Relaxed Performance: An Ethnography of Pedagogy in Praxis

Carla Rice,* Chelsea Temple Jones,** Jessica Watkin,*** Kayla Besse****

Abstract

In this co-written ethnography, we offer a co-curated account of how it feels to build, negotiate, witness and benefit from a community of practice nurtured by the principles of relaxed performance (RP). RP is a movement that invites all involved in a performance—from directors to performers to audiences—to be themselves (LaMarre, Rice and Besse). This invitation speaks to both technical interventions (such as dimmed lights and reduced ticket prices, among others) and social interventions rooted in disability justice frameworks, which offer an intersectional approach of thinking about body-mind difference in context. RP is an increasingly common intervention to performance production that pushes back against the “quiet or invisible” audience (Simpson 277), thus cultivating a new community of practice within which the four authors of this paper are deeply embedded. Our work teaching and researching RP takes place within neoliberal and colonial structures of post-secondary education and academic ableism across Turtle Island (northern part of the lass mass known as America) (Dolmage). Our deeply reflective accounts, informed by performance pedagogy and critical approaches to education, invite further thought on race, disability, gender and efforts to decolonize performance ethnography, as we deliberately draw on our intersecting positions as researchers, performers, writers, theatre-goers and audience members steeped in emergent and, at times, radical RP pedagogy. Here, we offer a relational account of our experiences moving between three multi-sensory performances and the university classroom, describing our own participation in the complex processes of community-building with body-mind difference in mind.
Keywords: relaxed performance, pedagogy, access, intersectionality, body-mind difference

Story One: A Snapshot of Relaxed Performance

Chelsea: I sit in a dark theatre holding three slips of paper, each a different colour. “Darkness,” the audio describer says into a microphone. Then, “JD appears centre stage, kneeling with their hand resting on a lowered mic stand.” The performer, Jan Derbyshire—referred to throughout the play as JD—wears blue corduroys and high-top shoes. Strands of their short hair are lit up by the large, luminous moon above the set.

“Good evening, Toronto!” JD says to the audience.

“Hi JD!” my colleague, Jessica Watkin, yells back. I am a researcher here to observe a Relaxed Performance (RP). I met Watkin a few months ago during another participant observation, wherein she delivered RP training to over 100 theatre students at a major Canadian university. My participant observation in the community and across three university sites is part of the fieldwork involved in an ongoing research project of The British Council of Canada and Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology and Access to Life (hereafter BIT) focused on RP in Canada. I can see Jessica grinning in the dark. I say nothing.

JD, wearing a blue plaid shirt and holding a microphone, stands centre stage, under a spotlight, with the rest of the stage blacked out. The moon hangs directly above JD’s head

JD begins talking. This isn’t the show. Rather, JD is speaking to the audience before the show begins, inviting us to leave at any time during their performance in order to take care of ourselves if needed. Following RP tradition, the lights are dim, and JD invites us to move around during the show. “If your selfcare isn’t going well, just skip the show—it’s not that good,” JD jokes.

Contrary to JD’s self-deprecation, the performer has been cheekily praised as “insanely funny” in this one-person show, Certified (Hobson). Structured as a mental-health review board hearing, this performance is a caustically comical meditation on JD’s “bodymind,” a term favoured by Disability Studies scholars because it attempts to overcome problems with the mind/body split in Western thought, which treats the mind and body as separate or separable entities, and which privileges the former, as interior and superior, over the latter, as exterior and inferior (Rice et al. 4). JD’s bodymind is a point where madness meets gender, sexuality and rurality, all at once, as a quirky JD chronicles their childhood, relationships and trips across Turtle Island (the northern part of the landmass known as America). Throughout the show, JD and the audio describer interact, nit-picking over words and creating a heteroglossic effect—another sure sign that this is an RP. The audio describer, JD explains, is the fourth voice in their head.

