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Anthropology, Theatre, and Development: The Transformative Potential of Performance

Ort: Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire
Jahr: 2015
Herausgeber: Alex Flynn, Jonas Tinius
Autor der Rezension:
ISBN: 9781137350596
Umfang / Preis: pages 384 / £73.00

In front of me I find a thick package of thought, covered in a pale blue. A simple white face mask in the lower half and three very big words that orient me towards what will be inside: Anthropology, Theatre, and Development. Edited by Alex Flynn and Jonas Tinius, the book sets out to investigate The Transformative Potential of Performance.
When I studied Theatre Studies, it often times happened in reference to Erika Fischer-Lichte’s The  Transformative Power of Performance. So, the subtitle immediately strikes a cord with me. Clearly, these two books do very different things, but in light of delving more into the former, it bears a remark: the focus on the performative remains a crucial endeavour for the humanities. The focus on performances, too, in all their ephemerality and the elusive complications they can prompt in writing about them, they keep being discussed, need to be discussed. This is because in performance we encounter unknown others and their stories. We encounter agents who are negotiating something, alterity is emerging, and bodies and things keep happening. And change, the forging of affective bonds, different kinds of socialities are a potential, yes.

Alex Flynn and Jonas Tinius, both of them anthropologists based in the United Kingdom, acknowledge this need. As editors, they attempt to bridge their anthropological insights, understandings and methodologies, with a broad invitation to the contributors carefully assembled in this collection: to think about political performance, applied theatre and other politically engaged performative practices, about ‘developmental’ policies and challenges, about methodologies of enquiring and researching in these fields. Each of the authors adds their own rather specific voice, experience and perspective to this thought-provoking edition that should be thoroughly considered not only by theorists of applied theatre, but also theatre and performance scholars, anthropologists, sociologists, and, more broadly speaking, anyone remotely interested in the manifold situational dynamics that are at play when theatre and politics, when theatre and an aspiration for change, meet.

The key concept and tool elaborated on in Anthropology, Theatre, and Development seems to me to be the exploration of what Flynn and Tinius propose in their introduction as relational reflexivity: the possibility of political performance to “bring about radical changes in people’s conceptions of themselves and their understanding of wider political subjectivities” (p. 5). It is worthy to note the broad definition and situational range that the editors choose to frame political performance with. Courageously, almost, they state: “Although [the performances] occur across three different continents, play to vastly different audiences, and draw numbers of participants from the tens to the hundreds of thousands, they all have qualities that lead us to analyse them conceptually as political performance” (p. 2). With this statement, the book brings to the fore its vast scope in undertaking and its theoretical and analytico-logistical challenge. Refreshingly broad in scope, yes, and challenged – or maybe merely challenging? – I felt, exactly because of this.
The range of instances, and authorial perspectives and backgrounds that the book offers, is indeed remarkable, and structured in two parts: Part I, ‘Ethnographies of Political Performance in Developing Contexts’, and Part II, ‘Theatre as Paradigm for Social: Conceptual Perspectives’.

Part I presents different approaches to writing about and from within a political performative process emerging in ‘developing’ contexts. By different approaches I mean to indicate that both the level of involvement and engagement with the performances discussed varies, as well as the level of written abstraction and proximity. In the section on ‘Interventions’, for example, I want to highlight my reading experience of Dan Baron Cohen’s exquisite literary quality, that fully immersed me in a context that was previously unknown to me: the cultural work in a Brazilian community centre in Marabá, where “every day is dedicated to recovering, renewing, and nurturing Afro-Indigenous identity” (p. 54). Reflected later as a tool, the immersive style of the storytelling Baron Cohen chooses, bears remarking here in that a reader is faced with many different methodological approaches, that with varying success manage to “bring to life our shared context and pedagogy in action, and to ensure that you meet and might identify with my collaborators as living subjects”, as Baron Cohen puts it (p. 73).
In a different way, and rather hands-on, deeply involved and straightforward, Jane Plastow and Ananda Breed, for instance, discuss their work in the section entitled ‘Development and Governance’. In Plastow’s case the impact of ‘Theatre for Development’ is self-critically reflected when she presents an analysis of projects in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda, which she facilitated in the past. For me, Breed’s chilling account of resistant acts in post-genocide Rwanda remains one of the most touching and poignant chapters. The analysis allows us to understand the specific as well as horrifying limitations human life can experience through the exertion of human power. It additionally brings to life the conditions of performance making, which impasses and sheds light on the restrictions that are dominating the cultural production in a supposedly ‘post-conflictual’ situation.

