Conference Report CDE 2012

21st CDE Annual Conference, Mülheim/Ruhr (University of Bochum)
7 – 10 June 2012
„Bodies on Stage“

Bodies on stage are an integral element of theatre, and by extension also of drama, in which their presence – their corpo-reality, as it were – is created on the page. In addition, living bodies help create the fictional world of plays, while their markers signify class, ethnicity, gender, age etc. Beyond a mere revisiting of bodies as a core feature of theatre, contemporary discourses of corporeality as a site of negotiation between nature and culture, materiality, discourses and power (see Judith Butler, Susan Bordo and others) as well as the performative turn in theatre studies are significant recent trends of reviewing the extent to which body matters on stage. Against this backdrop, the 21st annual conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE) explored contemporary drama and theatrical performances in English with regard to corporeality – from the importance of actors and ensembles for the production and reception of plays to the discursive experiments written on and around bodies. Offering panels and keynotes on topics such as objects as/versus bodies, staging voices, body politics, (post-)corporeality, oscillating bodies and acting styles, the conference addressed a broad spectrum of discourses and practices of corporeality on the contemporary stage.

The conference opened with a haunting keynote speech by Edward Bond, titled „The Third Crisis: The Possibility of Drama in the Future“, in which the renowned playwright assessed the chances and responsibilities of drama to function as a meaningful genre and practice for addressing universal needs of the human species (which to Bond is a „dramatic species“). While he criticised much of contemporary drama to be a „theatre of symptoms“ rather than performing a „humanising function“, he called for a future of drama in which it will serve again as a corrective to the corruptions of society, thus offering a „counter-psychosis“ to the traumata and psychoses of contemporary culture. The relevance of Bond’s critical talk for the conference theme was that he suggested a general sense of superficial corporeality in today’s theatre. According to Bond, the majority of contemporary drama fails to go any deeper than scratching the surface of contemporary social ills.

Edward Bond’s own dramatic work featured prominently on the next day of the conference when Kate Katafiasz (Newman University College, Birmingham) opened the first panel on objects as/versus bodies with her talk on „Staging Reality (Beyond Representation): A Perplexing Bondian Body“. In a sophisticated argument utilising concepts of Lacanian psychoanalysis, she analysed the unsettling concept of the dualised body on the basis Bond’s 2006 play The Under Room (2006), where an illegal immigrant is represented by a dummy and dummy-actor, which radicalises the relationship between time and space and the experience of the body as icon and index. Nils Wilkinson (University of Siegen) looked at programmable bodies on stage in the form of robots in Alan Ayckbourn’s Henceforward… (1987) and clones in Caryl Churchill’s A Number (2002). Both plays, Wilkinson showed, contest the idea of ultimate control through human mechanisation by having both robot and clone act in opposition to the programmed effect. In her closing paper to the first panel, Beatrix Hesse (University of Würzburg) not only addressed the use, display and dissection of dead bodies on the theatre stage (as in Joe Orton’s Loot and Anthony Shaffer’s Murderer), but also made a foray into recent TV crime series (such as Silent Witness and Crossing Jordan) to note both historical and generic shifts of attitudes towards death and the ideal of the integrity of the human body.

The second keynote event of the conference came in the form of a live poetry performance by SuAndi, OBE, whose immense artistic versatility is expressed by her work as a poet, performer of live poetry, opera librettist, producer and director of community-based performances, creator of gallery-based and public artwork, curator of visual arts, freelance cultural producer and ‚activist‘ (she has been the Cultural Director of the Black Arts Alliance since 1985). She was introduced and interviewed at the conference by Deirdre Osborne (Goldsmiths College, London), who had SuAndi talk about her mixed Nigerian and English background, her experiences as a black artist in Britain, as well as the role of the body in her work across different genres and modes of artistic production.

