Mark Russell, founding director of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, New York, was artistic director of PS 122 for more than two decades.
Theatricality is the expert deployment of theater and all of its weapons: the projected voice, exaggerated gestures, pratfalls, florid costumes, chorus lines, curtains, painted flats, painted faces, beginnings, middles, ends, the gun on the table that is going to go off. Theater.
These tools have accumulated through years of theater history as techniques to tell stories, to hook audiences on an experience and lead them through it. They are the simple manipulations that theater makers use to get a group of people to participate in the creation of an event. When we say that an event has “a theatricality” to it, it has stepped outside our daily existence and lifted us up into the tawdry hallowed halls of theater.
Often theatricality is a dirty word. It underscores the lie of theater, the artifice at its core, which is one reason why it is banned, censored, or distained. The theater is lying. Those lies unearth truth, however, that we could not see otherwise. This can be upsetting to those invested in maintaining their own version of truth or suspicious of anything that is not easily understood or verifiable. It’s a dangerous business.
Theatricality is made of transgressions, interruptions in time. Playing with real time and the heightened time of a theater experience, letting them collide and explode into quarks of wisdom, feelings, or unique points of understanding. These are often mysterious, inexplicable explosions—the dark matter of theater.
It is also the glittering paste bauble that lures us to the experience of theater. How many of us were first hooked on Broadway musicals before moving to the harder stuff? My own gateway drug was the record of West Side Story; from there it was a slow slide to Gypsy to Marat/Sade, and then I was a goner. Theatricality can be an avenue for those cursed or blessed with an outsize personality or a different perspective. There is a place for you in the theater; the tools are free and available.
When I think of theatricality, I think of the performances of Ethyl Eichelberger, the great drag star of the Ridiculous Theater Company and later of her own miniature epic pieces. Ethyl knew her theater; she had incredible technique. She was trained as a classical actor and played Hamlet in her youth, before being whisked away by Charles Ludlam and his merry band of outlaw thespians. Ethyl’s performances were outrageous in their glitter and camp. She rewrote classic works in rhyme, adding songs, short films, and makeshift sets of her own design. They had a power that touched all who experienced them. Here was a tall man in a wig, a painted face, glitter, and a thrift shop dress, playing the accordion and singing his text and songs, breaking the fourth (and possibly a fifth) wall to comment on current politics or whatever was happening in the room. Nothing could be more ridiculous or so able to surprise us with the truth. We were laughing and crying.
Ethyl performed often at PS 122 in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. There was a righteous rage coming from Ethyl, and we joined her in song, straight and queer alike, singing together: “We are women who survive, scratch us we bleed, we will fight fight fight to live another day!” We needed those ridiculous theatrical trappings to believe again in a brighter world. We needed to shout out our anger, not just saved for ACT UP rallies but coming from a darker place in our souls. We needed to take the scare away and to feel part of a community—at least in that room—which Ethyl was able to wrap up masterfully with her glitter, boas, and teetering heels into a glorified present.
There are other, perhaps more subtle strategies for theater than Ethyl’s. Though most arrive at the same place—a shared moment. We are constantly looking for ways to make the theater experience more “real” and immediate. But whatever approach we take, a drag queen in full effect, an actor baring raw emotion, a TED talk, a lecture in a classroom, actual sodomy onstage, or a performance artist engaging her audience one-on-one, we have crossed into the realm of theatricality.
Welcome to the theater.
Ethyl Eichelberger, Leer, 1985.
Charles Ludlam, Ridiculous Theatrical Company, New York, established 1967.
Reggie Watts, TED talk: “Beats that defy boxes,” 2012.
Rotozaza, Etiquette, 2007–. Two people perform this work together, unnoticed, in a public place, with instructions given through headphones.
Ontroerend Goed, Internal, 2007.
Taylor Mac, The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, 2007.
Tg STAN, JDX: A Public Enemy, 1993/2014.