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Guerrilla Theatre: May 1970

Author(s): Richard Schechner

Source: The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 14, No. 3 (1970), pp. 163-168
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1144567
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Guerrilla Theatre: May 1970

What was most striking (from the New York not actors"; perform in parks on a portable
perspective) about the Maydays of 1970was stage; keep the length of a show "under
that students were organizing themselves to an hour"; slowly build a company; don't
use facilities and resources, not to destroy get sucked into the commercial theatre. Of
them. The nihilism so powerfully present in course, Davis was talking about his Mime
the Columbia uprising of 1968, and always Troupe. The guerrilla theatre we are now
prominent in "revolutionary"rhetoric with- involved in relates back to Davis' ideas-but
in the student movement, was transformed also, and more strongly, to the things the
into something more fundamentally revolu- Provos did in the mid-sixties, both here and
tionary. "Burn it down," "trashit," "shut it abroad.And the things men like Abbie Hoff-
down" were not heard so often as "take it," man [see T44] and, later, Jerry Rubin did.
"use it," "open it up," "liberateit." In either Like dropping dollar bills on the floor of
case the work is somewhat symbolic-that is, the Stock Exchange; dumping a truck of soot
burnt buildings can be and usually are rebuilt and garbageon the brassof Con Ed; showing
and liberatedbuildingscan be and usually are up at HUAC hearings dressed as a revolu-
reoccupied. The establishmentis not so weak tionary war patriot. To make a swift action
that it will yield everything at once. But it is or image that gets to the heart of an issue
not so strong that it will last out the decade. or a feeling-to make people realize where
Guerrilla theatre is symbolic action. It is they are living, and under what situation.It is
called "guerrilla"because some of its struc- primitive because many Americans still do
not know (or believe) what is going down
tures have been adapted from guerrilla war-
fare-simplicity of tactics, mobility, small
bands,pressureat the points of greatestweak-
ness, surprise. The term itself was adapted However, the Kent State murders made
from war to theatre by Ronnie Davis in his many people know directly and viscerally.
1966article "GuerrillaTheatre" [T32]. Davis One of the basics of guerrilla theatre is that
says: you use what is at hand. The murders were
at hand, and they were used. I found out
The motives, aspirations,and practice of about Kent State during my seminaron Per-
U.S. theatre must be readaptedin order formance Theory at NYU at 6:00 P.M., May
to: teach, direct toward change, be an 4. Someone came into the class and handed
example of change. . . . The Guerrilla out a leaflet. It said that six students had been
company must exemplify change as a shot down-four at Kent State and two at
group. The group formation-its coop- Penn State. (The Penn State two turned out
erative relationshipsand corporate iden- to be a mistake.) A general meeting was
tity-must have a morality at its core. called for 7:30 at the Loeb Student Center.
Davis talks about the how-to-do's: get a The seminar ended at around 7:45 and sev-
cheap place to rehearse; "start with people, eral of us went to Loeb.

