Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater / Edition 1

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"Jill Dolan is the theatre's most astute critic, and this new book is perhaps her most important. Utopia in Performance argues with eloquence and insight how theatre makes a difference, and in the process demonstrates that scholarship matters, too. It is a book that readers will cherish and hold close as a personal favorite, and that scholars will cite for years to come."
---David Román, University of Southern California

What is it about performance that draws people to sit and listen attentively in a theater, hoping to be moved and provoked, challenged and comforted? In Utopia in Performance, Jill Dolan traces the sense of visceral, emotional, and social connection that we experience at such times, connections that allow us to feel for a moment not what a better world might look like, but what it might feel like, and how that hopeful utopic sentiment might become motivation for social change.

She traces these "utopian performatives" in a range of performances, including the solo performances of feminist artists Holly Hughes, Deb Margolin, and Peggy Shaw; multicharacter solo performances by Lily Tomlin, Danny Hoch, and Anna Deavere Smith; the slam poetry event Def Poetry Jam; The Laramie Project; Blanket, a performance by postmodern choreographer Ann Carlson; Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman; and Deborah Warner's production of Medea starring Fiona Shaw. While the book richly captures moments of "feeling utopia" found within specific performances, it also celebrates the broad potential that performance has to provide a forum for being human together; for feeling love, hope, and commonality in particular and historical (rather than universal and transcendent) ways.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472069071
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 11/10/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 248
  • Sales rank: 1,127,896
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Utopia in Performance
Finding Hope at the Theater

By Jill Dolan
The University of Michigan Press
Copyright © 2005

University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09907-8

Chapter One Introduction

Feeling the Potential of Elsewhere

Since the early nineteenth century, "utopia" has become a polemical political concept that everyone uses against everyone else. -Jürgen Habermas, Jürgen Habermas on Society and Politics

The consideration of the power inherent in performance to transform social structures opens the way to a range of additional considerations concerning the role of the performer in society. Perhaps there is a key here to the persistently documented tendency for performers to be both admired and feared-admired for their artistic skill and power and for the enhancement of experience they provide, feared because of the potential they represent for subverting and transforming the status quo. Here too may lie a reason for the equally persistent association between performers and marginality or deviance, for in the special emergent quality of performance the capacity for change may be highlighted and made manifest to the community. -Richard Bauman, Verbal Arts on Performance

Artaud believed that the function of theatre was to teach us that "the sky can still fall on our heads." We've known for some time that this vision of theatre is impossible, Utopian, possibly even hysterical (Artaud as Chicken Little). But the Slapstick Tragedy that opened on September 11th was also a Theatre of Cruelty and might warrant some utopian explorations. The sky has fallen on our heads, and what we are seeing ... threatens to blind us. At a time when every cultural practice is reassessing itself and its role, perhaps we will re-entertain encounter the unknown and the unimaginable, a place that teaches the necessary humility of not knowing. -Una Chaudhuri, "A Forum on Theatre and Tragedy in the Wake of September 11th, 2001"

All true feeling is in reality untranslatable. To express it is to betray it.... This is why true beauty never strikes us directly. The setting sun is beautiful because of all it makes us lose. -Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double

Utopia in Performance argues that live performance provides a place where people come together, embodied and passionate, to share experiences of meaning making and imagination that can describe or capture fleeting intimations of a better world. Utopia in Performance tries to find, at the theater, a way to reinvest our energies in a different future, one full of hope and reanimated by a new, more radical humanism. This book investigates the potential of different kinds of performance to inspire moments in which audiences feel themselves allied with each other, and with a broader, more capacious sense of a public, in which social discourse articulates the possible, rather than the insurmountable obstacles to human potential.

I take my performance examples from a variety of contemporary performance genres and locations: feminist autobiographical solo performance by Holly Hughes, Peggy Shaw, and Deb Margolin; "monopolylogues" by Lily Tomlin, Danny Hoch, and Anna Deavere Smith, in which a single performer enacts a number of different characters, knit together in various narratives of experience; Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway and The Laramie Project, which address audiences as citizens of the world and model political critique and engagement; and choreographer Ann Carlson's solo performance Blanket, Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, and Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw's Medea, the dark beauty and poignancy of which lead to what I see as moments of utopia in performance. The aesthetics of these performances lead to both affective and effective feelings and expressions of hope and love not just for a partner, as the domestic scripts of realism so often emphasize, but for other people, for a more abstracted notion of "community," or for an even more intangible idea of "humankind." From the particular slant offered by theater and performance as practices of social life, this book addresses the cynicism of progressive commentators who believe the Left, especially, has given up on the possibility of a politics of transformation. Leftist academic pundit Russell Jacoby, for example, suggests, "Today, socialists and leftists do not dream of a future qualitatively different from the present. To put it differently, radicalism no longer believes in itself." Utopia in Performance answers this claim with my own set of beliefs in the possibility of a better future, one that can be captured and claimed in performance.