The RP elements in this performance—the dim lights, the audio describer, the actor’s attention to the audience’s needs—follow the traditions of disability theatre, an international field of practice both activist and artistic in orientation, rooted in a larger disability arts and culture movement which has diverse roots in different national contexts (Johnston 15). Unlike traditional theatre conventions wherein audiences are generally expected to sit still, be quiet and behave, RP is a creative opportunity to re-imagine theatre traditions and to invite all involved in a performance—from directors to performers to audiences—to be themselves. The invitation for people to be themselves is an invitation for co-presencing—for bringing together audiences that are “not expected to remain self-contained, static and silent” and whose movements will impact themselves and others (LaMarre et al. 29). Disability theatre debunks (non-disabled, middle class, white) notions of civility embedded in Anglo-western theatre traditions from the early twentieth century onwards, and RP speaks to the access gestures that come with this larger challenge to ableism. As Kirsty Johnston puts it in her book Disability Theatre and Modern Drama: Recasting Modernism, these challenges are “explorations of new ways to put disability on the stage” both conceptually and methodologically by acknowledging and attending to disability as a lively aesthetic presence and making room for the things that make the presence of disability possible (26).

Hannah Simpson argues that the unrequited acceptance of “quiet-audience etiquette” as a performance norm radically reduces accessibility (277). So, instead of excluding spectators who might traditionally be understood as audience outsiders, RP invites a new perspective on performance as an embodied, communal event (227). Reorienting to performance in this way follows traditions in disability art that understand orientations toward accessibility as a “creative enhancement” (LaMarre et al. 4). More tacitly, this open invitation speaks to physical and social interventions. Physical space modifications commonly include reducing ticket prices and inviting audiences to move around during the show. Social interventions might include reaching out to disabled people and inviting them, and clarifying with the audience that their comfort is the priority—traditionally there are no “rules” for how to behave in this type of performance (Kempe 63). What it means to “relax” a performance might look and feel different on a case-by-case basis. In this case, it’s dimmed lights, an audio describer and JD’s constant interaction with us, the audience.

Importantly, RP is also rooted in disability justice frameworks, which offer an intersectional approach of thinking about bodymind difference as it materializes in social structures and power relations. Disability justice is a form of activism that advocates for justice for all and is led by and for disabled Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) focused on experiences of disability and ableism from an intersectional perspective (Cripping the Arts 21). For that reason, we, as the four authors of this piece, attend to race, power and privilege as we witness and participate in RP. Here, we offer an account of our own engagement with RP for those who were not there, so that we might share a glimpse into a local disability justice-rooted movement which is increasingly challenging international theatre conventions.

Introduction: Linking Relaxed Performance to Ethnography

Carla, Chelsea and Jessica: To investigate the nuances of RP as they are currently experienced in an urban Canadian context, we draw on a critical, co-written performance ethnography rooted in participant observation. Following traditions of creative analytic practice that encourage unique forms of knowing-through-writing in ethnographic praxis, this method offers six snapshots—or short slice-of-life stories—of our own encounters with RP in the pursuit of social justice (Richardson and St. Pierre 960). Between November 2019 and June 2020, the four authors of this paper collectively attended two professional RP performances, facilitated or attended five RP training sessions as part of university theatre and choir courses and interviewed 21 people involved in RP training. This data gathering follows two years of research focused on RP by the Re•Vision Centre for Art and Social Justice, which culminated in the 2019 report “Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility in the Canadian Theatre Landscape.”

Re•Vision: The Centre for Art and Social Justice. University of Guelph. Photo: Web

Our engagement with RP varies from one author to the next. The first author, Carla, founded Re•Vision and has been engaged in RP research, training and mobilization for three years. Here, Carla is positioned as a white, queer audience member living with mental difference who, with her Indigenous spouse, attended a play in downtown Toronto focused on Indigenous women.

The second author, Chelsea, is a white, queer, mad-identified researcher also positioned here as an audience member. Her role is described in the opening of this article as she attended Certified with the third author of this paper, Jessica.

Jessica is a white settler and Blind artist-scholar-dramaturge, whose role as RP facilitator includes delivering RP training to students in post-secondary contexts.

The fourth author, Kayla, is also an RP facilitator. Kayla does not tell a story here, but her experiences inform the writing of the other authors.

