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Jamming Econo: Punk Aesthetics in Theatre.


Theatre's popularity among members of Generations X and Y is rapidly declining. Film is quickly burying the once proud literary form of Ibsen, Shakespeare, Shaw, and Chekov. Jamming Econo: Punk Aesthetics in Theatre, looks at a cultural movement that M.T.V. was quick to latch onto, hardcore punk; not so much for the music but for the aesthetic of streamlined, efficient use of time in order to entertain. While many arts have had their "punk" movement, theatre never fully embraced the movement. Instead, it pandered to wealthy patrons, and now finds itself in peril as an irrelevant art form to Generations X and Y. It is my goal to show that the aesthetics can be applied practically and in the classroom, but more theatre scholars and practitioners must acquaint themselves with the aesthetics of jamming econo.


The worst infection theatre has is spectacle. Flashy sets and large casts for musicals (the most popular form of theatre) drive up costs and prices shows out of the range of younger audiences. That is why special care must be taken when creating the theatre for Generation X and Y. While some may criticize them for having short attention spans, I say it indicates a consciousness, on their part of not wanting to waste a moment in their entertainment. As a young theatre artist myself, I can truthfully say that theatre is becoming a grandfatherly relic which holds very little relevance to the aesthetics of my generation. Frequently my friends, students, and even theatre colleagues say, "I would rather see a bad movie than a good play."

This all leads me to a term theatre should take to heart: Jamming econo. Jamming econo is a term used by the Minutemen, which according to their bassist, Mike Watt "... is an old concept [...] the idea of scarcity and just using what you got. And maybe more of you comes through because there's less outside stuff you're sticking on--all you got is you, so you have to make something out of it" (quoted in Azerrad 73). In this paper, it is my goal to show why the punk aesthetic is what theatre needs to make it a more engaging literary form; how it (punk) impacted film and created the gap in popularity between theatre and film; and finally how educators can instill the aesthetics of punk into the theatre classroom.

During the late Seventies and early Eighties, the youth of America had little in the way of entertainment with which they could connect. Theatre was headquartered in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles; availability was limited. Young people living there though, could not afford the tickets for an art that is reliant on wealthy donors and grants, which, consequently, manifested audiences of a more mature sensibility. The superstar rock bands did not get off the beaten path of major cities with arenas to house their mammoth shows. Moreover, film spoke more towards the dalliance of the disco and Reagan eras, and rarely to a youthful audience "picking up ill vibes from their society" (Parker 49). What was left was hardcore punk, a trend that sought out the youth of America, and the youth in turn embraced hardcore. It was their film, their music, but most importantly, it was their theatre. Punk was originally slang for a prostitute (Parker 29), then a derelict young person, and in 2002 it has come to mean possessing a rigid work ethic and efficiency. The latter is evidenced by a sports brief on April 8, 2002, "Gruden, Bucs practicing like punks," describing new Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach John Gruden's first practice "as if he were intent to on cramming three hours worth of practice into two hours on the field ... It was like a punk band playing instruments as fast as possible, and every coach seemed to have something loud to say to somebody along the way" (Florence B2).

Punk's influence goes beyond the value ascribed to their culture's tagline. Within the last ten years, fashion trends of the punk scene, erroneously credited to the grunge movement of the Nineties, have gained widespread popularity. For example, it is common to see bleached blond hair on young people today, but in the late seventies, when Germs singer Darby Crash did it, "it was way out on the edge, even compared to some of the other kids who had the punk look back then" (Mullen 133). The flannel shirt, once the retro symbol of grange, was the preferred clothing of the Minutemen's Mike Watt, who wore it in homage to John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Thrift store clothing was a means of survival for Black Flag. Their guitarist's (Greg Ginn) father, Regis Ginn, bought "used clothing for pennies on the pound." The band used it to clothe themselves, "... pulling whatever they liked out of the grab bag. So much for punk fashion" (Azerrad 41). The audiences were not down-trodden kids from Liverpool or Birmingham, or New York or Los Angeles, but as Kim Fowley said they were, "[...] pudgy white girls from the Valley, from the suburbs, from the beaches, from the South Bay, from Orange County, affluent porker chicks who didn't want to marry the doctors and lawyer ..." (quoted in Mullen 136). The disenchantment of middleclass, American kids was surfacing and the punk bands tapped into it.

