Songs for the Struggling Artist

Is There, Was There, a Gen X Theatre?

While watching a much lauded play by a Millennial playwright, I found myself thinking I was watching a very Millennial play. I’ve had that feeling in theatres a lot lately and it made me wonder where all the Gen X plays were. What is – what was – the Gen X Theatre? Do we have one? Or did the theatre world just sort of skip us?

I know a lot of Gen X playwrights and several of them found some success on prestigious stages but I’m not sure they left any kind of generational mark behind. Some of them feel like writers of an earlier era – like their plays could have been written by older generations. They’re the sorts of plays the older well-heeled folks at Manhattan Theatre Club like. Are these the plays of my generation?

I can’t help feeling like we got skipped again. When I hear press raving about Hamilton being the first hip hop musical, I wonder how the Gen X guys who made Bombitty of Errors feel. They were out here rapping stories with hip hop ensemble staging on American stages for ages. They’re probably still at it. Or Danny Hoch’s Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop – an incredible one man intersection of theatre and hip hop culture. But we’ll never hear about these guys, not even as possible inspiration for what’s on now. Instead it’s as if Xennial Lin Manuel Miranda gave birth to an entire genre all on his own, like Venus rising from the foam.

I have been wracking my brain, trying to find a time where Gen X had a theatrical moment and I’m largely coming up short. The only thing that came immediately to mind was De la Guarda. A group of Argentine performers blew the roof off New York Theatre in the late 90s (technically, they busted through the ceiling) but they’re literally the only Gen X theatrical experience I can think of that feels Gen X-ish. And they were from Argentina. If I’m going to start going to other countries, well, then, I might find some more Gen X theatrical influence. Emma Rice of Kneehigh Theatre in the UK is a quintessential Gen X theatre maker. I might, if I did a survey, find more Gen X theatre around the world.

But back here in NYC, I feel like the bulk of Gen X theatre was made on the edges, left of center, in the fringes, in a lot of the spaces that are now lost to all of us. I wonder when we lost Collective: Unconscious, Manhattan Theatre Source, Todo Con Nada, The Present Company Theatorium, Surf Reality, Galapagos and so many more, if we were also actively losing any chance of a Gen X impact on Theatre.

Have we lost it? Did we miss it? Maybe I’m forgetting some significant Gen X moment. Maybe there was a whole scene that I missed? John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch feels very Gen X-ish but he’s Generation Jones. I’m inclined to give this show a Gen X pass, though and just go ahead and call it the most Gen X play I can think of.

It may be significant that funding for the arts was gutted around the time we came of age. Gen X may have never really had the chance to flourish after the culture wars killed the NEA. Arts funding shifted to institutions, making the institutions more powerful with less space for newcomers or individualistic Gen X-ers. Arts programs in schools were eliminated as we went through them and the stop-gap arts programs that came in to replace them (basically, the sorts of programs I worked for for years) weren’t yet up to their full strength. Certainly, I benefitted from a strong theatre program in my public high school and orchestra in elementary and middle. I know a lot of my peers in other places were not so lucky. While we grew, arts transformed from the necessity they are, to a luxury.

There was no artistic net to catch us when we emerged and no net has grown, either. I don’t how subsequent generations have gotten so much farther than we did. Maybe it’s just that, never having seen what a non-commercial theatre scene might be, they’re built to rock those institutional/commercial hybrids – which are sort of all we have now.

Also, theatre can be a popularity contest. Because Millennials are better at banding together and because there are more of them, getting them to show up for a show is maybe easier? I don’t know.

I’ve begun to think about some shows I saw by a young Millennial company about ten years ago. Their productions were always packed – even sold out- but the work was terrible. I could not figure out how they managed to sell out such terrible plays when I couldn’t get twenty people to show up for me. In thinking about generational theatre, I wonder if it’s just that that company had more peers, had more of a pool of people their age and so they drew a bigger crowd. And then, because they had big crowds, they did well with granting organizations and such because granting organizations always want to know how many people you’re serving and they generally want that answer to be more than twenty. I don’t know. It’s just a theory but I wonder if it’s been a factor in my Gen X theatre life.

I know a lot of Gen X Theatre makers who are killing it. They are making better and better work all the time so I’m not saying it’s all over and we missed our shot or whatever. But I wonder. I’m wondering. Shout out your Gen X theatre folk and help me remember who might have been forgotten. What is the Gen X theatre? And where?


Addendum, written later:

While sitting on this question, for weeks really – I thought of two shows that felt to me like possible Gen X representatives in theatre history. Stomp and Blue Man Group. They both began on the fringes. They’re both still running decades after they began. They aren’t conventional theatre. Their challenges to the dominant culture felt right for Gen X. I thought I really had something here. But – I looked them up and Stomp was created in the UK by a Baby Boomer and Generation Jones guy and the original Blue Men are all Generation Jones.

Then the other day, I was in a bookstore and they were playing the soundtrack from Rent and I thought, oh, Rent! Yeah! Maybe Rent is it! It’s a world where everybody’s trying to do their own thing, they’re horrified by the idea of selling out and, like, they’re cool! Rent! The Gen X musical! Nope. Jonathan Larson was Generation Jones. He misses Gen X by at least five years. (I’m using the 1965 – 1980 Gen X measure.)

Finally, as I was typing up this blog, I was thinking of some of the old theatres we used to do stuff in and when I thought of the Theatorium, I thought of Urinetown and I thought, yeah! Hey – Urinetown! It’s ironic. Full of “Whatever” energy. A little postmodern, very Gen X. I have it! Urinetown is the answer! And this is as close as I’ve managed to get. One of the guys (Greg Kotis) is actually Gen X. He’s the very first year of Gen X but he does actually qualify. His writing partner is Gen Jones, though.

But then, as I was typing this, I realized there was another show I hadn’t thought of yet. Avenue Q has three writers and they are all firmly in the Gen X camp. Gary Coleman’s presence in the musical really should have called it to mind earlier but there it is. There’s our Gen X representative, y’all. It was just sitting there waiting for me to remember it. I’m not sure it’s quite Gen X enough in style though it manages it in cultural references and ironic distance. Fine, Avenue Q it is.

But seriously. What else did I forget?

And by the way, don’t think I haven’t noticed that every single thing I’ve even considered as a possibility or a Gen X influence was made by dudes. EVERY SINGLE ONE.

*In case you missed it, I got obsessed with Gen X stuff a little while ago and wrote an 8 part series. Start here if you feel like reading it.

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2 Comments so far
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Sarah Ruhl?

Comment by Carol S. Lashof

She’s the top contender for sure though I don’t think most people would watch a play of hers and be able to guess her generation. She is Gen X but doesn’t typify Gen X. But in absence of others with her kind of name recognition, she may be our best bet.

Comment by erainbowd

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