With a twisted and long prologue that was ignored by the so-called world leaders for the longest time, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. By the end of the month, most countries in the world had closed their borders and went on lockdown or imposed quasi-lockdown measures. Entire sectors of global economy shut down; global supply chains disrupted; transoceanic maritime trade halted; oil trading ceased. The situation was uncanny to the extent that only comparisons were suitable as a way to fathom the experience. And yet, comparisons failed. The pandemic’s interruption messed with the global plot in unseen ways, and as we live through it and start to forecast where the next scene will take us, it is crucial that we reflect on where we came from and what is the destiny that awaits us. Who owns that future? Who is making it?
This piece will consider the current global situation by engaging with Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (V-Effekt) and epic theatre as a lens to foresee what theatre criticism in the age of social distancing and digital assemblies could mean. What if the pandemic were a Verfremdungseffekt that sheds a new light to a global social crisis that is been going far longer and is rooted somewhere else? What if the cascade of digital performance we have witnessed in the last few months was a musical interlude announcing the greater forces that are coming into play? What if the muted shout of the quarantine is the gestus that the new digital capitalism will afford us?
Keywords: Brecht, Singapore, Germany, V-Effekt, Qingdao, COVID-19
In which two theatre academics introduce an allegory to the argument
Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib
Aus der alten Hauptstadt Prag?
Aus Prag bekam sie die Stöckelschuh.
Einen Gruß und dazu die Stöckelschuh
Das bekam sie aus der Stadt Prag.
(or in a Brecht manner with a German accent) Dearest Audience,
This is an article written for you in troubled times. We are stepping into Bertolt’s shoes—old but very fitting shoes! We, two scholars and friends, were bound to meet in the city of Rijeka, in Croatia, for what would have been an academic gathering of the highest order. But our plans were interrupted by COVID-19, and we had to miss each other and the opportunity to gather and discuss matters related to the politics of theatre and performance. We are sad this happened.
Distanced, we found ourselves in dire need to speak to the moment from the perspective of theatre criticism. Separated and in different parts of this planet, we are connected through our mutual kinship, academic and political passion for theatre, and the possibilities of technology. Thankfully, both of us, and our families, remain safe and to a better or lesser extent, in a position of enough material wealth despite the global recession that looms. In truth, our plans are insignificant in comparison to the more than one million lives that have been lost during the last six months (at time of writing). Please let us have a moment of silence for the dead.
Thank you. Even though theatrical, the gesture was important. The silent gesture towards death expresses the irreversibility of the situation. Everything has changed. We have become alienated from our own life. This is tragic, but perhaps not altogether bad. We want to tell you the story of the Pandemic V-Effect. This is the name we have given to the experience that the pandemic has brought about—the effect of the so-called social distancing measures. These have in fact opened the window for us to see how the deadly theatrics of capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and heteronormativity remain in place. The virus has evidenced pre-existing social distancing, and it has thus given us the opportunity for us to see the structures that have for so long kept us truly distanced from emancipation.
In Bertolt’s manner, we want to address you. We wish to send you out of this virtual space with more questions than you had before—more courageous, more passionate and more in love with the future we can bring about. Maybe even with a revolutionary heart!
Ah! Emancipation! What is it good for? Are we still fighting for it? The pandemic has brought about a lockdown loop which evidences the cyclical nature of oppression and social stratification. The lockdown has been a moment where we can stop and see how the world is on repeat, with systemic issues coming out once and again, every other decade or century, never seeming to be resolved.
The pandemic has unmasked the gap between those with privilege and power to keep themselves safe, wealthy and hoarding capital, and those who are called (and for some short time clapped at) “crucial,” “essential” and “care” workers, but who have not had the luxury of safety, security and rest. The pandemic has sucked us deeper into Pandora’s box: Fascism and ethnonationalism are on the rise. Yes— Again.
And again, and again, and again.
The leave, dancing.
Scene 1: Pandemic V-Effect
In which two academics offer the idea of a virus being a talented alienator
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 pandemic. By then, the world had already been on alert since the first outbreak of the then-called “atypical” pneumonia in the city of Wuhan, province of Hubei, in China. Back then, in the early days of crisis, what became immediately apparent was the arrogance hidden among international diplomatic relationships as the virus was quickly nicknamed “the Chinese virus.”
