Performance in a Pandemic: Book Review

Laura González reviews Performance in a Pandemic, edited by Laura Bissell and Lucy Weir (Routledge, 2022).

Performance in a Pandemic book cover, part of the Routledge Focus series. The cover is a plain black background except for a thin band featuring the colour spectrum and a blue border with the Routledge logo.
Book Cover of Performance in a Pandemic. Credit: Routledge.

Most of us have a story about where we were when the first 2020 lockdown was announced in our countries. We probably also have tales of what we did during that period and how we managed to work, parent, care, socialise and live through it. Yet, as I write in late 2023, it all feels part of another time, far away. The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated, with utmost clarity, that change can happen in an instant. As a society, though, we don’t seem to have learned much from it or allowed our collective lives to transform with the possibilities and opportunities that opened before us. We have already forgotten.

Edited by Laura Bissell and Lucy Weir, Performance in a Pandemic is a great aide-memoire in bringing us back to that time.  The multiple voices in this collection speak as a community of performers, theatre makers, festival producers, researchers, curators, dancers and artists. During extended times in 2020 and 2021, we could not meet indoors in our homes and cafes, restaurants, theatres, or shops. Outdoors, only a small number of people could be together and at a distance; we could not travel; we had to constantly wash our hands and cover out faces; all events were cancelled. These restrictions had very significant impact on the performance community, as livelihoods were lost, a moratorium on particular kinds of bodies and their usual movement activities was instituted and teams were dismantled by the inability to access resources. At the same time, as this collection reminds us, performers also have some of the skills and histories necessary to reinvent themselves in light of crises. To work in theatre in the 21st Century is to live a life of instability, adaptation and change.

(Re-)Shaping Pandemic Performance

The book is structured in four sections: precarity and vulnerability, art in an emergency, outreach and inclusion, and curation. The chapters were written in the midst of lockdown – rather than as a post-facto reflection – with constant new guidelines affecting the everyday which many took for granted, with the deep uncertainty and fear a global pandemic brings and also with regular life going on, as beautifully recounted in the opening chapter by Katherine Nolan, whose son was born as her mother was dying. At the same time as these threshold events, Nolan was wrestling with making work in a new way and fulfilling her caring responsibilities. Nolan’s opening piece captures the breadth and the complexity of living as well as performing in a pandemic, and the following chapters each take up one or more aspects of what she evokes.

In the edited collection, there are writings that focus on the work of adaptation many of us had to make, but which had a new dimension for those working in performance. Lito Tsitsou interviews freelance contemporary dancers, constrained to working in their kitchens where their craft becomes, if not impossible, then dangerous or significantly curtailed. Shona Macnaughton reorients, rethinks and remakes a commission as, in the light of the pandemic, the work she previously created and which addressed the gig and platform economies in relation to artistic labour, neither made sense nor was possible. The new performance, ‘Here to Deliver’, speaks to the redefined landscape, mourning some of the old but also not wanting to go back. The writing of Marc Silberschatz traces the innovative possibilities that adapting to technology can have and how the resulting work can forge new understandings of what the concept of ‘liveness’ might mean. This reorientation of ‘liveness’ felt like a wake-up call to something performance had assumed for too long was on the side of the performer. Here, Silberschatz places liveness –  a concept linked to presence and witnessing – within the spectator. Related to liveness is Judit Bodor’s exploration of Alastair MacLennan’s performing drawings. She frames her curatorial work of the archive as ‘presence at a distance’ and this allows her to redefine what presence is – as a key concept in performance – and relate it to the aesthetic encounter.

Adaptation was also a necessity at a larger and more complex scale. Kate Craddock, founder and director of Gateshead International Festival of Theatre (GIFT), viewed the restrictions imposed on a live festival as an opportunity to experiment with online delivery, tapping into the desire for connection felt in the early days of the pandemic. Her aim was to allow the artists agency in the decision making process. Craddock traces how her own journey previous to 2020 gave her the skills to enable delivery and candidly outlines the challenges she encountered, including the newly coined ‘Zoom fatigue’ now so familiar to many. Chris Elsden et al. explore recorded material for the cancelled Edinburgh Fringe 2020 in all the multiple approaches encountered. What worked for some frustrated others; some used the digital as marketing or teasers for live shows while others reinvented the shows entirely for the new format; some reached new audiences with free content, and others rewarded paying patrons with exclusive behind the scenes material. One size does not fit all performers, companies, works and audiences and Elsden et al. make clear how much of a learning curve surviving with performance work was in 2020. Recording all of these possibilities, opportunities and approaches, as they were occurring more or less in real time, feels prescient now.