The meeting was going as usual: lots of made clear (through audience word-of-
speeches to and from about a thousandangry mouth) that this was a street play, people
students. Loeb had already been taken. The were most responsive to the obvious mes-
speech-makinglasted about an hour and after sage: the war was home. The police arrived
that committees were formed. I saw Ralph to break up the performance.The cops were
Ortiz in the crowd and went over to him. angry that so much blood was spilled on the
Joan Macintosh was with me. We decided to street and sidewalk. Arguments broke out
start a guerrilla theatre. I got to the micro- between the police and some of the onlook-
phone and announcedthat decision. We took ers. One of the police finally said, exasper-
over a corner of the ground floor of Loeb, ated, "People who mess up the public streets
about fifteen students joined us, and we should be shot." His remark was not well
talked over what we should do. We decided received.
on an action for the next morning. It was a Later in the week, supported by extensive
scenario worked out by all of us, based on
organizing led by ChristinaWeppner at the
some ideas from Ortiz. NYU School of the Arts, we began to go
THE KENT STATE MASSACRE. Per- out in teams of three or five to instruct peo-
formed in New York City on La Guardia ple in guerrilla theatre. Our aim was to
Place in front of the Loeb Student Center organize at schools and other places which
and also at the corner of MacDougal and requested our help and to stimulateextensive
8th Streets. Groups of students are roped guerrilla theatre activity citywide, and later
together in subgroups of four. Other stu- nationwide. Scenarios were duplicated and
dents dressedin army uniforms and carrying distributed; a city headquarterswas estab-
stage rifles and gallons of animalblood guard lished which could coordinate guerrilla
the "prisoners."The prisoners are abused theatre activities; a succinct handbook of
verbally and physically. Under their clothes guerrilla theatre was issued. Before I discuss
they conceal animal organs-brains, hearts, these organizing activities in more detail, I
intestines, etc. The soldiers march through would like to report on an action that took
the streets calling the student prisoners place Thursday evening, May 7, at the Broad-
"Commy bums," "fucking student trash," way theatres showing Plaza Suite, Forty
"Red agitators,"and any other insults that Carats,and Private Lives.
come to mind. The students resist but are Membersof the NYU guerrillatheatre group
severely brutalizedwith kicks and rifle butts felt that an action directed toward (or
by the soldiers. The students are marched against) Broadway audiences was appropri-
through the streets until a large crowd gath- ate. The action was developed during two
ers. Anyone in the crowd who laughs at the meetings on May 7-it involved about thirty
action is forcibly pulled into it and thrown people.
in with the students. After a brief announce-
ment to the effect that the students are Com-
munists, agitators,bums, and worthless peo- Tapes were made of a statement by Allison
Krause'sfather. He had appearedon TV the
ple who care more for politics than for night after Allison's murder and made an
education, they are "shot" and the blood
is thrown over them. The students "die" eloquent, tearful plea asking whether or not
dissent was possible in this country, and call-
slowly, shrieking and pulling out from their
clothes the animal guts. The soldiers stand ing for a Congressional investigation about
why the National Guard was allowed to
guard over the dead students, refusing to let
carry live ammunition. It was a profoundly
anyone come and help them. Persons in the
crowd who laugh or argue or resist are moving statement by a shocked parent of
the middle class. We all felt that it should
thrown onto the body pile.
be heard by other parentsof the middle class
(A variationwas done by Ortiz, in Washing- -and not in the defended situation of their
ton on May 9 during the rally. The action evening TV broadcastsat home. The larger
was a procession of people holding real ani- group of thirty was divided into three sub-
mal heads, skinned and bloody, with tongues groups. Each had a leaderwho carrieda port-
and eyes.) On 8th Street, outside the student able cassette tape recorder loaded with the
environment of NYU, many people thought Krause tape. Each group decided its own
the students were actually shot. When it was strategy.

The Plaza Suite group wished to go into the audience for this "rude and unauthorizedin-
theatre during intermission, wait until part terruption." He asked the actors to pick it
of the second act had gone by, and then rise, up from where they had left off. They did,
go to the front of the theatre-or onstage if but the fizz had gone out of the little comedy.
possible-make a brief announcement, and The Private Lives group waited until the
play the tape. But the man carrying the re- house lights were down as the second act
corder was challenged for his ticket stub as
he tried to enter the theatre, and only two began. Then they got onto the stage and as
the lights went up-there they were. The
of the group got in. They did not know that
actors did not interfere as they played the
the leader had not gotten in, so they sat out
the whole second act. ("That was a gruesome tape. Most of the audience listened, but some
were very angry that their evening had been
experience in itself," one of them told me thus interrupted. A shouting match broke
later.) At the end of the second act, they rose
and went to the front of the theatre, said out in the audience-but the tape was played
a few words about the Kent State murders, to the end, and leaflets were distributed to
and distributed a leaflet which stated the the audience.
three national strike goals (End the war in Other actions originating at NYU, but not
Southeast Asia; Free all political prisoners; disruptive in nature or intent, occurred dur-
Get the war machine off campus); on the ing the intermission at several theatres, in-
reverse side, it had a complete transcript of cluding the Brooklyn Academy and the City
Mr. Krause'sstatement. Center. One of these actions centered on a
brief dance commemorating the Kent State
The Forty Carats group all got into the murders. A plan was made to move the
theatre after intermission.About fifteen min- scheduled student performance of Johnny
utes into the act (at the start of the second Johnson to the Lincoln Center mall-but
scene), the leader of the group rose and went
down the aisle. The other members of the nothing came of the proposal. (The week of
May 11 some City University students car-
group responded to the cue and soon the ried their protests into several Broadway
bases of both aisles were filled with the theatres. I do not know what they per-
eight demonstrators.The leader said, "Trina, formed.)
the girl in this play, is seventeen. Allison
Krause was just two years older than Trina The week of May 11 was also the week
when she was shot. Her father wants to when we organized guerrilla groups at
speak to you." Then the tape was played. AU Lehman College in the Bronx (part of the
members of the group wore black mourning City system), the New School, the NYU
veils. All were dressed"straight,"so as to get School of Law and School of Education, and
into the theatre easily. The tape takes about City College. I did not participatein all these
three minutes to play. The actors onstage- organizing efforts, and will report exten-
June Allyson and Tom Poston-froze as the sively only on the three I was present
demonstrationbegan. They did not attempt at. However, the team of organizers was
to compete with it. Most of the audience was "trained" (if that word has any meaning in
quiet. About halfway through the tape a such a swift program) under my supervision
woman said, "We didn't pay $8 to hear this and we all followed the same plan. It is a
kind of thing!" Another woman answered, very simple plan, and I commend it to every-
"This is more important than this trivial one who is interested in guerrilla theatre
play!" Some of the audience joined in the organizing. A team of us go to a group, talk
dispute. Tom Poston said, "All right, girls, to them, tell them about guerrilla theatre,
you've made your point."The stage manager, find out exactly what issues are important
or maybe it was the house manager, came to them, organize a scenario, rehearseit with
down the aisle and tried to seize the tape them, and stick around until it has been
recorder. The demonstratorsleft the theatre performed once or twice. Then we leave,
peacefully-the last thing on the tape, the and hope that the group will continue on its
last thing heard,was Mr. Krausesaying, "Isit own-as the Lehman and New School groups
a crime to dissent?"I did not participate in have done. If we stay too long, the group
the demonstration,so I stayed in the theatre will not develop a sense of self-sufficiency;
and listened to the manager apologize to the if we leave too soon, it will dissolve.

