Theatre Today: What, Who, and Where?


The twentieth century was particularly violent and the theatre reflected and responded to its tensions with a dramaturgical violence and abandon that brought the age of “modernism” to a crisis and perhaps conclusion. As the twenty-first century begins, a new era appears to be emerging. Three major movements characterize theatre today: a theatre of postmodern experiment, an open theatre, and a theatre of revival.

Postmodern theatre tends to recycle and “quote” from cultural forms and intellectual movements from the past. It is self-referential and contains its own critique, parody, or deconstruction. Although it stems from antirealist movements, it lacks their aesthetic or social optimism that a higher order of reality or society can be revealed or effected. It abjures symbols as well as the idea of progress. Works of postmodern theatre, therefore, often explore discontinuities, fragments, apparent randomness, and surprises. Its pessimism, fragmentations, and rejection of the possibility of meaning appear in the arts phenomenon known as Dada, Samuel Beckett’s late plays, and the cross-gender casting, revealed mechanics of theatrical presentation, and adoption of the theatre as setting in many recent plays. Such works also often reject chronological linearity, so that flashbacks, scenes in reverse chronological order, and quick shuttling between times are common. Lastly, postmodern experiments have emphasized the senses through the reality of nudity in tension with the dramatic fiction, or scene, lighting, and sound designs that may be spectacular, semi-autonomous from the play’s action, blatantly technologically enhanced.

Today’s theatre is also an open theatre, open and opening to voices unheard or muffled in the white, Western, male-dominated theatre of yesterday. A theatre by and about women now features women as leading, internationally acclaimed directors and prize-winning playwrights, while feminist theatre ensembles have brought women forward as agents of change, in dramas and society, by addressing the problems, misperceptions, and struggles for justified recognition that have concerned women historically. A theatre of ethnic diversity features, most visibly, a strong and growing presence of African-Americans, Latino-Americans, and Asian-Americans both in interracial theatrical production and ethnically identified theatres.

open theatre

From the current, leading American playwright, August Wilson, to the Teatro Campesino, to the formal daringness of plays by David Henry Hwang and Suzan-Lori Parks, artists of non-white ethnicities have creates some of the most challenging, well-crafted, and artistically creative work of today’s theatre. Since the 1960s, sexual preference issues have become primary or secondary topics of a number of plays and have emerged as a defining issue for many theatre groups, festivals, and publications. These issues concern many of the most celebrated plays of recent decades, such as Angels in America, M. Butterfly, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Love! Valour! Compassion!. Persons differently abled have not only found a new level of representation in plays and theatre companies, but have formed companies that create theatre for the hearing impaired or feature a full company of blind or deaf performers. Cross-gender and color-blind casting has diversified the theatre in terms of gender and ethnicity, while multiculturalism has extended to play selection as well as theatres devoted to expanding the standard canon by supporting new works by minority voices. Lastly, theatre has become open in the level of risk attempted and accepted in the realms of dangerous politics, language, and sexual relations, although external attempts at regulation and censorship, successful and failed, are still a recurring fact of life for theatre around the world.

A theatre of revival, meaning remountings of plays from the past, includes postmodern quotations and productions that seek to bring fresh life to dramatic previously written works. Such a theatre has broad and legitimate appeal and constitutes most theatrical activity in the world.

theatre of revival

A description of some of the promising artists and artistic trends in the first years of the twenty-first century offers a picture of the diversity and dramatic possibilities that theatre artists and audiences anticipate. Performance art, Dance theatre, and movement art are extending the directions of theatre in broadly visual and auditory directions toward areas of painting, sculpture, and film, and also exploring the theatrical vocabulary of the human body and physical objects in dramatic or purely theatrical situations. Solo performance differs from earlier one-person shows, which employ a more conventional dramaturgy of impersonation and are often star vehicles, by attempting a complex dramaturgy with a frequently autobiographical basis. Leading directors in the United States and Europe have been noted for the unique qualities of their works as well as relatively new trends that they share with others. Many of these directors, for example, have staged non-dramatic texts, explored and incorporated Asian theatre texts and elements, become increasingly international and multicultural in the work they produce and the colleagues they choose, select unconventional performance spaces, use compelling and often breathtaking images, and are drawn to classics (modern and ancient) which they revision in new ways that yield unexpected and sometimes fundamental meanings.

Theatre today can be found in a more places and more types of places than ever before. Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and nonprofit theatre in America offer most of the professional theatre’s revivals, stagings of new works, and experimentation. Amateur theatre in academic and community settings in many ways reflects professional practices, but offers a financially safer environment for experimentation. Shakespeare festivals, which stage the Bard’s works and other classics, take place primarily during the summer, but many other summer theatres as well as professional dinner theatres produce more modern works, usually of comedies and musicals. The theatre is vital internationally, with England, France, and Germany providing particularly rich mixes of traditional and original work.

(This is an excerpt from the book Theatre: Brief version by Robert Cohen)