Utopia in Performance, of course, is written in what has become the long moment after September 11, one in which progressive citizens of the United States have plenty about which to be cynical. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the crash of the third plane-turned-missile in a Pennsylvania field left the country frightened, insecure about our ability to protect ourselves, too scared, some might suggest, to dream of brighter futures. Worse, the attacks that day prompted an already conservative administration to use its power to curtail civil liberties, tacitly condoning racial profiling, wiretaps, and warrantless searches and seizures to weed out potential terrorists who tragically escaped federal notice before September 11. And as Michael Moore suggests in his trenchant documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, the Bush administration uses the calculated politics of fear to keep the citizenry passive, raising and lowering at random the Office of Homeland Security's threat level based on vague "chatter" on already unreliable spy networks. In this climate, and under the dictates of the so-called U.S. Patriot Act, new definitions of citizenship insist on an uncritical acceptance of diminished privacy and nationalist racism; on blind flag-waving that supports fascist acts that supposedly secure the homeland; and a virulent, war-mongering enforcement of xenophobic definitions of "America." How can we hope for a better future in such an environment? What can hope mean, in a world of terror? What can performance do, politically, against these overwhelming odds?

For me, performance and politics have always been intertwined. At the theater, I first learned to articulate and sometimes to see realized my own hopes for some otherwise intangible future. I grew up on the tail end of the baby boom in a middle-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in which our community's hopes were focused on upward mobility of a social, pecuniary sort. The Jewish traditions into which I was inculcated were conservative from a religious perspective, but culturally liberal, expressing a more inclusive commitment to caring for "all humankind." Endowed with a post-Holocaust caution about the status of American Jewry, we nonetheless believed in a world of potential, if not for a brighter future, at least for one in which the traumas of the past wouldn't repeat. Somehow, as I grew up, I incorporated the rhetoric of 1960s social radicalism into my own cosmology, devising a critique of the racism that surrounded me and soon developing an awareness of gender and sexuality that was later articulated by feminist and queer theory and practice.

As Jews, my family suffered implicit discrimination in late 1950s and 1960s America, but we insulated ourselves from its excess by living in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, belonging to the local temple and the Jewish Community Center, and otherwise trading in mostly Jewish businesses and culture. Because of these choices, the discrimination I saw was against the few Christians among us at school, or against the still fewer people of color in our neighborhood, until I started high school and the majorities and minorities reshuffled. Early on, though, my sense of compassion and indignity was aroused on behalf of those we considered the others, the marginal-never for ourselves.

In high school, my friends and I were integrated into a much more diverse world, one in which I found my own generous politics tried by my own sense of exclusion. My commitment to theater began at the same time, which is perhaps why I've always connected performance and the possibility for something better in the world. Leaving the ghetto of my erstwhile Jewish world, I traveled downtown to perform at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, taking acting lessons and mounting productions with people who never mixed with Jews. As a "Dolan," I passed as a non-Jew in those circumstances; I was young, thirteen years old when I started acting, but I could sense right away that suddenly, my identity made me vulnerable, rather than protecting me. My Jewishness remained invisible as I learned, turning my cheek to casual anti-Semitism, watching how this larger world worked, and losing myself in the fictions and fantasies and the displaced tragedies of drama. In theater, I learned to both disguise myself and revel in my visibility under the mask of character, performing ebullient turns of phrase and dress as Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's The Rivals and fierce, sex-denying poses for Lysistrata, before I really even understood what a sex strike might entail, knowing that the play's antiwar message was its most important point. In theater, I found ways to both free and constrain myself, to say who I was and to hide myself carefully. I watched, falling in love with my fellow women performers and surrendering to the seductions of performance. Whatever I would become in my life, I knew I would always be anchored here, in the ephemeral maybes of this magic place.

Although I've long since stopped performing, and more recently stopped directing theater productions, I've never given up my stance as a passionate spectator of performance. Performance continues to entice me with magic, to give me hope for our collective future. The performances I discuss in Utopia in Performance are ones that moved or captivated me, that I've seen performed live in all kinds of venues across the country, since I hope that utopia can be grasped in performance in any location. My intent is not to provide a recipe or even a road map; creating or finding utopia in performance is of necessity idiosyncratic, spontaneous, and unpredictable. I know there are playwrights and performers whose work I'll travel long distances to see, but even so, I can't assure myself that any given experience at the theater will bring me one of those exquisite moments in which I feel charged, challenged, and reassured. My spectatorial anticipation often comes up empty, my horizon of expectations frequently disappointed. But every ticket I buy contains a certain promise. I agree with Marvin Carlson, a preeminent theater historian, who writes about his own theatergoing in a lovely, autobiographical moment of scholarship:

I also have now and then experienced moments of such intensity that they might be called epiphanies. It seems to me that theatre is perhaps particularly well suited as an art to generate such moments because it constantly oscillates between the fleeting present and the stillness of infinity.... Such moments of apotheosis are not everyday occurrences, of course.... Such moments will be different for every theatergoer, but I feel certain that we all have them, and treasure them. In an art that lives by, and survives largely in, the memory, such experiences have served me as touchstones, as permanent reminders of what I have been seeking in a lifetime of theatergoing.

