cropped-meinParis-1.jpgI am Cathy Turner, a researcher and walking artist.

I am an Associate Professor in Drama at the University of Exeter, and one of four artist-researchers in Wrights & Sites, an artists’ organization based in South West England.

My most recent research led to my recent book, Dramaturgy and Architecture: Theatre, Utopia and the Built Environment, Palgrave, 2015.

My current interests are in Indian performance art in public space* and  gardens for/as/in performance. These represent two projects, largely separate, both of which I am just beginning.

I’m also pro-EU, pro-Corbyn (or at least the policies he stands for), and against the privatisation of public space. These things exercising me greatly right now.

Previous research has included a collaboration with Synne Behrndt in researching contemporary dramaturgy as profession and concept, with a focus on the UK. Our book, Dramaturgy and Performance, will be out in a revised edition with Palgrave in 2016.

Wrights & Sites’ work includes a series of ‘Mis-Guides’, which propose ways of walking** that make places strange to us. Our book for the ‘architect-walker’ is due out in 2016.

*We can argue about whether there is such a thing, of course.
**’Walking’ is here understood to include other ways of getting about, including wheelchairs, pushchairs, crawling, or whatever is accessible.


Dramaturgy and Architecture: Theatre, Utopia and the Built Environment

Dramaturgy and Architecture  Cathy Turner  Palgrave Macmillan

Dramaturgy and ArchitectureThis book, despite its address to an academic audience, is an important one for alternative walkers, urban explorers, psychogeographers and urban activists. Its author, Cathy Turner, draws in very particular ways upon materials from theatre and architecture. Never very comfortable with the limits of either, she open ups and hybridizes ideas, patterns and precedents from histories of disruptive space-focused and site-specific performances and constructions; generating a resource of theory and tactics for anyone willing to read her book carefully.

Turner brings to this book the receptivity and hesitations of a ’drifter’ (she is a member of Wrights & Sites), sensitive to the dangers of both “art-world recuperation” and of exaggerating the ‘resistant’ qualities of outsider interventions “where a détourned tourism could easily become a whimsical form of window-shopping”. She surveys and assesses various utopian projects – garden cities, Bauhaus, Gartenstadt Hellerau – and addresses their theatricality; teasing out a similar spatial utopianism in both Ibsen’s drama and on the revolutionary stage of Russian Constructivists. However, rather than defer to the apologetics of any particular set of ‘visionary’ architects or artists, she subjects their projects to the hard test of the experiencing human being in among them, using them, against them, on and under them, and it is in the contradictions she reveals that this book finds treasures.

One story draws these narratives of contradiction together: in 1918, in St Petersburg, when Bolshevik artists built a structure decorated with political texts around the statue of Tsar Alexander III, “streets urchins” discovered that they could get into the gap between the two structures. They made it their meeting place and safe haven. This discovery of a space, a potent void, between an oppressive and striated hierarchy and a faltering smooth space of change, “between a rejected past and an urgently desired future city”, then reappears again and again in ‘Dramaturgy and Architecture’. Cathy Turner draws us subtly into these gaps in architecture – not the margins of a fashionable liminality, but more like precarious ‘wormholes’ that bring us abruptly close up with power – somewhere between the orderliness of intention and the anarchy of needs and desires, elaborating on their potential as crucial spaces for an urbanist activism/performance.

This ‘wormhole’ is there in the way that architect Gottfried Semper’s  frames of “earth, hearth… and membrane” pull away from his description of the “immateriality of the sky”, in the off-stage of what is not possible on the nineteenth century naturalist theatre stage, in the Constructivist acting machine that breaks away both from the theatre building and from its fictions, in the fracture between old and new beliefs that is Freud’s ‘uncanny’, in the stuttering in Robert Wilson’s theatre that “invites one to consider the constituent parts of both language and experiences as forms in their right”, and in the gap between the Arc de Triomphe and Krysztof Wodiczko’s skeletal structure that proposes not to demolish, but to “contain…. understand and deconstruct it”.

The reader must work a little to find these invitations. ‘Dramaturgy and Architecture’ asks them to be a hyper-sensitized explorer within its texts; looking out for the gaps, but also looking out for themselves. Because, for all the time that these narrow gaps or potent voids are opening, historical movements swamp and subject these opportunities to a ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, or to making everyday life artistic and  rhythmic and consistent with “physical and moral hygiene”, or reducing agency to harmonic parts of an “architectural-spatial organism” that is wrapped in a gestalt peopled by ‘übermarionettes’ rediscovering the “essence of humanity”.