The essence of hardcore had not been borne though. While their amped up, in-your-face style gave birth to hardcore, the Germs fed off the detritus of a sinking English Punk movement in Los Angeles. For a group that perpetuated notions of anarchy and freedom they were closed off. So much so that when Black Flag appeared on the scene in 1977, "the band's suburban T-shirt, sneakers, and jeans look flew in the face of the consumptive, safety-pin and leather jacket pose of the Anglophilic L.A. punks" (Azerrad 18). They could not play the hot punk scenes such as the Masque. Therefore, they found places to play: parties, union halls, Elks' Lodges, and built a thriving fan base. They always specialized in finding offbeat venues for performances, much like the Off-Off Broadway theatre companies such as Circle Rep. did. If it could hold people and their equipment, it was a gig.

As a product of its dynamic creators, Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski, Black Flag was breath of fresh air. Don Bolles, drummer for the Germs admitted as much, "... they worked their asses off, night and day, twenty four/seven, as opposed to the Germs, who barely even liked getting up in the morning" (quoted in Mullen 197). This was the distinguishing feature of hardcore: intensity and dedication. It bred thrift, which in turn led these bands to make their own records and tour nationally without the need for a major record label's support. It was imperative that hardcore avoid the traps of extravagance and decadence in their effort to escape "living in a bland Republican paradise" (Azerrad 14). Hardcore punk economized music; it was faster and shorter. As Michael Azerrad aptly noted, "Short songs not only reflect a state of dissatisfaction and non-complacency, they simulate it" (71). Perhaps it was part of the aesthetic, but it also came about because, as Greg Ginn said, "... it was almost like clockwork, you could play for twenty minutes before the police would show up" (quoted in Azerrad 18). This left little room for needless solos, verbose choruses, or epic narratives popularized by bands at the time such as Styx, Journey, or Foreigner.

Black Flag culled a nation-wide underground audience. Xerox machines had entered the mainstream and a new phenomenon of fanzines connected the American underground. Stories of Black Flag's shows preceded them through this network. Throughout all the cities of the U.S., large or small, Black Flag's shows were legendary. They were, "the most dangerous thing you could see," and it provided a visceral thrill, an expectation for spontaneous drama that did not lead to sit-ins but physical confrontations with police (Parker 51). The tours themselves were lessons in frugality. There were no tour busses just dilapidated vans. There was no road crew; the band lugged the gear. There were no perks; they scammed food when they could. Their beds were in the van, often occupied by nine other people. This led the Minutemen to call it "jamming econo." Jamming econo was what endeared hardcore to the youth at the time. It required absolutely no pretension, which ingratiated the performers with the fans.

The bands did whatever needed to be done to get people to the show. Black Flag, Minor Threat, and the Minutemen played all-ages shows, no matter what. If it meant playing two shows in one day (one for kids and one for legal drinkers) they did it (Azerrad 23). Minor Threat popularized the X's on minors' hands to enable their fans to see their shows. The Minutemen, a trio of blue-collar boys coined a popular slogan, "Our band could be your life." This reemphasized accessibility, and the bands capitalized on a collective sentiment among America's youth. Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye said about pop music, "You look at rock n' roll back at that time [his adolescence], Nugent or Queen or whatever--they're gods so I knew I could never be like that. And I gave up--I just started skateboarding" (quoted in Azerrad 121). MacKaye's words sound eerily familiar. It echoes my own sentiment towards theatre as late as age 22, as well as those of many young theatre artists: "I can't do Rent or Les Miserables; I'll go make movies." All three bands were proactive in that they destroyed rock paradigms. They were "renouncing the unattainable rock n' roll myth making music relevant for real people" (Azerrad 137). It removed an impediment that obscured the essence of the art. The focus then was the music.

