Theatre of the Real in the age of post-reality

View of storm seascape

Since the middle of November I have been working through my reading list for this project with a funny feeling in my middle.

Here’s the thing: The central premise of this current work (as you know if you’ve been following so far) is that although reality-based theatres (documentary, verbatim, site-specific, and the like) purport to offer access to reality, truth, authenticity, this project is doomed to failure. Theatre of the Real runs smack into poststructuralism (and the theatrical frame). The central tenet of poststructuralist thinking (Butler, Derrida, Debord, Baudrillard, Belsey — take your pick) argues that reality is not singular but multiple, reality is not absolute but is a social construction. This is why performance has become such a powerful idea of recent decades. Everything is performance. We perform reality. We perform realities. In theatrical performance, the power of performativity is doubled down because theatrical worlds are already framed constructions. Theatre of the Real has captured this zeitgeist, embracing performativity and revelling in the proliferation of possibility, taking pleasure in unknowing. This is where productive insecurity comes in.

In the service of socially progressive ideas, performance has changed the world we live in. To take just one example: In her article “Mimesis, Mimicry, and the ‘True-Real,'” Elin Diamond asks, Can there be a feminist mimesis? I won’t get into all the details here (It is a great article) but the relevant point in this context is that Diamond sees the potential for different strategies of multiplying playful distortions and replications of representation to crack open the normative facade of conventional realism. As she writes, “While Irigarayan mimicry dismantles the Truth — patriarchal mimesis– through endless repetitions and reflections, the hysteric’s true-real dismantles Truth by referring to yet refusing to symbolize its meaning” (69). Creating alternate performed realities admits new identity positions and engenders new social arrangements. This may seem esoteric but we need to be able to imagine the future before bringing it into being. The power of performativity is that if I can say it, perform it, embody it, then it can be real. This is real political power and in the civil rights movements of the second half of the 20th century we have witnessed its power.

When I first read Diamond, I felt the uplifting potential of this kind of multiplicity. Now I read her and think “uh oh.” It is one thing to leverage multiple performative realities against oppression and the status quo to create space for previously excluded selves and perspectives. It is something else when that same impulse that says “who cares;” there is no Truth, all realities are equally admissible is leveraged in the interests of the racist alt-right, in the interests of climate change deniers, and in the interests of chaos in general. It is something else when the alternate realities (previously known as lies) espoused by the President of the United States and his surrogates go unchallenged by significant portions of the electorate. (Eeep!)

Lately I have been wondering who else is thinking these thoughts.What responsibility does poststructuralism/performativity bear for this situation? Who else saw or is seeing this implication of poststructuralism and performance? Two fellow travellers so far: Globe and Mail columnist Russell Smith and UCLA art history professor and scholar of site-specific art Miwon Kwon (I don’t think they know each other).

Writing about Mariah Carey’s infamous New Year’s eve performance meltdown, Smith observes that as awful as that was, we don’t care. He compares the event to the Milli Vanilli lip-sync scandal of the 1990s. Back then “their disgrace was immediate. They were sued, their Grammy withdrawn. They never recovered. How earnest we all were in 1990!” (Smith). At the end of the article, Smith makes the connection that haunts me as he recognizes the conflicted attitude between our flexible attitudes toward reality and our desire for stability as a core value. He argues that nostalgia for authenticity (and it is nostalgia) belongs to “the sophisticated: to the educated and urban. To the class that voted Democrat.” He then also points out that “the popular acceptance of the inauthentic, the unreal… this too is sophisticated: it is the concretization of difficult French philosophy from the 1970s [yes — poststructuralism!].” Smith ends there, he doesn’t make the hypocritical political connection that I am suggesting, but he has sketched the core of the issue.

Miwon Kwon’s book One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (2004) is a core text for the theory of site-specific performance. In the very last two pages, she also sketches a niggling awareness of similar issues. As she writes, “Indeed the deterritorialization of the site has produced liberating effects, displacing the strictures of place-bound identities with the fluidity of a migratory model, introducing possibilities for the production of multiple identities, allegiances, and meanings, based not on normative conformities but on the nonrational convergences forged by chance encounters and circumstances. The fluidity of subjectivity, identity, and spatiality…is a powerful theoretical tool for the dismantling of traditional orthodoxies that would suppress differences, sometimes violently” (165). But this freedom, this nomadism, comes with a sadness, a longing,”a secret adherence to the actuality of places,” the nostalgia for belonging somewhere, for having a home. She describes the new fluidities as engendering both “a sense of soaring exhilaration and anxious dread” (166). Like Smith, Kwon doesn’t quite connect the dots in the way that I am suggesting, and in 2004 she hasn’t met post-reality in full force, but the same tension is apparent.

