Can’t or Won’t: Sneaky Feelings in the Theatre

Asher Warren


In 2015, I attended Tamara Saulwick’s Endings, or at least attempted to. Despite sprinting four blocks from a late tram, I arrived only to be told: “The show has started, we can’t let you in.” The next year, participating in Michelle Lee and Tanya Dickson’s The Naked Self, I stood facing a full-length mirror inside a private booth, and was asked by an digital app to ‘undress and confess’. I refused. Both encounters left me with a suite of bad feelings, of anger and resentment, followed by guilt: feelings which have displayed a remarkable persistence and durability. In this essay, I argue these emotional states are not solely internalised and personal, but also, drawing on the recent turn in queer and feminist scholarship toward negative affects, a product of particular cultural and political contexts, part of a shared economy of ‘public feelings’ (Berlant 2004, Cvetkovich 2003, 2012). Drawing on Ahmed’s figure of the ‘feminist killjoy’ (2010) and the ‘cruel optimism’ of Lauren Berlant (2011), I ask how a focus on negative affects might be applied to spectators and participants, and how the affectations of performance can also serve to function as what Ahmed (after Foucault) terms a disciplinary technology. To do so, I draw on a range of negative encounters stockpiled during five years of research on contemporary participatory performance; including refusals to participate, performance hijackings, and a variety of lockouts and lock-ins. In each case, I endeavour to trace these sneaky feelings, and employ them to observe gaps and displacements in the affective machinery of the theatre, and technologically distributed performance. Specifically, this essay suggests such moments reveal attempts to remove or censor ‘wrong feeling’ from the theatre – attempts which place us at risk of eroding a cornerstone of the democratic or emancipating theatre: the resilient, resistant and wilful audience.


performance; live art; affect; feelings; sneaky feelings; participation; non-participation

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