The word alternative, as found in terms like alternative theatre, alternative performance and alternative culture), is a term used to refer to the evolution of the radical anti-mainstream and anti-commercial dance and theatre.
The term came into use in the Europe, Britain and the USA amid the political and social ferment of the 1960s and 1970s. Related to the earlier concept of political theatre, it was one of a broad spectrum of terms thus applied, others being fringe theatre, guerilla theatre, avant garde theatre, experimental theatre, laboratory theatre, workshop theatre, and even community theatre.
These theatres eschewed the form and content of mainstream theatre, instead experimenting with a wide variety of techniques, styles, and spaces for producing theatre that spoke to contemporary issues—civil rights and the Vietnam War being especially prominent—in a startling, and to many an offensive, manner. Since so many of these alternative, radical theatres are rooted in populist theatrical traditions
The practice and the term gradually became prominent in South Africa in the late 1970s and in the 1980s was increasingly employed in a specific sense to refer to venues and companies working outside the formal structures. The term gained particular traction in the country when it was employed by Hauptfleisch and Steadman in the seminal publication South African Theatre: Four Plays and an Introduction (1984), where they indicated that it was basically a term of convenience that referred to all theatre that "aligned itself against dominant tendencies in South African culture", working with oppositional forms - not only creating new and home-bred forms and techniques, but also avoiding imitation of European and American forms. In the publication it is rather simplistically used as a separate category of playmaking and production, to refer to all work not easily classified under the more traditional categories of (white) Afrikaans Theatre, (white) English Theatre and Black Theatre and tends to refer to workshopped plays and performances with a political theme and the companies and venues that did such work.
However, by the 1990s the term had gradually evolved to gain a wider and diverse set of meanings, more in line with international practice.
For an historical overview of the evolution of alternative theatre in the country and the names of some of the companies and venues involved, go to the Overview of South African Theatre
Encyclopedia Britannica. "Alternative theatre"
"Alternative Theatre" in Temple Hauptfleisch & Ian Steadman (eds.). 1984. South African Theatre. Four Plays and an Introduction. Pretoria: HAUM Educational (pp. 166-171)
Moya Jones. Alternative Theatre in Britain in the Late 70s and in the 80s
Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco. Theatre and Social Justice (January 2020): Alternative, Radical Theatre
Go to ESAT Bibliography
Return to The ESAT Entries
Return to Main Page