Thereafter, a bold attitude of disbelief towards its imminent danger defined the appalling lack of strong reaction in Europe and North America. Indeed, as Felipe travelled from Singapore to Mexico to attend to his ailing father on February 28, 2020, he was able to observe an absolute lack of health and safety protocols in Barcelona’s international airport, even when Spain was already facing an alarming and uncontrollable outbreak.
The virus’ presence made evident a geopolitical tension that had thus far been apparent only in government and academic circles: Europe remained in the belief of its unquestionable, almost God-given, immunity against the ailments of the rest of the world. “The Chinese Virus,” however, decimated international travel in the following two weeks. The world found itself amidst various degrees of social and economic lockdown, and Europe faced a crisis that no doubt awakened the ghosts of the great wars. That was just the beginning. Life has since changed. Death too.
We are drawn to what we know best: using theatrical methodology and approaches to have a closer reading of the political and social circumstances. Our safety net is Brecht and his epic theatre. In The Street Scene: A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre (Brecht 1938),Brecht suggests how a scene of everyday life can serve as a moment to change perspective and observe the circumstances from another angle, with more (and complex) details and facts. The alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt or V-Effekt) thus springs from the strategy to see social realities as non-normal, and it is therefore a technique of “taking the human social incidents to be portrayed and labelling them as something striking, something that calls for explanation, not to be taken for granted, not just natural.” (Brecht, “New Technique of Acting” 125)
The consequences of applying this technique to both everyday life and to the scene are intended to lead towards a “direct changeover from representation to commentary” which “helps to formulate the incident for society, and to put it across in such a way that society is given the key” to its deciphering (Brecht, “The Street Scene” 140).
We argue that the virus made all moments of life available for a Brechtian shift of perspective. Nothing was quite the same—indeed, authorities worldwide started to call for a “new normal.” Seen in this light, the radical and immediate shift that had to be imposed—from an open public life to a closed and cancelled one—as a consequence of the virus lends itself clearly to be thought of as a global distancing effect.
This is to say that the pandemic experience can be described in no lesser terms than it being an experience of radical alienation. We therefore propose to think of the pandemic as a meta-alienation effect that presents a historical point of departure which cannot simply be masked again under the guise of historical determinism.
Brecht argued that “historical incidents are unique, transitory incidents associated with particular periods. The conduct of the persons involved in them is not fixed and universally human” (Brecht, “The Street Scene” 141). We take this point to argue that any critical analysis of the cultural and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic must actively resist falling into a weak linear historicism.
The pandemic altered the timeline—but only insofar as the timeline was in itself an oppressive episteme. Seen from this angle, the COVID-19 disruption, marked by millions of people experiencing a global crisis while in lockdown or as “essential” workers, has betrayed the theatrics of a capitalist realism and its historicism. That is to say that, given the impact it has had on the most basic aspects of social life, the COVID-19 pandemic be characterised as a Brechtian disruption into the real—indeed, as a moment of alienation in which the familiar seemed odd, and where a “new normal” became the empty signifier to a semiosis of global disruption.
What is this new “normal”? The disruption of capitalist normality and normativity brought about by the spread of the virus did not disrupt the epic structures that organize the repetition of cycles of oppression and power that persist. Episode after episode of the pandemic “play,” these structures re-emerged to organize the world according to an apparent new order: The essential is sacrificed for the sake of the non-essential, and the inside has become the order of the external experience of the public assembly. That is, we gather publicly from a place of intimacy, and we do so at the expense of those who have to be outside. And yet, these regimes of interiority and labour are not new. What is the new normal, indeed, if not an alienation from what was already a given? If these structures—racism, patriarchy, fascism—are re-emerging a propose of a new social order based on epistemologies of distance, then any attempt to historicize the pandemic according to a universal History will fail at rendering justice to the timelines that we already plagued with death.
I can’t breathe.
Scene 2: All the Internet is a stage
And what happened to the theatre?
It remained. Theatre makers around the world staged thousands of plays online. Using video-conferencing software, actors tried to hold on to the immediacy of the present while apart.