Following ethnographic traditions, we introduce ourselves in more detail, and in our own voices, in the stories that follow. And, in keeping with disability justice, we write knowing that our positionalities have a stake in the power relations that operate around RP—how it is experienced, witnessed and played out in our respective engagements with performance from these sitpoints, to borrow from disabled essayist Nancy Mairs (1996). We also understood at the outset of this writing that our work takes place within the neoliberal and colonial structures of post-secondary education and academic ableism on Turtle Island (Dolmage). Our reflective accounts—informed by disability theatre, which takes into account disability as a cultural idea (Johnston; Mitchell et al. 567)—invite further thought on the intersections of disability, race, gender, Indigeneity and efforts to decolonize performance ethnography, as we gradually draw out our positions as researchers, teachers and audience members steeped in emergent and, at times, radical RP.

Story Two: Teaching Relaxed Performance

Jessica: I am not relaxed. I am standing at the front of the kind of large lecture hall I have visited since my undergraduate studies. I’m a guest in this classroom, about to introduce complicated non-normative concepts about disability theatre and accessibility that might be destabilizing for students. Best to let the students trickle in in silence.

I can’t see a single person in front of me, but I am sure people are there. I begin with a joke. I hear their laughter, which reassures me of their engagement. This brings up a memory: in high school, when I was just gaining my Blindness, a teacher said to the class, “I can tell if you’re paying attention and thinking if you are looking at me and blinking; blinking tells me you are engaged.” Since childhood, I have been asked to perform ableist standards of engagement in institutional spaces. In this way, academic ableism is at work clarifying its “taxonomy of abnormality” by dividing the sighted from the non-sighted in the hierarchy of learners (Dolmage 110). Disabled bodies’ daily performances in higher education and elsewhere are marked as deviant so others can more easily be read as normal (Scott 62). It wasn’t until I began delivering RP training in 2018 that I realized that what my teacher told me about “performing my engagement” through blinking was, to be blunt, absolute bullshit.

I dive into an intersectional origin story of RP as it is tied to disability theatre. RP movements took root, I explain, in the U.K. in the 1990s, and they were described in their early days as “autism-friendly” for their work of widening the scope of children’s participation in theatre with particular reference to kids who are part of the autism spectrum (Kempe 59). The concept of RP is broadening and an increased need for specialized training including and beyond theatre has emerged (LaMarre et al. 3). As part of this timeline, I play a sexy video from Sins Invalid (a BIPOC disability arts group from San Francisco) and someone asks if there is more archival footage on their website. “Of course! Check them out on Instagram,” I respond—first year students love Instagram, right? It occurs to me these folks may not end up using this material in their theatre work for a long time, but for me that doesn’t make a difference.

In 2019, the British Council Canada and BIT published a report that aimed at understanding the experiences and impacts of RP training on those involved and on audience members. This research found a need for RP to include disability-led training and to integrate disability justice into its praxis (LaMarre et al. 8). Soon, I was hired to do this job.

My job goes far beyond offering students a checklist of how to make their performances accessible. Though the inclusion of audio description, accessible venues, lighting adjustments, American Sign Language interpretation and other gestures are important, accessibility is a broad concept informed by recent interventions in disability theatre and justice. I take this moment to explain disability justice: it is as much a framework for worldmaking that resists assimilation into normalcy as it is the everyday acts of honouring our bodyminds (Sins Invalid 7). To demonstrate how disability justice can be enacted in a classroom, I begin these seminars by inviting my students not to visually engage with me. This is one way of relaxing the room. Students are welcome to look at their cell phones, to close their eyes and have a rest, or to simply make their gaze comfortable. I model this “relaxed” approach when I explain to my students that I best engage with content by fidgeting, drawing or by using my laptop, and that it is up to them to make the choice of how best to engage.

A photo of Jessica Watkin facilitating a Relaxed Performance training session, October 4, 2019, at York University. She is seated at a conference table; a couple of participants are visible to the right of the frame. Photo: Alomar Kocur

I tell students that “like a garden, disability justice does not bloom overnight.” I plant some big seeds about equity, non-normative theatre practices and RP as a concept that can help lead us toward a more radical understanding of access that invites further thought on race, disability, gender, Indigeneity and efforts to decolonize performance. I nestle these seeds gently. I try to sow a longer-lasting connection to disability theatre. My approach draws on Johnston’s description of critical approaches to disability theatre that “remind us not only of how very long some cultural narratives of disability have been haunting Western culture but also the ways in which Critical Disability Studies opens up such narratives to readings that demand a fuller engagement with embodiment, disability experience, knowledge, and history” (Johnston 19).

