A Gorilla Rep Manifesto
Christopher Carter Sanderson of Gorilla Repertory Theatre waxes ecstatic about his company's aesthetic.
[Ed. Note: the author is the founding artistic and producing director Gorilla Repertory Theatre Company, Inc. His book Gorilla Theatre: Directing for the Outdoor Avant-Garde is due to appear in January 2001.]
"man·i·fes·to: a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer"
This summer has seen five Gorilla Rep productions all across Manhattan, from Twelfth Night and Macbeth at Ft. Tryon Park above 190th Street to The Pirates of Penzance at The South Street Seaport Museum's tall ship Peking docked near the financial district downtown, with As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream at Washington Square Park in between.
This diverse roster represents an explosive expansion, even for this ambitious company. The productions have a clear aesthetic, one that they share with Gorilla Rep shows from previous seasons since 1992. For the most part, the shows are presented free of charge, and they move from place to place as they move from scene to scene. There is no fourth wall; the actors address the audience directly, and with great energy and enthusiasm for the work. The productions seem bent on reintroducing the beauty and relevance of classical texts.
This aesthetic has evolved to serve the company's simple mission statement, which was itself developed from my aesthetic goals and practices. "Gorilla Repertory Theatre Company, Inc.'s mission is to provide the highest quality productions of classical dramatic material, with the flavor of contemporary immediacy, for people where they are for free." But why? These are the reasons that I see:
1) Because participation in the highest forms of culture is a right and not a privilege. To speak the English language (even as a second language) is to inherit the cultural richness that it contains. This inheritance is celebrated and transmitted in the theater in a way unlike that of any other medium. It should be as easy to participate in this inheritance as it is to check out a book from the public library.
2) Because all theater is political. And, therefore, we will make a political statement with every production that we create, whether we intend to or not. This statement should be made responsibly and consciously and included in the very foundation of the mise-en-scène; it is as much a choice as any design decision, if not more so. Gorilla Rep proposes a production of Romeo and Juliet to be staged in Harlem's Jackie Robinson Park, cast bi-racially along the family lines and race-blind for the unrelated characters. Here, the focus is real, and it is on race issues in New York City right now. By the nature of its work and location, Gorilla Rep's work has a heightened political sensibility. It is art in situ in real society. It is designed to awaken the senses on many levels, political thought being one of them.
3) Because culture is dynamic by nature. The dialogue between classical works and current culture is inevitable, and we can accelerate and optimize this interaction by admitting it into the mise-en-scène itself. This artistic choice brings classical texts into a dialogue with current associations. These associations are carried by the audience in their hearts and minds, and they influence what people will think is funny or interesting. The synthesis that arises is new thought, new feeling, new behavioral modes, and new freedom: Washington Square Park becomes a wood outside of Athens in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and then an orchard in Russia in The Cherry Orchard. Ft. Tryon Park becomes an embattled Scotland in Macbeth, The Peking docked at South Street Seaport becomes the ship and setting for The Pirates of Penzance in Michael Scheman's delightful staging. And Andre-Philippe Mistier transforms Washington Square Park yet again into the woods and courts of As You Like It, as it was once transformed into the blasted heath of King Lear. The imagination is invoked and given freedom and a framework for seeing quotidian settings in a new way. The public space is given a collective purpose and gifted with a new individual impact. If Gorilla Rep is living up to its reputation, you'll never look at the park the same way again!
4) Because we should let the dinosaurs die. The value model for most methods of delivering theatrical participation is outmoded. Simply put, this is the notion that the theater experience is a commodity, worth a certain amount of money that is paid in the form of ticketed admission. Gorilla Rep's model is different: We say that the theatrical experience is priceless, and that everyone should have access to it for free. To be near the heart of these creations is to be near the hearts of the audience. It builds lasting loyalty and prestige for a brand or company. The old for-pay modes of theater that survive the new age of free theater will be influenced by the high standards of quality that exist in the new form. You tell me: Would you think well of a company that sponsored a kick-ass show in your neighborhood, free of charge to you? It's a way of doing things that's as old as the Roman Empire and as new as the Internet. Sponsor great quality, and you become associated with great quality. The sponsor becomes a part of the community by helping to provide a cultural experience.
Why does the gorilla aesthetic support this mission? Gorilla Rep doesn't create productions that could be on a stage but just happen to be scattered around a park. Our aesthetic is tuned to the opportunities provided by our unique settings.
Let's use Gorilla Rep's Shakespearean productions as an example. Shakespeare writes wonderful fiction, and it is my goal to surround these fictions with creative worlds that serve their needs. The important markers are there, in the texts. Just as Shakespeare's characters live in contradictions, the plays thrive in a polyanachronistic collage of costume design, for example, stitched together from whatever works to evoke the correct supportive nuances. Different associations can form around fantastical costumed images. To place a Shakespearean play in a setting that is specific to a particular time period is to abdicate creative responsibility at the highest level; in short, it's a cop-out. It solves all of your design and direction questions with punctilious attention to "period detail" and ducks the real responsibility of building a milieu that gives the kind of richness and contradiction that Shakespeare's plays offer on the page.
Gorilla Rep audiences are hungry for a more imaginative creation of detail, more thought put into every choice. Go to a museum of frozen mannequins for your period detail; in a Gorilla Rep show, the idea is that the interaction with the environment as we move from place to place should be augmented by the stories and the images that we find as we go there. It all points back to the language, so rich and clear--although sometimes full of made-up words and conceits of plot as well!
Our choices are sometimes referential to specific cultural archetypes or shared images, sometimes only to the fantasy of the play. Getting back to the text and language, this attention to detail should also be applied to pronunciation. In each instance, the pronunciations of words are the ones that I have experienced as true to my audience's ears: the ones that seem to best help them hear the meaning without stopping to process or "translate" it. This is another way in which the production's world and the culture of the audience come together.
Shakespeare wrote English, and there should be no need for translation in your experience of his writing as it is performed. So, if your English teacher told you that some of these words are pronounced differently from what you hear at a Gorilla Rep show, I suggest that you relax and let the continuity of all of these interrelated choices entertain you for a while. Judge them on your way home.