The internet became the largest stage in history? It can’t be!
But also, its greatest disabler.
An Internet connection became the ticket to the theatre!
And not everyone had a ticket.
Not all are born in the face of the algorithm.
Not all are included in the heavenly kingdom of the hashtag.
And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder: one of the four beasts saying: “Come and see.” And I saw. And behold, a white horse.
They drop dead
Scene 3: Singapore: a case for the community
Or when we tell the story of the day the theatre did nothing
Can you hear me?
. . .
Oh . . . you can’t? Maybe if I turn my video off.
The video is turned off. His name is now displayed on the screen. He can be heard.
Singapore reported its first case of novel coronavirus on January 23, 2020. Even before, since the first alerts were sounded by the Chinese government, the Singaporean government had started to put in place robust safety protocols. The government formed a special task force as early as 22 January, but other measures against the looming threat—like the wearing masks—were already in place as early as the first week of the new year. By the end of February, the country had managed to contain the spread, registering a daily record of no more than 50 cases on average.
There is the widespread agreement that Singapore’s quick and effective reaction to COVID-19’s first wave was centrally due to the experience and lessons gained by the SARS epidemic in 2002–04. Indeed, Singapore quickly became a global reference of success against COVID-19, with the local press hailing success at, for example, the “gold standard” of testing and case detection capacity the country showed very early on in the Pandemic (Jun Sen). If you asked anyone that was following the news worldwide, the likelihood of Singapore being mentioned as a role model to follow in terms of epidemiological management would be very high.
That changed by the end of March and early April. The cases detected within dormitories of foreign workers skyrocketed, evidencing the painful reality of the success hailed thus far. These workers make up a large percentage of the construction and basic service workforce. Simply put: they build Singapore. Despite the efficiency of its swift initial reaction, Singapore had failed to see the obvious: that the almost decrepit living conditions of the majority of the foreign workers were a time bomb. The virus was just the right match to fire it.
By the end of April, Singapore’s number of cases rose to the tens of thousands, with a clear majority of those recorded in the dormitories. Even The Guardian picked the story up (Ratcliffe). Critically, however, the living conditions of these so-called “foreign workers” in Singapore were not unknown to the public eye before COVID-19 hit their dormitories. Several activist groups based in the wealthy city-island-state had already taken task to report the infra-human conditions in which these individuals were lodged. For example, a report published in the local newspaper Today on July 11, 2019, titled “What Can We Do to Stop Housing Migrant Workers in Unliveable Quarters?” (Soo and Phua) already highlighted the problem by indicating that the local Ministry of Manpower had already imposed fines on some operators. Well, it took a Pandemic and global shame. That is what it took.
And yet, even when the violent segregation of the workers was evidenced by the Pandemic, this did not stop. As the cases multiplied in Singapore, the government started to report its daily cases based on the citizen and migratory status. In doing so, the government excluded the workers from the community, while at the same time making the still minimum (yet no less honourable) commitment to treat them for free until the last consequences of their disease. For example, on 27 April, the daily report read:
COVID-19: 27 Apr update
New cases: 799
– Imported: 0
– Cases in community: 18 (14 S’poreans/PRs, 4 Work Passes)
– Work Permit holders (residing outside dormitories): 17
– Work Permit holders (residing in dormitories): 764
Of new cases, 51% are linked to known clusters, the rest are pending contact tracing
Total cases: 14,423
– Hospitalised: 1,451 (20 in ICU)
– In community facilities: 11,863
– Fatalities: 14
– Total discharged: 1,095 (Discharged today: 35)
Two deaths due to COVID-19
An 82-year-old male Singapore Citizen and 81-year-old male Singapore Citizen have passed away from complications due to COVID-19 infection on 27 Apr. NCID has reached out to their families and is extending assistance.
Why not just call them workers? Why would we want to insist on their Alien-ess? The COVID-19 evidenced what everyone already knew: that global capital rests on the shoulders of migrant workers who live in a situation close to slavery. And this is not only in Singapore, but in other sites of wealth such as Qatar and the U.A.E., to name just two. The visible world and its tall skyscrapers are built on the infra-terrestrial strata of workers who circumnavigate the planet as its underclass, and that when time comes to make a case for the community, they are left outside.
