by Savas Patsalidis*

Bonnie Marranca. Photo: Austin Klein

Bonnie Marranca is founding editor and publisher of the Obie-Award-winning PAJ Publications/PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. More than 155 books in the field have been published by the press, including 1,000 plays and performance texts from more than twenty languages. To date, 122 issues of the journal are in print. Published authors of the press include Heiner Müller, Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes, Elfriede Jelinek, R.W. Fassbinder, Gianina Carbunariu, Marguerite Duras, Vaclav Havel, The Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, Mac Wellman, Ivana Sjaiko, Juan Mayorga, Adrienne Kennedy, Richard Maxwell, and essays by Victor Turner, Richard Schechner, Herbert Blau, Tadeusz Kantor, Yvonne Rainer. She is a recipient of the ATHE Excellence in Editing Award for Sustained Achievement.

Bonnie Marranca is the author of three volumes of essays: Performance HistoriesEcologies of Theatre, and Theatrewritings, which received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism. She has also edited many collections of plays, essays and interviews, including The Sun on the Tongue (Etel Adnan), Conversations with Meredith MonkNew Europe: Plays from the Continent, Plays for the End of the CenturyInterculturalism and Performance and Conversations on Art and Performance. Her first book, The Theatre of Images, is a seminal work on American theatre. Among her literary anthologies are A Slice of Life: Contemporary Writers on Food and American Garden Writing. Her writings are translated into more than twenty languages.

A Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Scholar, Bonnie Marranca has also received the Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professorship (UK), Asian Cultural Council Fellowship (Japan), Anschutz Distinguished Fellowship in American Studies (Princeton University), and Fulbright Award (Free University, Berlin). She has lectured and taught widely in American and European universities, in Italy, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Romania, Belgium, France, Croatia, and in Brazil. Residing in New York City, she is Professor of Theatre at The New School/Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts.

Celebrating 40 years of PAJ. Loft in Midtown (2016). Bonnie holding the mike. Photo: Peter Cunningham

If my maths is correct, 42 years have gone by since the launching of PAJ, right? In fact, you left the graduate programme at CUNY (with all courses and exams complete, but not the dissertation) to publish the journal. Have you ever regretted taking this decision back then?

No, not at all, I have never regretted founding the publishing house instead of going solely into academia. PAJ Publications, the journal and the books, has been my life’s work and, even after all these years, I am very engaged with the press on a daily basis. I’ve always loved journalism and consider myself a journalist, even though I do many things related to scholarship and the university, including being Professor of Theatre at The New School in New York City. Having PAJ has allowed me to create a unique career in the arts and I love this way of life.The journal, especially, is a kind of research tool for me, a place to experiment with my own writing, as well as to bring important essays and works of art to the attention of an international audience through having a voice in a public space.

It was a very serious decision. What was the incentive behind it? Did you have a plan from the very beginning regarding the journal’s future?

The journal grew out of dissatisfaction with criticism in the seventies; in particular, the ignorant writing on experimental theatre and performance art in the New York Times and the “objective” criticism that Michael Kirby, editor of TDR at that time, fostered. There was so much exciting work being produced downtown in Manhattan that required new critical thinking and approaches. The objectives of the journal have remained essentially the same since it was elaborated in our first issue: focus on the contemporary spirit through a body of essays, plays, interviews and dialogues that would be interdisciplinary in scope and set against a historical context.

Lecture by Bonnie on Meredith Monk at the University of Palermo, Italy, May 2018. Photo: Tonino Rizzico

I was an early subscriber. I think I have all the issues of PAJ. Back then, when you first put this journal into the market, I felt that you were introducing a new kind of criticism, a new way of writing about dance, theatre, etc. Was that your intention? Were you following any particular models?

Envisioning new forms of the essay and critical writing about the arts has always been at the heart of the journal and an important personal goal in my own writing, which has taken many forms and directions over the decades. Even though the arts have become such hybrid forms, arts writing is still very segregated into individual disciplines and medium-specific publications, e.g. specializing either in visual art or in theatre.

