Review of Theatre & series, edited by Jen Harvie and Dan Rebellato (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2009- )

Bryoni Trezise


In her contribution to the new Palgrave Theatre & series, Helen Freshwater challenges us to rethink a ‘compelling orthodoxy in theatre and performance studies’ – the ‘belief that [audience] participation empowers’ (2009: 56). Via the writings of Susan Bennett, Jacques Rancière and Laura Mulvey, and with due note to the well-established allegiance between participation and a Brechtian-cum-Boalian politics of theatrical practice, Freshwater takes issue with this most basic of home truths: ‘theatre sometimes shows us that much of what passes for participation is nothing of the sort’ (75), and yet ‘most theatre scholars prefer their audiences actively engaged’ (25). Her question: why the presumption that mere spectatorship equals passivity, why this mistrust or even contempt for what so-called passive consumers of theatre bring to viewing a work?

Freshwater’s approach in Theatre & Audience is but one in a series that circulates the rough edges between theatre as a historically live practice, and a world which is giddy with the new millennial rites of instability, virtuality and what Dan Rebellato in Theatre & Globalisation cites as ‘turbo capitalism’ (2009: 26). What sits underneath Freshwater’s claim is a desire to unrest theatre from some of the yawn-worthy assertions that it, and those of us who write about it, tend to hold close. The intention is not to dispute what theatre has been capable of, but to encounter its full force as performative in a world which, as Helen Nicholson notes in Theatre & Education, is increasingly constituted as a ‘performative society’ on its own terms (2009: 58). To understand theatre as performative is to tackle the meta-theatrical meanings that it is producing as an apparatus, and hence to critically reevaluate its role and function in twenty-first century life. This is about how theatre as a mechanism does politics, ethics, bodies and global world orders. It is to understand the truth-effects of an inescapably postmodern institution.

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Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002)

Noland, Carrie. Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures, Producing Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009)


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