Part II allows for a broader reflection of the theoretical conceptualisations and reflective capacities of theatre and performance in relation to a specific socio-political context. A more historiographically oriented section on ‘Theatre and Tradition: Politics and Aesthetics’ opens up questions of scope and grounding of the wider arguments and claims discussed in the book. We can, for example, read Jonas Tinius’ analytical description of a refugee theatre project he was part of, and which took place in the Theater an der Ruhr in the German city of Mülheim. It allowed participants to realize the potential of theatre first hand, which Tinius manages to carefully unfold in both distanced reflective parts and very immediate retellings from his field notes: “When I play theatre, I can be a thousand people at once. Theatre, for me, is liberation” (p. 195), recounts one musician in a conversation. Statements such as this lead Tinius to further deepen and ground the editorial claim for relational reflexivity as “disciplined forms of self-reflection and aesthetic cultivation [that] can be mobilised as themselves political moments during the creative process of a theatre project” (p. 172). Two other texts widen the historical perspective, but also the range of performative enquiry: a study of a Danish street art project is contemplated by Rafael Schacter, who argues that un-witnessed political performances allow us to encounter alterity and transformation; an important point in the broader consideration of political performances that do not necessarily seek to perform in front of an audience. Schacter disentangles and illuminates invisible projects, spanning over a city for years: “It was about commitment to production in the city, to a performance of alterity, commitment to a performance in which relationality not hierarchy, kinship not kingship was instantiated” (p. 215).
The section with which I started reading the book unfolds the realm of ‘Political Theatricality’: in the ‘Arab World’, presented by Rolf C. Hemke, and in Russia, in two perspectives on and about the performing of political protest by and the trial against Pussy Riot. Hemke’s three short critical reviews offer a glimpse into practices from Syria, Lebanon and Tunisia. As the editors note in their contextualising introduction to the essays, they present and problematize theatrical responses “to politically complex and violently charged situations in failed or unsettled states. [The examples are] immanently artistic and literary engagements with conflictual political contexts and their socio-psychological reading by intellectuals and artists [and were] forced to return to ‘more private spheres’ outside the ‘open public view’” (pp. 262-3). It is of particular relevance to consider these depictions not only textually, but also in their performative reality. Here, that indicates groups traveling to audiences, which were differently affected and informed, and are not insiders to the conflictual context of creation. An interview with the Swiss theatre director Milo Rau gives insights about his Moscow Trials, a project that “attempted to inject impetus into rigid Russian circumstances through the form of political theatre” (p. 279) by re-staging of the trial against Pussy Riot. The notion of the inconvenient and dissident artist, which he contemplates, is that of an artist acting in the face of and being reacted to by the combined force of the political and religious regimes in power. This is covered in more detail in Catherine Schuler’s contribution, which critically proposes a more historical contextual analysis of the work and trial of Pussy Riot.
The last section tries to offer a methodological reflection on ‘Theatre as Ethnographic Method: Ethnography as Theatrical Practice’. Documentary and verbatim theatre, Nicholas J. Long states, “can be a powerful and popular medium through which to present ethnographic materials to a public audience” (p. 305). This is a technique, he continues, which serves “to encourage a greater degree of self-reflexivity (on the part of performers but most significantly on the part of audiences) regarding the broader environmental, economic, and social challenges facing the areas that [are being] documented. Understanding how, why and to what effect that reflexivity was elicited thus offers an opportunity to appraise the promise and limits of the genre as a tool for social change” (p. 306).
The very last contribution is written by Caroline Gatt and challenges any notion of completeness that might still remain in a reader’s mind when being faced with different knowledges, be they produced on a stage, or in an anthropological text. Importantly, she reminds anyone doing fieldwork of their complicated implication: “If we acknowledge that in all aspects of our work, including fieldwork, we participate in creating realities, […] including the realities we share with those about whom we write, then we need to be more deliberate about our constitutive actions, or, in other words, our ‘enactments’.” Instead of ‘merely’ producing text, Gatt suggests theorists to be open to “exploring alternative forms through which to convey, discuss, and present anthropological knowledge [as a] path to understanding incompleteness”; only a few lines later she admits, however, that “so long as our conventional tools restrict the task, the theoretical insights from processual approaches can only be limited” (p. 349).

Anthropology, Theatre, and Development surely is not without limitations. In my reading those limitations make up, at the same time, the book’s eye-opening potential: The sheer range of practices and methodologies discussed and ‘enacted’ is exciting, and opens the possibility of dipping into difference. I am not sure to which extent one should immediately follow the bibliographical information every author leaves us with, and study in much more detail the political performances discussed. I certainly felt encouraged by my reading to continue exploring the various problems that are being unfolded. The challenging editorial process of bringing together such variety allows for different voices to be assembled in a conversation, in which, gladly, no endpoint has been reached.
Any reader approaching this edition will come from a different disciplinary background, a different personal and academic interest. I was excited when reading about all those different instances of political performance that certainly connect, but are, obviously and necessarily, worlds apart. This disparity could easily be a somewhat big challenge, concepts could utterly fail to connect, bridges and nuances in thought be washed over by a flood of difference. But perhaps it is precisely this perception of the sheer endless flood of instances that challenged me as a reader to stay put, and to learn more. Other readers will have different experiences. Perhaps the following statement from the introduction on what will have been written about, is also a rather neat textual-performative point about a reader’s engagement with such an edition: “There is a powerful ethico-aesthetic quality inherent to these political performances that moves people, one that causes them to reflect and therefore consciously decide that they will interact with the world [and, yes, this book] in a different manner” (p. 3).

Yes, Anthropology, Theatre, and Development presents a truly inspiring and rich plateau, from which to face new challenges: “The ethical dimension of political performance is evident in the narrative telos any performance, even improvised, implies. It is in this sense that this volume speaks of the socially and politically transformative potential of relational reflexivity. […] It is through the engagement of aesthetics and politics that we can perceive and conceive how people around the world perform to transform” (p. 24).

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Diese Nachricht wurde redaktionell betreut von .
DOI: 10.13150/05131.75
URL zur Zitation:
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Erstellt am: 08.11.2015