In Anton Chekov’s The Seagull, the character Konstantin rails against the traditional theatre of his day, by saying:
[T]hat kind of theater is tired, it’s all worn out. It’s so restrictive! The curtain goes up, the lights come on, you’re in a room with three walls, and there they are, these servants of art, and all they do is show us how people eat, drink, make love, walk, and wear clothes! … What we need are new forms! We need new forms, and if we can’t have them, then we’re better off with no theater at all.
Indeed, in 1895 when Chekhov was writing The Seagull, he was witnessing the emergence of new trends in Western theatre, specifically the avant-garde theatre movement, which sought to transform storytelling conventions. In the 100-plus years since then, avant-garde has evolved as artists constantly seek to break the traditional form and to find new ways of presenting drama. In You Will Get Sick, playwright Noah Diaz continues this evolution as he “breaks the form” by playing with surrealism and perspective to approach mortality, health, and ability in a fresh and unexpected way.
Avant-garde is a French term meaning “advance guard”: the part of the army that goes ahead of the rest. The first use of the term as applied to art is credited to Henri de Saint-Simon, a social theorist and early forerunner of socialism. He believed in the responsibility of artists to be innovators and agents of social change. In 1825 he wrote: “We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, the power of the arts is most immediate: when we want to spread new ideas we inscribe them on marble or canvas. What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society…”
The usage of this term in art can be traced first to visual art, most likely Gustave Courbet. He painted scenes from the daily lives of peasants at a time when painting scenes from history or portraits of monarchs was considered the epitome of proper artistry. If a contemporary layperson saw one of his paintings without any historical context, they would not see anything bold, innovative, or scandalous. This is inherent in the nature of anything that can be labeled avant-garde art: what is once on the cutting edge can quickly become the norm or even outdated. Abstract Expressionism, Constructivism, Cubism, Dadaism, Expressionism, Futurism, Impressionism, Minimalism, Pop Art, Surrealism, Suprematism, and Symbolism could all be considered avant-garde art movements of their respective eras.
Like in visual art, avant-garde theatre artists challenge the status quo through innovation and experimentation. In its nascence, it was a form of resistance to the practices and forms of bourgeois “traditional” theatre. “Traditional” theatre at this time prized melodramatic or realistic depictions of life, time, and space – the type of theatre Konstantin bemoans in The Seagull. Early examples of such avant-garde artists include Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal.
Bertolt Brecht, poet, playwright, and theater practitioner, pushed against the ideas of Aristotelian theatre – in which a single protagonist engages in a quest – by devising Epic theatre based on the art of epic poems. It would evolve into a style that would alienate the audience so they would detach from experiencing the world of the play as the characters. Instead, they are presented with a demonstration of human behavior and meant to watch with a critical eye, in hopes that they take that experience out into the world and make changes to society as a result.
The playwright, drama theorist, activist, and theater practitioner Augusto Boal created Theatre of the Oppressed. Boal identified three forms of activist theater: Image, Invisible, and Forum Theater which all served as a means of engaging the audience through participation by asking them to respond to the work as it was happening rather than allow them to be passive observers.
Just as Courbet's work didn’t remain on the cutting edge, these artists and their styles are now considered part of our theatrical canon. Continued innovation and the breaking of form is the essence of “avant-garde.” Ensemble work, puppetry, and solo performance can all be seen as an evolution of what falls under this umbrella. What these artists achieved through their experimentation was a reimagining of the audience’s experience – still consisting of old forms, yet generating new ideas and ways of seeing and interacting with the world outside of the theatre.
In the US, avant-garde theatre has had wide influence on the industry. Many of today’s award-winning shows derive from earlier avant-garde practices: think of the immersive world of Sleep No More, or the Pulitzer Prize-winning metafictional (a musical about a Black, queer man writing a musical about a Black, queer man) A Strange Loop, or Taylor Mac’s The Fre, “an all ages play about polarization in America” staged inside a ball pit, as Mac describes it. Each of these pieces invite the audience into a relationship with the work that goes beyond that of a spectator.
In times of revolution, cultural change, or an awakening, artists are a powerful force. Through experimentation with their creative devices, they shift our collective cultural lens to one that articulates the greatest possibilities of inclusivity.
Noah Diaz wrote You Will Get Sick before the pandemic, so it specifically is not about COVID-19. Yet it will be received at a time when a fresh, bold, expressionist perspective that visually and literally explores thoughts on our mortality, and how we care for ourselves and one another, might be considered a healing and thoughtful gift. Diaz writes a story about a man navigating his diagnosis, which is a straightforward plot. However, it is told in the second person and certain symptoms of his unnamed illness are outside our reality.
Avant-Garde artists actively, whether intentionally or unintentionally, advance society by bringing greater awareness and access to the realities of the human condition and change - along with our resistance to it. They create visions of and plans for our possible future. In the Theater, on the stages where many imaginations are experienced, the need to ask the question “What if?” is one that has had the greatest impact on the evolution of theater. It is the reason why audiences can experience the many variations and styles of live and virtual theater today.
Upstage GuideReturn to the Table of Contents and learn more.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Bertolt Brecht." Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 Aug. 2022.
Drain, Richard. “Augusto Boal.” Twentieth-Century Theatre: A Sourcebook, Routledge, 1995.
Frank, Adam. “The Expansion of Setting in Gertrude Stein's Landscape Theater.” Modernism/Modernity Print Plus, Johns Hopkins University Press, 9 Mar. 2018.
Galitz, Kathryn Calley. “Gustave Courbet (1819–1877).” Metmuseum.org, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 2009.
Stephens, Simon, and Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. The Seagull. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, an Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017.