Against these tendencies (and they are deep within treasured movements: modernism, communism, ecological idealism), Turner takes us first to multiplicity and “quantum spectatorship” – in the wild and rambling sources inspiring the theatre of Robert Wilson (via Sibyl Moholy-Nagy: “a car from 1950, a Renaissance chandelier…. a shoe”), in a theatre where “gaps between the fragments [of narrative] are larger than the fragments” and where a “a gap in understanding…. may lead to a restructuring of the field”.  And, secondly, to the wandering of the senses and to the transformation of dead materials as advocated and briefly practiced by the Lettrist and Situationist Internationals, tripping repeatedly over their gestalt-vision of everyday life and backfiring anti-art iconoclasm. What Turner does, by finding messy gaps (in which the “patina and vibrancy” of old is still valued) between their quotidian-utopianism and the deadly purity of their iconoclasm, is to reclaim from a later theoretical and textual ‘puritanism’ some of the early International Lettrist impulses towards the void between “the sublime and the banal”; and towards the making of constructed situations that are not an enclave ‘within’ which to develop new and purified possibilities, but a clumsy dramaturgy of actors, without roles but with themes and motifs (leitmotifs stripped from their ‘gesamtkunstwerk’) that can intervene in urban life not in order to destroy its spectacle (or tear down the Arc de Triomphe) but to “create a new spectacle without location (a break in the space of play), without order, that no one would need to understand, but in which everyone would be able to find opportunities”. That final quotation is from a very un-Debord-like Guy Debord, writing with, significantly, a rare referencing of theatre.

By posing a permeable (more than a retentively porous) dramaturgy – drawing on Carl Lavery, Simone Hancox and others – as both a critique and an addendum to ‘dérive’ and détournement’, Cathy Turner lifts these tactics out of the cul-de-sac of dreary iconoclasm in which they have often eroded and returns them (without recourse to Sinclairian shamanism) to what two former members of the British faction of the SI called the “’art’ dimension…. the continual pressure on the question of representational forms in politics and everyday life and the refusal to foreclose on the issue of representation versus agency”.  It is in this thinking that ‘dérive’ is not “conceived as a way of life”, utopian and continual, but as “a passionate uprooting through the hurried change of environments”; not framed or walled in on islands of utopia or dystopia, but a re-making of passions and an uprooting of relations in the gaps between everyday spaces.

While Turner’s final chapter on the site-specific performance work of Cliff McLucas rather draws multiplicity down to a concentrated, heterotopic super-site or event-space (privileged by its “negation of the everyday” [Lefevbre] and the absolution from responsibility of a ‘temporary autonomous zone’) where “all the other places in the culture are simultaneously represented, contested, inverted” (Pearson), and despite a first part of her Conclusion which perhaps too tightly knits her various threads together,  this is a fabulous resource of ideas, narratives and practices for researchers, practitioners and activists operating in the gaps, voids and multiplicities of everyday space.

Phil Smith



Of cabbages and walking


On 27th June 2016, I gave a paper at Utopian Urban Futures, Leeds University. I spoke about the ways performance art engages with contested space. By unravelling its rules and habits, even if temporarily, it opens up possibilities for reinvention. I described what I knew of three art interventions in Srinagar, Kashmir – past, present and future: Nikhil Chopra’s 2008 performance in the character of Yog Raj Chitrakar, drawing the Lal Chowk clock tower on the ground; the Kashmiri cabbage walker’s counter to the absurdity of a militarised environment with the repeated walking of a cabbage on a leash (after Chinese artist Han Bing); the proposals for a Srinagar Biennale being made by Srinagar-based curator Syed Mujtaba Rizvi from Kashmir Art Quest and artist Showkat Katju  and Delhi-based artists Inder Salim and Jeebesh Bagchi (with a wide network of organisers for ‘nodes’ in other cities). I was, and remain, interested in the urgency and specificity of such interventions which, to borrow Ananya Jahanara Kabir‘s words, offer images of Kashmir neither as ‘the paradise of Bollywood’ nor ‘the hell of a conflict zone’ despite being ‘intimately entangled’ with such representations (Kabir 2010:178). I spoke of these works as statements of peaceful political intent to reclaim the city as creative space, and of the right to represent the city differently.

On 8th July 2016, Hizb commander Burhan Wani was killed; protests followed and met with violent response; Kashmir has been under curfew for six weeks now, more or less. Protests, injuries and killings have continued. 60 people have died so far, with thousands injured. Hundreds have been operated on for eye injuries from pellet-guns used by state security forces. Despite these being termed ‘non-lethal’ weapons, two have died and of those with eye injuries, many have lost their eyesight. Half of these are children under 15.

