“A taxicab drives up outside the theater. A man gets out of the cab and draws a gun. Across Twenty-third Street another man, a pedestrian, stops, kneels by a streetlight, and draws a gun. Between them flows the actual traffic of a busy Manhattan street. A few drivers and passengers duck as they see men with drawn guns on either side of the street. In typical New York fashion most cars don’t stop but drive through this battle zone. Inside the theater, a woman performer draws a gun and takes aim at the gunman who had arrived by taxi. She shoots, he falls, but the glass between them is not shattered.”
This is part of a production by Squat, a performance group operating in the 1970’s and 80’s in New York. Their stage backed onto a ground floor shopfront window looking straight out across the pavements and traffic of Twenty-third Street, and this gunman episode typifies the group’s incorporation of the everyday life outside into their staged productions. The description above is from Between Theater and Anthropology, Richard Schechner (Penn, Pennsylvania: 1985) p.304.
“Again a system is revealed. The taxi = ‘life’ and belongs to Twenty-third Street. The gunmen in the street are ambivalent. They belong both to the realm of art and to what we have increasingly become accustomed to as life in the streets. To passing pedestrians and motorists, the gunmen are ‘life’. Then the woman drawing her pistol and shooting from inside the theater makes clear that the two gunmen outside are ‘art’.
“The blank shot that drops a person proves the point. But to whom does it prove it? The people just passing on Twenty-third Street see a man with a gun fall. Maybe they think they didn’t hear a shot. Or maybe they assume a movie is being shot. Or maybe they don’t think anything but just move through minding their own business.”
The work of productions like these is to ‘intentionally confound’ the categories of ‘art’ and ‘life’.
They set about it in quite a different way from the lifelike artworks of their contemporaries Allan Kaprow or Tehching Hseih. Nevertheless Schechner’s description sounds just the same as a Kaprow write-up: the tone of engaged retrospection, the factual but stealthily literary prose that seems to stand back but in fact constitutes the entire event for most of us, who missed the thing when it was live. Kaprow often wrote his own write-ups, and even wrote descriptions of exemplary happenings that never really happened; Schechner came to Squat from outside and writes from even further outside, at the distance of a fieldworker now reintegrated into the literature of anthropology. Did Kaprow do anthropology?