Editors’ Comment: Theatre (Criticism) the Day After

Yana Meerzon,* Savas Patsalidis,** Aisling Murphy***

Pandemic: from the Greek “παν=all” and “δήμος=people”: something which spreads widely, affecting all people.  In just ten months the world has changed. New words have come to dominate our daily lives: “lockdown,” “social isolation,” “self-quarantine,” “social distancing,” “end of humanism,” “stay safe,” “online theatre.” The pandemic has forced the future upon us, catching us all unprepared to face it. For the first time, virtually the entire planet has experienced the same widespread infectious impact of the disease. In theatre: shutdowns, bankruptcies, unemployment, scarcity of funds, huge debts, unpaid rents, difficulties meeting staff payrolls. The shock and surprise that at first dominated the reactions of the cultural sector have gradually given way to anger and frustration, and then to a resignation and numbness akin to those which cap the cycle of grief.

Artists everywhere are nothing if not inventive and resilient. So one after another, either individually or as part of an ensemble, they started developing a range of (mostly) online survival kits, exploring new and creative ways to reach the public, searching to discover how far virtual innovations can go and for how long audiences will go along with them.

Critics, too, have found themselves on strange and uncertain footing. Have the events of the year now by default forced these writers to become connoisseurs of film, or to stagnate until a viable vaccine has been implemented, or to exist solely in the memories of co-presence as once we knew it? What are they – we – when stripped of titles which all but demand in-personness?

This collection of essays, manifestos, diaries, remembrances, and reflections speaks to a discipline of theatre criticism learning to rest in the teeth of political discomfort. These works suggest a community of critics who will persevere, and perhaps even thrive, despite the ever-changing ramifications of COVID-19. These authors speak in simultaneous tension and harmony with one another, a diverse mosaic of the state of the art of theatre criticism. They negotiate meaning and interpretations across divergent cultural, linguistic, geographic, and ideological landscapes thus creating their own third space(s).

We, as co-editors of this special trans-national and inter-cultural “traffic”, have been honoured to engage with both optimism and pessimism, artistic triumph and loss, political freedom and censorship that these articles point towards and discuss. For even in live theatre’s absence, critics around the world have worked to ensure the archival of the present moment – that the theatre of 2020, strange though it may be, is not forgotten.

The themes and ideas this special section deals with are vast, often disjointed, and yet equally urgent. Because we and our authors speak from inside this process – we are still inside COVID-19, learning and adapting and obeying its reign – and because we have no proper temporal or spatial distance from what is happening to theatre and performance arts today, our own narratives seem to be fragmented and self-reflexive, too; at times they might be rushed, or, on the contrary, very deep and profound, but most importantly they are reflective of our own state of not-knowing. Collectively, in other words, the articles in this volume serve as markers of our own time, a live record of the crisis in the worlds of theatre practice and reflection. These articles are already an archive of the uncertainty, fear, hope, and desires that we all face. Intimacy and liveness, truth and authenticity, personal position of a critic against the ethics of working in digital space, political resonance of creating Zoom theatre, and issues of self-censorship related to creating and exploring these new spaces constitute just some of the compelling themes this volume offers.

The volume also addresses questions of pedagogy: what tools of (live) performance analysis can we still use when we discuss theatre in a digital space, and how can we engage new and emerging critics during these strange times? Theatre critic Mark Fisher and a collective of Canadian academics and critics tackle these questions and more in their pieces, painting the present state of theatre criticism pedagogy not as desolate, but as brimming with potential for discourse and improvement. The special section tackles, too, the broader field of journalism into which these young voices might someday enter, a field rife with change in light of the pandemic – Zoe Ververopoulou speaks more on this in her paper.

The collection as well delves into what a digital new normal looks like – what “a night at the theatre” entails when it’s in a video game, or a Zoom call, or a Twitter feed. Papers from Chile (Cisternas et al.), Turkey (Yassitepe), Latin America (García et al.), Germany (Slevogt), and Finland (Helavuori) converge at a single digital point – a consensus of shared electronic self regardless of physical geographic location. Veering towards the other pole of co-presence, one rooted not in cyberspace but in the physical outdoors, are papers on outdoor experimental performance (Birringer) and the sociopolitical power of Polish verse for wandering artists (Lech). What even is ‘co-presence,’ if it can be somehow found both online and in the tangible world – if it does not require true ‘presence’ at all? Alla Shendervoa, Mark Brown, Deepa Punjani and Malgorzata Sugiera ruminate on these questions at length in their respective interventions.

