Evolving humanity, emerging worlds
Manchester, UK; 5th-10th August 2013
'All the world's a stage': the social and political potentialities of theatre and performance
Location Alan Turing Building G209
Date and Start Time 09 Aug, 2013 at 09:00
This panel seeks to investigate the potential of theatre and performance to provide reflections on alterity, politics, sociality, and society. We explore how theatre and performance provide insight into the emergence of forms of protest, new forms of social relations, and societal aspirations.
If all the world really is a stage, and we the players on it, then where do we position theatre and performance in this world? Social theory following Goffman, Bourdieu or Butler has theorised the importance of performative metaphors and notions of performativity for our understandings of identity, sociality, and politics. In this panel, we explore the creative pathways that a study of theatre and performance may open for anthropological enquiry. What do we understand by theatre and how does it differ from other performative events? What social forms and political events does theatre provoke? If some of the political potentials of performance are protest and ethical imaginations, what is the socio-political potential of institutionalised forms of theatre? What if theatre is understood as a broader category of intellectual and aesthetic enquiry into self-reflected understandings of embodiment and sociality? What may we learn about the relation between politics and aesthetics by attending to performance events and theatre?
In its potential to provide second-order reflections on society and sociality, theatre is important for how we analyse the emergence of protest, new forms of social relations, and aspirations of groups. By focussing on "humans who embody other humans", as Helmuth Plessner described it, theatre can provide a rich field for anthropological explorations of people's own reflections on humanity, sociality, and aspirations. We look to ethnographic analysis to explore the variety of actors', directors', and audiences' reflections on how to stage the world and thereby render the world a stage.
Discussant: Prof James Thompson (University of Manchester) and Prof Paul Heritage (Queen Mary, University of London -- TBC)
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
'Verbatim' documentary theatre as a means of ethnographic representation in Staffordshire and London
This paper argues for the value of Anna Deavere Smith’s ‘verbatim’ technique of documentary theatre as a means of anthropological knowledge transmission, outlining the technique’s potential, the obstacles that it has encountered in practice, and some possible ways in which these might be overcome.
Documentary theatre is a genre in which the actual words of real people are edited into a script and performed on-stage by actors. In some cases, the company 'builds characters' around this script. In others, the company uses the 'verbatim technique' pioneered by Anna Deavere Smith, in which the original recordings of interviews and conversations are played back to actors through earpieces and imitated as closely as possible.
While Fritz et al (2011) suggest that the verbatim technique 'risks nullifying an actor's art and skill' and that one 'might as well be… watching a documentary on the telly', I will argue that Smith's approach represents an significant new modality of ethnographic representation, with distinct advantages over both monograph and film. The actor's skill is not 'nullified'; it is reconceptualised. No longer does s/he 'build' a 'character'; instead s/he recasts a person in a new dynamic matrix of relations with the audience. This unique capacity of verbatim theatre to create what might be called an 'ethnographic sociality' affords important opportunities to express and move beyond 'cultural critique' in an anthropology that has undergone the affective turn.
However, as case studies of verbatim theatre productions in Staffordshire and London illustrate, it can prove difficult to realise such potential in practice. The ethnographic and affective promise of verbatim performance is undermined by audience expectations of theatrical convention, and (usually misdirected) critiques from the Left.
The paper concludes with some thoughts on how a more radically affecting 'verbatim' performance ethnography might be achieved.
'The witness and the replay': oral history and documentary theatre
Informed by Rebecca Schneider's groundbreaking analysis of performance and its 'remains' (2011), this paper offers a consideration of documentary theatre in terms of theatrical re-enactment, and the role of 'non-serious' theatrical processes in constructing and mediating the past.
In Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Re-enactment (2011), performance scholar Schneider examines a series of representational practices seeking to document or re-animate past events. Documentary performance projects utilising ethnographic processes involve 'cross- and inter-authorships' by their very nature. This paper examines the conceptual basis and working processes of such documentary theatre projects, with a particular focus on London Bubble's community theatre practice. The company's oral history project Grandchildren of the Blitz (2010-2011) and the ensuing performance work Blackbirds (2012) explored the effects of the Blitz on Bermondsey and Rotherhithe in south London. It negotiated, in the first instance, encounters between young residents of the area as interviewers, and older residents, who had themselves lived through the Blitz as children, as interviewees. It thus invited its participants to become, effectively, ethnographers of a past to which they were not present. The paper enumerates the multiple forms of theatricality and re-enactment in play in the documentary theatre encounter - from research, to devising, to performance. In doing so, it attempts to account for "problems of ambivalence, simultaneous temporal registers, anachronism, and the everywhere of error" not as difficulties to be overcome, but precisely as functional to documentary performance, and which thus also shed light on upon contemporary political and historical circumstances - in this case, the re-articulation of WWII in a context of 'austerity'.
'Performance' versus 'theatre': an ancient perspective
Anthropology and theatre, as the history of Performance Studies suggests, share common, and increasingly current, agendas. But the idea of theatre as 'going to a play' still dominates. A radical revisioning of Athenian theatre, in contrast to Aristotle's description of its reperformance, may help.
Theatre is anthropology: at least, as the symbol and practice of collective identity, one would expect it to be central to the discipline. This paper suggests one reason it has not been is an anomalous (but still common) view of 'theatre' as 'going to a play' which comes into vogue in the late nineteenth-century, at the same time as the disciplines which created the modern academy itself were forming. So-called 'modern drama' , despite reactions against it in many forms, the most important of which came from anthropology itself via 'Performance Studies' in the 1960s (Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, Richard Schechner) survives in popular perceptions of 'the play' as discrete object, bounded by text, time and place. Recent studies of chorality in ancient Greece, of which the texts of Athenian drama are a trace, suggest the attractiveness of this idea of the play-as-object begins with the modern (mis)reading of Aristotle. His definitions of tragedy were attempting to explain the quite different phenomenon of the massive reperformance of Athenian texts across non-democratic polis in the Greek-speaking world: i.e. to explain apparent universality by suggesting it inheres in objective characteristics (a precisely apolitical idea). The book, printing, and related ideas of objecthood and authority have also obscured the characteristic 'theatricality' of the performance cultures of antiquity; but they are now increasingly recognised as models for a current 'convergence culture' in which ideas of audience often drive, and constitute, 'the work'.
'Bastardos of all countries, unite!': On international theatre exchange and an aesthetic of transformation
This paper explores the ethical significance of international cooperation through theatre. Focus is the German 'Theater an der Ruhr' and its unique 'international theatrelandscapes' project, which has initiated pioneering aesthetic dialogue, among others, with Iran, Iraq, or Syria.
This paper traces the emergence, conceptualisation, and provocative transformative potential of the international theatrelandscapes project developed by Roberto Ciulli and his companions. I discuss their first project, the 'Theatrelandscapes Yugoslavia' and their enormous UNESCO supported project 'The Expedition Silk Road', which broke new ground for many of the countries' cultural politicians, artists, and audiences. Since Ciulli's company always highlighted more than the logistical achievements, I also explore what I call their 'aesthetics of becoming' and the transformative significance they attribute to theatre dialogues across borders.
Describing their aspirations, I investigate how their work could be described as creating a "dynamic relational matrix within which human subjects are constantly interacting in ways that are co-productive ... and through which they come to know the world they live in and find meaning within it" (Long and Moore 2012: 42). The international theatre exchange lived and institutionalised by Ciulli and his company presents embodied forms of enacted and contemplated enquiries into subjectivity, society, and sociality. They are critical and reflexive because they constitute theatre as a public space for alternative, aesthetic imaginations that has the capacity to encompass the world in its own world, and therefore also to mock and rethink it.
The Invisible Performance / The Invisible Masterpiece: Visibility and Concealment in Independent Public Art
Most commonly seen as an aesthetic infatuated with self-promotion, this paper will examine the "invisible masterpieces" of Independent Public Art, the furtive artworks not only whose performance is concealed (as in nearly all examples of this illicit art) but so too the final artefact itself.
