The Drama Review [MIT Press]
Volume 34, Number 1 (T125), Spring 1990
"Letters, Reports, Etc. "

Iowa's No Shame Theatre

Ed. Note: In the TDR Comment "Enter Students," TDR 33, no. 3 (T123), we asked for more input from young people. No Shame responded--we hope there'll be more.

Three years ago (1986) a torn piece of paper was posted on the callboard of a Midwestern university theatre. Its haphazard type read:

The No Shame Theatre is looking for a few good pieces that would be suitable for performing in the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot someplace. If you have something and want to see it done, we have the perfect vehicle for your expression: A big green '76 Dodge with a slant six engine. Please waste no time as we want to get this truck started. No Shame is at least as serious as you are.

Not many nights later, in the cold and rain, actors stood in the back of the truck. They were illuminated by the headlamp of a motorcycle, revving it's engine between each piece to keep the battery charged. A sound man sat at the controls of the truck's stereo. The crowd, huddled under umbrellas, applauded the announcement, "Welcome to Hard Liquor and Handgun Night." A new kind of theatre had come to Iowa. One which was noticeably underinfluenced, dangerous, and very rough.

No Shame, created and entirely managed by students at the University of Iowa, provides performance opportunities not afforded by the "official" theatre of the theatre department. What follows are several texts written for and performed at No Shame, as wess as three takes on this alternative venue by Todd Ristau, an MFA playwright and No Shame's founder and artistic director; Cheryl Snodgrass, an undergraduate theatre major, No Shame stage manager, and regular performer; and Jack Halstead, former assistant professor, No Shame faculty sponsor, and occasional performer.

Take 1: Historical

When the whole thing started, there was some undergraduate unrest over the abandonment of Midnight Madness. Madness, the model on which No Shame is based, was held at midnight each Friday in a deserted lecture room in the mathematics building. Pieces for Madness were written exclusively by playwriting graduate students in their MFA Workshop and the format had a lot of benefits--writers were forced to do short pieces each week, work hands-on with actors, and deal with production concerns not to mention live audiences. You learned a lot about how to say something in a concise yet dramatic way. For the younger actors there was some low-pressure stage experience. By meeting writers and older actors they could ease into a community of artists and because this was part of a class the playwrights were taking, people who did casting were required to go and watch. It isn't hard to see why Madness was popular. However, at some point the playwrights decided they weren't interested in staying up that late anymore, or in writing short pieces. There was a kind of snobbery about not lowering themselves to that kind of writing. There was so much resistance on the part of the playwrights that Madness was finally done away with.

To compensate for the loss, I introduced the idea of doing guerrilla theatre out of the back of my truck. There were some changes from the Madness model, though. From the beginning the focus in No Shame was on experimentation in a low risk, nonjudgmental way. The underlying philosophy, "Dare to Fail!," is what has kept it going for the last four years and is important to many of the students under pressure to meet curricular expectations. Because we are a student initiative outside the university no aspect of our work has the stigma or pressure of being graded and failure will not result in probation.

No Shame provides a place where anyone can take a shot at any aspect of theatre which interests them, a place where writers outside the Workshop and inexperienced actors can explore the possibilities of working in live theatre in front of an audience not expected to be polite. When you do your theatre in parking lots, there is very little in the way of audience etiquette. Cat calls, or even thrown bottles make for effective quality control. Even if a piece is bad, you have to believe in what you're doing enough to face that kind of crowd. It makes for very honest and sincere fare. No Shame is a place where anyone may get up and dare to fail. It is a place without shame.

We have gained a dedicated and loyal following over the last four years, and attracted the interest of many people from outside the department. In 1989, thanks to Randy Rollison of the Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art, a franchise of No Shame will open in Manhattan. There is also a "franchise" at a college in Illinois. It's taken a long time, but No Shame has proven its worth. Within the department we now have the full support of our Chairperson, Cosmo Catalano, and he has really been wonderful to us. We are allowed access to University theatre spaces when available, and we have a faculty sponsor.