A thematic commonality which emerged in curating this section was a certain reverence for the history which came before us in service of the theatre which might follow – echoes of Brecht (Nam), of the historical wisdom which we can salvage and use once more as we re-establish theatre in the aftermath of the pandemic (Egervari, Cervera and Sharifi). This collection of voices possesses a searing understanding of the impact of humankind’s history on its present and future – an understanding perhaps rooted in 2020’s seismic global political discourse. Two authors speak to the inseparable joist of politics and rhetoric (Jelesijević and Nikolova) – a timely connection to make clear in this space. For all that has been lost due to the events of 2020, scholars have dug through the debris and emerged with vital, soaring conclusions on what we as a discipline must continue to hold sacred as we re-build.

How do we position ourselves vis-à-vis the artists, who have also been forced to experiment with new and unfamiliar tools of expression? Tan Tan, a performance artist from China, provides a personal account of her physical and artistic encounter with pandemic, whereas the Migrants Group seek in this publication a new public platform to reflect on their precarious position and to report on the new political work they have been actively engaged during the pandemic.

But what is theatre performance, and who is a theatre artist without a physical space of an artistic engagement? How can it survive in the constant state of shifts and estrangement? And what can we, as theatre critics, learn about ourselves and our state of profession staring into the abyss of the screen, when even the very act of editing this collection has been an exploration of strangeness? Yana and Aisling live and work only five or so kilometers apart, and yet have collaborated on this issue solely through means of Zoom and e-mail. The physical distance between co-editors has had nearly no bearing upon either editorial duties or meetings – the screen which separated Savas from Yana and Savas from Aisling was completely equal to that between Yana and Aisling, despite bridging a much more significant geographical gap, one whole continents away instead of just a few streets.

The work continues.

No answer is the final answer, let alone the correct answer. Practitioners, critics and theoreticians – we skate on thin ice, trying to figure out ways to face this new challenge. It is difficult because it is unprecedented – the two facts go hand in hand. Time alone will show whether a new theatre aesthetic – perhaps a whole new genre – emerges, challenging the very ontological “here-and-nowness” of theatre, or whether this is simply an aesthetic emerging from the need and urgency of the times.

And what, now?

Following this plague, do we – does theatre – simply pick up where it left off? Will we still use live theatre to confront, or even destroy, the walls of the present sociopolitical moment, or has that muscle been relegated purely into cyberspace? How will we continue to assemble? Where do we go from here? 

*Yana Meerzon is Professor at the University of Ottawa. She has published on theatre of exile and migration, cultural and interdisciplinary studies. Her books include A Path of the Character: Michael Chekhov’s Inspired Acting and Theatre Semiotics (2005), Performing Exile – Performing Self: Drama, Theatre, Film (Palgrave 2012), and Performance, Subjectivity, Cosmopolitanism (Palgrave 2020). She has also co-edited several book collections and special issues of journals on these topics. Yana is the editor of the “Essay Section” of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques. 

**Savas Patsalidis, Professor of theatre and performance history and theory in the School of English (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki), the Hellenic Open University and the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is also a regular lecturer on the Graduate Programme of the Theatre Department at Aristotle University. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. His latest book-length study Theatre & Theory II: About Topoi, Utopias and Heterotopias was published in 2019 by University Studio Press. In addition to his academic activities, he writes theatre reviews for the ejournals parallaxi and thegreekplay project. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, member of the curators’ team of Forest Festival (organized by the National Theatre of Northern Greece) and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics. 

***Aisling Murphy is a critic and theatre student at the University of Ottawa. She is the Arts & Culture Editor for The Fulcrum, an associate editor for Intermission Magazine and a co-editor of the December 2020 edition of Critical Stages. Her research interests include theatre criticism, British playwright Sarah Kane and multilingualism onstage.

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