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Why Hipsters Will Save Theater: Cherrywood

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I still vividly remember the first live theater production I saw growing up, around age ten: Of Mice and Men at the University of Houston theater, with my parents sitting on either side of me. In the final seconds of the production, George Milton shot Lennie Small in the back of the head, the red curtain fell, and I clutched both armrests and bawled, betrayed and cathartic. Later I grew up and became a theater critic. And, some would argue, a hipster.

Of course I don't believe for a second that I'm a hipster. I would argue that don't know or care enough about design, wear too much khaki, have too few tattoos, like nice things too much, and most of all am too bored by/uncool to be a part of scenes to be a hipster. I was once told by a gallery owner-cum-indie-publisher king of the hipsters in my hipster neighborhood that I'm too blonde. But almost nobody admits they're a hipster--it's a movement perhaps most noted for its members disowning it. Most people have a clear idea of what a hipster looks like, and almost all definitions don't include those who hold them. But to the extent that we can agree on a definition of a hipster, beyond its intertwined fashion and activities, we might say that a hipster is a member of the newest wave of bohemian counterculture, a reincarnation of a hippie or a punk, who is a part of the creative class (or at least interested in art/music/DIY), usually communicates using heavily ironic, witty banter, and is either politically progressive or apathetic (usually a combination of both).

What ultimately distinguishes hipsterdom from its counter-cultural predecessors is the ironic distance, even alienation, its members have from both their identities as hipsters and the cultural movement itself... the very alienated orientation that I will argue we need to save American theater. Earlier this year, I wrote an article wondering why several productions of Brecht's earliest and usually overlooked play Baal were being produced in Chicago this year, and I came to the conclusion that it had something to do with bohemian, nihilistic Baal being an original hipster figure--it's why both plays were so fresh despite the stilted, nearly-plotless writing by the young playwright.

Theater's problems are immense and have been discussed at length: the inherent injustice in financial structuring of its institutions, the conflict of risk-taking versus bringing in consistent audiences, its various kinds of outdatedness, to state a few. And attacks of hipsters tend to range from class and financial resentment of Billyburg trustfunders to the very real problem that hipsters as a group aren't political (Obama's campaign for president being the obvious exception... but more about Change later). At first blush, they're very different kinds of critiques. But I began to think about how theater and hipsters have also been accused of many of the same artistic and ethical betrayals: partaking in a kind of useless navel-gazing rather than real progressive work; artificiality; apathy; the overwhelming feeling that the entire scene should be "surrounded by quotation marks" (to quote Douglas Haddow's famous Adbusters article on hipsters). While hipsters intellectualize fashion, making graphic design a high form, theater makes intellectual ideas aesthetically appealing (Chicago's own resident hipster director and company, Sean Graney and The Hypocrites, have been accused repeatedly of disrespecting the classics because of their hip productions of classic literatures that alter and sometimes disregard some original meaning in lieu of aesthetics, an accusation I think wouldn't be made if the productions weren't so hip). Since writing my piece on Baal, I've come to believe that the relationship between theater and hipster culture is even more important: it's actually up to hipster culture to create a long-overdue real revolution in American theater. This revolution, in fact, is already happening, reinventing naturalism for our time with a freshly renewed Brechtian alienation effect that we desperately need.

David Cromer's Cherrywood at Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. is playing for two more weekends. I had to see it twice to really understand what it was up to, and I've come to the conclusion that it's a deeply important show for our time, even if that doesn't mean it's a classically successful play--it drags in a very real but nevertheless useful way. But it's a candy convention of ideas and experiences for anyone interested in what we need from theater now, and wondering who is going to give it to us. Cromer's production avoids the artificiality, the quality of meta-quotation that marks so much contemporary theater by immersing us in the quotation-mark-filled communication of our post-Facebook lives. But it couldn't have done so without its participation in the ironic rhetoric of hipster culture, which produces a kind of alienation effect--in a massive ensemble happening--that marks a model for theater now.

The play, written by Kirk Lynn with the Austin-based experimental theater company the Rude Mechanicals around 2004 (right around Bush's second election, right around when Facebook was spreading from Ivy Leagues to other colleges, mine included), is about a house party gone off the rails. There's little dramatic arc except for a fairly hackneyed climax with a gunshot and a pizza delivery guy savior ex machina at the end. Instead, the play, like a party, fuzzily floats along with little organization, steeped in witty banter that goes almost nowhere, with some cringe-inducing moments of attempted political conversation, a few alcohol-fueled moments of real human connection between the mostly socially anxious and increasingly wasted.

The disjointed conversations of the script were written without character attribution, so that actors choose lines to create characters. Cromer ended up with about 50 actors onstage, crammed into the tiny Angel Island black box space where they stumble around the room, try to connect with people, negotiate socializing rituals, and ramble on, solipsistic and neurotic, while the audience looks on voyeuristically, too close for comfort. The play's byline is "If you could change something about yourself, would you do it?" but most change is only discussed in the abstract, the hypothetical, and it's interrupted by arguments about bands and which ideas and things are stupid. It's like every party you've been to this year if you accidentally end up at a hipster party (not that I would accuse you of being a hipster). Cherrywood is not a conventional play but more of a Happening, a term (like a hipster) difficult to define--but generally a somewhat-spontaneous gathering that blurs the line between an event and art. This Happening is somewhere between theater and a real party--we spend most of the time watching actors stand around in circles, as they might at a real party, looking cool and anxious and awkward, and because the cast is a who's who of storefront theater, we imagine they all know each other and have probably partied together before.

