Utopia in Performance

"In my classes, I encourage them to imagine themselves as citizen-scholar-artists, as people who think about their art practices and their relationship to democracy, not just to their fantasies of popularity. I try to encourage in them an attachment to theater’s possibilities as a place of inspiration and vision, as well as a vehicle for leisure and entertainment. I want them to see a connection between their work as actors, designers, or critics and the state of our world, so that they’ll feel they have something ethical and social as well as aesthetic to contribute. I want them to be moved by what they do, and in that emotion, to feel the potential of their art to reach people deeply. I want to train my students to use performance as a tool for making better futures, to use performance to incite people to profound responses that shake their consciousness of themselves in the world.
Perhaps that, already, is utopian, the idea that theater can do any of those things. Yet that’s the depth of reaction for which I long when I go to the theater - I don’t think we should expect anything less. Theater remains, for me, a space of desire, of longing, of loss, in which I’m moved by a gesture, a word, a glance, in which I’m startled by a confrontation with mortality (my own and others’). I go to theater and performance to hear stories that order, for a moment, incoherent longings, that engage the complexity of personal and cultural relationships, and that critique the assumptions of a social system I find sorely lacking. I want a lot from theater and performance.” ~ Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance

Notes #1 from Erika Fischer-Lichte’s The Transformative Power of Performance

"It is obviously a fundamental different matter when we shift from the artistic experience in the course of which we are led to look at an object with fresh eyes, exposing its ‘artfulness’ or one might say, its more sensual relationship with the world, to a situation in which we have an experience which causes us to gain a new, refreshed comprehension of our own situation of being in the world.  The former, despite the potential operations of empathy, remains a rather abstract and intellectual process.  The latter engages the full activity of the human being as an embodied mind, a point frequently emphasized by Fischer-Lichte…

I would suggest that the American performance theorist who has so far come closest to the orientation suggested by Fischer-Lichte’s study is Jill Dolan in her recent book Utopia in Performance…  Utopian performatives is the term Dolan applies to those ‘small but profound moments in which performance calls the attention of the audience in a way that lifts everyone slightly above the present, into a hopeful feeling of what the world might be like if every moment of our lives were as emotionally voluminous, generous, aesthetically striking, and intersubjectively intense.’ These ‘small but profound moments’ are clearly the moments that Fischer-Lichte would call moments of enchantment, resulting in a sudden deeper understanding into the shared process of being in the world.”

~ Marvin Carlson’s “Introduction: Perspectives on Performance: Germany and America,” from Erika Fischer-Lichte’s The Transformative Power of Performance

Notes #3 Jill Dolan’s Geographies of Learning

"For instance, we could demonstrate, to our students and to our readers and listeners, how we’re motivated by the erotics of ideas, by the partialness of knowledge, by the presentness of ourselves in relationship to each other, using performance or any other mode of critical pedagogy. We could use our positions as teachers and scholars to put the body back into thought, to think of pleasures like desire not as a space of absence that language can’t lead us to, but as a space of social possibility to which our bodies lead us. If our politics are truly progressive, we have to speak what we know or what we think or what we want to know out into the culture, bringing to bear respect and even love on our own disagreements and generative misunderstandings. We have to remind people that teaching and scholarship off epistemologies, ways of knowing and understanding, even misunderstanding, that can be productive even if they aren’t reproductive."
~ Jill Dolan, Geographies of Learning: Theory and Practice, Activism and Performance

Notes #2 from Jill Dolan’s Geographies of Learning

"Likewise, in Geographies of Learning, I proselytize for theater as an intensely social, still potentially radical site of cultural transformation. As Bonnie Marranca notes, theater is ‘the only cultural space in which felt speech and concentrated listening and looking is preserved.’ She goes on, ‘In this realm one can discover qualities increasing disappearing from contemporary experience, such as privacy and intimacy and spiritual feeling.’ I, too, believe in this particular, local, perhaps even utopian promise of theater, in which theater communities assemble to look at social relations, to be provoked, moved, enraged, made proud by what human beings can do when they’re set in relation to one another.  Performance offers us a practice that lets us rehearse new social arrangements, in ways that require visceral investments of bodies, of time, of personal and cultural history…

Performance often unleashes the desire that flows just below the surface of the settings in which we work.” ~ Jill Dolan, Geographies of Learning: Theory and Practice, Activism and Performance

Notes #1 from Jill Dolan’s Geographies of Learning

"Theater is an ideological project, a place at which resistance is possible.  Given the right critical and creative tools, active, rather than passive, consumption of theater and film and dance and performance contributes to a richer conversation about art and its efficacy.  Teaching critical reading skills and theory is enormously important, because students need tools to intervene in representation, or even just to consume it critically and passionately…

For those of us versed in contemporary theory, poststructuralism has revised our understandings of what it means to be agents in specific historical moments.  We know much more about the complexities of power and its insidious strategies.  But we can’t be overcome with cynicism, we can’t finally move people through irony.  Our passions, our pleasures, the elegance of our worldviews need to be communicated as values to which belief adheres.  We need to teach values, encourage students to make political commitments, informed by global politics, as we train them in skills and knowledge.  Teaching values will help reshape how knowledge matters and might allow us to have real effect in contemporary political systems.” ~ Jill Dollan, Geographies of Learning: Theory and Practice, Activism and Performance