I have always wanted PAJ to be a home for innovative, daring forms of criticism. Having said that, I realize that most people who now write in journals are in academia and they are interested in theory, not criticism. It’s disappointing to me that there have not been alternative or adversarial schools of critical writing beyond what academia now promotes. There is practically no wide-ranging constructive criticism and analysis being written. By that I mean essays that also debate and write against individual works and tendencies.

I couldn’t agree with you more. In addition to people in academia, there are hundreds out there using the web to post their critiques; and what strikes me as an anomaly is that, despite the impressive volume of reviews circulating, the constructive dialogue between critics and the arts is rapidly diminishing. It is as if the two follow their own way irrespective of each other. To go back to what you did with PAJ; after so many years of cutting-edge work are there still things that you want to do, or things you have regretted having done?

I have always wanted investigative reporting in the journal, concerning academic and funding issues, awards, cultural policy, and institutional critique. But, unlike the visual arts field, people in theatre don’t move in that direction, whether newspaper reviewers or academics.

In all these years, following the trajectory of contemporary American theatre and performance art, which would you isolate as landmarks, cutting-edge events/shows, etc. that you think have affected local artistic development and also affected you as a scholar and critic?

When I was a doctoral student at CUNY Graduate Center, in the early and mid-seventies, in New York City, I was also a theatre critic for the SoHo Weekly News and going to see new work off-off Broadway several nights a week. I wrote for another arts and politics paper, Changes, as well as for music and general arts journals and magazines. I was always seeing new work, even though the course of study then was a traditional history of theatre and drama, mainly European.

Certainly, the artists whose work was the subject of my first book, The Theatre of Images, deeply captured my attention for their outstanding vision, theatrical experimentation with acting, writing, design and their ideas: Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, Lee Breuer. Little did I know that this book would become an influential volume in American theatre scholarship, and that these artists would bring such radical change to the theatre and subsequent generations here and abroad.


Joan Jonas in conversation with Bonnie Marranca and Claire MacDonald, Location One, New York CIty, 2010

The year that book was done, 1976, was the year PAJ was founded, and there were great works which premiered then, which affected the way I would view theatre—Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, Meredith Monk’s Quarry, Laurie Anderson’s United States. I have been fortunate, through the luck of the generations, to have seen, in earlier decades, so many of the great postwar artists and groups from the U.S. and abroad who, through their commitment and theatrical gifts, continue to impact what many artists and audiences value in theatre; works created by as varied a list as The Living Theatre, The Open Theatre, Trisha Brown, Philip Glass, Carolee Schneemann, Tadeusz Kantor, Peter Brook, Sam Shepard, The Wooster Group, Maria Irene Fornes, Jack Smith, Squat Theatre, Ariane Mnouchkine, Giorgio Strehler, Heiner Müller, Pina Bausch, Romeo Castellucci, Caryl Churchill, William Kentridge and traditional theatres of Kathakali, Noh, and Bunraku.

Bonnie Marranca, The Theatre of Images. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1977

These names only scratch the surface of earlier influences. I have been interested in performance since at least adolescence, having seen the great vaudeville, burlesque and comedian performers on TV as a child, and the marvelous singers of the American songbook. I have always loved singers, and had gone several times to see Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand in concerts, for instance. I enjoy going to the opera and even following new, young pop singers, such as Lady Gaga, who is immensely talented. Through the years, whether in New York or abroad, I have attended concerts to hear beloved singers and musicians from around the world. Music, is really my great love. Abroad, I go to theatre in any language to see certain actors or directors. I’ve been affected by all these experiences. In a way, I am a total performance person, due to my broad interests.

Bonnie and Judith Malina in New York City, 2013. Photo: Joseph Errante

I read Theatre of Images when it first came out. At that time, I was about to start my graduate work and I was deeply, very deeply influenced by it. It really struck me with its freshness and vitality. It opened new horizons for me. It brought to my attention artists and trends that inspired me, and more or less gave shape to what I really wanted to do in theatre as a young scholar and critic. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was hope in theatre. There was excitement and, shall I say, a feeling of “futurity.”  People believed that theatre could help change things; at least some things. Do you find the same optimism in contemporary theatre?

