The 4-year-old Reynoldstown gallery and performance space has been in jeopardy since December, when property owner Selig Enterprises put it up for sale, making way for the expansion of MillTown Lofts. Art Farm director and founder Dennis Coburn has been negotiating to keep the Art Farm open through September to accommodate shows that have long been booked in the space.
But on Jan. 22, during a rehearsal of Medea, cast members noticed an ominous glow from ceiling wires. Director Montica Pes, who had lost most of her possessions in an apartment fire a few weeks earlier, wasn't taking any chances when she called the fire department.
Fire and electrical inspectors discovered the structure doesn't meet Atlanta's fire codes and said upgrades would have to be made to remain open. With its future doomed anyway, Coburn is resigned to closing the space within the month "unless some miracle happens."
So now VisionQuest is frantically searching for a new venue to stage its contemporary adaptation of the child-killing myth of Medea, an ambitious show that incorporates music, puppetry, dance and martial arts.
"This is the biggest show I've ever done, and there may not be a space for it," says Pes.
In the last four decades, theater audiences have became unshockable. The Alliance Theatre stages Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (March 17-April 18), and Actor's Express trots out The Goat or Who Is Sylvia (playing through April 10). The two Edward Albee plays illustrate how our yardsticks for "controversy" have changed.
Albee's first full-length play, Woolf caused an uproar at its 1962 Broadway premiere. Dramatizing the intense hostility between a married couple with unprecedented profane language, Woolf earned both enthusiastic acclaim and angry attacks. The play caused such a storm that when the year's Pulitzer Prize jury for drama recommended Woolf for the honor, the Pulitzer's advisory board, which administers the award, rejected the jury's recommendation and called the play "filthy." Two of the jury members resigned in protest.
After 40 years, Woolf's profanity now sounds almost quaint. Albee's use of "screw you" or "you satanic bitch" jolted audiences at the time, but today would only earn a PG-13 movie rating. The Alliance production will be slightly saltier by using Albee's updated draft from 2002, which contains "motherfucker."
But Woolf can't compare to Albee's The Goat, which boldly steps into more taboo territory. A middle-aged husband admits to his wife that he's fallen in love -- with a barnyard animal. When characters in the script use the word "goatfucker," it's no euphemism. The Goat's Broadway run earned plenty of notoriety, but a bemused sort that inclined to indulge and forgive Albee's choice of subject. The play caused little fuss when it won the 2002 Tony Award and made the Pulitzer's shortlist for the year.
Theater's tolerance for risky, unconventional material shouldn't be taken for granted; it's entirely possible the clock could be turned back. A chill fell over broadcast media last month. Janet Jackson's Super Bowl performance featured the Nipple That Launched a Thousand Overreactions, from FCC investigations to seconds-long delays of live award shows to the suspension of shock jock Howard Stern by radio conglomerate Clear Channel. If the popular, powerful mass media face such pressure to clean up their acts, could theater fall under similar scrutiny?
Censoring forces have attacked Atlanta plays in the past. In 1990, Jon Ludwig's Zeitgeist, which briefly implied puppet-on-puppet oral sex, drew fire from religious groups following its performance at the Atlanta Arts Festival. In 1993, the Cobb County Commission rescinded Theater in the Square's arts funding because of the gay themes in Lips Together, Teeth Apart.
Both of these cases hinge on the shows' "public" dimensions: Zeitgeist played at a free festival in Piedmont Park, and Lips led to the loss of county funding. More often theater proves a private affair. When people buy tickets, they're implicitly endorsing the experience -- they know ahead of time they may see a nipple or hear "goatfucker." A theater subscriber could be compared to an HBO subscriber, willingly paying for content that might be extreme.
The current examples involve free media on the "public" airwaves, which enter homes through radios and televisions. Broadcast media can be more vulnerable to defenders (self-appointed or otherwise) of the "public" good. Plus, live theater simply commands less attention than radio and television, which in this case proves an advantage. Theater can enjoy the freedom of the overlooked.
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