Dressed Like an Egg, pr. 1977
Southern Exposure, pr. 1979
Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power, pr. 1980
Green Card, pr. 1986
JoAnne Akalaitis (ah-kah-LAY-tihs) is recognized for her contributions to performance art and avant-garde drama, particularly with Mabou Mines, the theater company she helped form in 1969. After growing up in a Lithuanian Catholic neighborhood, she studied philosophy at the University of Chicago and at Stanford University. In 1962, she participated in the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco, where she worked with Ruth Maleczech and Lee Breuer. Together with these and other performers, she formed the theater collective Mabou Mines. She received training from such well-known acting teachers as Bill Hickey, Herbert Berghof, Spalding Gray, and Joyce Aaron.
Akalaitis was awarded financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the New York State Creative Artists Public Service Program. Working with Mabou Mines, she contributed to such conceptual collaborations as Red Horse Animation (1970) and The Saint and the Football Player (1976), which initially took place as visual performance pieces in New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Berkeley and Pasadena art museums. Other multimedia events she worked on include performances with the 1976 American Dance Festival. For a time, Akalaitis was married to the composer Philip Glass, who provided music for Mabou Mines in Dressed Like an Egg and Dead End Kids, which were significant contributions to New York’s burgeoning avant-garde theater. Akalaitis won three Obie Awards and in August, 1991, succeeded Joseph Papp as the director of the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theater. Her abrupt dismissal from that position in early 1993 was hotly debated in the theater community.
Akalaitis describes her work as disconnected from the American theater tradition of such artists as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee. In contrast to their work, which focuses on domestic issues and personal relationships, Akalaitis’s use of music, art, science, and surrealist and expressionist forms aligns her with the tradition of such European avant-garde performance artists as Bertolt Brecht. Her group, Mabou Mines, shocks audiences out of their usual expectations through nontraditional use of props, opening of the stage boundaries, onstage narration, unconventional exchanges of character portrayal among various actors, and set designs and scene changes that call attention to the fact that the play is a play.
Akalaitis’s work is highly conceptual and often calls on her background in philosophy. It requires active participation and thought on the part of audience members, who must grope to decipher meanings or form logical patterns out of apparent chaos. Coming as she does from a collaborative theater background, Akalaitis wishes to avoid forcing actors or audiences into rigid interpretation. In her work with Mabou Mines she therefore relies on spontaneity in rehearsal and performance, creating a dialectic between past and present, traditional theater and nontheatrical media, individual and collective visions, and rehearsed and impromptu material.
Dressed Like an Egg was her first widely accepted work, performed at the New York Shakespeare Festival (Joseph Papp, artistic director) in May of 1977. This collage piece with ten segments draws on the writings of Colette. Each segment deals in some manner with the issue of gender; comic scenes focus audience attention on the concept of the ideal in sexuality, romance, and intellect. Dressed Like an Egg also explores sexual ambiguity, perhaps an allusion to Colette’s intimate friendships with other women.
Akalaitis often presents historical information, incorporating facts, abstract philosophy, and surreal and absurdist features into her own brand of performance art. Southern Exposure, performed at The New Theatre Festival, Baltimore, in 1979, is an exploration of exterior and interior poles. The play offers tribute to early explorers of the Antarctic at the same time that it explores uncharted interior, or psychological, territory such as areas of the mind untouched by civilization; here, perhaps, she is seeking the blank spot of pure being, nonbeing, or Nirvana. Past and present play a role in this play, which demands that audiences superimpose their own definitions of “culture” on empty space. The set, costumes, slides, film, and props point to the relationship between the exploration in art and in the world of the geographical explorer. This juxtaposition of scientific and spiritual realms shows similarities, in that both represent the human impulse to impose order on emptiness or chaos.
Dead End Kids, one of the group’s best-known works, has been noted for its didacticism, but it has also been praised for its innovative stage design and its effectiveness in conveying the horrors of nuclear war and its aftermath. It bears witness to human intellectual curiosity and the self-destructive impulse toward ultimate domination over life itself.
In what some critics consider her most difficult work, Green Card, Akalaitis points to the inhumanity of United States immigration policies. The viewpoints of immigrants appear in a random “collage” of characters, revealing information and attitudes of various aliens, from the past to the present. For example, one segment features a Jewish refugee from the beginning of the twentieth century, and another shows a central American political protester from El Salvador. As with Dead End Kids, the opening occurs as the audience enters, with loudspeaker voices delivering lines relevant to the play’s theme. Green Card opened in Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum in 1986. The Los Angeles opening is fitting, in that this metropolis is described within the play as “really a jail.” Akalaitis questions the United States position of instigator and promoter of wars and repressive governments that force new immigrants to enter the United States in the futile hope of refuge.
Critics seem to agree on the virtues and failings of Akalaitis’s work. Her unconventional methods, timely topics, and cooperative approach all contribute to the vibrancy and relevance of her work. At the same time, these elements can make her work obscure, confusing, or offensive to some audiences. Her refusal to submit to standard theater practices results in a theater whose form follows its function of challenging audiences to think. Whether American mainstream theater is ready for her work remains to be seen.