Such moments return me, too, to performance, lured by the possibility that in its insistent presence (and present), my fellow spectators and I might connect more fully with the complexities of our past and the possibility of a better future.

Utopia in Performance defines and charts what I call utopian performatives. Utopian performatives describe 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. As a performative, performance itself becomes a "doing" in linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin's sense of the term, something that in its enunciation acts-that is, performs an action as tangible and effective as saying "I do" in a wedding ceremony. Utopian performatives, in their doings, make palpable an affective vision of how the world might be better. As feminist performance theorist Elin Diamond so evocatively suggests,

[A]s soon as performativity comes to rest on a performance, questions of embodiment, of social relations, of ideological interpellations, of emotional and political effects, all become discussable.... When performativity materializes as performance in that risky and dangerous negotiation between a doing (a reiteration of norms) and a thing done (discursive conventions that frame our interpretations), between someone's body and the conventions of embodiment, we have access to cultural meanings and critique.

Theater and performance offer a place to scrutinize public meanings, but also to embody and, even if through fantasy, enact the affective possibilities of "doings" that gesture toward a much better world or, as director Joseph Chaikin, the famous founder of the Open Theater, once said, "a dynamic expression of the intense life." By offering such concentrated, interpersonal, and "wish"-oriented moments, theater

becomes a privileged, intimate area of human experience within which one can demand that the promise of another dimension of existence be revealed, and that the impossible be achieved/experienced here and now, in the presence of other living human beings-the impossible, namely a sense of unity between what is usually divided in our daily life: the material and immaterial, the human body and spirit, our mortality and our propensity for perfection, for infinity, for the absolute.

The performatives under consideration in this book allow fleeting contact with a utopia not stabilized by its own finished perfection, not coercive in its contained, self-reliant, self-determined system, but a utopia always in process, always only partially grasped, as it disappears before us around the corners of narrative and social experience. As feminist theorist Angelika Bammer suggests, we "need to reconceptualize the utopian in historical, this-worldly terms, as a process that involves human agency." She continues, "[I]t is often the partial vision, rather than the supposedly comprehensive one, that is most able to see clearly. In the sense that the gaze that encompasses less is often able to grasp more, the partial vision is the more utopian." "My goal," she says,

is to replace the idea of "a utopia" as something fixed, a form to be fleshed out, with the idea of "the utopian" as an approach toward, a movement beyond set limits into the realm of the not-yet-set. At the same time, I want to counter the notion of the utopian as unreal with the proposition that the utopian is powerfully real in the sense that hope and desire (and even fantasies) are real, never "merely" fantasy. It is a force that moves and shapes history.

This sense of partiality and process informs the utopian performative, in which the various embodied, visual, and affective languages of the stage "approach toward" that which, as Bammer suggests, is "not-yet-set" but can be felt as desire, or as concrete fantasy, in the space of performance. Engaging the spectator in "a critical consideration of utopian enterprise, rather than simply aiming to secure his or her passive assent" makes the utopian performative nearly Brechtian in its gestic insistence. In other words, utopian performatives are relatives of the famed German director and theorist Bertolt Brecht's notion of gestus, actions in performance that crystallize social relations and offer them to spectators for critical contemplation. In some ways, utopian performatives are the received moment of gestus, when those well-delineated, moving pictures of social relations become not only intellectually clear but felt and lived by spectators as well as actors. Utopian performatives persuade us that beyond this "now" of material oppression and unequal power relations lives a future that might be different, one whose potential we can feel as we're seared by the promise of a present that gestures toward a better later. The affective and ideological "doings" we see and feel demonstrated in utopian performatives also critically rehearse civic engagement that could be effective in the wider public and political realm. These moments, then, are cousins to the ideas of Brazilian radical performance theorist Augusto Boal as well as to Brecht, in that they provoke affective rehearsals for revolution.


Excerpted from Utopia in Performance by Jill Dolan
Copyright © 2005 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Introduction : feeling the potential of elsewhere 1
Ch. 2 "A femme, a butch, a Jew" : feminist autobiographical solo performance 35
Ch. 3 Finding our feet in one another's shoes : multiple-character solo performance 63
Ch. 4 Def poetry jam : performance as public practice 89
Ch. 5 The Laramie project : rehearsing for the example 113
Ch. 6 Militant optimism : approaching humanism 139
Epilogue : finding hope at the theater 167
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