Where does this leave us? (Where does this leave my project?) I think that simply demanding aggressive fact-checking and trying to assert a return to ‘the Truth’ will not work. The poststructuralist genie is out of the bottle and will not go back in. (Or if we do manage that I think we won’t like it. Hello 1950s homogeneity. #MAGA) I do take some comfort from the notion that performative realities are built on community. As JL Austin asserts, a performative is only ‘felicitious’ if there is ‘uptake.’ Performative utterances can only be valid if other people agree that they are. Perhaps part of the answer is to rebuild these social connections so that more people can agree together on what constitutes reality.

Where does this leave my project? Well… I guess this is incentive to get on with it since the tide is turning and I don’t want to miss my ship. The works which until two months ago were contemporary suddenly feel historical. My plan is to press on and write about the work on its own terms from the point of view of pre-November 2016, and then write a conclusion that captures my new sense of the situation.

Question to creators of work in this Theatre of the Real genre: Does it feel different now to put audiences into situations of uncertainty? Can we still do that? What does Theatre of the Real look like in an age of post-reality?



Diamond, Elin. “Mimesis, Mimickry and the ‘True-Real’” Modern Drama 32.1 (1989): 58-72.

Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. MIT, 2004.

Smith, Russell. “Artistic falsehood abounds–and we seem to be ok with it.” The Globe and Mail 4 January 2017.



3 responses to “Theatre of the Real in the age of post-reality

  1. This really provoked me, Jenn. I’m going to provide some loose and likely incoherent thoughts based on my own recent obsessing.

    First, I don’t think this is a new worry you’ve hit on: the power of poststructuralism to derail politics/sideswipe the political has been visible, and derided, for a while – including by a lot of feminist theorists. Folks don’t much talk about Derrida et al anymore as a result; the recent uptake of affect theory is also, I think, a turn toward an understanding that we need to be able to parse how emotion travels amongst large populations in heightened times (whatever that means – I could not find a better word), and then connect our relationship to “the real” with feeling (maybe the feeling toward authenticity, or feelings of nostalgia, but I think it’s actually far, far more complicated than that, and totally mediated by our feelings generated by capital).

    Second, I wonder if Russell has the wrong end of the stick a bit. (He is, after all, a lifelong devotee of the poststructural; I’ve never seen him make the leap beyond.) The issue, for me anyway, isn’t that “they” don’t care what’s real and not because everything has got all mixed up in the simulacrum and they aren’t sophisticated enough to work out the nuances – though I agree that’s part of it for people who are not skilled at reading media representations carefully – but rather that “they” actually really want something to be very, very “real” – but real has become localised. What’s real is no jobs. What’s real is too many immigrants. What’s real is this guy up on stage who says the stuff our friends have been saying to each other – he says it in public! What’s real is the pleasure we take in taking down the political class. What’s real is ordinary people getting to take part in the political spectacle and have a say.

    I know this sounds like me stereotyping yokels, and I don’t actually want to do that. I’m pulling this from the evidence we’ve been seeing from long-form journalists (at the Globe, the NYT, the Guardian) over the last 18 months, visiting Trump rallies and talking to people across the rust belt. Goodness knows that is not every Trump supporter – I do agree wholeheartedly with those who say this was a conventional Repub vs Democrat story in so many ways, with lots of Democrats staying home in key locations, and I also think the hacking of Hilary had a huge effect on what was reported as “real” in the news for all to consume – but I think it makes a difference. Trump is the quintessential poststructuralist in so many ways: he is all spectacle, but he speaks with remarkable, essentialist authority. He insists the spectacle is real.

    Where does this leave you? I think you go back to the essential questions around real/ism you’re working on: who counts as real? What counts as real? Is “post-truth” really “post-real”? How does the shifting of what is reported as “true”/how we perceive what is true connected to our perceptions of what is/can be real? I think uncoupling “truth” and “real” matters here. During the election, the former was the province of the spectacle – Trump, the rallies, the news that got reported (the news that didn’t). The latter was about feelings.

  2. Pingback: Week four BONUS prompt! | Theatre Studies 3205 @ Western University!·

  3. I just read about this project in Australia and sharing it. Theatre of the Real
    “This project explores the politics of participation and representation in theatre of the real, an increasingly prominent form of performance internationally. Such theatre explicitly cites or summons the world outside the theatre. It includes, for example, autobiographical, community-based, documentary, participatory, relational, re-enactment, testimonial and participatory practices. Often involving vulnerable or marginalised people, theatre of the real casts these participants as “everyday experts” with valuable knowledge derived from their lived experience. This project investigates what happens when such experts meet theatre professionals and spectators. To this end it explores the complex politics and ethics that surround the process of representing and empowering real people through theatre”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s