Conference Report CDE 2007

16th Annual CDE Conference, Heidelberg, May 17-20, 2007
Organised by the University of Heidelberg
„Non-Standard Forms of Contemporary Drama and Theatre“

As conference organizer Peter Paul Schnierer of Heidelberg University puts it in his introduction to the conference proceedings: „The only meaningful approach to form in the theatre goes beyond the individual instance: no play can be conceived without rules, and no play-acting can be entirely devoid of conventions. Even the most revolutionary theatre event needs something prior to it that it can revolutionise in the first place“ (CDE 15: 9). When the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE) convened to analyse and discuss „Non-Standard Forms of Contemporary Drama and Theatre“, the focus was in almost equal measure on the implicit conventions of contemporary drama and on the ways these boundaries have been tested.

Indeed, English-language playwrights over the past 30 years have increasingly extended the repertory of non-standard forms, either as one-off experiments or as part of a systematic programme. Taking this as a starting point, the conference attempted to map the morphological border area of plays that deviate from surviving standards of the well-made play: sequels, trilogies, theatre soaps, hyperdrama, additive/cumulative forms, exceptionally long performances; premeditated changes in a running production, roles taken alternately, recurrent characters, one-act plays, skits, dramaticules, trailers.

The conference was opened with a keynote lecture by John Bull (Reading), who gave the conference topic a historical dimension by surveying various formal „revolutions“ in modern drama since the modernist shattering of 19th century convention, which arguably started with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896). In his paper „Spectacular Reconstruction: Innovation and Appropriation in Modern British Drama“, Bull analysed the alteration and interaction of the waves of innovation and conventionalism throughout the 20th century.

A similar investigation of the underlying tensions between conventionality and formal innovation was then undertaken by Hanna Kubowitz (Freiburg) in her analysis of „The Queerness of Noël Coward’s Circle of One-Act-Plays To-Night at 8.30.“ By taking an apparent paragon of the well-made play as an example for the subversion of dramatic conventions, Kubowitz challenged the usual designations of „conservative“ vs. „avant-garde“ playwrights.

In the next paper Sarah Heinz (Manheim) drew attention to „Minute Dramas in Compressed Spaces: Neil LaBute’s Short-Play Cycle Autobahn.“ Her anaylsis of the pyramidal and also cyclical structures of LaBute’s succession of miniature plays showed that Autobahn „as a whole meets the requirements of standard drama while simultaneously undermining them“ (CDE 15: 203).

The work of two female playwrights and performers of the 1990s, one from the US and one from Great Britain, supplied the basis for discussion in the two papers that made up the next panel: Herbert Grabes (Gießen) analysed the documentary performance Fires in the Mirror in his paper „Crown Heights, Brooklyn, August 1991: The Docu-Drama of Anna Deavere Smith„, while Elizabeth Sakellaridou (Thessaloniki) took a look at the postdramatic elements of Rebecca Prichard’s 1998 play Yard Gal.

On the second main day of the conference discussions were fuelled by a paper by Johan Callens (Brussels), who sketched the ever-challenging work of the Wooster Group over the past thirty years as an ongoing „work in progress“, which is (as the title of his paper claimed) continually „Bursting the Confines of Form“. Keith Peacock (Hull) then took Caryl Churchill’s plays A Mouthful of Birds (1986) and The Skriker (1994) as examples for „The Challenge of Non-Narrativity in Visual and Physical Theatre.“

In the following panel Michael Raab (Frankfurt), who has worked as a dramaturg at a number of large theatres in Germany, cast an eye on the ways in which three innovative British and Irish plays by Gregory Burke (Gagarin Way 2001), Lee Hall (Cooking with Elvis 2000) and Eugene O’Brien (Eden 2001) have been staged in Germany.

In his paper „Structured Song Recitals: An Innovation in Musical Theatre“, Guy Stern (Detroit) analysed examples of non-standard performance in the musical, arguably one of the most conventionalised forms of theatre. Stern took the musical revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well (1968) by Eric Blau and Mark Shuman as a case in point for the innovative potential inherent in this dramatic genre.

The second keynote lecture of the conference, delivered by Graham Saunders (Reading), was devoted to „The Persistence of the ‚Well-Made Play‘ in 1990s British Theatre“. While Saunders weighed the well-made play against the radicalism of In-Yer-Face Theatre of the later 1990s; by drawing on numerous examples, including successful West End revivals of plays by Coward and Rattigan especially in the first half of the 1990s, he showed that „the French window – that seemingly indestructible, if at times somewhat dilapidated feature of the British stage – […] still allows for something unexpected to enter through its portals“ (CDE 15: 238).

By focussing on Tom Stoppard, a playwright well-known for playful subversions of dramatic structure which just about keep the shell of the well-made play intact, Holger Südkamp (Düsseldorf) drew attention to the recent boom in large-scale productions, which exceed the framework of the usual two to three hour performance. He analysed the formal groundwork of Stoppard’s most recent and most voluminous theatrical project in „A Well-Made Trilogy? The Relationship between Micro- and Macrostructure in The Coast of Utopia.“

Vicky Angelaki (London) then discussed one of the leading figures of formal innovation in her paper „Subtractive Forms and Composite Contents: Martin Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies.“ Angelaki rightly pointed to Sarah Kane’s description of Crimp as „one of the few genuine formal innovators writing for the stage[, who is] constantly refining his language to find more accurate theatrical expression“ (qtd. CDE 15: 44).

The conference programme was rounded off by an acting workshop by Margarete Forsyth (London), a performance of Cocktails with Mimi by Mary Chase (performed by the drama group of the English Department of Heidelberg University), and by a live-poetry performance by the Trinidadian/British poet Anthony Joseph.

The conference proceedings have been supplemented with two additional papers by Christina Wald (Augsburg) on „Forced Entertainment’s Adaptation of Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain“ and by Mark Berninger (Mainz) on „A Fantasy Epic as a Theatrical Event – His Dark Materials at the National Theatre.“

Mark Berninger (Mainz)