I then suggest that, while they continue on with their studies and developing their own practices, the integration of disability in their work may begin to take root in different ways. “It’s creative problem solving!” I say, hoping something sticks. I want them to leave the lesson having felt what it means to be in a relaxed space, with disability justice leading the conversation. I want to offer them something experiential that they remember as more significant than just an RP “to-do” list that starts with dimming the lights.

A key part of RP cannot be gleaned from a classroom setting: the impact it has on a given production. RP engages with each performance production differently, as the modifications are catered to every theatre space, urban environment and engagement that specific theatre has with its patrons. The nuances of every performance practicing RP are difficult to articulate. When asked what I would suggest to any new theatre practitioner beginning their journey with RP—with integrating access into their theatre practice—I suggest they attend RPs to understand the features and to compare one production to another. As with any skill, RP takes seeing the performance modelled, learning the theory behind it and trying it out ourselves more than once over time to get it right. In a playwriting class at the University of Toronto, Djanet Sears gave students her best advice for anyone trying to write plays: Read plays, see plays, write plays. For me, the same principles can be applied to becoming more accessible in our theatre practice: Read about accessible performances, see them and then try to do the work with our own productions. It takes more than understanding the concepts of RP to feel the embodied, affective experience of being an audience member in a production that accounts for your presence.

Story Three: Opening RP with Discussion

Carla: On a frigid February night in Toronto, my queer spouse and I spot the glowing yellow lights of Theatre Passe Muraille which beckon us into its warm cosy space. We have come for bug, the one-woman play created by Indigenous artist Yolanda Bonnell (Ojibwe-South Asian) and directed by Cole Alvis (Métis), which my spouse, who is Indigenous, wanted to see, and which I, a white settler researcher with mental difference who studies RP, also wanted to experience first-hand.

Although I have researched RP for the past three years, this was my first opportunity to witness RP in a decolonized theatre production. bug has been described by Bonnell as following its main character, “The Girl,” “as she navigates her way through intergenerational trauma while being haunted by Manidoons [Ojibwe for bug]” (Theatre Passe Muraille), which become the physical manifestation of her addictions in the play. Combining poetry, dance, gesture, sound and song, this physical performance weaves together stories of Indigenous women grappling with the psychic and intergenerational impacts of colonial violence while making difficult decisions about how to survive in the settler colonial nation we call Canada. The development of a decolonized RP sprung from Bonnell’s experience of the unsustainability and unhealthiness of colonial theatre-as-usual: “This idea in the professional industry world of leaving your shit at the door is just not real. It’s not an actual thing you can do. And so, rather than that, let’s talk about where you are at today. So that we are in space with each other . . . we can respect each other, and where our bodies are at” (Sur).

To my reading of bug, I brought a commitment to Indigenous and disabled people’s self-determination and to the cultivation of activist art for social transformation. Yet, the intersections between Indigeneity and disability have long been ignored, despite Indigenous artistic and scholarly works that explore how the (Canadian) state’s debilitating treatment of First Peoples has served the geopolitics of settler-colonial nation building. For instance, settler-imposed socio-political regimes (capitalism, land theft and forced containment of First Peoples on reserves with unsafe living conditions and in residential schools leading to well-documented abuses and cultural genocide) have produced high degrees of debility among Indigenous peoples, resulting in disproportionate impairment and early death. As a result, the rate of disabilities experienced by Indigenous people in Canada is twice that of non-Indigenous people (British Columbia Aboriginal Network on Disability 2).

In addition, although Indigenous communities grapple with the same ablest logics for understanding disability (that is, as defect or inferiority) as settlers, these are magnified for Indigenous people, who also grapple with the colonial framing of Indigeneity as a sign of deficiency and lack compared to a euro-white non-disabled standard (Kelly and Rice 10–17; see discussion). Notions of “defectiveness” that have been imposed on Indigenous bodies and lives through colonial knowledge systems have meant that the ascription of disability, madness or other bodymind difference threatens Indigenous peoples’ access to the category of human; and this makes the claiming of disability itself a (relative) privilege.