The music was streamlined. Early punk, while fast, stuck to the verse/chorus/verse/chorus/solo/chorus format of traditional rock n' roll, and the songs were a radio friendly three or so minutes. By 1980, rock was saturated with progressive trends that encumbered the songs' progression. Hardcore employed the essentials, and did not try to tap a song for more than it could offer. Mike Watt explained, "We [the Minutemen] were trying to find our sound. We weren't comfortable saying here's our groove" (Azerrad 67). They were a former cover band trying to unlearn the archetypes they had grown up playing (Azerrad 69). "We didn't have to live up to up to any rock paradigm," said Watt, "If it would get people to the gig we would do it. If it didn't it was boozh [short for bourgeois], an adornment, spangle, accoutrement, accessory, ballast," (quoted in Azerrad 84). Each song was generally less than a minute. All of a sudden college radio stations were spinning the Minutemen, and the stripped down music was more interesting than the dragging rock anthems of the Eighties. The Minutemen reflected a feeling and a trend towards streamlining entertainment in general. America was in nothing if not a catatonic state throughout the Eighties, and the Minutemen's music--all angular stops and starts, challenging lyrics and blink-and-you-missed'em songs--was a metaphor for the kind of alertness required to fight back against the encroaching mediocrity. (Azerrad 71) Alertness is a good word because the streamlined music was not asking for simplicity. It called for efficiency. Something theatre lacks today. Many in the theatre world believe it needs to be reinvented. The result is inaccessible, experimental theatre, which curries to a few or spiced up shows with a cinematic edge essentially meaning little other than video screens onstage. I maintain that theatre artists should work with the old archetypes, but strip them down to the essentials.

In destroying the paradigms of rock, hardcore punk was additionally questioning all paradigms of entertainment. It advocated stripping away the spectacle, and leaving only what was necessary to entertain. This is not a new concept. In fact it is one of the oldest tenets from one of the most sacred theatrical texts, Aristotle's The Poetics. Of the six parts of drama, "character, plot, diction, reasoning, spectacle and lyric poetry" (11), spectacle holds the least value. It is considered "least germane to the art of poetry ... [Consequently] tragedy is not dependant on performance and actors; also the art of the property-manager has more relevance to the production of visual effects than does that of the poets" (13). Later, he writes, "Those who use spectacle produce an effect which is not evocative of fear, but simply monstrous, have nothing to do with tragedy ..." The effect sought in production should be "brought about in the events" (22).

Granted, film is highly technical and special effects do draw audiences, but the special effects company is rarely placed on the marquee; that is still reserved for the actors and today's version of Aristotle's poet, the director. Yet the effects in movies are within the capabilities of the genre and hold to Aristotle's rules of complex plot in that they "come about as a result of what has happened before out of necessity or in accordance with probability" (18). A helicopter descending to the stage of an enclosed theatre is highly improbable, despite the suspension of disbelief, and harkens back to the American melodrama of the 1800s in which prop trains would traverse the stage to dazzle the audience. Yet in Miss Saigon, the helicopter's decent seems to be all anyone can ever talk about regarding that show. M.T.V. realized early on that dead time was the enemy. The result, as older adults have lamented, was a younger generation with short attention spans. This leads theatre professionals to ask, "How can we compete with film and television?" The trend I am seeing is towards a dangerous device of melodrama: spectacle by attempts to imitate cinematic devices.

Cameras, live bands, film clips, video screens all imbue theatre with a seductive, but non-existent, sense of equality to film. In its attempt to compete with film, theatre goes to extravagant lengths to replicate reality. Consequently, dangling choppers are used as nothing more than an adornment. They do little for the art other than drive up ticket prices and may contribute to dead time in the audience's mind. Of such attempts to replicate reality, Ron May, the innovative director and Artistic Director of Phoenix's Stray Cat Theatre said, "Theatre doesn't get it! Film does realism best, and you can't compete with that. I want to stage a show that can't be filmed" (R. May, personal communication: interview, September 30, 2003).

