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How Does Theatre Think Through Work?

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThinking Through Theatre and Performance
EditorsMaaike Bleeker, Adrian Kear, Joe Kelleher, Heike Roms
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Methuen Drama
ISBN (Print)978-1-4725-7963-8
Accepted/In press14 Mar 2017
Published7 Feb 2019


King's Authors


The task of the actor has long been a subject of scepticism, and often scorn, accused of being not real work: either it is ‘not real’, in that it is only pretending or simulation, or it is ‘not work’, in that it is merely the pursuit of pleasure. But in thinking through its own work, theatre can also help us to think through how work is understood and valued in culture more broadly. In this chapter I focus on two moments in which theatre seems to have been particularly interested in its relationship to work, and in which, by turn, we can track the changing nature of work itself. In the 1960s and 1970s, performance artists turned to ‘task-like’ or ‘work-like’ performance as a way to bring everyday reality to the theatrical event—and, by extension, as a remedy to the way in which wider culture was perceived as increasingly alienating and ‘theatricalized.’ Here the apparent ‘realness’ and ‘authenticity’ of work-like performance is positioned in contrast to the increasing alienation and disembodiment of everyday life. But in subsequent decades, the nature of work itself has undergone a gradual but irreversible shift, such that its paradigmatic figure is no longer the factory worker (or the craftsperson), but instead the service provider, who is a kind of ‘emotional labourer’ whose work is very similar to that of the actor. Here again, new forms of theatre, such as immersive and one-to-one theatre, emerge as a challenge to the theatricality of everyday life. I explore these themes through a comparison of how two artists from very different periods, Yvonne Rainer in the 1960s and Adrian Howells in the 2000s, used their creative practice to think through questions of work, alienation, and everyday life.

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