Independent Public Art (read graffiti and street-art), is most commonly seen as a site of egotistical self-promotion, a form of "territorial pissing" habitually translated as "[insert name] was here". Yet a distinct group of practitioners within this sphere can in fact be seen to be operating in almost the exact opposite direction, producing artworks which are almost entirely concealed to the public at large, unknown to all but the most ardent of advocates. While secrecy is made publicly visible in almost all cases of Independent Public Art then - the necessary privacy of the illicit performance made communal through its public status in the heart of the city (a factor which of course contributes to their charged status, their nature as artefactual residues of a prohibited act) - it is the suppression and withholding of information that I seek to explore in this paper, the motives for, and ramifications of, these highly clandestine artworks. It is hence the dual furtiveness of these works which will here be discussed, the invisibility of both the performance and the artwork itself, an intentional containment of fame which I will suggest is linked to perceptions of commitment and authenticity, to a purity of motive deemed sullied by visibility.
Artmani, Occupy, Escrache. Politics and performance in Barcelona
In Barcelona, Spain, in the last years many artist collectives have defined their practice as a form of political dissent or “artivism”. These collectives have been accused of reducing politics to performance. This paper will look at their practices, from “artmanis” to “escraches”.
Since the late nineties, many artistic collectives in Barcelona and Spain in general have defined their practice in terms of active political intervention, in what some have defined as Activism. Originally related to the anti-globalisation movement, this active involvement in politics involved the participation and organisation of demonstrations. Some critics of "artivist" practices dismissed them as achieving the opposite effect from what they intended- instead of making these demonstrations more effective, they turned them into "works of art", "performances" without effect. One of the things I want to discuss in this presentation is this dismissive understanding of "performance" as something ineffectual and anti-political. I will address this question by looking at the different forms in which these "performances" have been integrated into political movements, from the "artmanis" organised within the anti-globalisation movement, to the organisation of the 15-M square occupations in 2011, to the more recent "Escraches", or public acts of accusation to politicians organised by the PAH (Platform of Mortgage Victims) .
We love spontaneity and script
This paper investigates the interstices of artistic practice and cultural policy in the MST of Brazil. It examines the tensions between spontaneity and script, which call into question the potentiality of art to transform society.
This paper centres its analysis on the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) of Brazil and instances of the movement's grassroots theatre. Mística, as this practice is named, is the theatrical ritual through which the movement enervates itself, its members, bonds of family, and bonds of companionship. To produce desired transformative social effects, spontaneity is central; serendipity and a sense of the 'creative' are the dynamic heart of mística's cultural capital. However, as the movement has expanded, and mística has become a recognized technology practiced by the movement's culture sector, criticisms have begun to emerge from members regarding its vibrancy. The MST has a longstanding engagement with cultural politics, but has lately been unable to transfer enthusiasm for its programmes of artistic expression to wider Brazilian urban society. This lack of projection into the city is key, as the MST is now perceived to be losing momentum, important in the respect that the city is naturally the largest market for MST produce. This paper suggests that the role of the Brazilian broadsheet press is crucial in this regard, and that journalists have become tired of iterative, stale, and overly rehearsed expressions of sem terra identity expressed through supposedly radical spaces of theatricality. Members of the movement equally speak of a lack of visceral energy that the culture sector's activities used to possess, which prompts this paper's closing remarks on the tensions between spontaneity and script, which call into question the potentiality of art to transform society.
Theatre, thought and action: three experiments in Africa using community performance to interrogate power structures.
This paper explores, with reference to projects undertaken by the writer, how performance arts were used with marginalised social groups in three African nations to explore particpants lives and then illustrate injustices to those in power.
This paper takes as it starting points Paulo Friere's ideas about mutually relevant learning processes, and Gramsci and Frantz Fanon's respective concepts of the organic and native intellectual. It then explores three community-based theatre projects for which the writer was largely responsible: with street children in Ethiopia; with rural primary school children in Eritrea; and with an inter-generational group of women in Uganda. The paper looks at how an evolving set of multi-arts practices sought to work with each group to help them identify and interrogate at progressively more complex levels issues they found problematic.