I think, for the people who work in theatre, there is always an excitement that encompasses the process of working and the sheer force of will to get something done and performed publicly. Many people working in theatre perhaps have more artistic feelings and good intentions than technique or ideas, which are absolute necessities to create a really artistic theatre culture. It’s important to distinguish between the excitement of going about the city and seeing new plays and groups to keep up with what’s happening, and whether what one sees is meaningful and what directions it points to for the future of the art form. Certainly, the theatre in New York that PAJ focuses on is missing an important component of its existence: serious criticism. Critics and the new arts have always benefited from a special exchange. Artists are diminished by a scene in which it is not clear why any one work is valued over another, because there are no esteemed critics writing seriously about their work for a general public. Similarly, the work of critics is valued to the extent they are educated and challenged by exceptional works.

For theatre, merely to duplicate the topical gender and race and socio-political issues that are so prevalent on television, newspapers, magazines and social media is not to point to a future. Theatre is so marginal in American culture it cannot be a force for social change. It does, however, remain a medium for those who work in it to maintain their ethical values as best they can to influence what used to be called “pre-political consciousness.” However, sooner or later, it has to renew itself as an art form. Art needs more than good intentions and progressive politics.

Bonnie Marranca, ed. American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1981

You followed very closely the new and the avant-garde both in Europe and the U.S. In the 1960s, for example, there was off off Broadway to mark its departure from the other two Broadways and mount its “anti”-thesis. Would you say that in today’s all inclusive/global society there is still room for anyone to be “off-off,” kind of avant-garde without being devoured by the System? What is the situation in New York now?

I think the non-mainstream theatre in New York is just trying to survive financially and hope for commissions and international festival engagements, because there is no system for such theatre to travel throughout the U.S. and find financial support. Theatre is desperately in need of new ideas and techniques. It seems to be coasting on a set of tired experimental theatre clichés, easy sensations, reinforcement of audience views. The theatre experiences I value most are those that offer complexity, mystery, virtuosity (or a knowing anti-virtuosity), theatrical intelligence, poetry, beauty, emotion and resistance to audience pandering. I am not of the school that believes everything has been done. It is always possible for an artist to appear with a startling new vision and way of making work. I refuse to give up on imagination, which I esteem highly in the arts. What we are missing today are works of the imagination.

Bonnie Marranca, Ecologies of Theatre. New York: Johns Hopkins UP (PAJ Books), 1996

Yes. Yes!! I totally agree with you. I follow quite closely the European festival circuit, where most avant-garde works appear, and my feeling is that it is gradually transformed into a kind of supermarket or an exhibition site at best. The avant-garde is rapidly losing its sting. It is no longer “dangerous.” On the contrary; it is the shortest cut to enter the system.

There is a proliferation of international theatre and dance festivals just as the international art biennials are multiplying worldwide. Of course, there are important and sublime artistic minds at work, but everything tends to get lost in the overall promotion of events and the sheer volume of works to absorb. What, to me, seems lacking are any discussions of what has urgency, significance, necessity; what goes against all the acceptable positions, political, cultural, sexual. I’ve lost interest in simple coverage in PAJ of the discreet event, but have tried to push contributors to take on more broad-ranging themes and issues.

Previously, I have written that theatre has to offer more than lamentation for crises on a global scale. I have no interest in simple statements of current conditions on stage. Many of the issues that might have been taken up by theatre can now be seen in television sit-coms and cable TV or movies. What I miss are works that are not replications of everyday life, but philosophical reflections on the contemporary world. The examples are few and far between; a recent one being Caryl Churchill’s magisterial  plays Far Away and Escaped Alone; extraordinary examples of the catastrophic imagination, which interests me very much. The only American writer who approaches the territory she works in is Wallace Shawn, whose own dystopian works refuse easy redemption.

Ever since Performance Studies took over, dramatic writing is diminishing; I mean good dramatic writing. Most performances I see are ok as long as they last, that is for an hour or two. Dramaturgically speaking, they are very poor. They leave you with nothing but fleeting impressions, most of them superficial. PAJ is the kind of journal that loves dramatic writing. At the same time, you show preference for a particular kind of performance work, say visual arts (installations, video, etc). Would you say that PAJ is an alternative to Performance Studies? And, if so, in what sense?