I thought of that cabbage when I read that for Majid Maqbool:

‘Getting vegetables, fruits and other essential household items is a daily struggle for us. We have to cover long distances to reach and buy household commodities from a few half-opened shops discovered in some inner lanes and by-lanes on early mornings and late afternoons.’

It has become a ‘skill’, he says, to keep a family supplied with food.

I remembered that the Kashmiri cabbage walker uses a little trolley to raise the cabbage off the ground, and feels this is fitting where food is a respected item. Though suggesting this concern is not specific to Srinagar, Parul Abrol tells us that:

‘Once, when the Kashmiri Walker’s cabbage fell off the rollers in Srinagar’s alleyways, “a shopkeeper jumped out of his shop, placed it back on the roller and said — do whatever you are doing but you must not let your cabbage fall to the ground, it is food and food is sacred, it deserves a certain respect.”’ (Abrol 2016)

Collard greens, or haak are a staple vegetable in Kashmir, eaten in soup with rice, or with meat, fish or cheese, or in pickles.

Besides the carpets of lotus flowers, there are floating gardens where the haak is grown, and floating vegetable markets where it is sold on Srinagar’s Dal Lake.

Art continues in Kashmir, and in solidarity with Kashmir, but the streets, Maqbool says, are almost deserted.

This is, in any case, a place where getting about can be difficult. As I have been thinking about walking ‘architectures’, I am also intrigued by Kabir’s characterisation of the loose-fitting pheran (tunic) and the Kangri (hot-water pot) held beneath it as ‘portable central heating’, which caused early colonial observers to describe armless men with pot bellies (Kabir 2010:181). Average January temperatures in Srinagar are 2.5 degrees c. and below freezing at night. They can fall well below.

But to say this, of course, risks understating the dangers of walking in a highly militarised area, even before July 8th. I don’t feel equipped to summarise these risks adequately, but here is a list of books that can tell you more than I can, and which I am reading myself. Just to acknowledge that the cold isn’t really the problem.

Walking cannot be taken for granted, any more than cabbages.

To walk a cabbage might seem absurd, but in fact, it’s a serious business. A cabbage is survival. It is also a talisman. An eyeball.

[Note: If looking to support international aid, Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders provide mental health support in Kashmir and support in medical emergencies]

Abrol, Parus (2016), ‘Walking a Cabbage in Kashmir – To protest the absurdity of war’, Narratively, February 19th.

Kabir, Ananya Jahanara (2010), ‘Talismans’, India International Centre Quarterly 37, 3-4, 176-185.

Maqbool, Majid (2016), ‘How People in Kashmir Live Amid Ongoing Curfews’, 101.india.com, August 10th.

Society of the unspectacular


I recently posted about wavering in my determination to vote for Corbyn. I’m not wavering any longer, although it seemed important to pause and to wonder, with the help of others, whether I was getting it wrong.

Corbyn’s been described as boring. Most astutely, Giles Fraser recently told us, ‘He’s a little bit dull. And that’s precisely why he is going to win. Because he feels trustworthy.’  He’s right, although this isn’t how I’d put it.

Guy Debord’s prescient analysis, Society of the Spectacle (1967), tells us that ‘the spectacle is a social relationship between people mediated by images’. It is not just advertising and media spin, rather, the spectacle is the ‘the heart of the unrealism of the real society’. It is ‘the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption. The spectacle’s form and content are identically the total justification of the existing system’s conditions and goals.’

The affirmation of the choice already made… That’s all the spectacle will admit within its shimmering totality. That’s all it can accommodate, though it can offer pseudo-alternatives that exist as mere pacifiers – I give you Owen Smith.

There’s always a risk that Corbyn could be the same kind of pseudo-alternative, a hero for a moment of flag-waving and carnivalesque chanting. The thing is…this isn’t hero-worship or badge-wearing. It’s not even a new form of Trotskyism, whatever Tom Watson says (and I’ve had no time for him since he failed to spell ‘revolution’ correctly in his leadership publicity – it’s not about revelation, Tom, but change).

Corbynist Labour is not very dramatic and the man himself  lacks any engrossing backstory, because he is so consistent. He doesn’t have charisma, they tell us, not realising that that’s because this isn’t about charisma, which is just more of the spectacular. What’s hilarious is that Tom Watson thinks Corbyn supporters are making Labour party meetings boring on purpose to drive out moderates. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Theorist McKenzie Wark, who has written about the development and now the ‘disintegration of the spectacle‘ warns us that , ‘the trick is not to be distracted by the images but to inquire into the nature of this social relationship’.

