Expanded Performance Category
In Times of Crisis: Expanding Performance for Collective Wellbeing
by Dr. Ellie Chadwick
I recently read an article in the Guardian about the way in which many people turn to Shakespeare in times of crisis; the piece draws attention to the ‘plasticity’ with which we respond to Shakespeare’s words and the way in which they can powerfully be applied to virtually any circumstance, particularly the most difficult. While the article focuses on the malleable nature of our responses as audience members or readers of his work, the flexible, ‘plastic’, expanded style that Shakespeare himself employed is arguably also a key reason why many people of various backgrounds do indeed seem to return to his works again and again, in multiple different locations, languages, and cultures. His flexible style was one which incorporated elements of a residual worldview with those of an emergent one, colliding tradition with innovation. It fluidly embraced anachronism, fantasy/the supernatural, history, past, present, and future. It employed the most exciting technologies and effects they had access to at the time, was (and is) performed in a variety of spaces (not just the Globe: itself a very communal-feeling space) for urban and rural audience members across society, and was built on collective and adaptive co-creation, rather than elevating the authority of a single authorial voice.
The tendency to elevate and preserve the (literary) status of Shakespearean drama instead of carrying forward the original innovation present in the plays still divides opinion, but a love of flexible creative responses to his work seems to win out with theatre audiences: it is what had many in uproar over the removal of experimental director Emma Rice as Artistic Director of the Globe due to her use of sound and light technology, and what divides those who are against textual adaptation of his plays against those who are more experimental and adaptive. The overall drive of the aforementioned article is thus something I agree with: in times of crisis we do turn to a plastic, co-creative, and malleable style of storytelling that can give us a sense of meaning that is at once both universal and specific, communal and individual. It is important for our sense of collective identity and wellbeing. But this encompassing and fluid (or ‘expanded’) style of storytelling is not exclusive to Shakespeare and his legacy.
As the world of theatre and performance is shaken to its core by the pandemic and resulting closures, cancellations and loss of jobs, we are discovering amongst the wreckage a call for greater experimentation, further expansion, and real change: the usual old ways of doing things are now impossible, and so boundaries between artforms are becoming more blurred, hierarchies are being shaken up, protests are taking place, and new risks are being taken. Grassroots companies are leading the way with innovation online, people are asking tough questions that need to be asked, and creative experimentation is becoming a necessity in order to survive. As this happens, we are expanding our definitions of performance and our ways of making work, asking questions such as: what counts as togetherness, or as a live or collective experience? How can creative uses of technologies better help us connect? What are our collective rituals and how are they disrupted? What can we learn from theatre’s past and what is theatre’s future? Why do we need theatre and storytelling: what does it do for society?
At a time like this, where collective identity and health (of all kinds) is under threat, we can recognise more clearly the benefits of expanding beyond usual boundaries and ways of making work: embracing the digital and the socially-distanced, looking for new and better ways to connect with audiences and respond to their needs, embracing the role of the arts in communal protest and powerful disruption, and finding ways to repurpose theatre work in aid of communities. Simultaneously, there is emerging a stronger drive towards recognising the importance of arts and theatre to not only our individual psychological health, but also what they contribute to our societal wellbeing and collective sense of selfhood.
In light of all this, and despite disruptions to original plans of workshopping ideas and testing theories in-person, the Expanded Performance pathfinder is taking place at a particularly relevant and interesting moment. This is an anxious and uncertain time, and whether we gravitate towards Shakespeare or VR, interactive video games or play-readings on Zoom, it seems clear that the majority of us feel a need for storytelling, meaning-making and human connection through the arts more than ever. Working (on Zoom!) with the pathfinder cohort has been made even more valuable by the current circumstances: giving a chance to connect from a distance and share ideas, joys, and woes in a particularly open and generous way.
My research as an Academic Fellow on the pathfinder seeks to understand how expanded modes of theatrical performance (such as the digitally-enhanced, the multi-sensory, the boundary-breaking) impact our collective wellbeing, and how we use art and technology cathartically and for healing in times of crisis and trauma. As a starting point, I am collaborating with academics across the fields of audience studies and neuroscience in order to design new protocols for testing audience responses to online theatrical experiences (using my immersive production Ergo Sumas as an initial case study): exploring how expanded modes of performance utilising digital technologies affect us emotionally and physiologically. By collecting and analysing both qualitative and quantitative data, I’m hoping this will reveal new evidence and understanding about how sensorial technologies in performance can create effective immersive/embodied experiences, which positively impact wellbeing and encourage meaning-making via a sense of collective storytelling. I will be reflecting on what such experiences mean for us in times of crisis, and longer-term I hope that the research will find practical applications in fields as wide-ranging as healthcare, education, religion, as well as within the ongoing metamorphosis of the theatre industry itself.
In this climate, there are new challenges for everyone to navigate – such as how to research live performance when it doesn’t exist in the same way anymore? And how to collectively acknowledge (even mourn) what is lost, while finding new ways to make exciting, useful, and impactful work? – but as the planned work of the Expanded Performance cohort itself continues to expand to be truly responsive to the current climate, it hopefully will reveal exciting new ways of thinking about performance: moving beyond stale boundaries and expectations, embracing the collective and connective, and promoting a new level of care for communal wellbeing within research and the arts.