FROM THE GUERRILLA THEATRE accustomed to less linear means of com-

"HANDBOOK." There are three kinds of municating, guerrilla theatre is a succinct
guerrillatheatre. (1) That which makespeo- language.
ple aware that a problem exists. This kind Friendly: At school, in many churches,
takes place in "new" areas-places where so-
cial and political awareness is at best rudi- among friends, before a striking group, etc.
Even though everyone will not agree with
mentary. The Broadway Theatre Action de- you at a friendly place, you will be allowed
scribed before was of this sort. (2) That to finish your action and people will be eager
which shows the workings/results of a prob- to discuss it with you. If there are disagree-
lem. This kind is performedin "middleareas"
ments, they will come over emphasis and
-places where people know of a problem, tactics, not goals.
are sensitive to it, but have not viscerally ex-
Neutral: Supermarkets,streets in neighbor-
perienced it or fully understood it or its hoods where you are personally known,
consequences. For example, the "Kent State theatre lobbies, parks. Here there will be
Massacre"-especially as performed at the
corner of MacDougal and 8th Streets-was arguments,maybe even some heckling. There
will probably be city and possibly private
this kind of guerrillatheatre. The object was
to show people that government oppression police on hand, or nearby. The crowd will
be divided between those who want to hear
exists, is systematic,will attack all who forci-
bly oppose the government and its policies, you out and those who do not. Be ready to
and that the government will not hesitate to stop the performance and disband. Or, de-
use maximumforce. It exposed the myth that pending upon the heat of the argument, to
defend your right to public dissent.
brutality is the result of "ignorant"people,
or of "maniacs."It was a direct answer to Unfriendly: Places where people strongly
Nixon's telegram to the murdered victims' disagree with your politics, but have noth-
families in which the President noted that ing against you personally-Broadway the-
violent dissent leads to tragedy. We wanted atres, hotel lobbies, uptight neighborhoods,
to make it clear who was responsible. (3) etc. In an unfriendly place people will argue
That which shows the solution to a prob- with you, heckle, call the police, and
lem. This kind of theatre is done in "so- threaten violence. If you keep your cool,
phisticated"areas-where people are already usually nothing will happen.But if you show
aware of a problem and its dynamics-e.g., fear or extreme hostility an unfriendly place
certain elements of the "Kent State Mas- can swiftly transforminto a hostile place.
sacre" as performed in front of Loeb. The Hostile: Places where violence is likely and
soldiers shouted to the students-"We will therefore where your action has to be swift,
kill you in small groups until you band to- cunning, and planned for impact and escape.
gether against us!" And the soldiers then A KKK meeting is a hostile place, or a rally
seized a person from the audience and threw of construction workers, or the Police Acad-
him/her onto the body pile. Soon the NYU emy. Here people not only hate what you
students began resisting the soldiers, and or- say, they hate you because you represent a
ganized against them. Several students at- way of life they cannot understand and do
tacked a soldier and grabbed his gun. not accept. If they catch you they will prob-
ably beat you up. You are quite literally
You must know the differences among thought of as "the enemy." In these places
friendly, neutral, unfriendly, and hostile guerrilla theatre is most like guerrilla war-
places/audiences.And you must be prepared fare. Your goal here is not to convince or
to cope with what you expect-that is, be change minds-but simply to let people know
ready to split quickly after an action in an that you have penetrated a highly defended
unfriendly place; or, on the other hand, be headquarters.And once you announce your
ready to stick around and rap for a long presence you have accomplished your mis-
time in a friendly place. Don't bring the con- sion and should get out as quickly as pos-
ventions of illusionism from the old theatre sible. More than in any other kind of action,
into guerrilla theatre. Guerrilla theatre is, forays into hostile places should be planned
in many ways, like wall posters or pamphlets. in detail. Only the most experienced groups
To people who distrust reading and who are should attempt a raid into hostile territory.