It is against this fraught backdrop that Bonnell developed a decolonized RP, pushing into the ways that colonial processes have produced high rates of disability (including addictions and the psychic effects of trauma) among First Peoples and pushing against the very negative ways that disability continues to be coded (and Indigenous peoples coded as disabled) in settler-colonizer contexts. To make this double move, Bonnell centred Indigenous and disabled bodyminds before, during and after her performance, and she additionally stressed her intention to uphold and enhance the well-being of artists and audience members, especially those who identified as Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people dealing with the effects of heteropatriarchal colonial violence. Before the performance, for example, Bonnell acknowledged and invited Indigenous women and Two-Spirit audience members to identify themselves by raising a hand, making a noise, standing up or otherwise gesturing at her; and she noted that this call out was intentional given the ways that settler cultural spaces have not always welcomed Indigenous people in. They and non-Indigenous people in the audience were then invited to do what they needed to in order to care for themselves and receive care from others during the performance—step outside, ask for support and, in general, be present and/or absent in the ways that they/we needed to be. An Indigenous counsellor with medicines (sage for smudging) was on site to provide support and ceremony. In the call-and-response style question-and-answer session following the performance, Bonnell posed questions of the audience and the audience of her and the show’s director, Cole Alvis. Here, again, she privileged the responses of Indigenous women and Two-Spirit audience members by inviting their comments and questions first, allowing a warm silence to descend in order to create space for previously marginalized perspectives to emerge.

bug | manidoons collective co-presented by Theatre Passe Muraille and Native Earth Performing Arts. This image shows a woman in a purple top with red, embroidered cardigan over it lying on her back. She is on the floor painted in a multicoloured pattern meant to look like the night sky. The woman is holding her braided ponytail above her head. Created and performed by Yolanda Bonnell. Scenography by Jay Havens. Lighting Design by Michel Charbonneau. Photo: Dahlia Katz
Story Four: RP Beyond the Classroom

Jessica: If, at the theatre, I must disclose my Blindness for ushers or box office people to assist me, I note how they respond—their physicality, their language toward me. Then, during the production, I am attentive to any factors that create ease of engagement. I take all of my experiences into account while facilitating RP training, which is perhaps unsurprising: the labour of organizing more accessible performances tends to be invisibilized because it is rarely taught in higher education. “And mostly, when it happens,” Piepzna-Samarasinha explains, “it happens because sick and disabled and Deaf and crazy folks make it happen, because we are the ones who a) care and b) have been sick/disabled/crazy Deaf science and skills to make it happen” (154).

Through facilitating RP training in university classrooms—bringing it into institutions, and then going to some RPs in the “real world”—I’ve had space to reflect on what it means to relax. My own realizations about what it means hit me during an experience as an audience member when I did not feel relaxed. Jess Thom, creator of the Touretteshero performance project, says this of how RP makes us feel:  “Lots of people are worried that if you start relaxing the rules around theatre etiquette that there’s anarchy, but in my experience there isn’t. It’s a more comfortable way to watch theatre that doesn’t ask people to put themselves through discomfort or pain or deny the humanness of their bodies” (Paskett). The language here resists the assumption that normative, “traditional” theatre makes nondisabled, neurotypical people comfortable; what we are relaxing is not the people but the structures of theatre that make a performance space “naturally” conducive to neurotypical engagement:

Quiet,
Dark,
Still, and
Contained.

As a theatre creator, since my training days, I have been taught to create for an audience (and, of course, for myself). That invitation inherently assumes an audience inside of my head. As a Disabled person, that means I spend a lot more time plugged into the Disabled audience experience. I capitalize the D in Disability here as it pertains to my identity and how that identity connects to the larger community of Disabled people. I identify as a member of the Disabled community as someone who has a disability. But if a theatre creator/designer does not have the lived experience of Disability, or hasn’t engaged with accessible practice, I wonder about the assumptions they are making based on who attends a performance. The word “sightlines” comes up in many facets of the design, but, as a Blind creator, sightlines only creep in when I am thinking of the Deaf audience members who may attend my performance, because “sightlines” has little meaning to my own lived experience of attending performances and, ultimately, as a nonvisual performance creator, is low on my priorities. What this perspective has to offer theatre creation is not manipulating already-established theatre tenets such as lighting (both in the house and on stage), but emphasizing the politicized aesthetics of accessibility and Disability. This involves making decisions based on a large possibility that patrons may attend any performance and that we do not know how they process information. Through RP and other accessibility measures already mentioned, we can not only anticipate needs but also demonstrate a space where people in the audience feel dignity. Integration of accessible models of performance propels the integration of Disabled audience members in theatre.