That’s what Corbyn is about. Not the distraction of the images, but the nature of the relationship. That’s why he’s boring, because it’s repetitive, it’s a slog, and it’s about what we do next to change this social relationship.

Wark continues by asking ‘How can the critique of everyday life be expressed in acts? Acts which…become collaborations in new forms of life?’ We do need to keep an eye on the ever present attempt by the spectacle to absorb our momentum into an effusion over personality, and an abundance of gesture. We need to focus on the acts that are necessary, beginning with, but not confined to, insisting on retaining the leader and the strategy that we chose in the first place.

Because it’s not ‘politainment’; it’s politics.

Normal Radical


I’m in a quandary. I’ve always said voting for the Labour leader was about policies, not personality. Now it seems that Owen Smith is, in most areas, proposing the policies that Corbyn already suggested. There are some key differences (Trident, for example), but in most respects, they are in accord, even to the point of imitation.

Nor have I ever claimed that Corbyn was the ideal Labour leader, and however brilliant he is, there’s no doubt it’s extremely difficult to lead a party in his current situation. It also seems clear that while he has unimpeachable dignity and consistency, he hasn’t been able to control the narrative about Labour.

People whose opinions I respect – Joan Ruddock, Owen Jones, Lisa Nandy – are telling me I ought to vote for Owen Smith as Labour leader, suggesting that the alternative could be the end of a credible left wing political party. In such a situation, I can’t help but ask whether they are right.

But this is the man who wants us to think he’s both ‘radical’  and ‘normal’, who worked for Pfizer but supports the NHS, who was probably against the Iraq war, or probably for it, or something. A man who professes he’s willing to kill thousands of people with the push of a button, although I suspect he’s probably lying. A PR man, who both repels and reassures as he smoothly pulls Nye Bevan out of his pocket at his first appearances.

On the other hand, I checked his voting record, and it’s ok, it suggests he does probably mean what he says. We disagree on defence, and now and again on tax evasion, but generally he’s consistent and principled.

I listened to him speak. Again, it was ok. I didn’t dislike him as much as I expected. It sounded sincere. It was in accord with the things said about him. He’s clearly ambitious, but I don’t think he’s lying, or at least, not much.

In Richmal Crompton’s William: The Outlaw (bear with me), there’s a story where William goes into politics. This is how Henry explains it:

“Do shut up int’ruptin’, said Henry, “I’m tryin’ to tell you ‘bout this gen’ral election. There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ‘em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ‘em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice, an’ there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by taking everyone’s money off ‘em and there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves.”

How quaint. How times have changed. Nowadays the idea of making things better by ‘alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice’ stands in for radical politics, because the Conservatives nowadays want to make things better by making them worse, while the Lib Dems and the Blairites want to make things better by keeping things jus’ like what they are now.

‘Alterin’ them jus’ a bit’: that’s what normal radical is hoping for. Because the ones who don’t notice the difference are not the ones for whom the difference actually matters. Because small differences make big differences to lives lived on the edges of coping.

That’s why I am in a quandary, because if Owen Smith can make this difference and Corbyn can’t, then maybe we should give him the chance. But at the same time, this normal radical is the kind that confused me when I came to university and saw that people who called themselves Marxist had smart, stripped pine kitchens (end of the ’80s) – a fact that seemed to undermine their credentials when I was 19, though it wasn’t of course that, but rather the carelessness with which privilege was assumed and the unthinking willingness to compromise out of self-interest.

What to do?

Because normal radical is a revolution run by a managerial class who assume that you can’t get anything done without a suit and a SWOT analysis. Normal radical is greenwashing and charitable donations and being ‘world-leading’ and having at least one woman on every panel of a dozen white men and sending your kids to ‘alternative’ private schools and writing vaguely left-wing plays for an audience of London hipsters.

Personally, I’m still in favour of taking everyone’s money off ’em.

Women walking: the rural and the Romantic.


This was written for Women Walking, a week of events at Somerset House, 11-17 July, culminating in a weekend programme, which included presentations, on 17th July, from Louise Ann Wilson and Alison Lloyd. This is my response to their work, which I gave following their contributions. 

In Louise Ann Wilson’s Warnscale, (2015), the everyday world is left behind and the landscape becomes a ‘symbolic metaphor’ for a personal journey.

