Akalaitis’s Confronts Audiences with Harsh Realities Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

JoAnne Akalaitis’s play Green Card grew out of the playwright’s early experiences in performance art, which showed her how to bring the harsh realities of life to the stage.

Summary of Event

JoAnne Akalaitis’s play Green Card, produced in June, 1986, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, California, is an interesting and complex mingling of Akalaitis’s prior experiences as a performer, writer, director, and designer. The play is set in Los Angeles, which Akalaitis has referred to as the new Ellis Island because of the city’s high immigrant population. The play juxtaposes the stories of many immigrants, ranging from those arriving in the nineteenth century at Ellis Island through war refugees from Southeast Asia and Central America to those held at the El Centro Detention Center in California’s Imperial Valley. Both of the work’s two acts are separated into sections under different headings. The first act consists of a prologue, “L.A. Woman,” “Success Story,” “Customs and Costumes,” “Work,” “English,” “Natives,” “Immigration,” and “California.” Act 2 contains a prologue, “Religion,” “Colonialism,” “Culture,”“CIA,” “A Glossary,” “Testimony,” “Dead Letters,” “Dying in Your Arms,” and “Waiting.” Green Card (Akalaitis) Theater;drama [kw]Akalaitis’s Green Card Confronts Audiences with Harsh Realities (June, 1986) [kw]Green Card Confronts Audiences with Harsh Realities, Akalaitis’s (June, 1986) Green Card (Akalaitis) Theater;drama [g]North America;June, 1986: Akalaitis’s Green Card Confronts Audiences with Harsh Realities[06100] [g]United States;June, 1986: Akalaitis’s Green Card Confronts Audiences with Harsh Realities[06100] [c]Theater;June, 1986: Akalaitis’s Green Card Confronts Audiences with Harsh Realities[06100] Akalaitis, JoAnne Maleczech, Ruth Breuer, Lee Glass, Philip Grotwoski, Jerzy Papp, Joseph

Akalaitis’s method of theatrical art does not settle for easy answers or traditional approaches; instead, it strives for a stark and revealing honesty so that the most subtle shades of meaning are felt and heard. Akalaitis achieves this balance of the visual and the emotional through an intertwining of her training and experiences within the theater since the early 1960’s. A distinctive compilation of her artistic travels within her craft can be seen in the 1986 production of Green Card.

Akalaitis left Stanford University in 1963 for the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco. There she met Lee Breuer, Ruth Maleczech, and Bill Raymond. These three actors would be instrumental in the founding of Mabou Mines, Mabou Mines an acting company based in New York City. Also during this period, Akalaitis spent time with the San Francisco Mime Troupe San Francisco Mime Troupe during its ardent political phase. The mime troupe expressed controversial current sociopolitical messages through presentational techniques derived from the commedia dell’arte, circus and carnival acts, minstrel shows, vaudeville, comic strips, and nineteenth century melodrama. The later plays and theoretical writings of Bertolt Brecht Brecht, Bertolt added to the troupe’s awareness of a theatrical aesthetic involving social analysis.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe gradually transformed its style from performances in presentational styles, such as utilizing traditional masked characters and exaggerated movement and voice, to a subtler style that might more readily provoke empathy from audiences. In 1970, the troupe declared its members to be “art workers” with a common goal of bringing about social change. They still used theatrical techniques to reach their goals, but they employed a different set of stock characters, taken from American life rather than from European life (as in the commedia dell’arte), in hopes that they would reach working-class people with their messages. The troupe tried to achieve a heightened sense of realism with its style of presentation.

After their involvement with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Akalaitis, Breuer, and Maleczech became members of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, San Francisco Tape Music Center where they worked intensely with visual artists and avant-garde musicians. In 1964, Akalaitis and her soon-to-be husband, composer Philip Glass, left for Paris. There Akalaitis met two actors, David Warrilow Warrilow, David and Fred Neumann, Neumann, Fred with whom she became involved in dubbing films; this expanded her knowledge of the cinematic techniques she eventually would use in theater productions. In Paris, Akalaitis worked with Breuer, Maleczech, Glass, and Neumann on Samuel Beckett’s Play, which was first produced in 1963 in German. She then left Paris for a short time to study acting in New York, but she returned to attend workshops held by Polish director Jerzy Grotowski.