But it's the combination of the alienation effect and the happening that makes Cherrywood so important. In 1968 Peter Brook declared in The Empty Space that "The alienation effect and the happening effect are similar and opposite--the happening shock is there to smash through all the barriers set up by reason, alienation is to shock us into bringing the best of our reason into play... leading its audience to a juster understanding of the society in which it lived, and so to learning in what ways that society was capable of change." How does alienation work? According to Brook is can use any rhetoric: "It aims continually at pricking the balloons of rhetorical playing--Chaplin's contrasting sentimentality and calamity is alienation." Brook couldn't imagine a theater piece in which both could happen at once; life now demands this of theater, and Cherrywood delivers it.

The first time I saw Cherrywood I was underwhelmed. It didn't feel like anything new; it was like my life already. And the acting seemed off. My notes from the first show read: "This feels like a reading somehow. The actors' formal tones of voice sound artificial--they don't match the action and the language. The subject constantly changes--there's no focus in this sketchy script. There are too many awkwardly sincere twitter-long rants about politics I've heard before." I left unchanged. But for the next month I thought about the play from time to time and thought about its representation of social life after the internet, and I recognized the voices, disjointed rhetoric and the lines from my own Facebook comment threads. I thought how few plays talked the way we talk now that mediation is a condition of almost all communication now. And I thought about the actors in the play, dressed in hipster uniforms, and the way their formally intoned, often slightly sarcastic lines were saturated with an alienating effect that Brecht would have argued allows us the distance to judge this kind of social existence. So I went back.

The second time I saw the show, I noticed how important it was that hipster culture, a culture seemingly designed for group Happenings, was adding the irony necessary to be critically distant from world of this play. I noticed the production's brilliant ability to mirror life now. Those fragmented conversations that couldn't sustain an argument are every Facebook thread and Gmail chat conversation I've had today, every time I've stood in a group and watched my friends at a bar out-witty-banter each other in avoiding real political discussion, knowing we'd be as awkward to watch as these actors when they begin to talk sincerely about changing the world. I believe a character from Cherrywood who declares "it's gonna keep getting more and more like this as time goes on."

This new kind of alienation in Cherrywood is easy to miss at first--I certainly did, because the show was so much like my life. The gorgeous hyper-real stage pictures can distract you, as can exuberant dance party numbers and real moments of redemption. But at its heart the play strives to get us to look at ourselves. We're doing what the director and playwright want when we roll our eyes at the political banter, when we think that these kids sound stupid--stupid is the word I heard most in the play. At the end of the play, everyone has a box that holds their political wishes. It feels precious and twee, but the play doesn't want you to feel what they're feeling--it doesn't want you to experience catharsis like Of Mice and Men; it wants you to examine a world in which our automatic reaction is to shut ourselves off from this feeling. At first I thought Cherrywood takes itself too seriously, that it wants to be more than it is, but the key to understanding the production is its acting--those formal lines playing these pretentious language games and sanctimonious political talk delivers the critical distance Brook ordered. We're meant to confront the way we communicate now, the way the world seems set up to distract ourselves from any sustained argument, so feel dismissive of the possibility of Change. Does it take acting like a hipster to make theater that we need now? Is this the new naturalism?

Cromer's overcrowded stage is not just smart but the only way to represent socializing now-- an ensemble-based, voyeuristic experience simulating a party where everyone is just waiting for their turn to comment. It's a Happening, semi-improvised and already over-determined. It's life as social media, from the Twitter-length lines to the way one character says in a wondering monologue to another "It doesn't have to be question/answer. I can just stare at you.... That's a brilliant conversation, what you say tonight and I say tomorrow... everything I do is a form of nodding." It's the kind of line I would Like on Facebook, which of course is what it's alluding to--and any play about group dynamics now has to admit to the influence of social media, so much has it changed the way we relate to one another. This isn't obviously to say that social media is the domain of hipsterdom, but ours is the first counterculture movement that is intertwined with, an extension of media itself.

In the play werewolves stand in as a symbol for change as the all-night party is an opportunity for transformation. (I'm immediately reminded of hipster wolf t-shirt phenomenon from a few years ago.) But just like hipsters, it's a mistake to assume this play is concerned only with fashion disguised as politics or intellectualism. What is the play about at its heart? It's vaguely about change, especially, at the end, about the irony of being faced with the real possibility for change after you've been abstractly ruminating about it all night--but it's phrased as an inquiry and not an answer, which is basically what hipster culture is about. Which is a legitimate political position in its own right. We are the first generation of bohemian youth culture that's not going to look like idiots--like the hippies and the punks--later for pretending to have all the answers, when all we had was a new way of dressing stupid. ("I get depressed when I realize I'll never know how human history ends" one character says--we know the limits of our knowledge.) We know we dress like idiots and we know, as the play's characters do, that when they're talking about Aerosmith's disappointments as the play's characters do, they're also talking about our own failed (for now) potential if we refuse to be more than wittily, babblingly, unsubstantially uncommunicative.