Features Guest Column Published 10 January 2014

Performing Work

Annie Saunders on artistic responses to the recession.

Annie Saunders

I have always had many personal questions in my creative practice about work and working. When the economic crisis and its attendant recession happened, these personal debates seemed to become immediately public. It seemed that the questions I was asking – what do I really want to do? how can I earn a living doing what I want to do? – were suddenly being asked by everybody. I remember the photos of Lehman Brothers employees streaming out in industrial numbers with neatly packed boxes of their desk contents. These images were shocking – and made me wonder anew about jobs, what we attach to them, what they mean to us and why.

The plays that emerged in America following (and answering) the Great Depression are some of the most iconic in the canon of in American drama. Works such as Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, which explores the dilemmas of a group of taxi drivers considering a strike, or Black Pit by Albert Maltz, a study of conditions endured by coal miners in West Virginia, have retained a resonance for audiences in the US and are still performed today. I began re-reading these plays with a view to creating a contemporary response to the recent crisis, and wondering how other theatre artists today would respond to the current crisis.

In critic Morris Dickstein’s book Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, he observes that artistic responses to the Depression were characterised by “an insistence on the individual character of all witness, all perception.” The power and necessity of action by the individual is certainly thematic in Lefty and other plays of this genre, and this gives us an interesting insight into what seems to be following our own crisis of labour and work, which shows signs of being more focused on the power of collective, not necessarily as opposed to, but certainly in addition to individual action.

Dickstein concludes that artists and intellectuals were slow to respond to the Depression because they were insulated from its harshest effects at first. It’s quite likely that we find ourselves in a similar interval space now, but at a glance it seems that Dickstein’s summation that “the arts bound people together in a collaborative effort to interpret and alleviate their own plight” stands as true today as it did then.

In New York City, the “resolutely non-commercial” and highly acclaimed theatre The Flea and their resident acting company The Bats recently presented a series of short plays, presented as a whole entitled The Great Recession, by a group of established playwrights including Sheila Callaghan, Will Eno and Adam Rapp, each directed by a different director and performed by different actors. The show received rave reviews as a collaborative, collective triumph – many reviewers noted the exhilarating unity of the company as one of the piece’s outstanding qualities. Indeed, members of The Bats referred to the experience as “invaluable…I will forever be an advocate and a supporter and will always be proud to have been a part of something so profound,” and call the company “…a place to belong, friends that feel like family.” For me, these sentiments echo those of participants in the more large scale performative – as in public, organised and demonstrative – collaborative and communal responses to the recent crisis, namely Occupy Wall Street.

In looking for artistic responses to the crisis, I was intrigued by the performative nature of Occupy, and its inherent democracy, or even benign anarchy. In many ways these public gatherings seemed to take on a powerful and spontaneous choreography of their own. The things that interested me most were the human microphone, whereby sound is carried by the unamplified human voice to groups of thousands, and the complex system of hand signals used to vote or express opinions in the crowd. For me there seemed to be something at once performative and personal going on; that each individual was on their own journey and simultaneously that the collective was breathing as a whole. Observing this served as an inspiration for me to make my own piece of theatre about work; to create an environment where more questions were asked than answered, and offer each individual their own perspective as well as uniting them in a common experience. It seems to me that theatre of this form, in which the audience live in the world of the play and choose what to see and from what vantage, is particularly suited to this moment.

Each year since 2011, political theatre group Theatre Uncut has staged an annual festival where short political plays from well-known writers are available rights free to be performed by groups anywhere in the world. In the first two years, the offering was made up of traditional plays, but this year’s festival included a ‘recipe’ put together by Rachel Chavkin of New York theatremakers The TEAM, which gave groups a framework to devise their own response to the crisis, perhaps offering a sign that artistic responses to the economic crisis are starting to move beyond the purely textual.

Returning to my own practice and the creation of my piece about work, I kept thinking of the human microphone; of one person repeating the words of another, verbatim, so they may be heard by a waiting group, the repetition of this, and the long silences required for the success of the exercise – silences held by thousands, organised by no one, outdoors. I thought of the patience of the speaker as their message is carried, and what that must feel like, to stand and allow your own words to sink in, for yourself as well as others. I thought of the collective act of coming together to create a means of conveying these words. I thought of the act of one person saying “I will carry your voice across this gathering, I will speak your words with my voice,” and others agreeing silently to hold silence, as in some ways the essence of performance. To bear a gift of language, to bear a message, to hold the message of another as your own and deliver it simply, without embellishment.

Perhaps it is only with the benefit of many years of hindsight that we are able to truly evaluate the impact of socioeconomic events on the arts, but we can start by considering how it has changed us by observing the changes in society around us. I believe that the collective and performative nature of movements such as Occupy are beginning to be seen in theatre. I hope it has made us a bit more experimental, a bit more democratic, a bit more listening-to-each-other, a bit more your-opinion-is-as-good-as-mine. And I, for one, am all for that.

Annie Saunders is Artistic Director of Wilderness, whose show The Day Shall Declare It is on at Marylebone Gardens until 31 January. For more information visit thisisthewilderness.com

Photo: Emma Jane Richards

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