James Thompson’s Performance Affects: Applied Theatre and the End of Affect (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) opens with the story of a massacre in a Sri Lankan “rehabilitation centre” for former child soldiers. Most chillingly of all, Thompson suspects that a program of applied theatre that ran in the camp several months before the massacre may have been part of what led up to the killings. Not in a direct way, of course. But Thompson wonders if this program, which he was in charge of, was part of the Sri Lankan government’s overall political strategy. In other words, he wonders if his theatre work was in this instance unwittingly complicit with the machinations of the Sri Lankan government — part of its own effort to perform respectable statehood on the stage of international politics.

This example serves as an opening to Thompson’s searching discussion of what could be the most important question for arts practitioners in our times: What is the relationship between the practice of art-making and the politics of social justice? In addition to examing his own work in Sri Lanka, he looks at the role of theatre in post-genocide Rwanda (both parallel to and different from Erik Ehn’s work there).

Thompson writes that his book

has two related definitions for the performance practice that falls within its interest. It is clearly concerned with projects that claim they are focused on change, on issues of social justice and on the participation of those who are economically, socially or culturally marginalized or discriminated against. Second, it is also about practice that is closely connected to particular sites — for example, prisons, camps, or schools — and attached to the interests of particular communities — for example, refugees, disabled people or the elderly. The point to emphasize, however, is that projects that fall into the second part of this definition cannot be automatically connected to the first. Working in a particular site or community does not inevitably lead to an attention to social justice. (5)

In a previous post I praised Judith Hamera for viewing “concert dance” and “amateur dance” as part of a related spectrum of practice. Thompson’s book is crucial in tackling this issue because it shows just how lopsided a view of performing arts is that only looks at professional, public performances — especially when it comes to politics. There can be no politics of theatre or dance or performance without an examination of how these practices function at all levels of society, from classes for children to the massive programs of “arts for development” supported by organizations like UNESCO.

The problem Thompson describes is undeniable. He calls it “the problematic relationship between the public and the private in applied theatre” (32), but in fact this problematic relationship exists in all practices that straddle the intimacy of training and rehearsal and the exposure of public performance. The difference is that in the case of applied theater there is major funding and support from some of the largest actors in geopolitics: governments and multi-governmental organizations. This funding for art is entirely separate from the much smaller funding sources that support the “high” end of the performing arts spectrum.

Thompson suggests:

Perhaps the alliance to make — or the barrier to break — is between the applied theatre practitioners and those performance artists who specialize in public spectaculars, site-specific interventions and transgressive … critical acts. (41)

It is surely too simple to reduce art-making to these two categories. Yet the divide in funding sources is indicative of a larger divide in how our society understands and uses what it calls “the performing arts.” And the issues Thompson raises in regard to applied theater have their counterparts in commercial and experimental theater as well. If makers of applied theater are guilty of seeing themselves as working only “with” communities and not paying enough attention to how their work is perceived in larger contexts, then the makers of public artworks may be equally guilty of the reverse: that is, seeing themselves as producing only “for” an abstract public sphere and not “with” a more specific public that necessarily includes themselves.

Thompson’s book does not offer much in the way of solutions. Its first half is an extremely poignant call for a reexamination of how we think about the politics of performance — one that could have repercussions for artists and critics of all stripes. The second offers a modest proposal (a shift from “effect” to “affect”) that is unfortunately not nearly profound or comprehensive enough to even begin to answer these questions.

Ben Spatz
Artistic Director
Urban Research Theater
MR-AIR 2010-2012

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