I was thinking about this in relation to Ruskin’s objection to the  ‘pathetic fallacy’ of the Romantic poet:  the idea that perceptions of landscape can be distorted by over-association with our own emotions. The rain pours like tears; clouds gather angrily; the brook babbles merrily; the crow caws mournfully and so on. And at first I wondered whether this was another version of it, an extended imposition of human grief on an indifferent mountain. However, what strikes me as different to this (and perhaps an answer to Ruskin from some of the Romantics, too), is Louise’s very precise and detailed observation, and response to the more-than-human world around her.

For instance, she describes the very idea of the walk as emerging from her observation of the treatment of sheep, in her previous work, The Gathering, (2014), recalling the way the ewes were checked to see whether or not they were pregnant, and if not, deemed ’empty’ and ‘turned up’ to the mountain. In Warnscale the place works on the walker as much as vice versa, making this a space of transition and exchange. When Louise and two women involved in the project join Clare Balding for the Radio 4 programme Ramblings they tell her that there are moments when one can’t think of anything but about where one is, and that’s when the symbolic resonance happens.

Environmental Humanities scholar Kate Rigby suggests that, in spite of problems with the concept of the Sublime, one can sometimes find in Romanticism a kind of ‘ecstatic dwelling’. I love the way she describes this as an invitation:

To open oneself to the givenness of earth and sky in the abiding strangeness of even the most familiar of places, as well as to tarry or stray in places that are genuinely foreign, places, perhaps, where one is exposed to the elemental and uninhabitable, from which, in our daily living, we are bound to take shelter…(Rigby 204:138)

It seems to me Louise’s work contains this invitation too, and it interested me to read that Dorothy Wordsworth and Barbara Freeman’s notion of the ‘feminine sublime’ both inform this work. Freeman describes this concept as a deliberate modification of Burke’s ‘Sublime’ as an aesthetic which describes the female subject’s encounter with and response to what is other and beyond her, yet which ‘neither celebrates self-presence and the self’s capacity to master the other nor consecrates the immediacy of its absence.'(Freeman 1997:2 and 9). The Self neither dominates nor disappears. It’s in the moments where one is fully immersed in place that the place speaks back.

The other, related thing that I wondered about was the the idea of the woman’s body as the land, a possibility that we are rightly wary of, yet which is somewhat present here, but present in a conscious and political way. In particular the resistance to ideas of productivity and domestication for the walking woman are shown as analogous, particularly in The Gathering, to the required productivity and domestication of farmland and farm animals, suggesting an ecocritical sympathy, one might say empathy with the exploited land.

Alison Lloyd’s work, on the other hand, does something else. In her photographs the walking woman occupies the role of the lone wanderer who is more usually identified with the walking man.


Caspar David Friedrich ‘Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog’ 1818.


Alison Lloyd, Dartmoor, 2015. 

I had been thinking about Caspar David Friedrich’s image of the ‘Wanderer’, the man in a black frockcoat, back turned to us, standing on the rocky summit, looking out at the view, or perhaps one should call it a prospect, with all the capitalist potential that implies. I wondered whether one might paint a woman in such a situation, and how that image might be altered in critique of it.

It was after I had been thinking about Alison’s images in relation to this that I found the one she used for publicity for ‘The Grand Tour’ last year (above). For yes, there is Alison almost silhouetted, dressed in blue-black, surrounded by swirling blue clouds and a rocky terrain similar to Friedrich’s painting. But unlike his ‘wanderer’ she’s walking towards us, and holding a bit of paper, and looking off to her left, as though she’s noticed something. She doesn’t dominate the view, rather a stone circle encloses her. Unlike the ‘wanderer’, this figure seems to hesitate.

In other images, Alison shows herself walking through countryside, out in open space, but she is not taking heroic possession of it. Often the camera seems to be placed low to the ground, and she is crouching, leaning towards it. At other times, she is walking in a path where overhanging branches frame her and obscure that elusive prospect. Or she’s a small figure on a path, almost lost in a landscape, almost buried in it. So again, there is a sense of dwelling in, rather than looking at or owning the landscape.

In the work of both these artists, then, I think we can see ways of responding to walking in the open that take familiar tropes from male walking art, perhaps in particular familiar tropes from Romanticism, and change them in important ways. The woman-as-land image, filtered through the embodied consciousness of a woman walking, becomes a way of seeing the countryside responsively and empathetically, while the heroic male walker has been replaced by a less imposing figure, even though perhaps no less heroic, in her disorienting encounter with the landscape.

Barbara Freeman (1997) The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction, University of California Press: Berkeley.

