Experimental theatre

Robin Bittman in Corner Theatre ETC's 1981 production of Tom Eyen's The White Whore and the Bit Player, directed by Brad Mays.

Experimental theatre (also known as avant-garde theatre) began in Western theatre in the late 19th century with Alfred Jarry and his Ubu plays as a rejection of both the age in particular and, in general, the dominant ways of writing and producing plays. The term has shifted over time as the mainstream theatre world has adopted many forms that were once considered radical. Experimental theatre is trying something new.

Like other forms of the avant garde, it was created as a response to a perceived general cultural crisis. Despite different political and formal approaches, all avant-garde theatre opposes bourgeois theatre. It tries to introduce a different use of language and the body to change the mode of perception[1] and to create a new, more active relation with the audience.

Relationships to audience

Famed experimental theatre director and playwright Peter Brook describes his task as building "… a necessary theatre, one in which there is only a practical difference between actor and audience, not a fundamental one." [2]

Traditionally audiences are seen as passive observers. Many practitioners of experimental theatre have wanted to challenge this. For example, Bertolt Brecht wanted to mobilise his audiences by having a character in a play break through the invisible "fourth wall," directly ask the audience questions, not giving them answers, thereby getting them to think for themselves; Augusto Boal wanted his audiences to react directly to the action; and Antonin Artaud wanted to affect them directly on a subconscious level.[3] Peter Brook has identified a triangle of relationships within a performance: the performers' internal relationships, the performers' relationships to each other on stage, and their relationship with the audience.[2][4] The British experimental theatre group Welfare State International has spoken of a ceremonial circle during performance, the cast providing one half, the audience providing another, and the energy in the middle.[5]

Aside from ideological implications of the role of the audience, theatres and performances have addressed or involved the audience in a variety of ways. The proscenium arch has been called into question, with performances venturing into non-theatrical spaces. Audiences have been engaged differently, often as active participants in the action on a highly practical level. When a proscenium arch has been used, its usual use has often been subverted.

Audience participation can range from asking for volunteers to go onstage to having actors scream in audience members' faces. By using audience participation, the performer invites the audience to feel a certain way and by doing so they may change their attitudes, values and beliefs in regard to the performance's topic. For example, in a performance on bullying the character may approach an audience member, size them up and challenge them to a fight on the spot. The terrified look on the audience member's face will strongly embody the message of bullying to the member and the rest of the audience.

Physically, theatre spaces took on different shapes, and practitioners re-explored different ways of staging performance and a lot of research was done into Elizabethan and Greek theatre spaces. This was integrated into the mainstream, the National Theatre in London, for example, has a highly flexible, somewhat Elizabethan traverse space (the Dorfman), a proscenium space (the Lyttelton) and an amphitheatre space (the Olivier) and the directors and architects consciously wanted to break away from the primacy of the proscenium arch. Jacques Copeau was an important figure in terms of stage design, and was very keen to break away from the excesses of naturalism to get to a more pared down, representational way of looking at the stage.[6]

Social contexts

Some groups have been prominent in changing the social face of theatre, rather than its stylistic appearance. Performers have used their skills to engage in a form of cultural activism. This may be in the form of didactic agit-prop theatre, or some (such as Welfare State International) see a performance environment as being one in which a micro-society can emerge and can lead a way of life alternative to that of the broader society in which they are placed.[5]

Augusto Boal used the Legislative Theatre on the people of Rio to find out what they wanted to change about their community, and he used the audience reaction to change legislation in his role as a councillor. Experimental theatre encourages directors to make society, or our audience at least, change their attitudes, values and beliefs on an issue and to do something about it.

Methods of creation

Traditionally, there is a highly hierarchical method of creating theatre - a writer identifies a problem, a writer writes a script, a director interprets it for the stage together with the actors, the performers perform the director and writers collective vision. Various practitioners started challenging this and started seeing the performers more and more as creative artists in their own right. This started with giving them more and more interpretive freedom and devised theatre eventually emerged. This direction was aided by the advent of ensemble improvisational theater, as part of the experimental theatre movement, which did not need a writer to develop the material for a show or "theater piece." In this form the lines were devised by the actors or performers.

Within this many different structures and possibilities exist for performance makers, and a large variety of different models are used by performers today. The primacy of the director and writer has been challenged directly, and the directors role can exist as an outside eye or a facilitator rather than the supreme authority figure they once would have been able to assume.

As well as hierarchies being challenged, performers have been challenging their individual roles. An inter-disciplinary approach becomes more and more common as performers have become less willing to be shoe-horned into specialist technical roles. Simultaneous to this, other disciplines have started breaking down their barriers. Dance, music, visual art and writing become blurred in many cases, and artists with completely separate trainings and backgrounds collaborate very comfortably.

Physical effects

Experimental theatre alters traditional conventions of space, theme, movement, mood, tension, language, symbolism, conventional rules and other elements.

Key figures


List of Experimental Theater Groups


United Kingdom


* The Kadozuke Kollektif
  • Segment 3
  • The Ensemble Project Canada
  • Suburban Beast
  • Carbon 14
  • Theatre Encounter
  • The Irondale Ensemble Project Canada
  • DNA Theatre
  • Small Wooden Shoe
  • Theatre Replacement
  • Leaky Heaven
  • One Yellow Rabbit
  • Boca del Lupo
  • Mammalian Diving Reflex
  • Electric Company Theatre
  • bluemouth inc.
  • Zuppa Theatre Co.
  • The Chop Theatre
  • Radix Theatre
  • Rumble Productions
  • Ruby Slippers
  • Catalyst Theatre
  • Battery Opera
  • Productions Recto-Verso
  • Ex Machina

United States

Australia and New Zealand


  • Bibhaban-The Experimental Theatre Company
  • Hypokrites


  • Holy Stage


  • Fanny & Alexander
  • Motus
  • Opera (Vincenzo Schino)
  • Ricci/Forte
  • Societas Raffaello Sanzio
  • Teatrino Clandestino
  • Teatro Valdoca




See also


  1. Erika Fischer-Lichte "Einleitung Wahrnehmung-Körper-Sprache" in: Erika Fischer-Lichte et al.: TheaterAvantgarde, Tübingen 1995, pp. 1-15
  2. 1 2 Book, Peter (1968). The Empty Space.
  3. Bermel, Albert (2001). Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. Methuen. ISBN 0-413-76660-8.
  4. Nicolescu, Basarab; Williams, David (1997). "Peter Brook and Traditional Thought". Contemporary Theatre Review. Overseas Publishers Association. 7: 11–23. doi:10.1080/10486809708568441.
  5. 1 2 Tony Coult, ed. (1983). Engineers of the Imagination: The Welfare State Handbook. Baz Kershaw. Methuen. ISBN 0-413-52800-6.
  6. Callery, Dympha (2001). Through the Body: A Practical Guide to Physical Theatre. Nick Hern Books. ISBN 1-85459-630-6.
  7. Don Aucoin, GLOBE STAFF, FEBRUARY 10, 2012, The Boston Globe, ‘69° S.' is entrancing, Retrieved Oct. 3, 2014, "...Director: Sophie Hunter..."

Further reading

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