A series of questions will be asked and discussed about the radicalism of such an approach and its challenge to prevailing neo-liberal development approaches, about the relationship between facilitators/researchers and community groups, and about how effective such work can be in using theatre as a vehicle first for thought but then for action, demanding change from: the individual; the group; those in power.
Theatre in Transition
Using theatre and performance as a methodological approach, this paper outlines a theatrical drama of internalized violence created from the imagination of children living in a government-built temporary relocation camp located in Cape Town, South Africa.
Spread over compacted, barren sand on the outskirts of rented airport land in Cape Town, is a government-built temporary relocation camp called Symphony Way Temporary Residential Area (TRA). This interminable horizon of tin is known by its residents as "Blikkiesdorp" (Tin Can Town) or "Blikkies". Some of the residents here are refugees, some are asylum seekers, some immigrants, and most are South Africans who have been evicted off public land as they wait for government subsidised housing. All have been forcibly and violently removed and all are subject to the pressures of severe economic instability.
Ethnographic research conducted explored the effect of forced movement, temporary shelter, health, and food security, on children's ideas, identity, space and belonging. Through a careful structuring of four modules that ran in sequential order, each one building upon the one it had succeeded, the methodological approach served both as a creatively stimulating space for children and an ethnographic tool to study the effects of temporary relocation camps on children.
The methodological approach used culminated in a seminal theatrical piece of their experience of life, as they perceived it. Their daily ingestion of life in a temporary relocation camp sprung forth from their imagination, dramatically narrating the characters, setting and circumstances that give rise to how they express and subsequently perceive their reality. The children called this play 'Neighbourhood' and reflected upon it as a descriptive performance about their daily lives.
The anthropologist as ensemble member: Taking research theatre seriously
I present a retrospective and prospective exploration that ‘takes seriously’ (Viveiros de Castro) the work of research theatre. This presents two main challenges: how to approach parallel, non-institutional research traditions within Euro-American spheres and the text-focused practice of ethnography
While ethnographic texts create distance and enable control of 'the other', performance requires "participation (at least as an audience) and therefore some degree of mutual recognition" (Fabian 1999: 27). Conquergood (2002) suggests that ethnography-as-performance, as opposed to ethnographic text, opens the ethnographic dialogue to those who are not trained in academic discourse or those who cannot read. In this paper I explore the potential insights gained by doing anthropology with research theatre practitioners as contrasted with an anthropology of theatre. I present these experimental reflections by means of a retrospective exploration of my engagement with a number of theatre makers, in the tradition of Jerzy Grotowski and Eugenio Barba.
The work of these theatre makers has developed into a disciplined and articulated research movement into the human condition. Research theatre is beginning to carve its place in a number of universities. In fact, Grotowski and his actors always engaged to some degree with universities. However, the bulk of this research is, and always has been, conducted outside of established institutional frameworks. Research theatre practitioners can be understood as forming part of Foucault's subjugated knowledges; 'the low other of science'. The collaborative approach I explore in this paper entails allowing this body of subjugated knowledge to inform both practice and theory in the production of anthropological knowledge. Taking seriously the prospective, performative nature of research theatre, allowing this to inform ethnographic practice, offers anthropology a means to develop processual understandings that differ from those afforded by text.
My world is being staged: indigenous theatre in Chiapas, Mexico
Many events have performative elements but theatre differs from others in its 'self consciousness'. Theatre is always theatrical, outside everyday life and can parody and comment on the quotidian. By this means it can increase cultural awareness, support social upheaval and new forms of sociality.