And what did theatre do during the Pandemic? Nothing. Theatre was more concerned with its salvation than the salvation of those who would not be saved. Theatre was preoccupied with its liveness, while the lives that matter were more at risk than ever. We could not ever watch theatre like we did. If the pandemic has alienated us from the illusion of a world without borders, then the pandemic must also alienate us from the illusion that theatre criticism should care for theatre more than the lives that make it possible. The pandemic is our new theatre criticism.
Scene 4: And what did the Germans do?
Or when we ask: Can theatre ever redeem us?
Sorry, my institution does not allow this software due to data security concerns. I am going to put a link on the chat so that you can all join me in another call hosted by the software my institution allows.
A link appears on the screen. The cursor clicks on it. The screen changes. It is exactly the same as before, but with different colours. The talking head talks.
Thank you. I would like to start by taking issue with the previous speaker. The theatre did do something. It stayed alive. My colleague argues that this is somehow indicative of some sort of artistic selfishness. But let’s take a moment to imagine the theatre not fighting to stay afloat and continue giving space for what is necessary to say, to see, and to experience? How awfully sad the world would be without the possibility of theatre. When else to re-enact ourselves to unearth injustices and re-address history than precisely during a season of death like the one we are experiencing? To say that theatre only cared for itself only shows how much the previous speaker fails to acknowledge the shortcomings of their own logic. Let us address the case of Germany. The Germans did not do too well, to be honest, but something happened in Germany, theatre-wise, that is worth our attention.
I am now going to share my screen.
Can you see my slide?
A generic slide appears.
Germany reported its first case of coronavirus on January 27, 2020, not that long after Singapore. The Western European arrogance (as well as the intra-European response) (Shelter) towards Chinese and other Asian countries’ immediate radical steps has come with the cost of many lives. It took the German government almost two additional months—like many other European countries—to install health and security measurements. While the world praises for its handling of crises, the Germans rather have been good with alienating themselves from history, responsibility and the aftermath. So, what did the Germans do?
From mid-March until the end of April, Germany was under a complete lockdown. While big events and gatherings were not allowed until the end of August, some of smaller companies and performance groups with a flexible and rather experimental approach were able to adjust to the new circumstances and perform. The Performing Arts Festival Berlin, for example, rearranged its program to an online version including different digital and inclusive offers. Similarly, The Theaterfestival Schwindelfrei in Mannheim, whose focus is on diversifying its program and its audience, was able to even present a pandemic-approved setup where locals with a diverse (class and race) background could participate in the Festival.
The German cultural sector is mainly funded and subsidised through the public and the German government, which is to say that one of the richest countries in the world (whose current wealth derives, for example, by being the fourth largest arms exporter) was able to (more or less) maintain the infrastructure for artists to survive. It has become apparent that maintaining a “normal” theatre life is a privilege compared to the rest of the (international theatre) world. The privilege that enabled the German theatre practitioners to engage with and invite international artists has now left a hole in the programming of the following seasons. While international travel and visit to international festivals are not possible, it might open a critical conversation that looks deeper inward rather than outward. And here, the performance Qingdao—a Messy Archive: Deutsche Kolonialvergangenheit in China is an example worth focusing on, as it engages with Germany’s colonialism and its ongoing (historical, political, cultural, aesthetic) legacies by challenging the hegemonic narrative and navigating towards an uncomfortable conversation.
The performance premiered online atJunges Nationaltheater Mannheimon May 2, 2020, and it was conceptualised and executed by a collective of artists from Germany, China and Taiwan. These artists are Mathias Becker, Katharina Breier, Patricija Katica Bronić, Cheng-Ting Chen, Dora Cheng, Hsiao-Ying Chen, Zenghao Yang, Hsin-Hwuei Tseng, Jasmina Quach, Lisa Zehetner and Weiyi Zhang.
The piece focuses on the transcontinental histories of German colonialism, particularly Germany’s colonial past in China. While the re-evaluation of German colonialism has recently entered public debates due to the official acknowledgement of the Herero and Nama Genocide in Namibia by German colonizers (1904-08), the conversation is foremost on former African colonies. The colonial rule in China is hardly ever mentioned.