Kate Rigby (2004) ‘Ecstatic dwelling’, Angelaki, 9:2, 117-142.



Review in Studies in Theatre and Performance, 36.2, 2016

‘Dramaturgy and Architecture is an important addition to emerging debates on the relationship between theatre, architecture and the built environment, demonstrating how thinking dramaturgically can contribute to understandings of contemporary critical spatial practice. Turner’s argument that dramaturgy can function variously as critical heterotopia and/or experimental utopia – a space for ‘transductive utopianism’ (195) – is compelling and productive, and the coupling of historical case studies with present day continuities is particularly helpful. For some, the discursive nature of the book’s case studies might be a source of frustration, but for me, this was the source of its delight, opening up possibilities for further thought and encouraging experiment and play. Dramaturgy and Architecture is the first book in the Palgrave series New Dramaturgies, edited by Turner and Synne Behrndt, and sets out a promising direction for the series as a whole. Turner has contributed a rich and productive articulation of the role and function of dramaturgy in relation to theatre, architecture and everyday life.’

Read Andrew Filmer’s full review here

Why I am still supporting Corbyn

CorbyninexeterFirstly, of course, I am not supporting Corbyn. I’m supporting his policies.

He is there in the first place not as a personality, but as a placeholder for particular positions that were otherwise unrepresented at the time of his election as leader:

– an economic policy that rejects austerity and judiciously uses QE, as endorsed by world-leading economists
– a rejection (and reversal) of vicious welfare cuts that have injured the most vulnerable in our society
– a prioritisation of the NHS
– a rejection (and reversal) of tuition fees, on the basis that education should be free for all
– a serious address to environmental challenges
– appropriate caution prior to engaging in conflict with other countries, notably Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and against the expansion of NATO or retention of nuclear weapons
– defending civil liberties
– a commitment to improving the quality of life for those who are most in need, and taxation for those are currently reaping the benefits of capitalism

Angela Eagle, in contrast:

– Voted for the Iraq War, for strikes against Syria, and supports Trident
– Failed to vote against Welfare Cuts in 2015
– Supported the introduction of £3000 tuition fees, though voting against their increase
– Supported the introduction of ID cards

And er, what? Apart from the above, which is based on her voting record, she appears to have a marked lack of identifiable policy.

Don’t even get me started on Owen Smith.

When the PLP say that Corbyn is ‘incompetent’, this is in part code for saying that they think his policies make him unelectable. They are in favour of compromise. That’s all very well, but when it isn’t obvious what you believe any longer, then it becomes a little hard to convince anyone of anything. Having some conviction is at least a starting point.

One of my convictions is that in the longer term, knowing what you value, what you would like to achieve and what you stand for is a better strategy than trying to be all things to all people.

If there is insufficient appetite for Corbyn’s policies to ensure election victory – and I think for the time being, that’s indisputable – there is little evidence that his watered-down rivals would do any better. In fact, it was this watered-down version of the Labour party that diminished the Labour vote and there’s no sense that it is likely to win it back. To do so requires policies that will improve people’s quality of life, not empty gestures from someone in a suit.

Secondly, of course I am supporting Corbyn. He has withstood everything the media and his political opponents can throw at him with the most remarkable dignity and restraint. No one has been able to say anything worse of him than that he was too polite to the wrong people, and generally the sort of things they had against him were that he ate baked beans out of a tin, and so forth.

Meanwhile Corbyn has quietly been opposing the most vicious of government policies and helped to defeat the government on cuts to tax credits, disability benefits, the academisation of schools, won by-elections (sometimes with a significantly increased majority), increased party membership (and counting) and, oh yes, persuaded over 2/3 of Labour members to vote for Remain, a similar vote to SNP members (heralded as a victory for Nicola Sturgeon, while a calamity for Corbyn – 1% in it).

It looks like Leadership to me.

And if not him, then who?

Teaching the Bauhaus to Drama Students

text of presentation gtext of presentation given at PQ, June 2015, to the IFTR/FIRT Theatre Architecture Working Group.

The State Bauhaus was established in Weimar in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. Over the next 14 years and under three directors, it developed new approaches to artistic training, art, architecture and design. In present company, the Bauhaus needs no introduction in relation to its significance in its modernist experimentation with the unity of the arts and a merging of art and design towards a new, contemporary life. Architecture was the key discipline, despite not being taught there within the main curriculum during the early years.

