Sleepdogs Circadial

Expanded Performance Category

Don’t expand, make better

by Tanuja Amarasuriya

Why make expanded performance? Is there even a difference between expanded performance and theatre? Other than that “expanded performance” doesn’t mean anything to most people; as opposed to “theatre”, which most people take to mean a building (or at a push, Shakespeare), so both terms are basically inadequate when it comes down to talking about the alive, transformative, experiential art thing.

So… why make expanded performance?

Form got power

In this beautiful essay, the artist Rachel Mars reflects on the first time she saw Hannah Gadsby perform Nanette (before we all saw it on Netflix) in a small room in Edinburgh. She recalls how Gadsby talks about comedy as a form; how jokes are a sharpening of the air in the room and “the need to control the direction of the blade so it doesn’t slice up the wrong people.” Mars reflects on: “The potential and actual damage of comedy. Using forms that have been historically used against you without really thinking it through. The risk you are to yourself and your community and your audiences. The number of people who never think about the direction of the blade.”

We should make expanded performance now - before it gets too fixed as form; before it becomes just another rigid iteration of the dominant culture.

We should make expanded performance because if we don’t, others will use it to amplify the status quo.

Form is structure, and structures hold power. We should make expanded performance, because if we don’t, others will. It’ll be claimed by a ‘safe pair of hands’. They’ll claim that space, and reiterate and reiterate and reiterate their singular perspective until it becomes as if theirs is the right, and best, and most successful way to do it. They will influence everyone, because we all want to be successful, and their terms will have become the only ones against which we can talk about success. The feedback loop gets smaller and smaller until every bloody theatre is doing Shakespeare.

I mean, I’m a fan of both Shakespeare and streaming, but Baz Luhrmann made a film of Romeo and Juliet in 1996, which you can stream on Amazon Prime at the moment (soz National Theatre).

Also, Forced Entertainment have been livestreaming their shows since 2013 and already did all of Shakespeare (soz mainstream theatre)

So can we get over the Shakespeare and the livestreaming and start using our imaginations again please? We should make expanded performance because it is and can be so much more.

Is this what people want, or is this what people will pay for?

Unknown pleasures

Sure, sure, sure, but people love a famous actor in a famous play at a famous theatre! Look at our stats! This is what people want!

Q: Is this what people want, or is this what people will pay for?

Also, who is this “people”?

In this industry, we spend a lot of time pushing people to the work. Building hype. Selling tickets. There’s often a conflation between ‘what we can sell’ and ‘what our audiences want’. Both are important, and of course they’re related, but they are different. The art I’ve loved never started out as what I knew I wanted.

"We're not here to give people what they want, but what they didn't know they wanted."

programming ethos ascribed to the legendary radio DJ John Peel.

We should make expanded performance because no-one knows what it is yet, so no-one knows how to sell it yet, and we can make it about what people didn’t know they wanted.

We should make expanded performance because no-one knows what it is yet, so we can shape it around experiences we love, as opposed to commodities we can sell.

We should make expanded performance because no-one knows what it is yet, so we can shape it variably - not just for people, but for many peoples.

Grit in the oyster shell

"I interviewed the spreadsheet party genius Marie Foulston at the peak of the first lockdown. We were talking about how it’s tempting for digital commissioners and policy makers to think that every digital experience needs to be bigger and better and broadcastier than the last. Foulston said that, instead, she wanted to ‘put the dirt back in, so it’s messy and complicated’ and ‘find presence and reverence in online spaces’." Rachel Coldicutt, from her completely brilliant essay: Delinquent Telephone Activity.

“There is tech in theatre and theatre in tech like, all the time. In actual theatres, In everyday life. Art is the grit in the oyster shell, purity is a cold aspiration.” Jason Crouch, artist and technologist, via twitter.

We haven’t talked much about art, during this fellowship. We’ve talked about technology, of course. We’ve had some excellent conversations about widening representation and actively countering harmful default assumptions. We’ve talked about existing and not-yet-existing platforms for creativity, participation and expression. We’ve talked about purpose; but we haven’t talked much about soul, mystery, beauty, thumping beats, unsettling endings, unexpected revelations… and ultimately, that’s the stuff I’m in it for. This is the stuff that gets under my skin; that makes me feel connected, like I’m part of something bigger than me.

“Bigger, better and broadcastier” is fine, but if it’s all just empty and predictable, then I’m going to get bored. If all you want to do is hook me in for your engagement stats, then I’m going to get bored. If all you want to do is sell me stuff, then I’m going to get bored.

I’m an artist. My objective is not “to engage audiences”. Sure, engagement is a crucial mechanism for delivering any experience well; but my objective is to create absorbing, transformative, transcendent experiences for audiences (aka make art).

We should make expanded performance because we’re artists, not salespeople.

Tell me about the art you love: What got under your skin? What lingers? What remains? What seeds did it plant in your heart and mind that have grown in you, in surprising ways?

Human response

"it’s worth remembering that — in the early days of the Web — a lot of things that didn’t look at all important have ended up changing how we live. The DIY culture of web rings, fan fiction, and Live Journal have been just as important in shaping our shared online lives as any of the emerging technologies that governments and investors pour billions of dollars into." Rachel Coldicutt, Delinquent Telephone Activity

"the only expertise that you need to bring to theatre to be able to understand it is expertise in being a human being, in being alive, that’s it. It’s not actually about what you understand, it’s about what you feel when you watch." Maddy Costa, critic and writer, interviewed for Essential Drama.

So much ‘future of theatre’ stuff (whether technology-led or otherwise) fetishizes the display of formal innovation. As I’ve said, form is important, but that’s not where things take hold of people. That’s not what makes things matter to people.

Tell me about the art you love: What got under your skin? What lingers? What remains? What seeds did it plant in your heart and mind that have grown in you, in surprising ways?

I’d love there to be a better conversation about the longer-term emotional impact of art, and how it is an essential part of our collective social dreaming. Art is how we author and influence culture: from the way we dress, to the food we cook, to the stories we tell and retell about ourselves and others.

But our designated conversations about art tend to be commodified and transactional. Promises rather than invitations. The stories we tell about art are mostly marketing blurb, fast response reviews, star ratings - especially in the case of live performance, which often trades on ephemerality.

Too often, the idea of talking about art is conflated with passing judgment, rather than working things out. Both Rachel Coldicutt and Maddy Costa, in the articles I quote, talk about intersecting networks of response; multiple readings and perspectives that don’t compete, but jostle together dynamically. Responses to art and technology that are heartfelt and generative, rather than authorised or proprietorial.

We should make expanded performance so we can influence culture.

We should make expanded performance so we can mess with authorised behaviour.

We should make expanded performance so we can dream together as humans.

Don’t expand, make better

I’m the sort of artist who starts with the story. It might not be a complete story – it might be an image, or a sound, or even a technology – but it’s digging around with what feels connecting, resonant, meaningful (even if I can’t yet explain it), that leads me to the form or forms that might hold this encounter for an audience. I’ve spent these 11 months of my fellowship reading, thinking, playing, writing. But ultimately I still come back to story and encounter.

Digital technologies, XR technologies, immersive technologies – these are all just elements to work with alongside words, bodies, sounds, rooms and all the rest. The word “expanded” is a red herring I think. Perhaps better to think about coalescing, layering, revealing, deepening, than expanding.

Don’t expand, make art.

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