Akalaitis studied with Grotowski for about a month in 1969, and his methods completely changed her ideas about work. She witnessed a development of the Stanislavsky method that involved not only the body but also her own personal history and her value as an artist. She was particularly impressed with Grotowski’s idea that an actor is as much an artist as is a writer, painter, or a playwright; the actor is not simply an interpreter. Excited by Grotowski’s teachings and his vision of a “poor” theater—a theater driven by the actor rather than by the elements of makeup, costume, scenery, and lighting—Akalaitis returned to New York to engage her friends in the prospect of starting a troupe. Their first endeavor, Breuer’s The Red Horse Animation Red Horse Animation, The (Breuer) (pr. 1970), incorporated elements of techniques learned from Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre workshops, the Berliner Ensemble, and Grotowski.

Ellen Stewart of LaMama Experimental Theatre Club supported the troupe’s endeavors by inviting it to perform. The members named the troupe Mabou Mines for an old mining village near Glass’s beach house in Nova Scotia, where they had spent time rehearsing. During the 1970’s, Mabou Mines was an important part of the avant-garde theater movement in New York. The troupe started out performing in galleries and museums in collaboration with visual artists. After leaving LaMama in 1973, Mabou Mines received a grant that allowed the troupe to move from museums to theaters. It soon aligned itself with A Bunch of Experimental Theatres of New York, Inc., Bunch of Experimental Theatres of New York, Inc., A where it worked with an assortment of avant-garde groups. By the early 1980’s, Mabou Mines was in the forefront of the genre known as “performance art,” the merging of theater, music and dance, cinema and video, painting, and sculpture.

The work in which Akalaitis and Mabou Mines engaged synthesized motivational acting in the tradition of Konstantin Stanislavsky Stanislavsky, Konstantin with techniques borrowed from Grotowski’s more presentational acting style. Along with these varied techniques, the company used choral monologues in the Brechtian mode, narrative dance taken from Japanese Kabuki theater, and abstract musical accompaniment and visual imagery. Mabou Mines was a driving force in the attempt to extend the possibilities of theater into wider arenas of the visual arts.

From 1970 to 1979, Akalaitis worked on two other plays by Breuer, won a Village Voice Obie Obie Awards (an award for excellence in the Off-Broadway theater) for her direction of Beckett’s Cascando (originally a 1963 radio play), and designed, directed, and performed in Dressed Like an Egg Dressed Like an Egg (Akalaitis) (pr. 1977), for which she was awarded an Obie as well as the American Theatre Wing’s Joseph Mahrem Award for scenic design. She then won another Obie for Southern Exposure Southern Exposure (Akalaitis) (pr. 1979), a work she wrote, directed, and designed.

During the 1980’s, Akalaitis began her ongoing relationship with theatrical producer and director Joseph Papp. She wrote and directed Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power Dead End Kids (Akalaitis) (pr. 1980), which Papp presented at the Public Theatre in New York City. She directed Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Request Concert Request Concert (Kroetz) (original title Wunschkonzert, pb. 1972) in 1981, garnering good reviews by critics. Michael Hurson’s Red and Blue Red and Blue (Hurson) (pr. 1982) was directed by Akalaitis and produced by Joe Papp. In 1982, Akalaitis directed Philip Glass’s The Photographer Photographer, The (Glass) (an opera about one of the inventors of motion pictures). She directed Kroetz’s Through the Leaves Through the Leaves (Kroetz) (original title Wer durchs Laub geht . . . , pb. 1979), featuring her friends Ruth Maleczech and Fred Neumann, in 1984.

Also in 1984, Akalaitis raised controversy with her direction of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame: A Play in One Act Endgame (Beckett) (first produced in 1957 as Fin de partie: Suivi de Acte sans paroles) for the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In this unorthodox production, Akalaitis ignored Beckett’s stage directions and added an overture and other music. Her concept spurred Beckett to seek legal assistance in order to bar Akalaitis’s version of the play from being seen. This action brought the issue of directorial license to national attention.

Akalaitis did more work for the American Repertory Theatre in 1985 and 1986 by directing Jean Genet’s The Balcony (1957; published as Le Balcon in 1956). Returning to Mabou Mines in February of 1986, she directed herself and Ruth Maleczech in Kroetz’s Help Wanted. While working on these two projects, Akalaitis wrote and directed her play Green Card.

