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Theatre vs. Performance Art vs. Fringe Theatre

Gretchen Holmes

Performance artist and Chicago Art Magazine writer Gretchen Holmes sits down with theatre artist Kristin Idaszak to discuss the differences between mainstream theatre, performance art and fringe theatre.

KI: To start, how do you define performance art versus theatre?

GH: It’s really easy to distinguish these based on venue and scale and the artist’s background, but I’m more interested in the audience’s experience, and how you would know you were watching performance art, or fringe theatre, or mainstream theatre. For me, the most consistent difference between those three genres are the conventions that both the artists and the audience navigate throughout the performance. Theatre has this incredible tradition and set of conventions. A production can either adhere to those conventions or flout them, but either way the distance between what theatre is to an audience is measured using that barometer.

KI: When you say conventions, are you talking about things like narrative structure and the fourth wall?

GH: Yes. And I know those things aren’t necessarily present in contemporary theatre across the board anymore, but that’s where theatre came from. When those things are absent, the absence of those things are felt. With performance art, the convention is that there’s no convention. It comes more from the tradition of Dada, 1960s Happenings, and avant garde visual art—and the convention is transgression. The audience expects it to be challenging and difficult.

KI: So who decides these distinctions? Does it come from the artist or the audience?

GH: From the audience perspective, I think you know you’re seeing performance art based on the venue or the institution you’re going to. Which is ultimately something the artist decides. The artist’s intention filters through indirectly.

KI: Do you think that’s a limitation or does it provide more freedom for the artists?

GH: I don’t know that it limits the possibilities of what an artist can make so much as it creates the right frame of mind for an audience to receive the art. I’ve performed in different contexts before, and it can be disastrous to work in the wrong context. And conversely, just putting myself in the context of performance art influences the way I develop work. If I wanted to use, say, professional actors, I don’t know how that would be received by a performance art audience, which isn’t expecting trained actors.

KI: So then is fringe theatre the place where performance art and mainstream theatre collide?

GH: That’s what I used to think, but that notion was challenged when I performed in the Minnesota Fringe Festival in Minneapolis. I thought that fringe theatre was the space between large scale theatre and performance art, but I think that fringe theatre has more to do with the scale and the concern with commercial viability then it does with the form or content of the work.

Because Minneapolis has such a vibrant theatre community, a lot of the pieces in the festival were side projects of established companies or individual artists. It was an experimental space for a community that’s more institutionalized. But in Chicago, there are different art communities that are able to hold their own, more than others, and find an audience. The piece that I did with my husband was totally non-narrative and more about the props and the environment, and the audience had no idea what to do with it. There’s a rating system, where people give shows kitties—

KI: Kitties?

GH: Yes. Zero to five. And people would either give us 0 kitties or five. There were people who wanted to see something weird, and we were the fringiest of the fringe, and there were other people who just wanted it to be over.

KI: Oh no!

GH: It was really eye-opening to me. And it was this experience that prompted me to start thinking about why these contexts really do matter. They define where a work can be successful and shape the way artists working in those areas develop their work.

KI: So where would you send people in Chicago to see performance art?

GH: That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for a while. I would start at places like Links Hall, the Columbia Dance Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Cultural Center—those are places that feature work that comes from a visual art tradition alongside work that comes from dance and theatre. But it’s challenging, because I find that performance art often ends up in places that just aren’t art venues at all. Like, people go to open mic nights or perform in bars as a musical act, and people just sit there and say, “What is this?” And sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s like, “I’m glad you had the chance to perform this but it was really painful for the rest of us.” And then places that are designated for visual art, if there’s a performance it’s usually coming from the tradition of the avant garde, so at gallery openings you can often find work that’s more performance art. But those events aren’t as well publicized and can be somewhat hard to find.

KI: This is all fascinating. When we sat down at this interview, I was expecting you to say, “Oh, these distinctions are arbitrary; they don’t matter.”

GH: Right! That’s what I thought until I started working in each of these three communities. My husband and I also design props for some mid-size theatre companies in Chicago, like Writers Theatre and Remy Bumpo. Which aren’t huge theatres, but also gave me the opportunity to think about these different boundaries and audiences and scales.

It’s interesting to talk about this with someone coming from a theatre perspective. When I talk about this, it’s usually with friends coming from visual or performance art backgrounds, and when we go to fringe theatre, I think we all feel a little bit like misfits. But I do see why fringe theatre can be really freeing for theatre artists, because a lot of the financial pressures aren’t there and it allows them to cut loose. It’s funny, people who are coming to fringe theatre are either fleeing convention or entering into this refuge from total chaos. And I guess in that way it’s an intersection of both worlds, but I think about less as a Venn diagram and more of a third continent.

KI: That’s such an exciting way to think about it. I give that five kitties.