guts of a resurrected
Jerry Garcia, or the jism shooting straight and true from lead singer Oderous Urungus’s massive, diseased penis.

Still, I had the videotape, bought more for the purpose of spreading the gospel than for my own two-dimensional enjoyment, and he borrowed it. He presented it back to me over a bar, our usual venue for conversation, and said for all to hear, "Weems, never until the moment I popped this video into my VCR did I ever think I led a sheltered life."

Dangerous Theater is of danger to the person you were the moment before you walked into the theater. If you are not willing to let this person go, this theater can be absolutely deadly.

I remember leaving a performance of Blue Man Group, having been bewildered for the previous two hours with a show with no plot, a few characters, and lots of drumming. Let’s not forget the super-sized box of Cap’n Crunch, or the Twinkies Lite in the green-striped box. The show itself was an inundation of information, evinced best by the three Blue Men (aptly named, right up to the top of their blue-painted bald wigs) each wearing a red, scrolling marquee, each conveying completely different information, each chastising you for trying to read all three and getting a garbled message rather than trying to get all the information off only one, and I was inundated. I was happy – the self I was before this show was being released into the ether, the information superhighway if you will, and there was little left to do but lie back on the parked car nearest to me (a shootable offense in New York City!) and tell the gods above me (for they are all above us, are they not?), "All right, I can die now. Go ahead. No resistance here."

But of course the truly intriguing thing about Dangerous Theater is that the danger doesn’t stop there. Good Dangerous Theater puts everything at risk. C. Carr, writing about the Greenwich Village performance art scene, talks of artists putting themselves in direct lines of danger. Marina Abramovica and Ulay slithered naked around a stage with an unfed python. They slapped the stage to try to attract its appetite. Chris Burden put himself on display at a gallery strapped to the concrete floor with copper bands. Also on display were two buckets of water with live wires submerged in them. It would have been easy (and in some ways inviting) for any spectator to dump out the buckets and electrocute him.

Even Laurie Anderson’s latest, "Songs and Tales from Moby Dick," presented its own dangers to those involved. She came out before the start of the show, twenty times less nervous than she must have been just before coming out, to tell us that the actor playing Ahab was not going to be performing that night, and that his parts would be read. Since Ahab was one-fourth of the cast, this presented a new challenge for all on stage. Laurie Anderson herself occasionally donned the greatly exaggerated Ahab stovepipe hat. Later I was to find out that Ahab had a bad fall in rehearsal, the orchestra pit his white whale, his peg strained.

Another danger about Laurie Anderson: I have never seen anyone utilize a headset microphone so well in performance. The danger is the loss of theater training, the bellows of `theater voice,’ but for her the danger is legitimate – necessary – for it seems there is no seeing Laurie Anderson without her cast bobbing tiny microphones from just above their ears to right in front of their mouths. Dangerous Theater rethinks every convention and uses only what it must, what it should, what would do best to put all things in most grave danger. And this begs the question: What is theater? Where does the performance lie? Is the theater on the stage, or what’s going on in the audience’s mind? Is the theater in the concert hall or in the mosh pit in front of the stage? C. Carr talks of performances that have nothing to do with stages, performances geared to audiences of one, performances that were not done before audiences at all: a man and a woman, having never before met, lived a year with an eight-foot length of rope between them. They did not invite in audiences to experience their lives. They didn’t want an audience at all. Chris Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm in the name of art. When Annie Sprinkle, porn star-turned-performance artist, is in stirrup position with a magnifying scope up her twat, allowing volunteers to come see her cervix, is her offer itself the theatrical event, or does the Dangerous Theater become a real event only when guys and gals get on their hands and knees and get a gander of a piece of genitalia hardly a soul has ever taken a good, serious look at before?

I myself had a moment of trying to discover where the actual Theater was in my performance. I was at a party, boasting proudly my Harley-Davidson tee. A woman came up to me and asked what kind of Harley I rode. I rode none. She winced and told me my outfit was sacrilege when I knew not the feel of a hog between my legs.

So I told her this story:

I went to see Napalm Death back in the early `90s, back when it was still the original line-up, back when the music purported pure insanity (40-track albums 35 minutes in length, that kind of thing), and it was a rough crowd: bikers, mostly. We’re talking the mean type of bikers, the kind who stomp their way through mosh pits brandishing lit cigarettes and chains and spikes. Mean bikers, the kind with tattoos gracing the whole spans of their backs, the kind whom get ornery if you make eye contact. Bikers who get hit hard in the pit and pay back tenfold. Badass biking mutherfuckers.

So the pit was treacherous. No crowd surfing, for surfers probably would have been pulled down and mashed in the head for their effort. Four guys on stage, one behind a foggy flurry of drumsticks, the other three hairy and dirty and oily and just shredding the fuck out of the PA system. I hung mostly with this one Harley dude who was looking to bust a head or two, but mostly out for a fun, violent time. I’m 6’4", over 300 pounds, and he figured I was one of the best to hang with given the situation. We got bumped around, we bumped around, we bruised and got bruised, blood was drawn. At the end of the show, we bought each other beer and tequila and pulled at the shirts stuck to our bodies. We shook our hair at each other, the sweat-soaked clumps slapping our heads loudly.

"You’re fucking good," he told me. "You hold your own."

"That was not a crowd you want to find yourself on the floor with," I said.

"Yeah, but you’re good," he said. It seemed a kind of revelation to him: a four-wheeler, a man who has never licked bugs out from between his teeth, holding his own in a crowd full of the dangerous types. He pulled off his own Harley shirt and pressed it to me.

"You’re not supposed to have one of these," he told me, "but fuck them, buddy, you earned it. Anyone gives you shit about it, you tell them you paid for this shirt with blood. You say you fucking bled for this shirt."

And these were the words I repeated to the woman who warned me of my trespasses into hog country. She promptly shut her hole.

So which was the stage where the Theater of Danger gave its dance? Was it the one Napalm Death trod upon? Was it the Harley-laden pit, teeming with violence? Was it the presentation of the Harley shirt to the infidel? Maybe it was in me, clapping the trap on my bitchy party counterpart. But perhaps the stage held us all simultaneously across time. Not one of us came through any of that experience the same way. None of us was allowed to be comfortable with our then-present situation. We all needed to accept a new paradigm of the universe, and it looks as though in each case there was a little blood spilled.

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Richard K. Weems ( is the author of Anything He Wants, winner of the Spire Fiction Award and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and The Need for Character. His short story publications include North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Mississippi Review, Other Voices, Crescent Review, The Florida Review and The Beloit Fiction Journal. He will be teaching once again this MLK weekend at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway in Cape May, New Jersey.