When I normally sit in an audience, whether in England, Ireland, the United States or Canada, if there isn’t a dedication to accessible or decolonial practices in the space, I follow a learned contract, as it were, as an audience member: I sit quietly throughout the performance, I clap at the end and I respect others around me. Some theatres have different rules: do not bring food inside, only water, only glasses of wine with lids. Some performances have interactive elements or are site-specific so that the contract is less clear, but the role of the audience member prevails: We witness, we only respond to a performance when it is our time to do so, and we may or may not be able to leave and come back into the theatre.

Performers capture attention to tell a story,
the audience agrees to hold the space and bear witness to what’s happening.

When attending an RP, however, this kind of contract is turned on its head: the audience is invited to engage, make noise, move around, leave and come back and eat (among many other things). When teaching RP, I talk about this contract and suggest that, as audience members, we observe how others participate around us. I’ve been in RPs where the entire audience is tuned in to a single person who is making noise and moving, and the atmosphere is tense because it is unfamiliar inside the theatre space, at least in North America. The final facet of RP that I think is important to explore, then, is how it feels to be inside an RP and how this particular cultural audience (Disabled and Neurodivergent) fruitfully engages with, responds to and shapes the kind of theatre available.

As a Disabled theatre scholar I write from a different perspective: I literally see performances differently, and so my idea of what is “normal” or “accepted” in theatre spaces is skewed. What keeps me going in this vein of work, however, is the intense belief that, as Sean Lee recently explained on the podcast Secret Feminist Agenda, access is a vital aesthetic; disabled audiences have something to offer the nondisabled theatre world.

Story Five: Owning Docility as an Audience Member

Chelsea: If I’d realized that as an audience member I would be called on to interact with the performer, I might not have suggested we come here. We are back where we began: at JD’s play, Certified, and the audience is cast as a mental health review board. By the end of the show, we are invited to vote on JD’s sanity. Diagnosis, JD reminds us, always involves an educated guess.

As a white cis-gender introvert, I enjoy the privilege of blending into an audience, and as such I fit right into what Simpson calls “the cult of the quiet audience” (277). This audience—“quiet or invisible”—is something both recent and historically atypical (277). Tracing silence as normalized theatre etiquette to at least the 1950s, Simpson points out that today’s regulation of audience behaviour is a matter of self-policing by a collective group (Simpson 228). In her analysis, Simpson points to Foucault’s work on docile bodies, which asks us to consider how groups—such as the “quiet audience”—come to be and how this being affects our process of identification of ourselves and the Other. For Foucault, this kind of binding between bodies is the result of “a multiplicity of minor processes” circulating across various institutions, and in response to particular needs (133). What was the need for a static, almost silent audience? Who does this audience serve?

I have been so indoctrinated into the “cult of the quiet audience” that even in an RP setting, where I’ve already been invited to behave differently than usual, I won’t get up and move around. I won’t make noise. I won’t ask for what I need. I am ensconced in what Snyder and Mitchell call a “desire for safety,” experienced by the normate actor or, in my case, theatregoer (156). I’m realizing, though, that my perceived safety vis-à-vis inaction serves no one. Following Scott, the listener is a performer, taking on the performative role of audience member (10). Performance ethnography is a method wherein the writer-as-performer is always present. The method is praised for its critique of cultural practices that reproduce oppression, and I am increasingly aware that my stiff compliance to audience norms is itself a processual process of subscribing to normalcy and colonial norms—my anxious frozen-ness is a way of performing myself amid others in the world (Denzin 19).

So, when it is time to vote on JD’s sanity, I give in. I raise my yellow slip of paper and participate. Yellow means I can’t be certain about JD’s sanity, but as a mad person myself I offer this vote more as a small gesture of solidarity than as a sign of uncertainty. I look around at most of the other papers fluttering high in the air so JD can see them. There are some red papers indicating that JD is certifiably insane. But, most of them are green. Green, according to JD, means “Go, dog, go!”

