A reply to Margo Jefferson's article, on what to do when you wake up and find yourself in the middle of an experimental theater.
Margo Jefferson in the July 8, 2005, New York Times offers suggestions for appreciating "experimental theater" (that link will probably expire at some point --- for now, it's free).
The headline, "The Avant-Garde, Rarely Love at First Sight", is off-putting, but the article itself is more charitable. The headline can also be read in another way --- the avant-garde probably is rarely love-at-first-sight, or boy-meets-girl, or stranger-comes-to-town, if you catch my drift.
The article has four tips, all of which are basically the same as number four, "Let go of your assumptions." This is in tension with her opening, "Experimental theater, after all, is an acquired taste --- like aged cheese or raw fish."
Jefferson does end with encouraging intentions, "We can give ourselves over to the experience and train our instincts to be open and suspend judgment while we watch and listen."
It's unfortunate that critics continue to conflate the avant-garde with the upper class --- note the specific foods named as examples for acquired tastes.
Taste doesn't need to be acquired, it can be unacquired --- much like aged cheese or raw fish, neither of which I have tasted for fourteen or fifteen years. Our instincts don't need to be trained, they can just be relaxed.
A better article for Jefferson to write might be, "How to Appreciate Art Different from What You're Used To". This could be read by afficianados of Stan Brakhage before they head off to see "Batman Begins", and also by those coming from Harry Potter off to read the newest Laird Hunt.
Since the existing article is directed toward only one group, it ends up instead providing ways for people to continue the assumption, when they get dragged to the experimental theater, that they should understand beforehand the intended meaning behind all of the devices employed.
I prefer Silliman's summation,
In the mean time, my response over what to do when confronted by a text like Clark Coolidge's, or to any mode of visual poetry, performance poetry (slams included), or language-oriented conceptual work at all, is always the same: Begin with what's in front of you, what's really there. If there is a there there, that's where it is.