At the recent CATR conference in Ottawa, I was really delighted to encounter a number of colleagues who are also thinking about theatre and the real from various angles. (For a while I thought I was alone in this — but no longer. In fact, the topic for the 2016 FOOT festival at the University of Toronto’s Graduate Centre will be “Staging Realities”.) So, I thought it would be interesting to bring some of these other voices into the conversation. In the first of what I hope might be a series, Matt Jones kindly agreed to share his paper with me and allow me to record some responses to his presentation. Jones’ paper was presented as part of the SQET conference and delivered in French.
I have heard Jones speak previously on the subject of his research relating to theatre about war. For this presentation, he looked at how various plays and playwrights are incorporating the ‘real’ into plays about war, asking what can theatre do when reality becomes, as Baz Kershaw suggests, more performative than fiction? He briefly considers ‘creative verbatim’ plays like Dust (Jonathan Garfinkel and Christopher Morris), Safer Ground? and Soldier Up (James Forsythe), and plays that use verbatim text ‘selectively’ like Palace of the End (Judith Thompson) and Man Out of Joint (Sharon Pollock) before moving on to his key example from Aluna Theatre’s What I Learned from a Decade of Fear.
At one moment in the Aluna play, the performance of representational storytelling is interrupted by a video clip of black and white drone footage from Afghanistan in which five people are killed. Jones makes the point regarding this moment that “video, here, reveals itself to be a superior medium than theatre in both its capacity to act as an index of the real and its ability to shock us with pure violence.” As an intermedial object, the video opens up an interesting interplay between the clip as a marker of a historical and documentary real brought into tension with our engagement with the real performers with whom we share a living breathing space. We are called upon in this contrast to consider the nature of these two asynchronous experiences of something real. They become entwisted like a moebius loop.
This is very interesting, but it is his next point that really grabs my attention: We could (and normally do) watch this same moment on a computer monitor, “framed with a tab of suggestions of what act of violence to watch next, the occasional interruption of relevant advertising, and commentary by a discursive community of blogosphere atrocity experts.” The impact then as Jones sees it lies not in the real alone as a singular autonomous object but in the contextualization and contrast between the documentary real and the dramatic performance that contains it. I think this has some rich implications.
When viewed on a screen, the event is framed by a series of equivalent other real things. It is not nested so much as surrounded. But in performance, the actual event (WorldA) is framed by the fictional representation of the drama, and so becomes subsumed or ‘pushed down’ in terms of its ontology. (WorldC?) In the simplest terms, this reframing allows us to see the event with new or refreshed eyes. It is our task as audience to be engaged witnesses in a way that we are not when we are surfing the internet or watching the TV news from the couch. But beyond that, in this arrangement, we are compelled to consciously sift through the various frames — the play by Aluna, the mimetic storytelling, the constructing medium of video — to the original event itself. And through this process, the event is catalysed as ‘real’ again (or perhaps fully for the first time).
I think this may be sort of where Jones is heading. At the very end of the paper he cites Boris Groys and his concept of the work of art as a ‘paradox object’ where both the image and the critique of the image are simultaneously visible. I am not sure about the idea of critique per se. But I am engaged by the structure of a binocular vision or experience. It is the frame that encourages us to see both the construction of the image and the image itself; and through our engagement with the construction, the original is made real in a way that triggers its deep emotional affect. The impact is not by analogy through representation to the world, but instead it jumps ontological levels (from C to A?) to affect us as something real as we are. Something arrived from the world out there.
[Thank you to Matt Jones for letting me think though his paper here. I hope I have represented the main ideas accurately and respectfully.]
Jones, Matt. “Guerre réelle: Corps, images, paroles, et autres traces de la vraie guerre dans le théâtre anglo-canadien” Presentation. 29 May 2015.