Story Six: Leaving a Relaxed Performance

Carla: I leave the theatre with a lingering sense of connection and, strangely, of hope. I knew that by witnessing bug I had been given a rare gift—the opportunity to attend closely to Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people speaking about art created by, for and about Indigenous women and Two Spirit peoples addressing the intergenerational and interiorized fallout of colonial violence. Reflecting afterwards, I realized that what was heartening was how the conversation landed not on the violence (that continues to be) done so much as on the validation that the art offered its witnesses, in the tender container Bonnell and Alvis created, using decolonized RP strategies, to safely explore of the wounds of colonial trauma. In so doing, they opened a passageway into the strength, resourcefulness and positivity of those surviving, living and creating in spite of and through it.

In the theatre context, RP is a gesture of “opening up theatre” (LaMarre et al. 7). From a disability theatre perspective that acknowledges disability’s “generative potential” (Johnston 62), Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes the importance of “opening” performances:

Having an accessible space for performers and attendees and workers, where disability is not marginalized, tokenized, or simply absent, is very different from having a performance space that is full of mostly able-bodied, young, non-parenting people who can afford to spend the money to attend and/or to get there in the first place.

(150)

Bonnell purposely invited only Indigenous, Black and racialized critics to review the show in an effort to “amplify” voices of critics who would likely dig deeper into experiences of addiction and intergenerational trauma at the intersections and share a perspective often absent in whitestream media.

We might interpret this gesture as issuing a challenge to settler colonization and white supremacy, especially if we understand these terms not as referring to the extreme positions held by overt racists but rather as referencing the large, relatively invisible and interconnected systems that uphold white privilege and power and perpetuate the devaluation, “exclusion and premature death of people of color in settler colonial states” (Bonds and Inwood 716), often times through the debilitation of BIPOC populations in precisely the ways Bonnell examines in her play. This move generated much controversy in the Canadian press (Fricker) and a flurry of online racism directed at Bonnell (Sur). While her request especially irked and affronted many in Canada’s largely white community of culture critics (Nestruck), some of these critics, by asserting their own impartiality and questioning that of their racialized counterparts (Sur), inadvertently revealed the operations of white supremacy in Canadian cultural criticism. The online pushback from BIPOC communities in response to this criticism may have galvanized one white male theatre critic, Kelly Nestruck to change the title of his original review from “The colour of criticism: How should media respond when an artist asks for only non-white critics to review them?” to “How should media respond when an artist limits reviews to critics who are Indigenous, black and people of colour?” (Sur). He also attended the play a second time and co-authored another review—this time taking the form of an online conversation with Cree performance studies scholar Karyn Recollet that centred her (more) informed reading of Bonnell’s work (Recollet and Nestruck). In some ways, the relational format of this second review came to mirror the relational RP practices around which Bonnell and Alvis wrapped their offering, thus giving readers and audiences pause for deeper reflection and perhaps indicating a small tear in the fabric of white supremacy itself.

At the same time, public conversation has brought to light the urgent need for more racialized, Indigenous and disabled art critics (Jones et al.). For many theatregoers, including me, Bonnell’s work also brought greater attention to the potential of decolonized RP as a “relational practice” (Recollet and Nestruck) that takes disability and race into account as cultural ideas (Johnston 16), making space for Indigenous artists living the effects of heteropatriarchal colonial violence to speak their truth to settler power.

Reflections on Method

Carla, Chelsea and Jessica: Theatre provides a litmus test for the “social appetites” of culture (Snyder and Mitchell 155). Accordingly, we must pay attention to bodymind configurations in the field of theatre, including our own roles as observers, teachers and researchers. Therefore, each of the authors here offers a glimpse into RP from a collision of these roles—we are never only one thing—and it is our intention through performance ethnography to single out and deconstruct these roles in order to critically interrogate the lexicon of performance.