I must admit, however, that despite this year's successes, it has not been easy, and there has been some strong opposition to No Shame. Often it was the quality, or rather, the presumed substandard quality, that was in question. I say "presumed" because faculty complaints came mostly from people who never attended No Shame. We were told that people will confuse us with the University Theatre , the famed Workshop in particular, thereby damaging the reputation of Iowa by not reflecting the department in the best light. We were told that without criticism of the work, we were masturbating. There was the opinion of some faculty that this kind of theatre wasn't "real" and would never help us to get work in the profession. We have been told that we encourage reckless behavior and irresponsible theatre because we don't usually have any director and often the pieces are not memorized.

I would argue that a thrown bottle is criticism. As far as the confusion, we make a point of being separate from the University; we are proud that this is our own initiative, so we go out of our way to make sure there is no confusion. I believe ours is a very real kind of theatre where legitimate skills are practiced, and that we are responsible enough in our theatre to consider audience, content, delivery, inventiveness, and commitment. We provide hands-on training in every aspect of production. In addition to being alternative in style and content to the theatre of the department, we train people in the ability to put into action personal initiative in the creation of original theatre. The hope is that they will be less likely to fall into a kind of theatre where they have no power, and more likely to continue to grow and extend rather than fall into a groove they can exploit for a short period. We are committed to theatre as an artform and not a vocation-- that's what makes us exciting.

--Todd Ristau

Take 2: Procedural
Good evening and welcome to No Shame Theatre. No eating, drinking, or smoking in the theatre. Please keep the aisles clear. Thanks to Dan Janssen, our technical director. The order for tonight ...

So begins another Friday night of No Shame. My night begins around 10:30 when I flop onto a couch in the students lounge, light a smoke, and wait. One by one the writers trail in with scripts. Some are typewritten, some are handwritten, and some are spoken scenarios which I quickly scribble down on any handy piece of paper for the TD. The writers are asked what order they would like to go in and when the TD rolls in on his bike at 11:03 he is given his list as he dashes to the light booth. The scripts are not read beforehand, unless someone wants my creative opinion. No committee chooses the scripts, there is no censorship.

As a performer the routine varies greatly. I may be handed a script five minutes before curtain, an actor may not show up and a replacement pulled from the audience while the other actors wait on stage. A collaboration piece may be in rehearsal for weeks. It is up to those involved what degree of performance they are shooting for. The most consistent process is getting the cast together for a runthrough Friday afternoon, then meeting again before the show at 11:00. There is a chaotic bustle and you receive your number in the order. When it's your turn, you give it all you got.

The pieces are enormously varied in style and content. Everything from interactive dialog to dance, movement, improvs, Dada, poetry, musicals, performance art, serials, tag team serials where writers take turns each week using the same characters, monologs, and a thing called DEAD PANTHER for writers to remain anonymous. There isn't much that hasn't been touched on, robbed from, played with, or attempted.

I have been with No Shame since the days in the truck, and there have been good and bad sides to the transition. The University facilities are fabulous, and the seats beat standing in the rain, but with the move inside came an urge to conform to theatrical conventions and rely on the technical capabilities that were impossible in the pickup. It broadened the opportunities of the writers to establish individual styles and gain experience inside a legitimate theatrical setting, but also allowed them to use high tech effects when more creative responses might have been found. Also, when you have a real stage, computerized lighting, and a giant sound system rather than a truck bed, street light, and a department store tape player, there is more opportunity for the kind of ego stroking we'd like to avoid.

To contend with these changes, we periodically take No Shame out of the theatre to alternative spaces. Writers never know what will be available to them, so they have to keep on their toes with good work, rather than pay attention to production values. No one ever knows what light rig we'll have in the theatre, or you might show up and we're in the lobby, or out on the front steps of the building. Wherever there is enough light for actors to read their scripts, No Shame can be done.

