Features Published 16 April 2015

Performance, Politics, Participation

Catherine Love invites readers to join an Exeunt hosted afternoon of political discussion at The Yard.
Catherine Love

What does politics mean to you?

As an eager but ignorant sixteen-year-old, I still remember my eyes slowly widening in my first A-level politics class when the question we had been posed by our teacher – “what is politics?” – turned out to have the answer “almost everything”. Since then, I’ve become increasingly sensitive to all the ways in which politics inflects our lives, often through my encounters in the theatre.

It’s an empty truism to simply state that all theatre is political theatre, but at times of political uncertainty it becomes increasingly important to think about how performance and politics intersect. How do we as citizens perform our political participation? How can performance intervene in and maybe even change politics? And what exactly counts as a political act?

These questions and many others sit at the heart of the event we are hosting at The Yard Theatre on the afternoon of Saturday 25th April. Just before the nation votes on the kind of politics it wants for the next five years, we will be interrogating the overlapping arenas of performance, politics and participation, with a line-up of speakers including a Green Party parliamentary candidate, representatives from theatre companies Theatre Uncut and London Bubble, artists Pete the Temp and Selina Thompson, and critic and academic Diana Damian.

Now is a time of shifts in our political landscape, as the General Election on 7th May feels more up for grabs than any political contest in this country has for decades. One marker of this change has been the “Green Surge”, as voters begin to question the long-accepted insistence that “there is no alternative”. As Green Party membership hits an all-time high, overtaking both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats, we look forward to hearing from Hackney Green candidate Charlotte George about how a politics of hope has begun to capture the public’s imagination.

As Matt Trueman recently observed in a piece for the Independent, the nature of political theatre is also changing. Often form is as political as content – if not more so – while numerous theatre-makers are handing the reins to audiences, treating theatre as an arena where we can rethink our relation to the world. Theatre Uncut demands participation from theatre-makers and audiences alike, making its collection of political plays available to anyone who wants to engage with the issues it raises. By doing so, it asks questions about participation and community as much as about politics.

Politics in recent decades has become dominated by the cult of personality, issues overshadowed by image, but we hope to think about the “how” as much as the “who”. Are we happy with the mechanisms that decide who governs our society? This question is implicit in Hopelessly De-Voted, the intergenerational performance project that London Bubble has been working on in the months leading up to the election. Rather than directly addressing the election’s headline issues, this piece of theatre turns its attention to the system through which we choose who represents us, as well as asking why so many are currently disillusioned with that system.

But we also need to think beyond systems. Personally, I’m a huge advocate for voting (still time to register!), yet I’m equally interested in all the various ways we can participate and be political in places other than the polling station. Performance poet Pete the Temp, who will be offering both poetry and a provocation, has made language a form of protest in his spoken word performances, as well as being involved in protest movements including Occupy London. We’ll also hear from theatre-maker Selina Thompson, whose work has often grappled with the politics of identity.

Finally, could criticism itself even be a political act? This is the question that will be posed by our own Diana Damian, provoking the rest of us to rethink how we situate ourselves as critics. How might we think of what we do as writers on these pages as engaging with a wider political discourse?

Whatever your take on this, we’d love to hear your voice added to the conversation on 25th April, so consider this an invitation to join us in thinking, participating and asking questions.

Performance, Politics, Participation is at The Yard 3pm-6pm on 25th April.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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