This is not to say that cameras and video are anathema to theatre, but they should avoid using these merely to use them. Function is the priority. Any device must "get people to the gig" as Mike Watt would say. Anything else is only there as bells and whistles. If theatre wants to draw younger generations to the same degree as the cinematic arts do, they need to stop trying to copy it in form. Theatre should learn to function as cinema did from M.T.V., which studied the entertainment of the youth at the time: hardcore punk. [Note: hardcore/punk were not the only two genres entertaining youth at the time. There were other alternatives to the "mainstream". Hardcore punk is the focus of this paper, but it is inaccurate to believe that it was the only form of youth entertainment.] David Fincher rose from being a music video director for such artists as Madonna and Billy Idol to a box office hit with features such as Panic Room and Fight Club.

Now the challenge comes in making theatre jam econo. To start, the concept of theatre as a revered art has to be forgotten. Theatre is not sacred. As an exercise students should read Tennessee Williams', The Glass Menagerie. Although the play premiered in 1944, it is still considered a contemporary drama in the canon of theatrical literature, and despite Williams' moniker of a dream play, W.B. Worthen classifies it as "a play in the realistic tradition" (971). Without discussing it, the class should then read Christopher Durang's For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls.

This play is a wildly hilarious send-up of The Glass Menagerie, but it is only one act. In using Durang's play, the two primary punk aesthetics are employed. The play is irreverent. Just as punk refused to hold music sacred (as evidenced by send-up covers of "Louie Louie" by Black Flag and the Monkeys' "Stepping Stone" by Minor Threat), Durang shows no mercy in lampooning Williams. More importantly though, it takes a full-length play and condenses it into one economical act. In order to prevent students from seeing the play as simply a parody, the class should interrogate Durang's choices. Why does Laura become Lawrence? Why glass swizzle-sticks instead of a glass menagerie? How does Durang pare down the prose? What does Durang seem to say regarding Tom's closeted homosexuality? More can be made in comparing and contrasting the two works, but more interestingly, students will probably relate better to Belle than to Menagerie. In comparing the two plays students will most likely express more contemporary aesthetics that reflect the concept of jamming econo.

The final step will be the students' opportunity to create. In groups of no more than three, they should pick a play that is a modern classic. Plays over a hundred years old should be avoided. Students should then create a ten-minute play based off of the play they selected. A ten-minute play is beneficial because it also introduces students to a genre popularized in the last twenty years by the Actors Theatre of Louisville (A.T.L.). Thus teachers may take time to have students read some of A.T.L.'s published ten-minute plays and introduce students to a genre many college and high school students are unaware exits. Furthermore, the genre itself relies on economic writing in order to work. Once the students have written their plays, they must present them using only what is available in the classroom, no outside props. In doing this, their imaginations will be pushed to create compelling drama that is not reliant on spectacle. Additionally, their choices will indicate certain aesthetic trends that will both embrace and reject the artistic choices of the play they pare down. After the presentations, the class should spend time discussing how what they did counters the traditions of theatre and to what end it leads them in devising theatrical aesthetics that are copasetic to their generation. The goal is for students to, like the Minutemen, unlearn the archetypes to which they have grown accustomed. In order to be more appealing to Generations X and Y, theatre must reevaluate not reinvent itself.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. Malcolm Heath. London: Penguin Classics, 1996.

Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. Boston: Little Brown, 2001.

Florence, Mal. "Gruden, Bucs Practicing Like Punks." East Valley Tribune. 8 April 2002: B2.

Mullen, Brendan, and Marc Spitz. We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk. New York: Three Rivers, 2001.

Parker, James. Turned On. New York: Cooper Square, 1998.

Worthen, W.B. Introduction. The Glass Menagerie. By Tennessee Williams. Rpt. in The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama. Ed. W.B. Worthen. Harcourt: Fort Worth, 1993. 971-997.

Krueger was awarded a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting.. He is a playwright and actor and teaches composition and screenwriting as a faculty associate at Arizona State University.
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Author:Krueger, Luke
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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