Guerrilla theatre scenarios should be (1) "Niggers?! Spics?! Fuck them! Business as
simple and direct, (2) clear and visual, (3) usual!" Then a brief statement is read con-
striking and theatrical-that is, even if peo- cerning the different reactions in America
ple can't see or hear everything they should elicited by the shooting of white and black
know what it's about, (4) meaningful to or Latin people. The crowd is leafleted, and
you-something you believe in. There is no the performers move on. The piece is done
reason to perform a piece because of some- two or three times in every block. On the
one else. Where there is little traditional night of May 13 it was enthusiastically re-
aesthetic justification for a piece there must ceived by people in the street (including
be a great deal of political and social con- blacks and Latins) and by many who
viction. If dialogue is used it should be very watched from apartment house windows.
direct and simple. Because streets are noisy At the intersection of 8th Street and Sixth
it is good to have the dialogue shouted and Avenue a patrol car stopped when a cop
some of it repeated chorically. The use of thought someone had been hurt. He was
choruses can be very effective. very angry when he discovered that he had
A crowd should be leafleted immediatelyfol- gotten out of his car to see a street play.
lowing a piece (not during, because that will On Friday, May 14, we went to organize a
distract). The leaflet should not only carry group within the NYU School of Education.
the message, but give precise information These people had extensive theatre experi-
about what the onlookers can do. For ex- ence-they were theatremajorsand their pro-
ample, the leaflet accompanying BUSINESS fessors. They had performed rather compli-
AS USUAL told how blacks and Latins cated pieces at rallies, and these pieces
could organize their communities and gave showed sophisticationand theatricalabilities.
the time and place of an organizing meeting. The problems were truly opposite those we
In liberal rather than radical settings the faced at Lehman and at the New School.
names and addressesof legislators,and a sug- If anything, the NYU students were too
gested form for writing, should be provided. theatre oriented. The simplicity of guerrilla
The leaflet, in other words, is never simply theatre disturbed them. Also most of these
a statement but always a program, how- NYU students were liberals in the classical
ever fundamental. sense. They were very hung up about the
reactions of their parents;they wanted what-
BUSINESS AS USUAL. This scenario
ever they did to be nonviolent in practice
was developed during the evening of May 13
and effort; they tended to be sentimental
at the New School in NYC. About fifteen
and guilt-ridden.
people participated. It was performed that
evening along a route that went across 14th We worked with them for about two hours
Street from Fifth Avenue to University and developed a piece which I call BRING-
Place, down University Place to 8th Street, ING THE WAR BACK HOME. It is an
along 8th Street to Sixth Avenue, and up adaptation of Hed's Kill Viet Cong [T32]
Sixth Avenue to 14th Street. About twenty- which was performed in NYC in 1967. (It is
five performanceswere given that night. The a mark of the antiwar movement, and of the
piece was repeated on May 15. A group of war itself, that a piece more than four years
people walk down the street in a disorganized old can still be relevant, perhaps even radi-
fashion. Four people in the center of the cal.) Three students were roped together.
group suddenly scream and drop to the One wore a sign, NIGGER; another, BUM;
ground. The group immediately forms a another, GOOK. They were marched down
circle around the fallen four. A man rushes the street, shoved and abused by a goose-
into the center, as a crowd of bystanders stepping group of around ten people who
gathers. "Four people have been shot!" were singing God Bless America. When the
shouts the man. "My God! They're white! !" procession got to the crowded corner of
The encircling crowd choruses, "White?! University Place and Waverly Place, the pro-
White?! Let's have a national strike!!" The cession stopped and a straight-looking man
man in the center shouts, "No, wait a min- addressedthe crowd. He told them that the
ute! Look! Two of them are niggers! And war was expensive and that everyone de-
two of them are spics!" The crowd choruses, served to get a piece of the action. He told

them that there was no difference between

BULLETIN the Vietcong, the black militants, and the
OF white Communistagitators.He said that the
government had donated one of each to his
CONCERNED patriotic group, and that someone from the
audience would have the privilege of shoot-
ASIAN SCHOLARS ing the three criminals.A volunteer stepped
forward (Rotante, in the first few perform-
ances). Then the leader said, "Let'sall count
A scholarly-political quarterly him down, just the way they do at Cape
by a nation-wide organization Kennedy." At the end of a ten-point count-
down, and using his own arm as rifle, Rotante
of Asia specialists convinced shot the three tied prisoners.The rest of the
group sang The Star Spangled Banner, end-
that professional expertise ing on the phrase "bombs bursting in air,"
which was repeated,like a broken record, six
should be combined with times. All gave the Hitler salute. At the end
ethical and political concerns. of the National Anthem fragment, the dead
got up and the procession resumed.
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