Its innovations in theatre are less well known, though informed by the same impulse to unite the arts in a practical, experimental space. Like the Bauhaus conception of architecture, the stage could be seen as an ‘orchestral complex’ of elements – an idea we will return to. Yet the stage workshop was never an equal part of the curriculum (it could never award a Bauhaus diploma) and was generally taken alongside other specialisms, and from the beginning the stage work informed and contributed to celebratory and social events. Oskar Schlemmer, who led the stage workshop from its inauguration until he left in 1928, suggested that the Bauhaus theatre was the ‘flower that was eagerly seen in the Bauhaus buttonhole but in principal unnecessary’ (‘eine gern gesehene, im Grunde aber unnötige Blume im Knopfloch des Bauhauses’ Speech 1928 cited in Scheper p.177 and Blume 30 and 32).

In Jan-March 2015, I taught on a module with the title ‘Research and Performance’ at the Drama Department in Exeter, leading 18 first year Drama students towards creating their own work, based on a research topic. This was an exercise in research through practice. I chose to focus on the stage work at the Bauhaus.

However… To do so presented certain obvious problems. The Basic Course at the Bauhaus introduced students to the study of form and materials through workshops focused on work with metals, wood, fabric or clay. My students, on the other hand, had spent a term exploring different notions of play, plays and devising, while also studying theories of performance and performance analysis. While they had the advantage over the Bauhaus students in having a sense of the performing body on stage, they had a decided disadvantage in approaching the stage as an assemblage.

Itten’s ‘Design and Form’ introduces the basic course at the Bauhaus, which all students would have taken. In this slide, you see a series of illustrations of principles of contrast and composition – transparent/opaque, smooth/rough, rest/motion, muth/little. Also the contrast between points, lines, volumes and planes. What I had to do with such ideas was find a means of translating these into embodied, stage terms, rather than leaving them on a two-dimensional picture plane.

Here are some images of the students exploring this. We experimented with dividing the stage in different ways, using tape. We also played with sticks, flat shapes, umbrellas and hoops, alongside movements that echoed or contrasted with those of the shapes.

Colour theory was also an important element for Bauhaus students to learn and one that my students found rather alien, and difficult to conceive as related to them.

In practice, we again made this spatial and explored colour dynamics by using coloured t-shirts to personify colours in spatial arrangements, before experimenting with synaesthetic responses to colour through music and movement. Kandinsky’s play, ‘Der Gelbe Klang’ was a useful text to reference, despite pre-dating the Bauhaus itself. One could readily see how colours were perceived to have their own dramatic and dynamic qualities.

This is a page from Paul Klee’s ‘Pedagogical Sketchbook’ in which he ‘takes a line for a walk’ and then experiments with ‘complementary forms’. We translated this into movements, with students taking physical lines through the space and experimenting with contrast and intersection, as well as with shapes made quite literally using illuminated wires.

Here you see a section of the final performance where students use red, blue and yellow illuminated wires to create moving lines in space. They manipulate these separately at first, then bring them together to create shapes. As the section continues they whirled the wires to blur the lines and then introduced illuminated hoops into the stage picture. The lines move in three dimensions. I have taken the soundtrack out, because it is rather faint, but it is accompanied by a quotation from Schlemmer: ‘One should start with the fundamentals. Well, what does that mean? One should start with a dot, a line, a bare surface, the body. One should start with the simple, existing colours: red, blue, yellow, black, white, gray…One should start with space, its laws and its mysteries.’

And here is a different section of performance, where you can see students drawing on their warm-up experimentation with drawing a line in space, and with moving on a grid pattern. They indicate lines cutting diagonally across the grid, as well as moving with it. I will come back to this movement work.

And in this video – I will only show a few moments – they are working from Kandinsky’s paintings, but you can see that they have animated the shapes as a form of puppet, in effect. This is actually quite challenging for them because they are having to think about themselves in this – are we part of the picture? Are the contrasting shadows part of the picture? How are the shapes moving and at what point is the picture fully resolved? I think there was further to go with this section, in fact.

What started to become self-evident with all these experiments was that it took very little adjustment to move a pedagogical exercise from the artist’s studio or workshop into the stage space. It was only ever a matter of working in three dimensions and with the body, which was also happening in other contexts. For instance, here Itten uses yoga-like exercises with students as a warm-up to drawing, encouraging them to think creatively with the whole body.

And here we see Klee’s proposed diagram of the basic course, in which he positions the stage ‘Bühne’ at the centre of the Bauhaus curriculum, next to architecture/building ‘Bau’. Neither architecture nor theatre are part of the classes that make up the core course, but both are equally central for his understanding of the Bauhaus work.