Because we perform every Friday during the school year, there are many chances to expand on ideas or themes, express fears, protest something, make people laugh, teach on a topic, gather information ... what we want is to leave here being able to do good, creative, and interesting work. The No Shamer is not content to simply audition and pray for a job. Sacrificing your integrity for a job at acting is not what we are concerned with. We are motivated to create and execute our own work each week, and our commitment has paid off.

Despite a great deal of opposition when we started, we are now only rarely called to defend its value. This year was a turning point for us. We damaged a piano during a No Shame, and although there was no pressure from the Department it was important to us to pay for the damages. There were some fears that this might be enough to close us down. The reaction was very much the opposite, and a tremendous display of support for what we're doing. The administration suggested we hold a benefit "Best of No Shame" in order to raise money to repair the piano. We ended up making a substantial profit due to the amazing audience response. With this money we were able to start an "ad hoc" fund in No Shame's name which will allow students to produce anything they want to do, anywhere they want to do it.

No Shame has been the most productive and influential aspect of my college career. It has allowed me to intelligently explore alternative forms of theatre that interest me the most. I am not in the theatre to "find work", I am in the theatre to "make work".

--Cheryl Snodgrass

Take 3: Theoretical

The mainstay of No Shame performance is the spoken text. Given the context of a theatre department that privileges the text by way of showcasing its central Playwrights' Workshop, it is not surprising that writing dominates No Shame. You might expect--as an alternative to the Authorized theatre of the Department--that No Shame participants would develop performative strategies that diverge from the written-text-centered norm. Instead, the most consistent "alternative" strategy deployed by No Shamers is a disregard for what Joseph Chaikin--in a bygone era--called the "presence of the Actor" (1972). Texts are seldom memorized and even if they are they are presented with little regard for acting "technique"--intentionally creating a style of "weak performance" as a positive value, similar to Italian postmodern philosopher Giani Vattimo's concept of "weak thought" (1989). While practical considerations such as limited rehearsal time and inexperienced actors do contribute to this weakening of the performative act, it is clear the young artists of No Shame are sensitive to what Philip Auslander has identified as "the problematics of presence" (1987:24).

In "Toward a Concept of the Political in Postmodern Theatre" Auslander reasons that the "suspicion of presence and the simple presentation of performer to audience that suffuses postmodern experimental theatre derives [...] from the anxiety created by recent historical demonstrations of the collusion between presence as charisma or salesmanship and repressive power structures." Through adopting various tactics to undermine their own presence, performers seek to "escape identification as the Other and the power relations implied by that identification." Citing the Wooster Group's L.S.D. as "an investigation of the suppression of difference within cultural and political representations," Auslander identifies the group's reading (as opposed to the memorization and "charismatic" performance) of various texts as part of their strategic "deconstruction of presence". The No Shamers, through their characteristic "weak" performance, maintain a similar political stance and fulfill in their own way Auslander's mandate that "the postmodern theatre of resistance must [...] both expose the collusion of presence with authority and resist collusion of presence by refusing to establish itself as the charismatic Other" (1987:26).

In certain respects, No Shame Theatre reflects the performative impulses of the next generation of theatre practitioners. It is interesting to note that these young performers are--for the most part--largely unaware of the work like the Wooster Group's and the theoretical implications of that work, not to mention the complex of feminist postmodernist thought which they intersect. The politics of performance embodied in No Shame Theatre are homegrown in the (academic) heartland; they carry the unmistakable stamp of postmodern sensibility.

--Jack Halstead


Auslander, Philip
1987 - "Toward a Concept of the Political in Postmodern Theatre." Theatre Journal 39 (no. 1):20-34.

Joseph Chaikin
1972 - The Presence of the Actor. New York: Atheneum.

Gianni Vattimo
1989 - Aldila del Soggetto: Nietzsche, Heidegger, e l'Ermenutica, 2nd ed. Milano: Feltrinelli.

[Back to Press Clippings]