Following the lead of Denzin and Scott, we—Carla, Chelsea and Jess—drew on performativity to write out the degrees to which our own intersecting identities could adapt to a new type of performance—a type of performance that invites “bodies to be bodies” (LaMarre et al. 2). The data collected in these reflexive stories comes from our long-term relationships with disability over many years, as well as our ongoing engagements with disability theatre, disability justice and RP. Our collective analysis here involves gathering data from our own lived experiences and filling the page, finding themes and reconnecting with RP both from our recent engagement with RP and from our memories (Heewon et al. 101–02). Scott describes storytelling performance as cultural research and expression that is collaborative enough to ensure that our work with one another is never over but remains an ongoing “co-struggle of sense-making to co-create self, other, and culture” (10). Ultimately, we chose co-written performance ethnography as a method for its ability to deploy storytelling as a performance in and of itself (Scott 4).

A photo of Kayla Besse facilitating a Relaxed Performance training session, October 4, 2019, at York University. She is seated at a conference table; Jessica Watkin is to the right and many participants are visible on both sides of the table. The screen behind her says “Making Social Media Accessible.” Photo: Alomar Kocur
Conclusion

Chelsea: RP leads us toward prefigurative politics—“a fancy term for imaging and building the world we want to see now” (Piepzna-Samarasinha 149). Arguably, this is a world that transcends the traditional role of the “silent” audience and, instead, offers further thought on disability, race, gender, Indigeneity and efforts to decolonize performance. Even as a mad-identified person, Chelsea can call out her own white docility, challenging dominant discourses that inform theatre performance and, in particular, the role of the audience member. Jessica’s stories of delivering RP training and engaging in “real world” theatre as a Blind person are crucial to the realization of these prefigurative politics because these stories push back against the long-standing erasure of disabled bodies from audiences and from productions. And, Carla’s privileged account of participating in bug suggests that a decolonial lens adds an even more invitational element to RP—an element that is critical of who is in the space and makes intentional gestures toward reconciliation that might be absent elsewhere.

Indeed, in the wake of recent uprisings against white settler incursion into Indigeous territories and police violence against Black and Indigenous peoples, commentators have begun to surface the histories and ongoing legacies of white settler supremacy in the cultural landscape in Canada (Parris). We do not wish to separate ourselves from these commentaries —Jessica, for example, has been an active presence on Twitter asking for a more accessible #InTheDressingRoom hashtag, which is circulating in an effort to draw attention to Black people’s experiences of racism in Canadian theatre.

As interventions on the diversity of performance grow in Canada and elsewhere, it is imperative that we reflect on, and attend to, disability theatre experiences and  RP’s development from a myriad of perspectives that make space for further consideration of efforts to decolonize performance.

NOTE: While it was unclear in his published articles, theatre critic Kelly Nestruck has since clarified that he attended Bonnell’s play bug only once and that he did not attend her show prior to writing his first commentary questioning the request she made for a BIPOC critic to review it. He also clarified that he did not write the headline of his first commentary; an unnamed staff person at the Globe and Mail wrote it.

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Theatre Passell Muraille. “bug.” 


*Carla Rice is a Canada Research Chair at the University of Guelph, and founder and academic director of The Re•vision Centre for Art and Social Justice. Rice is carrying out research in conjunction with her Partnership Grant “Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology, and Access to Life” that seeks to centralize culturally, cognitively, affectively and physically diverse artist practitioners as members of communities whose voices and self-representations have been marginalized from mainstream cultural landscapes and art institutions across Canada. Rice is a co-author of the landmark 2019 report, “Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility in The Canadian Theatre Landscape.” 

**Chelsea Temple Jones is an Assistant Professor at Brock University. A former Research Associate at Re•Vision: The Centre for Art and Social Justice at the University of Guelph, Jones is also a journalist whose work on media coverage of disability and deaf arts appears in Studies for Social Justice and International Journal of Education Through Art. Jones holds a PhD in Communication and Culture and teaches critical disability studies courses at Ryerson University’s School of Disability Studies. 

***Jessica Watkin is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, with research focusing on Disabled artists creating performance in Canada. She is a Blind interdisciplinary artist, dramaturg, consultant, educator and activist. Her art is nonvisual, tactile and reliant on storytelling. 

****Kayla Besse is the Knowledge Mobilization Coordinator at Re•Vision: The Centre for Art and Social Justice at the University of Guelph. A trained access activator and relaxed performance specialist, Besse is a co-author of the The British Council’s 2019 report, “Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility in The Canadian Theatre Landscape.”

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