Here again, Klee’s two postcard invitations to the Bauhaus exhibition of 1923 emphasise the ‘Sublime Side’ – architecture and the ‘Bright Side’ – theatre. Alain Findeli, writing about Moholy-Nagy’s later pedagogy in Chicago, identifies in the Basic Course two types of exercise, one predominantly technical and the other aesthetic and theoretical. Art + Technology. The functional + the organic. He also suggests that this polarity is intrinsic to every design school since the Bauhaus. (Findeli 1990:7-8)

In relation to these two poles, it is not surprising that my students tended to emphasise the aesthetic and the organic, rather than the more technical and functional elements, since their emphasis is the stage. Our practical experimentation also served to reveal aspects of the stage work that moved away from the technical and formal enquiry into the stage as a complex of materials and forces. As these images of Schlemmer as clown suggest, popular forms are present in the Bauhaus work.

An experiment with a hoop, drawing on a score for a ‘hoop dance’, starts to become reminiscent of a circus act.

A staging of a simple text entitled ‘black-white-trio’, with reference to accompanying photographs, seems to suggest a deconstruction of a black and white minstrel show could be lurking behind the formal decomposition of the body.

When reworked by my students as part of their performance, this element faded and was replaced by a sense of cabaret. This video is not very easy to see, but gives a sense of how this worked here, and might have been understood at the Bauhaus.

A final element I want to consider is the movement work. Schlemmer placed the body at the centre of his stage experiments and most of his work can be considered in relation to dance. However, although we know a little about the Bauhaus ‘dances’ and his earlier ‘Triadic ballet’ he does not leave behind a fully developed dance vocabulary. However, he worked with dancers who had trained with Dalcroze and he was certainly familiar with Laban, although he makes very little reference to his work.

We drew on Laban’s techniques, however. Laban was also trained as an architect, and his understanding of geometrical, three-dimensional space is evident in his systemisation of movement in terms of direction and ‘effort’. My colleague, Pam Woods, came in to teach a workshop based on Laban, giving the students a language with which to explore the lines of the body in space. The other images also show Schlemmer’s parallel work with dancer Manda Von Kreibig, using staves, and our own experimentation with broomsticks.

Schlemmer was also interested in building structures around the body and letting these inform both movement and interpretation. While his work is generally not a move right away from the body towards machine or puppet, we also looked at Kurt Schmidt’s ‘Mechanical Ballet’.

This is one of the students’ first experimentation with making cardboard costumes, based on the mechanical ballet and seeing what effects of movement, shape and structure could be created through these means.

Through our embodied work, we discovered connections between contemporary theatremakers and choreographers and Schlemmer’s ideas. Here is one instance, where our work with grids led us to Anne Bogart’s viewpoints, and an observance of similarities then prompted detective work to trace this back through to the Bauhaus. The line is indirect, but certainly present, prompting a sense that postmodern theatre and dance can itself be better understood through this attention to its predecessors. My colleague, Rebecca Loukes, writes about the ways in which performer training is passed on through a process of embodied translation that can often be overlooked by historians. Our rediscovery of contemporary theatre through the Bauhaus could suggest a similar process here.

Finally, two videos that show two very different ‘dances’ within the performance. The first is a version of the ‘Mechanical Ballet’ by Schmidt. It is not a reconstruction, but has been created with close attention to images and other reconstructions of the original work.

And this is a reworking of Schlemmer’s ‘Triadic Ballet’, though it is very loosely based on it. Abi, the ballerina clearly brought her ballet training to this. She is working with the circle shape, echoing Schlemmer’s first section. When Alice enters, using triangles, they depart from Schlemmer’s own work more completely. The other performers also work with shapes and movements, comedy and form, art and technology, in ways that aim to echo the students of an earlier time.

(Credit slide.)

Week 10 – Performance

I was very pleased with the performance the students presented. One could identify clear and clearly understood elements of the Bauhaus performances, including the triadic ballet, the mechanical ballet, the light shows, the use of the grid, the sense of the body in space, the black-white-trio dance, as well as a theatrical response to Kandinsky’s paintings which was a less obvious but also successful element. We had more of the exuberance of Weimar than the minimalism of Schlemmer in Dessau, but this was a legitimate choice, and one that made sense when the piece had 18 performers, too (most of the ‘dances’ are 1-3 people).

What really becomes evident from this is how much Schlemmer’s ideas, and those of the Bauhaus generally, still have to offer us. There was something very touching about this performance, as the work of students in the 1920s was reinvented by students in 2015. I might be wrong, but I think the Schlemmer would have liked to see it.