Between 1898 to 1914, the Shandong province in the north-eastern part of China was a colony of the German Empire. It was the first colony on mainland China and strategic harbour for the Germans. For instance, in 1903 the German colonizers founded the Germania Brauerei (Germania-Brewery) which, in 1916, was annexed under the Japanese occupation and nationalised to the now second largest Brewery, Tsingtao, in China. Significantly, the Germans left their architectural and cultural traces on the landmarks of the city.
Qingdao—a Messy Archive explores these hidden histories from different angles. The audience met before the actual performance in the digital Zoom “foyer” where instructions and a link to the archive website were shared. After an hour of access to the archive, the website was shut down and an online gathering of audience and performers followed. This encounter lasted for around 30 minutes, while the audience was muted and some of the performers spoke, sang and danced.
The archive websitecontainsa combination of historical and personal documents, images and videos of Qingdao, the visits in the archives and the rehearsal process. The website does not follow a chronological order and resists the colonial idea of naming, claiming and reducing subjects, items, places and traditions to objects of catalogues and categories. The messiness of the archive forces the audience to go back and forth, to scroll up and down, and switch between the pages and the languages used (German, English and Mandarin). It demands we look beyond a Eurocentric gaze, as it also documents how China (or to be more precise the representatives of the city of Qingdao) prefer rather not withhold the violence of the colonial history and emphasize the “positive” aspects of the period of German colonial rule. The conversation becomes more constricted through the critical perspective of the Taiwanese performers and their experience of the Chinese rule over Taiwan and the ongoing suppression.
While often when confronted with the colonial past, especially one that seems so controversial, the hegemonic spectators—to quote Diana Taylor— “profit from the nonidentification” (234). Here, the coloniality of the structures, the inequality between stories, history and the way it has been narrated, was further complicated with the current experiences of the Chinese and Taiwanese performers with anti-Asian racism that has emerged with the rise of the global pandemic, COVID-19. Qingdao—a Messy Archive does not give simple answers, nor does it make it easy and comfortable for the audience. The colonizer and colonised can be embodied by the same subject or entity (state, government, people), but what it emphasizes, or forces the audience to acknowledge, is the colonial legacy that still rules history, the narration of history and its ongoing performative embodiment.
The Pandemic V-Effect, the focus on everyday life through the critical lens of theatre analysis and criticism, becomes apparent when the performance (and the performers) step out of the given performative frame that is the German state theatre, with its Eurocentric view on theatre and the planet, and redirect towards a postcolonial reading where the complexity of history and its narration is enabled.
Scene 5: The Interlude
Or when we acknowledge the long-needed break
Meine Damen und Herren,
Ladies and gentlemen,
As we have already overstepped by far the 2,000-word mark the amazing editor has given us for our contribution, we want to give you at least a short break to relax and reset your mind, while we are rearranging the stage of Pandemic V-Effect. We are doing our best to keep it short and interesting after the interlude. And do not fear, we are not going to re-enact white male director habitus of an ongoing and never-ending performance. But as fast and witty scholars who love good old suspense with a pinch of procrastination, we want to transit to the new way of normal, the slowness, that has accompanied global occurrences and maybe also expresses an anti-capitalist resistance.
So, please feel free to open a new tap on your browser, turn the sound on, open the window and sing and dance to Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion “WAP”.
Scene 6: The Pandemic V-Effect Finale
Or when we ask: where do we go from here?
Two lecterns. The talking heads are now talking bodies. One wears a mask, hazmat suit and latex gloves. The other one a face-shield and is constantly, incessantly, cleaning their hands with hand disinfectant.
It is now October, nearing November. Singapore’s number of active cases is, at the time of writing, a total of 93. The recovery rate is above 99 per cent, with only 28 deaths registered in the city-state. The situation is, we can say, under control. The economy is re-opening, and life seems to be normal, but not quite. Surely, the heavy measures imposed on the city’s social life have paid off. Singapore is, again, one of the safest places to be experiencing the pandemic, worldwide. And yet, what is the cost? Residents have to use their mobile phones to check in everywhere they go. Total freedom of transit is now a vague memory.
