The Death and Performance Symposium at Sick! Theatre Festival, University of Salford
‘Death’, Steve Eastwood suggests, ‘is the final representational taboo.’ He is talking about his film Island, a documentary which he filmed over the course of a year in Mountbatten Hospice on the Isle of Wight. Here he stayed with several hospice residents in the final months of their lives, working as a volunteer whilst also recording the lives of four cancer patients. Eventually one of the participants, Alan, suggested the Eastwood might film his death.
We are touchy about representations of real death, especially in the arts. Whilst fictional images of death flood our popular imaginary, from gaming to action films to soap operas, recordings of actual deaths are kept in liminal spaces. Facebook live streams of suicide attempts, execution videos, footage ripped from CCTV of car accidents. We know these images and recordings are out there, but we do not like to think about them. They form the dark representational underbelly of our media-saturated culture. We don’t look – or if we do it is with a sense of transgression, blinking, turning away, shutting the screen at the crucial moment. We certainly don’t share this looking with others.
So what does it mean to carefully and purposefully set out to film a death? What happens when we watch such a recording, in a cinema or festival under the banner of ‘art’?
Of course, there is no universal answer to this question, and no unified spectating ‘we’ either.
For Eastwood, unseating this taboo is itself an ethical act. He suggests that we very quickly say, ‘isn’t that voyeuristic?’, but we don’t think about or ask, ‘what are the ethical implications of not looking?’ There are ethical implications of not looking too. People who are dying and their carers are very unrepresented.
For Manesh Nirmalan, Intensive Care Consultant at Manchester Royal Infirmary, undoing taboos about death is an urgent public health issue. Without talking about death, we can’t talk about the value of life or the quality or nature of end of life care.
Today most people in the Western world will die in hospital, or under some form out medical care. Life will be prolonged beyond the point of no return, and next of kin are often required to make decisions about when treatment should be stopped. As Nirmalan suggests, this isn’t a conversation that should take place at the first time in a crisis situation when a loved one is in the ICU. And yet, as our human relationships are increasingly professionalised it is still rare for us to talk openly and regularly about death.
Nirmalan and the Manchester Royal Infirmary are taking part in a project with documentary maker Matts Staub to promote these conversations. In a sense, this is a public health initiative aimed at preventing unnecessary and potentially harmful end-of-life treatments. It is also a wider attempt to provoke a greater range of conversations about death and explore what might come of them.
The project involves a series of conversations between two people. Initially one is the speaker and one the listener. They sit alone in a small space, and the speaker talks freely about their experience of birth and death – ‘who has come into their lives, and who has left’ in the words of Staub. After the speaker is finished they swap roles, and the person who was listening speaks of their experiences. Staub films both conversations, and then reflects with them off screen on the process. If participants are happy with it, the conversation is included in a series of videos which have been projected on walls in a gallery setting.
Whilst not as intimate as Eastwood’s film, this project is also unsettling the death taboo, with gentleness and care. Importantly, participants talk about birth and death, situating illness, dying and loss into the fundamental concerns of life.
The pacing and setting of the interviews does cause a shift in the way death can be talked about. Nirmalan reflects on his experience as a volunteer participant when the project was being trialled. ‘I thought I was very familiar with death,’ he says, ‘I thought I would be cool about it and it wouldn’t bother me because of what I do for a living’. But the setting, proximity with a stranger, became very powerful, and led him to be very moved. ‘I had some difficulties because I am usually in a preaching mode in talking about that issue, and actually coming out of the preaching mode and going through the motions myself was a challenge.’
Looking at others
Both Staub and Eastwood clearly take a great deal of care to respect the experience and wishes of their participants. Their portraits are led by the experiences of those on screen, and only to the extent that the participants wish to be involved. These projects are about dying, death and loss being seen for a number of reasons, not least to better understand and respect the needs and wants of the dying.
But what about the observers? Do performance-makers have a duty of care for their audiences, when making work about death?
In the second half of the Death and Performance symposium we come up against this question a lot, and it becomes something of a stumbling block.
Jon Haynes of Ridiculusmus theatre company wonders if we have gone too far when it comes to ‘taking care’ of an audience. For their most recent work Die! Die! Die! Old People Die!, Ridiculusmus were encouraged to remove the ‘old people’ from the title for fear of offence. And yet what could be a more appropriate title for a performance work which is explicitly and exclusively about death and old age? The flippancy of the title anticipates the performance’s tone, which is at once comic and unflinching.
In a sense, we are back to the issue of professionalising human relationships. Theatre and performance have been relatively free of the kinds of restrictions placed on television and film when it comes to dealing with taboo subjects. There is no requirement for content warnings (although they increasingly do appear), watersheds or age-restrictions. Theatres and performance spaces are still sites where we can be shocked without warning, and where there is no set convention for ‘caring’ for or protecting one’s audience. Can we find ways of putting care into these performances without professionalising that care, without turning it into a checklist?
Again, it is real death that feels the most problematic to put in front of an audience. Lisa Mattocks and Sarah Hunter of Quarantine theatre company reflect on this in relation to their film piece Winter. This is a film made three times over, with people who knew they were dying. In the first instance, the subject of the film was Lisa’s aunt Mandy.
As Sarah Hunter notes, there were two audiences to this process – the people close to the subject who witnessed the filming, and the spectators of the film. ‘There is a difference regarding responsibility, if you are making a play or something which deals with real life experiences’ she says. ‘In Winter, there was an initial audience of people surrounding the person dying, and a duty or process of care there which would hopefully translate to wider audience.’
For Hunter context is the most important thing – with the caveat that the audience must of course be free to leave. If the representation has been made in a considered context, if there was care for the subject in the making of the piece then that care is itself a care for the spectating process.
Still, sometimes audiences need somewhere to recover. At the end of the first showing of Island the credits ran, the lights went up, and still nobody left. From then on, Eastwood tried to always include 45-minutes extra in the screening room for audience members to take stock as well as a space to talk about the film.
Talking about it
Unlike any other media, live performance does have the possibility of integrating audience conversation and contribution directly into the work itself. Taking care of an audience in this context can simply mean including them and creating performances which directly facilitate discussion. Leo Burtin’s Midnight Soup and Sheila McCormick’s Death, Dinner and Performance both facilitate conversations about death with a live audience. These are practice-based research pieces, part performance, part exploration of what can be achieved through theatre. Both works use food as a way of creating a comfortable environment for the participants. In Midnight Soup, participants cook a soup together, whilst invited to talk about death with the prompt of Burtin’s account of his grandmother’s suicide. In Death, Dinner and Performance participants sit at tables and have dinner together. McCormick performs monologues about death, drawing on her experience as a hospice nurse, and then invites the tables to continue talking about the topic during the three courses.
The accounts of these performances provoke a question about what kind of holding takes place in participatory theatre. When entering a space such as a gallery, a cinema or a traditional theatre the conventions of the form provides its own holding. The audience may be taken somewhere profound or shocking, but usually we know how we will be taken there. We know we will sit in seats. We see the green lights of the exits. We know that in however many minutes it will be over. To attempt to open a taboo in a participatory setting is something else altogether, and perhaps really does require a level of caution that would not usually be required.
Participatory theatre is not the only way of getting people to talk about death, even if it is one of the ways which allows the maker to be privy to this kind of conversation. Each of the projects presented in the Performance and Death Symposium attempts to open a conversation about the end of life, and in different ways to integrate the experience of and witnessing of death into life itself. In the end, being seen and the permission to look at dying, literally and figuratively, seem important to this integration.