Video

In 2011, Bonnie won the Excellence in Editing Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
An excerpt from the interview she gave on that occasion

I have always considered PAJ an alternative to performance studies, which is essentially based in theory. PAJ essays are not tied to applied theory, but develop more as literary essays, at their best. I prefer theatre studies to performance studies, though I realize that the latter has overwhelmed the field. Admittedly, it’s not always easy to find writers who are free of performance studies’ entrenched methods. Many people lament this development. It should just be one approach among many more. I’ve always disliked the view that considers all cultural manifestations and personal acts as performance. The idea that everything is performance is not one that I celebrate. Look what it has made of American society, especially now, through social media. I prefer Pirandello to Schechner, though I very much admire Schechner and his generation’s commitment to intellectual exploration and controversial positions. I wish more contemporary directors were developing such bodies of writing.

For quite some time now, playwriting has been challenged by texts assembled as collage from non-literary sources, and by playwrights displaced by dramaturgs. Contemporary playwrights’ work has often been ignored by theatre companies who prefer to construct their own texts or appropriate works from other forms. Dramatic literature claims less attention in theatre scholarship that now privileges performance instead. I firmly believe that this trajectory has diminished the theatre culture and curriculum, and has made theatre less of a mature form. It has made theatre less complex and challenging, offering few alternative examples that have any of the expansiveness and insight of the great texts of the world repertoire.

The proliferation of media in performance has often been superficial, juvenile and devoid of ideas. I’m open to all forms of dramatic writing or textual practices, as PAJ’s record shows, but it is often the case that directors or actors, in companies here and abroad, simply don’t have enough of a structural or literary sense or technique to know how to work with text in performance. The craze for “devised theatre” is an unfortunate trend, given its general lack of intellectual rigor.

Bonnie with past and present journal staff. Photo: Peter Cunningham

Unlike other journals PAJ (and our books) never abandoned playwriting. Performance Studies has denigrated the role of writers by largely ignoring them, except as providers of material for performance or theoretical underpinning. Likewise, companies rarely stage contemporary plays/texts by independent writers. We’ve published more than 1,000 plays/texts from over twenty languages, in all sorts of formal approaches. In addition, I encourage contributors to PAJ to focus more on plays and writers, because this is so neglected an area in the theatre field. I continue to seek our plays at home and abroad to bring to the attention of readers.

Just recently, I have contacted the celebrated German novelist, Jenny Erpenbeck, having learned that she has also written plays. Her uncompromising allegory, Cats have Nine Lives, will be published in the winter issue of PAJ. I might add that the contemporary novel, by Erpenbeck and others, has been far more formally inventive and daring in addressing contemporary life than contemporary writing for the stage.

Anything goes: The postmodern slogan that leaves little room for the establishment of any criteria of evaluation.  What do you think of the role of the critic nowadays? Is there any room left? Any need? The Internet has turned criticism into a hobby. Everybody writes. And when everybody is a critic no one is a critic really. Can we talk about that, since PAJ puts critics at the forefront?

In the pages of PAJ, the critic’s voice is encouraged to be at the forefront. Writers are free to discover new ways of writing about artworks and to explore them with a certain intellectual range and literary style, not to use them for applied theories. We don’t publish the kind of jargon-ridden essays that fill academic journals and books now. I am more interested in a well-written, comprehensible essay or historical research by a writer with a distinctive voice and a love of art. Why is it that all the great writers and poets in the world have written the most profound reflections on life and art in clear, stylish prose, while academia goes on and on with its humorless, unreadable sentences.

Bonnie with Heiner Müller at JFK airport, in New York, mid 1980s. Photo: Gautam Dasgupta

The theatre desperately needs respected critics to write with real knowledge and historical perspective, to offer points of exploration on why any one work is important, and to make wide-ranging overviews of tendencies and themes in the contemporary setting. Unfortunately, proliferating blogs and various magazine and journal websites hire arts writers with very little expertise or knowledge, mainly to provide content to their readers and advertisers.

