Performance In A Time of Action

Blog by Finn Boyle

 

The American 1975 shark-centred horror film Jaws was released to the public proudly declaring; “Soon you’ll be afraid to go in the water”. The threat of an incident – one that could grievously injure or kill someone – committed by some hidden beast was enough to genuinely put some people off water and swimming. There is something profoundly theatrical and captivating about an anxiety and fear so strong it can make one fearful of an act as simple as swimming. After all, one would think, what could be scarier than that? Perhaps an environment where no one is afraid of going into the water. Quite the opposite, we live in a world where people are now fearful to go into the air.

The enormous grief and suffering brought on by the novel coronavirus known as Covid-19 cannot be understated. Over one million human beings were taken from this earth, in many cases having been healthy just a few short days or weeks later. And it is not just the dead who have been victimized. For every single one of the passed, there is a heartbroken parent, child, sibling, cousin, spouse, lover, friend. There are families, communities, cultures and more that are being slashed and torn asunder by the brutal scythe of the Reaper.

And, as in most cases, the brunt of this destruction and horror has been felt by society’s lowest, most marginalized and victimized. People who have spent their entire lives being crushed by the jackboot of an unfair and violent society have been expected to be crushed even more by Covid. Perhaps those who sit atop the bones of so-called essential workers thought they could get away with it. Perhaps they simply didn’t care enough to think much of it.

Whatever the case they were not prepared for the sudden rise of millions of people who stood up, looked them dead in the eyes and said “No more”. In late May of 2020 George Floyd was murdered by a police officer on the streets of Minneapolis as several other lawmen either assisted or watched. George Floyd, a black man living in a country built on violence against him and his people, had decided that day to venture outside, an already risky act in a time where one can die by breathing the wrong air. And for existing as a black man he was murdered, with his harrowing last words consisting of a plea for his mother and his declaration; “I can’t breathe” “I can’t breathe” could perhaps be the motto of the year. I can’t breathe for the pathogens in the air. I can’t breathe for the disease which has scarred my lungs. I can’t breathe for even if I survive such an illness I could be suffocated by a cop. I can’t breathe for the violence directed against me and people like me for no reason more than the colour of my skin. It is little wonder then that, after months of a viral pandemic and centuries of oppression, millions of people in America and across the world took to the streets to fight for a better world, no longer afraid to go into the air.

During such times of action, when millions of marginalized people and youth take to the streets to fundamentally reshape the environment they inhabit, it can feel almost superfluous to be an artist. Art is often about the recreation and portrayal of violence and liberation, yet here we have those same subjects in the flesh. Not a recreation or model or facsimile – this is real, palpable violence and liberation. Performing while such action takes place can feel demotivating, toothless. That is not to say that art has no role to play whatsoever in these protests and times of upheaval. To the contrary, art is a linchpin at our corner of history. What would these protests be, asks one member of the Ensemble, without the legacy of the Situationist International – a group of revolutionary avant-garde artists from the 1950s-1970s? “It is not too bold to say that how we envision the protest movement nowadays has been shaped by the ways in which the SI exploited performance and all kinds of artistic presentation/representation to put forward their social and political concerns.” The role of theatre and art, in the words of another Ensemble member, isn’t to take direct action but to “unravel these narratives” which keep marginalized people’s existence nasty, brutish, and short.

Theatre, it must be said, is not the revolution itself. That does not mean it is not integral and needed, however. Theatre is, in the words of Augusto Boal, “the rehearsal for revolution”. It “provides a safe space for the exploration of more radical ideas” in the words of an Ensemble member, which in turn influences protests and uprisings. According to an Ensemble member, in China there is a saying; “justice may come late but it won't be absent.” And while we await justice, it is our duty as artists to shape the form it will take. This requires artistic exploration and development. Only then, after the revolution has been thoroughly rehearsed, will we be able to walk out into a better world, unafraid and breathing.

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