This paper will look at actors (and the plays that they create) who come from various indigenous communities but are based in the mestizo town of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Teatro Lo'il Maxil (Monkey Business Theatre) emerged from the writers co-operative Sna Jtz'bajon some 20 years ago and more recently an all female theatrical group (FOMMA) has also been formed. At least one new play is written and produced each year by Lo'il Maxil. In addition to those that have clearly historical themes (such as to teach the audience about their Mayan past), many open up a forum using both traditional metaphors and new tropes to look at and discuss creatively the cultural changes that indigenous people are having to face as they try to adjust to the new realities that globalization is bringing (especially as more and more are leaving their natal communities). Lo'il Maxil performs throughout this extensive indigenous region using the local language Tzotzil; in Spanish in other States in Mexico and has even visited the United States. This is theatre with an audience, but one in which participation is welcomed as a form of social activism linked to identity politics, as increasingly a self-consciousness about daily life becomes more wide spread.
The politics of aesthetics in the maracatu-de-baque-solto (Pernambuco, Brazil) or the materializations of creolization.
Observed through a modal perspective, this ethnography of a brazilian popular expression form argues that the articulation of its specific modes of doing and modes of relationship, construct its politics of aesthetics that seem to materialize the expressions of dynamics idealized and described as « creolization » both by anthropologists and poets.
The maracatu-de-baque-solto is a popular performing art invented at the beginning of the 20th century by sugar cane cutters from Pernambuco, Brazil, that combines inextricably musical, choreographic and dramaturgical patterns of expression. As a performing genre, this combination called brincadeira, designates carnivalesque performances established on ludic modes of playing. A deeper exam of its verbal root, brincar, denotes a singular modality of the action and a peculiar range of cunning qualities, permitting its performers to negotiate the spectacular or individuating dimensions of their actions. Together transitive and intransitive, brincar also provides to collective individuals (a group) and psychological individuals (a performer) to explore the paradoxes of their identity through the interactions between action, perception and reception.
This maracatu stresses "brincar" specificities by presenting two apparently opposed modalities of execution, in which not only social stakes are radically different, but also its own form and technics. The first, carnival, brings out its global sociability, transfiguring its aesthetics into entertaining, quantitative, calculated, and athletic performances, which construct a "society of service" that brings back its social historicity based on subaltern relations of domination. The second, the sambadas, bring out its local sociability, transfiguring its aesthetics into performative, virtuosic, qualitative, and unpredictable performances, that, by requiring a personal contribution to the collectivity, turns it into a democratic exercise.
Its singular performativities render paradigmatic the dimensions, simultaneously anthropological and aesthetical, of rhythm, diversity and relation, not only enunciating but mainly materializing the dynamics of creolization, as described by anthropologists and poets of cultural complexity.
Backyards to the future: cultivating transformance
Young artist-producers from the excluded and conflicted Cabelo Seco are transforming their violent lives, streets and schools in the city of Marabá through their performance of Afro-Indigenous identity based on an Amazonian model of wealth and development. What can be learned from their performance?
The 'Rivers of Meeting' project has dedicated the past four years to forming young people at risk in the excluded bairro of Cabelo Seco in the Amazonian city of Marabá, northern Brazil, as performers of personal and collective self-determination. By discovering, questioning and reinventing their Afro-Indigenous cultural identities through music and dance workshops in their derelict backyards, a core of youth has emerged as a new generation of community 'gestores', producers, transforming their narrow streets between the Tocantins and Itacaiúnas Rivers into a local and international stage and performance of a just and democratic community.
This collective performance is sensitizing other communities and politicians across Brazil to the threat to humanity posed by the industrialization of the rivers of the Amazon to accelerate the development of 'impoverished backyards' into 'global-hubs of consumer-democracy' and 'energy for all'. It is also popularizing the arts as pedagogical languages, capable of renewing and transforming schools, universities and social movements in crisis, and of healing the effects of centuries of exclusion, to nurture a paradigm of participatory democracy and sustainable community.
The project's youth and adult councils meet unnerving challenges and threats in their process of improvising a new aesthetic of reflexive empathy, dialogic solidarity and community self-determination. However, their performance-effects on the changing thresholds between the intimate and the public in the industrial heart of the Amazon are inspiring institutional commitment to an alternative paradigm of performance, based on chosen community and co-responsible production, rather than individual choice and green consumerism. Is this sustainable?
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.