Reaching Out: Isolation and Distance in Lockdown Performance

Other chapters focus on what it means to work together at a distance, something many of us might have had experience of in our own disciplines and private lives. Rebecca Stancliffe looks at the reconfiguration of an older adult’s voice and movement class and an arts and health singing programme. Her writing is very sensitive to the innovations created and the benefits to members of these groups. Rachel Clive, with collaborating participants, explores a neurodivergent dialogical performance which took place in the Clydeside area in and around Glasgow. During September 2020, it was permitted to be together outside, albeit while observing social distancing rules and providing track and trace details. Still, a performance could take place by the river – a small miracle at the time – and it ‘inspired feelings of care and pleasure as well as solidarity’ (p. 102), which were so needed. Both Stancliffe and Clive also highlight specific barriers to participation as people were left out of these activities, which is something not always considered when looking at accounts of the pandemic. Implied in their work is a wish to develop inclusive practice for future events.

For those who already live in isolation, the lockdown had added impact. Sarah Bartley and Anna Herrmann recount their experience of reconfiguring the programme run by Clean Break Theatre Company in the UK Prison Service, a community already isolated and doubly hit by lockdown. The criminal justice system in relation to performance is also the context of Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir’s work with Polmont Youth Theatre in a Young Offenders institution. She frames this work as ‘making together apart’ which is the experience that many of us had when collaborating during lockdown, and echoes Bodor’s notion of ‘presence at a distance’. These feelings of an enhanced connection while distanced are enacted in writing in the polyphonic chapter by Judd Morrissey and Mark Jeffery in collaboration with Abraham Avnisan. Together, they hold their own voice, keeping their unique contribution and experience in the service of a whole which, although might appear torn or fragmented, works as a beautiful collage, revealing a truth about pandemic times. Their piece is a creative reflection on collaborative work practice, comprising personal diary-like moments which weave together critical reflection and references to other art, emotions and memories with the unremarkable aspects of performance in the midst of life. For example, Avnisan situates us at the threshold of global change in a remembered moment of normality: “February 14, 2020. It is Valentine’s Day & I am wearing tights in the backstage area […]” (p. 40).

But, of course, not all was rosy during the pandemic, not every experience was one of creativity, learning new skills, or connecting with people in new ways. Denise Espírito Santo and David Gutierrez Castañeda remind us that we were in the midst of an unprecedented crisis which clearly showed well established inequalities between rich and poor, those who can afford to lock down and those who have to risk their health or their livelihood. Their chapter on embracing vulnerability gives us a stark warning: ‘[t]he only fragile certainly that we now have is that we cannot go back to what we were before’ (p. 34).

Elsewhere, Tamsin Hong reflects on the closure of the BMW Tate Live Exhibition Our Bodies, Our Archives, scheduled to show work by Faustin Linyekula, Okwui Okpokwasili and Tanya Lukin Linklater, a group of artists exploring how bodies resist colonisation, including museum object-based narratives. This issue gained further visibility in light of  George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. Hong considers this historical moment, outside and in the midst of the pandemic, through Linyekula’s performance-for-camera of My Body, My Archive, created as a response to changing restrictions. In the current context of war and division it feels we have also forgotten those vital lessons for justice in a ‘post’-pandemic world.

Moving Forward; Going Back

There is so much to learn from the time the Covid-19 virus infiltrated and haunted our global lives. There was fear of contagion and of change, isolation and loneliness, frustration at having to learn and re-learn and constantly adapt, burnout due to the doubling of work, grief at personal and communal losses, dismay at the sharp visibility of inequalities that were there already. And yet, there was also a deep sense of connection to our various communities (including online ones), the artistic potential of presence, the power of care, solidarity, imagination, invention, new competencies, and fresh avenues for performance.

There are many reasons to want to forget those times but with that, we have also forgotten the lessons we learned and have thrown away many of the opportunities to live and relate differently which opened to us in the crisis. We have gone back to increased precarity, division, overwork, unhealthy behaviour, and disconnection. This is why Performance in a Pandemic is important: not only as an archive of emergency response but as a reminder of the possibilities and practices still open and available to us now. As Katherine Nolan reminds us ‘[w]e must keep hold of this brief vision of our […] interdependence, to retain this cognisance of the weight borne by those who care, and of neglected social, economic and affective needs’ (p. 14). The open question is how to do that with freedom and grace, in the absence of broad social support structures and the collective will to remember the possibilities the pandemic enforced.

About the Author

Laura González is an artist, writer, yoga teacher and an Athenaeum Research Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Her work is situated between the medical humanities, psychoanalysis, performance and Eastern thought. She recently published The Hysteric: Outline of a Figure, co-written with Dr Eleanor Bowen (Routledge, 2023) and can be found on Instagram @soma.psychic.

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