David Overend explores pathways in performance

8964277082?profile=originalMy direction? Anywhere. Because one is always nearer by not keeping still.

(Sebastian Faulks)

This essay is intended as a first step towards a theoretical framework for a new project about the relationship between performance and journeys. Making Routes is a peer-led laboratory for researchers and practitioners working in this field. As it develops we plan to run seminars, workshops, residentials, practical research laboratories, reading groups and discussion forums. 

My own interest in this area emerged as a development of my ‘site-specific’ practice and research. Whereas site-specific work often looks out from its site, there is now a growing interest in theatre and performance studies in work that travels outwards. Nicholas Bourriaud suggests that in the early years of a new century, ‘the immigrant, the exile, the tourist, and the urban wanderer are the dominant figures of contemporary culture’ (2009b, p.51). Making Routes is an attempt to follow the paths that are made in live performance, as well as creating some of our own.

Perhaps contemporary theatre practice is particularly suitable as a nomadic artform; a collection of practices that have always been located on vectors (movements through time and space) and interstices (points between entities). Due to its dynamism, this is an artform with the potential to resist the stultifying forces of commodification. It is constantly moving on, shifting and adapting to its environment. As Hans-Thies Lehmann reminds us, ‘theatre does not produce a tangible object which may enter into circulation as a marketable commodity, such as a video, a film, a disc, or even a book’ (2006, p.16). Performance operates through events; convergences in space and time that cannot be fixed or reproduced.

Over the last three decades, site-specific theatre has emerged as a dominant model in contemporary performance practice (Wilkie, 2002, p.141) . For many practitioners working in this field, making theatre that responds to its site is an attempt to ‘engender ideas of place and community’ and to renegotiate ‘spaces that are variously controlled, accessed, and inhabited’ (p.144). The ‘intense bonding with place’ in much of this work is often set against ‘commodity theatre’ (Wiles, 2003, p.1); the sort of theatre that is subject to the constant transportation from designer’s model box to rehearsal room, and from theatre to theatre, despite the show itself ‘deemed throughout to be an ontological constant’. For David Wiles, theatre has to connect to its space and become rooted to its site if the artform is to avoid commodification.

However, perhaps the ‘intense bonding with place’ described by Wiles is in danger of reproducing the systems that it sets itself against. In any attempt to provide an alternative to the relationships of the commercial market, there is always a risk of simply reinforcing the structures of capitalist globalisation that such work is trying to distance itself from. Philip Auslander highlights this problem by referring to Jacques Derrida’s argument that in attempting to place oneself outside the systems which are being critiqued, there is a great danger of ‘inhabiting more naively and more strictly than ever the inside one declares one has deserted’ (Derrida, 1982, p.135. Cited in Auslander, 1987, p.33-4).

An ‘intense bonding with place’ runs the risk of nationalism, localisation and exclusivism. As Rebellato warns in response to Wiles’ rejection of touring theatre, any perspective that sees the local as inherently resistant to globalisation is potentially problematic (Rebellato, 2006, p.99). Defining his discussion of globalisation as a profoundly economic phenomenon, Rebellato makes two important points; Firstly, just because a work is situated in a specific site, and is not moveable, does not per se disqualify it as a commodity (real estate, for example, is fixed on a specific site but yet is highly commodified). Secondly, global capitalism relies entirely on local markets (‘the ability to buy low in the periphery and sell high in the core’) (p.103-04).

With these qualifications in mind, it is important to question the underlying ideologies of site-specific theatre. Some of the questions that might be asked include ‘Do certain forms privilege the sanctity of the local at the expense of a progressive cosmopolitanism?’; ‘Is there an inward reductivism in operation in some of this work?’; and ‘In rooting theatre practice to its site, is there is a danger of imposing a creative vision onto a preexisting relational space, or a danger of romanticising a site and its history?’. 

In posing these questions, the intention is not to set ourselves against site-specific theatre, much of which looks outwards from its site and connects to its wider global context. However, the focus here is on work that moves on from a rootedness to its site and looks for ways to travel. To apply Bourriaud’s ecological metaphor, this is a shift of focus from the radical, which roots a plant to its location, to the radicant, which makes a journey and lays new roots as it travels (2009, p.51). 

This shift corresponds to a development of postmodernism to altermodernism, ‘an in-progress redefinition of modernity in the era of globalisation’ (Bourriaud, 2009a). For Bourriaud. the historical period labelled ‘postmodern’ is coming to an end, symbolised by the global financial crisis, and a new set of concerns are emerging ‘born of global and decentralised negotiations, of multiple discussions among participants from different cultures, of the confrontation of heterogeneous discourses’ (2009b, p.43). This twenty-first century modernity can only be polyglot and questions of origin become less important than identifying our common destinations. In an age of globalised modernity, we have all become nomadic.

Making Routes sets out to chart the multiple ways in which these concerns are explored in contemporary performance practice. There are many companies and practitioners working in this area today, using journeys in a variety of different ways. These include Wrights & Sites and its individual members, Lone Twin, Third Angel, Forced Entertainment, Punch Drunk and Pointed Arrow. There are many more but in this short list an apparent contradiction begins to emerge: a Western (more specifically British) perspective on practices with an inherently global outlook. Our interest is therefore in roots as well as routes; acknowledging the geographical, cultural and political context that our ideas and practices have developed from, and finding ways to set these roots in motion (Bourriaud, 2009b, p.51).

There is now a common understanding of things as constantly in process. As Michel Foucault (1984) explains, Galileo showed that ‘a thing's place was no longer anything but a point in its movement, just as the stability of a thing was only its movement indefinitely slowed down’, and this has been central to a great deal of thinking about space and performance. Iain Borden et al (2001) argue that architecture and the city should be understood through flows, and Doreen Massey states that ‘a reimagination of things as processes is necessary’ (2005, p.20). The work that develops from this project aims to tap into these trajectories, and to understand the ways in which they can be incorporated into a performance aesthetic. The scope of the project, and the directions that it takes, will of course remain in flux - a continual journey of discovery that builds new relationships along its routes.


Auslander, Philip, ‘Toward a Concept of the Political in Postmodern Theatre’, Theatre Journal, 39:1, The John Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp.20-34 

Borden, Iain; Kerr, Joe & Rendell, Jane; with Pivaro, Alicia (eds.), The Unknown City: Contesting architecture and social space, London: MIT Press, 2001 

Bourriaud, Nicholas, Altermodern Programme, Tate Britain, February - April 2009a

Bourriaud, Nicholas, The Radicant, New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2009b

Derrida, Jacques, ‘The Ends of Man’, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982

Foucault, Michel, ‘Of Other Spaces’, Architecture / Mouvement / Continuité, trans. Jay Miskowiec, 1984, http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html (accessed 30/07/10) 

Lehmann, Hans-Thies, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. Karen Jürs-Munby, London: Routledge, 2006 [1999]

Doreen Massey, For Space, London: SAGE Publications, 2005

Rebellato, Dan, ‘Playwriting and Globalisation: Towards a site-unspecific theatre’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 16:1, 2006, p.97-113

Wilkie, Fiona, ‘Mapping the Terrain: a Survey of Site-Specific Performance in Britain’, New Theatre Quarterly, 70, 2002, pp.140-160

Wiles, David, A Short History of Western Performance Space, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003

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