A few days ago, the government announced that live performance will resume on November 1, at designated venues. Attendees will have to undergo rapid testing on site before being able to access the theatre. How will this change the spatial experience of theatre making and spectatorship? How can we begin to fathom the deep implications that “rapid testing” will have on the overall design of theatres and of the productions shown therein? Where in the city may theatres be built if they need to be able to host and manage infected people? What about the other layers of labour in and of performance? How will front-of-house personnel be affected?
Germany has been hit hard by the second wave of COVID-19; kindergarten, schools and public institutions are opening to close almost after a few days again. People in areas where cases have been stuck up are in quarantine and lockdown again. For theatres, productions that have been rehearsed during the summer (with new ways of social gatherings including the new measurements for health and security reasons) and scheduled for this season (2020/21), are either rescheduled again or even cancelled.
The two speakers leave. A voice is heard.
Although the show must go on, it has become very clear that what has been perceived as normal will no longer apply. And there is an urgency to think through these new modes of social interactions, within the arts and the society alike, and emphasise the need for class, race and gender awareness. We need social empathy and solidarity against the unequal risks in and of the making of theatre and of theatres.
Who will build the new post-pandemic theatres? Again, the people that have been hit worse? Who will keep the spectators safe? Again, the non-essentials? How will theatre embrace its resilience and weaponize it against social injustice and towards equal access to resources are strengthened? Resilience is now the process of surviving and adapting has become a significant tool in these times of intense grief and trauma. Theatre cannot care for its survival anymore that it can care for the survival of the workers who make it possible.
The current time demands outspokenness and softness for those who are most vulnerable. It also demands to step back from beliefs of the individual “freedom” in favour of social and community support and responsibility. So where do we go from here? How do we re-historicise theatre after the Pandemic V-Effect?
Scene 7: The Epilogue
Where Brecht speaks to us a last time through The Threepenny Opera
A choir appears. They sing.
Before we send you off into this new world, we want to let Bertolt and his choir speak a last time to us!
Verfolgt das Unrecht nicht zu sehr,
Im Bälde Erfriert es schon von selbst,
Denn es ist kalt,
Bedenkt das Dunkel und die grosse Kälte in diesem Tale,
Das von Jammer schallt.
Do not persecute wrong-doings too harshly,
The world’s already beginning to freeze over,
For it is cold.
Consider the coldness and the great darkness in this tale,
and the lamentation that resounds.
The curtain closes.
The lights go off.
The stage goes black.
Brecht, Bertolt. “New Technique of Acting.” Brecht on Theatre, 1938, edited and translated by John Willett, Hill and Wang, 1964, pp. 136–47.
—. “The Street Scene.” Brecht on Theatre, 1951, edited and translated by John Willett, Hill and Wang, 1964, pp. 121–29.
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*Felipe Cervera is a Lecturer of Theatre at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore. He has published on collaborative research for theatre and performance studies with a focus on planetary methodologies in Global Performance Studies and Text & Performance Quarterly; on the interplays between performance, astronomy and astronautics in Theatre Research International and Performance Research; and on theatre and politics in the Routledge Companion to Theatre and Politics and Performance Philosophy. He is co-founder of the research ensemble, After Performance, and he serves as co-editor of Global Performance Studies and Associate Editor of Performance Research.
**Azadeh Sharifi is a PostDoc researcher associated with the Theatre Department of the University of Munich (LMU). She is currently holding the Eva & Victor Klemperer Fellowship at the Technical University Dresden. She is now working on her second book (Post)migrant Theatre in German Theatre History—(Dis)Continuity of Aesthetics and Narratives. Her work engages with (post)colonial and (post)migrant Theatre history, performances by artists of colour and the intersections of race and gender in contemporary European performances. She was a Fellow (2014–15) at the International Research Center Interweaving Performance Cultures at Free University Berlin. She is a member of the Future Advisory Board and Board Member (Development Officer) of Performance Studies international (PSi) and co-editor of Interventions: Contemporary Theatre Review.
Copyright © 2020 Felipe Cervera and Azadeh Sharifi
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411
This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.