Green Card originally was produced by Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 1986. It later was produced at the Joyce Theatre as part of the first New York International Festival of the Arts in June of 1988. Akalaitis wrote the play and directed on both occasions. Green Card is about refugees and other immigrants and their struggle to adapt to and assimilate into American life while keeping some sense of themselves and their traditions.


Akalaitis’s connection with performance art is evident throughout Green Card. The entire piece is an intermingling of an array of performance art media. Music by such artists as David Byrne, Brian Eno, Sid Vicious, Terry Allen, Jimmy Cliff, the Doors, and Frank Sinatra is used to emphasize the theme of each section. Taped dialogue and live voices are interspersed within the play. Akalaitis also employs a mixture of realism with symbolism, expressionism, cinematic montage devices, and dream sequences to achieve an intensified feeling of emotion.

One distinctive element of the performances of Green Card is that the actors go into the audience and address its members personally. The names of the characters in the play are the real names of the actors performing their parts. The importance of the ensemble is manifest. The cast of Green Card is multiethnic, with the actors often playing characters of ethnic origins other than their own. Akalaitis gives a blueprint for actors, directors, and designers with her text, leaving room for personal interpretation of her words and stage directions.

The Brechtian influence on Green Card can be seen in Akalaitis’s use of enormous slide projections as an integral part of the performance. The projections are used to punctuate events and actions as well as to display pictures serving as stories and action by themselves. The projections also are stationed on the floor, transforming it into many locations; for example, a jungle is represented by faces, maps, icons, and monuments. Stanislavsky’s influence can be seen in moments of “realistic” dialogue, particularly in the telling of the atrocities the immigrants have experienced. These moments also are conscious retreats to a more conventional narrative structure, giving the audience a rest from the bombardment of images. Realistic dialogue is used to contrast with the heavily stereotyped accents Akalaitis employs. Characters often change accents in midspeech, making a point about the large influence of language and accents in the lives of immigrants.

Grotowski’s influence on Green Card is seen in Akalaitis’s use of the actors. They are not ordered to act in a realistic manner; rather, the choreography and stylized movement that Akalaitis imposes requires the actors to be more abstract and sculptural than they would be if performing in a thoroughly “realistic” play. The three large Vietnamese water puppets that are used throughout the second act are reminiscent of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The puppets appear both as participants in the action and as spectators of it.

Green Card stimulated many different responses. Few objected to the play’s message, but some did criticize Akalaitis for drawing parallels between nineteenth century Jews and twentieth century Southeast Asians. Some observers objected strongly to her criticism of the influence that the foreign policy of the United States has on immigration. In the play, Akalaitis suggests that U.S. foreign policy has created increased immigration, although she does seem to keep a sense of objectivity, refraining from forcing a conclusion in her telling of the story.

Following Green Card, Akalaitis continued her unique and innovative work in the theater. In the 1990’s, as artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, she had tremendous influence in the world of theater as well as a greater arena for her work. Green Card (Akalaitis) Theater;drama

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Akalaitis, JoAnne. Green Card. New York: Broadway Play Publishing, 1991. The text of the play is the primary source for anyone looking at Akalaitis’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards a Poor Theatre. 1968. Reprint. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 2002. Provides a firsthand look at Grotowski. Includes portions written by him, interviews with him, and essays by other actors about their experiences with specific techniques. Invaluable for those wanting to know directly from the source what his methods were. Includes a preface by Peter Brook.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saivetz, Deborah. An Event in Space: JoAnne Akalaitis in Rehearsal. Hanover, N.H.: Smith and Kraus, 2000. Focuses on Akalaitis’s career as a theatrical director, with discussion of her methods of working. Places Akalaitis’s work within the context of the larger avant-garde theater movement. Includes photographs and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shank, Theodore. Beyond the Boundaries: American Alternative Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Discusses all types of alternative theater organizations and personalities. Provides interesting explanations and commentary about the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, Richard Schechner and the Performance Group, the Bread and Puppet Theatre, Spaulding Gray, Elizabeth LeCompte, and many others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sommer, Sally R. “JoAnne Akalaitis of Mabou Mines.” Drama Review 20 (September, 1976): 3-16. Combines biographical information with interview material to reveal Akalaitis’s thoughts about her acting process at that time in her career. Also elaborates on her training and background.

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