Interview with Bonnie by former assoc. editor Joseph Cermatori at La MaMA Coffeehouse Chronicles, celebrating PAJ’s 40 anniversary, 2016. Photo: Ryan Homsey

There is more excitement in visual art, literature and architecture, because the writing about these forms matters: it is more intelligent, broad-ranging and available to general readers. These forms also deal in judgment, value, taste—all items theatre scholarship has largely abandoned in favor of various modes of promotion. Theatre’s collapse into theory isn’t taken seriously in the national discussion. It’s simply a promotional tool for the academic publishing industry. I hope PAJ can be a home for a future theatre criticism.

To what extend has the crisis that plagues Europe in the last few years affected American theatre writing and practice? Europe and the U.S. are turning more and more to the far right, and this is something to worry about. What is the reaction of American theatre artists to this new development? Does the European crisis enter American theatre in any way?

Sad to say that American theatre is so provincial that I cannot, and neither can the few avid theatregoer friends I’ve asked, name a single play that deals with the European turn to the right, or to the E.U., or the Russian situation. Neither is there any example of the American far right turn.

Just wondering: Why should art be so accessible? Is it because internet culture has radically changed people’s attitude towards learning and understanding, making things look spectacularly easy and within reach? This unchecked theatricalization and massification of culture deeply worries me.

In the U.S., I’m afraid that any work that isn’t accessible is accused of being “elitist.” This view is rampant in the university as well as in the general culture. I don’t think most audience members go to the live arts for knowledge or complexity, but rather for entertainment and sensory stimulation. Likewise, museum-going seems like a form of shopping, the artworks often serving as background for “selfies.”

Walking with Marguerite Yourcenar in the garden of her home in Maine, early 1980s.
Photo: Gautam Dasgupta

The theatricalization of contemporary culture has always interested me in a philosophic way. It was the subject of my Guggenheim Fellowship in the mid-eighties. I have always taken a position against this development, precisely for its troublesome implications in mass culture.

Performance, in all its philosophic and social and political dimensions, is an organizing principle of modernity and the twentieth century. It has extraordinary political and philosophical dimensions still not understood.

Bonnie with visual artist Hiraku Suzuki in Tokyo on Asian Cultural Council Fellowship, October 2017. Photo: Kurumi Kudo

We are touching upon issues that can keep us going for hours. Maybe some other time we can get back to these issues and talk more. For now, my final question is this: What does the word “contemporary” mean to you?

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920). Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

I think the perfect image for this concept is Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus—an angel turned toward the past but swept by the blast of history toward the future.

The contemporary includes:

Chronology—the reality of the here and now.

Spirit—poetry, ideas, concepts, modes of gesture and expression.
History—foundations of the present in the past, and its movement toward the future.

Regarding art, I love Baudelaire’s idea that modernity would one day take its place as antiquity. That is why I can see Merce Cunningham dancing around the base of a Greek vase.

Regarding political theory, it is Hannah Arendt who is always contemporary. The immensity of her understanding of totalitarianism, truth, education, action, the public sphere never ages. Her knowing extends from classical Greece to whatever era is our present, and onto a future we do not yet know, but whose roots continue to grow deeper into the history of civilization.

Bonnie and Bob Wilson in Paris 2018. Photo: Bonnie Marranca

Regarding time, a few years ago when I interviewed Robert Wilson concerning his production of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, he reflected on time in a manner that has always remained with me. He said that people always say Shakespeare is “timeless,” but Shakespeare isn’t timeless, he is full of time.


*Savas Patsalidis is Professor of theatre and performance history and theory in the School of English (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki), the Hellenic Open University and the Drama Academy of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is also a regular lecturer on the Graduate Programme of the Theatre Department at Aristotle University. He is the author of thirteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. In addition to his academic activities, he works as a theatre reviewer for the ejournals lavartparallaxi, and the greekplay project. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, member of the curators’ team of Dimitria Festival and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

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The Time of Our Lives: Interview with Bonnie Marranca
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