“Experimental theater” is an often-used term that has a variety of possible definitions. In a broad sense, every great artist is essentially an experimenter; in this sense, the plays of dramatists such as T. S. Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams were demonstrably experimental. Clearly, this is not the sense of the term as it has come to be used to describe a kind of theater that has developed in the United States and in Europe from the 1960’s to the present and by the early twenty-first century, had made its way onto the stages of the world. In this specialized sense, “experimental theater” seems to suggest a willingness, within a theater environment, to militate aggressively against social and aesthetic conventions.
The proximate cause for protest—the one most ardently espoused—by theater artists in the United States in the 1960’s was a political and social one, the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Other targets of protest were racism, sexism, oppression of the disadvantaged, and bureaucratic intransigence. A popular means of expressing this protest was shock tactics, in the streets and on campuses, often involving personal insult or property destruction. On the stage, shock was effectively achieved through the use of unconventional theatrical techniques. Directors and writers often abandoned or directly attacked traditional aesthetic standards, looking for untried means of expression in staging and in writing, enabling audiences to reassess their own experience in fresh, illuminating perspectives.
Although the motivating causes may have shifted since the 1960’s, the essential principles of experimental theater remain relatively unchanged: Robert Wilson’s production of the CIVIL warS in 1984 qualified as “experimental theater” at least as validly as did Megan Terry’s Viet Rock in 1966. So did Tadashi Suzuki’s November, 2001, production of his Dionysus (pr. 1991) at the Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley, California. With its reinterpretation of Euripides’ material, which Suzuki turned into a conflict between a religious cult and political authority, and with its acting style close to the ideals of performance art, his production dramatically emphasized the concerns raised by the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.