People packed the hall in front of the little auditorium, waiting for the Friend B and Friend C. "Ah yes, you're the playwright," said Friend B.
"Please, not in this group," replied Friend C. "The last thing these people want to do is read a play. I feel like the third leg on a wheel.
What sort of show were Friends A, B and C about to see? What kind of entertainment can inspire such apprehension in a playwright - a strip tease, perhaps? A B-movie? The taping of a TV show?
Actually, it was a little bit of all of these, and quite a bit more, too. It was something called "Pig, Child, Fire!" and it was the unquestioned hit of the first day of America's largest alternate theater gathering, the New Theater Festival currently in progress at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
When most people think of "new theater," they think of new playwrights - especially in a year when such up-and-coming writers as David Mamet, Preston Jones, Christopher Durang and Michael Cristofer have received widespread publicity. But a few years ago "new theater" generally meant work created by directors and actors themselves - theater pieces that weren't really "plays" and didn't really require anyone to "write" them.
This kind of theater still lives, and it dominates the 202 performances by 30 companies and soloists from eight countries that are being presented at the New Theater Festival (TNT) through Sunday. There are a few actual plays on hand - on Saturday, for example, the Mettawee Theater of New York presented a merrily rambunctious, modernized version of Aristophanes's "Peace" and Time and Space, Ltd., also of New York, dismantled Strindberg's "The Creditors" and thoughtfully reassembled it for contemporary use. Most of the TNT offerings would cause gnashing of teeth - and unemployment - among serious word-oriented playwright.
The incredible "Pig, Child, Fire!" uses words, but most of them were written by Dostoyevsky and Antonin Artaud and never intended to serve as a script. Actually, they're still not part of a script. Their use is closer to that of incidential music accompany the remarkable events occurring on stage.
It's difficult to describe these events without sounding like a gibbering fool; let's just say they utilize a goat, masks, flour, a giant puppet, a noose, a knife sharpener, a dinner, an automobile, three TV screens, broken glass and several more unmentionable items. Plus the devilishly witty actors from the Squat Theater who thought all this up. The piece is in four acts, largely unrelated, and the second, "Nous Sommes Les Mannequins," is clearly the highlight of the show - an unendingly surprising "film noir" that occurs on two stages and videotape rather than film and combines comedy and suspense with the flair of a Hitchcock.
The Squatters chose their name because they squatted in Rotterdam for a while shortly after leaving Hungary for obvious, if distressing, reasons. This is Squat's American debut, and it will perform every evening of the festival except Wednesday.
Not everyone can dispense with a playwright as skillfully as Squat did. Soon 3, a San Francisco company, is offering "Black Water Echo: A Task Activated Performance Landscape" at TNT, and it falls between the cracks of conceptual art and theater with such a stark, black and white countenance that it's hard to care about it, though it remains visually elegant throughout. The Iowa Theater Lab's work, though, was as murky and somnolent as the candlelit room in which it occurred.
But somnolent is not the word for Washington's own Living Stage. This outfit from Arena Stage presented its piece on institutionalized children Saturday, rousing its audience with furious song, threatening to lose them with equally furious and preachy abstraftions, then hitting the mark with its strongly felt depiction of a case history. While sessions will continue at the campus, Living Stage and other festival groups will take TNT to the streets of Baltimore this week, and generally the playwrights won't be missed.