(b. 23 August 1934 in Newark, New Jersey), avant-garde theater director, writer, editor, and the director of the Performance Group, whose Dionysus in 69 explored the ritual and communal roots of drama.
The third of four sons of Sheridan, a corporate president and then a banking director, and Selma Schwarz Schechner, a homemaker, Schechner was born into wealth and privilege. Not until he was twelve did he realize that not everyone has servants. As a child he studied the Talmud with his rabbi grandfather. His family moved to South Orange, New Jersey, and there he attended Columbia High School and began an ardent interest in social issues.
While majoring in English literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Schechner was the news editor of the student newspaper, which featured his editorials blasting Joseph McCarthy's Communist-baiting Senate hearings of 1952 and compulsory ROTC. After graduating with honors in 1956 he won a teaching fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, which he left the following year for Iowa State University, where his interests turned to theater. After completing his master's degree in 1958 he served two years in the army as an information specialist, lecturing to officers about current affairs and editing the army base's newspaper.
Schechner decided to return to graduate school to study the history of theater, and he chose Tulane University in New Orleans; his dissertation analyzed theater of the absurd playwright Eugene Ionesco. After spending a research year in Paris, he returned and completed his degree (1962). He was then invited to become the new editor of the Tulane Drama Review.
Previously, the journal had published traditional articles about pre-twentieth-century drama. Schechner transformed it into a forceful and dynamic advocate of contemporary debates of performance. Groundbreaking issues became thematically devoted, for example, to the first translations of surrealist and theater of the absurd playwrights or to psychoanalytic explications of a play's inner character motivations ("subtext") and of stage fright. One 1965 issue contained the earliest academic consideration of artists doing performance art ("Happenings" or "Painter's Theater"). Two issues of the journal concerned Konstantin Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater and his "Method" of training actors by emphasizing their psychological motivations in forming characters, as well as how the Actors Studio in New York deliberately distorted the Method to ensure commercial success. Such uncoverings led to national publicity and surging subscriptions.
In 1966 New York University (NYU) assumed control of the publication, and Schechner moved to New York City to continue editing the journal, now titled the Drama Review, and to teach performance, theory, and theater history at NYU. The journal continued addressing cutting-edge issues in contemporary performance, such as radically political and communal troupes of Off-Off Broadway (the Living Theatre, the Open Theater) and African-American playwrights. When still in New Orleans, Schechner had cofounded (1964) the Free Southern Theater to advance African-American drama projects in the rural South, and he was codirector (1965–1967) of the New Orleans Group, which presented avant-garde plays. Schechner's NYU performance workshops explored the ritualistic and communal roots of Greek theater, leading him to found and direct the Performance Group (1967–1980).
Schechner's Performance Group put into practice the concerns of new theater explored in the Drama Review. How can one not just reform both theater and society and make them refreshingly meaningful to contemporary life but also construct a model community that is at once intensely personal and mystically communal? Traditional notions of the playwright as author and authority, separation of stage and audience, and resolved linear plots with actors playing psychologically motivated characters were, for new theater advocates like Schechner, dead issues. Instead, truly meaningful and alive performance included an open-ended process of images/events, audience participation, multifocused scenarios, and a transformative communal ritual. For Schechner, to make performance radical is to reroot it, literally.
Dionysus in 69 (1969) was the landmark production of Schechner's Performance Group. First performed in workshops and then at the Performing Garage on Wooster Street in New York, it made contemporary Euripides's The Bacchae (405 b.c.). The play concerns the power of the darkly primitive and ecstatically irrational forces within us, personified in a distraught young king of Thebes. His, and the audience's, conventional restraints, including clothing, are to be released. The audience was perched on scattered cowhides under rough-hewn wooden platforms on which the scenario of the king of Thebes was enacted. The audience also participated as the Greek chorus, but not as just commentators on the action.
As the Theban king is tormented by his inner demons, so, suddenly, was the audience by followers of the god Dionysus in eye-to-eye confrontations ("Feel pain, it's a gas!"). The evening concluded with inviting, but not forcing, the audience to be psychically reborn in a nude feast and to be the dancing followers of Dionysus. "I left with the feeling," wrote one critic, "that I had come closer to the guts of the play—to, in Freudian terms, its unconscious—than a polite traditional version could ever have taken me."
When it was performed later that year at the University of Michigan, the troupe was arrested for public nudity. Back in New York, Schechner upstaged the Living Theater's production of Paradise Now by stripping in the audience as that performance began. He received further publicity in Life magazine on 29 April 1969.
Later Performance Group productions included an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth (1969), Commune (1970–1972), Oedipus (1977), and Jean Genet's The Balcony (1980). Each project investigated the possibilities of expanding performance as an open field of theatrical ritual and communal practice, just as the Drama Review continued to redefine the criticism and theory of new theater.
Schechner's collected writings on new theater and the Performance Group include Public Domain (1968), Environmental Theater (1973), Essays on Performance Theory, 1970–1976 (1976), and The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance (1993). Also see Dan Sullivan, "Theater: Bacchae Updated in Garage," New York Times (7 June 1968).
Patrick S. Smith