The next conference panel highlighted the politics of the body on stage and on the drama page in widely divergent ways. Christopher Innes’s (University of Toronto) „Triumphant Physical Theatre: Undermining Ethics through the Body“ focused primarily on corporeality and the subversive ethics of performance in the comic characterisations offered by celebrated actor Mark Rylance in his role of Byron in Jerusalem (2009) by Jez Butterworth and Valere in La bête (1999) by David Hirson. Turning to more overtly political drama, Sarah Heinz (University of Mannheim) talked about „Staging the Body Politic in Irish Contemporary Drama“, specifically Sebastian Barry’s The Pride of Parnell Street and Kebab by the Romanian author Gianina Carbunariu, both from 2007. In her analysis, Heinz concluded that the ways in which bodies are staged in the two plays criticise the ideological metaphors of the nation as homogeneous bodies to be freed from the diseases of the foreigner and the poor. The final paper in this section, Markus Wessendorf’s (University of Hawai’i, Manoa) „Zombie Walks and Zombie Capitalism“ illuminated the recent resurgence of the zombie genre and the increasing international popularity of zombie walks within larger political contexts (post-9/11, pandemic viruses, global economic recession and bank crises). Wessendorf also addressed recent plays and theatre productions such as Tim Bauer’s Zombie Town (2009), John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe’s Zombie Prom: The Musical (2009) and John Langan’s How the Day Runs Down (2011), while giving a scintillating preview on his own upcoming production Uncle Vanya and the Zombies at UH Manoa’s Kennedy Theater (November 2012).

The third day of the conference opened with a keynote speech by Doris Kolesch (Freie Universität Berlin) on the topic of „Staging Voices“. Drawing widely on the findings of her ongoing research project on „Voices as Paradigms of the Performative“, Kolesch regarded voice as a performative phenomenon par excellence and gave a systematic overview of the concept and dimensions of vocality, such as responsiveness, fleetingness, affectivity, spatiality and social dimension. Given that in contemporary drama dialogue is often replaced by a „poly-logue“ where communication is no longer the focal point, but a spatialised materiality of voices, her findings not only have numerous implications for contemporary theatre but also served as a fitting expansion of the scope of the spatial body on stage.

The ensuing panel of papers was devoted to performances of the body on stage. Daniel Schulze (University of Würzburg) started out by looking at the entertainment business of wrestling as a very special type of displaying the body in performance. In his paper „Blood, Guts and Suffering: The Body as Communicative Agent in Wrestling and Performance Art“ he compared wrestling to performance art and showed that wrestling simulates a fixed identity of signifier and signified in its ritualistic performances, whereas performance art, as exemplified in the works of Marina Abramović, is open for interpretation and evasive of fixed signification. An unconventional performance in itself was Jan Suk’s (Charles University, Prague) curiously titled talk „Bodies? On? Stage? Human Play of Forced Entertainment“: it came in the form of Suk’s reading of a self-reflexive fictional letter addressed to the Forced Entertainment group, accompanied by music by contemporary composers John Avery and Clint Marshall, which provided some critical analysis of anti-theatricality in recent performances of Forced Entertainment. The panel was aptly concluded by Rainer Emig (University of Hanover), who examined the implications of displaying nude bodies on stage in his paper on „Staging the Phallus: Naked Boys Singing„. The 1998 off-Broadway musical, which was turned into a feature film in 2007, was shown by Emig to remain in a double bind between subverting and exploiting the naked male body for the gratification of gay and female audiences, and between criticising and reaffirming phallocentrism, patriarchy and heteronormativity.

In the next panel, aspects of (post-)corporeality were addressed by two papers on three of the most influential playwrights of English ‚in-yer-face‘ theatre: Sarah Kane, Martin Crimp, and Mark Ravenhill. Maria Elena Capitani (University of Parma) explored differing approaches to corporeality in Kane’s Cleansed and Crimp’s The Country. Whereas Kane’s play has an irresistible sensory impact on spectators‘ bodies through its graphic staging of physical violence and abuse, Crimp’s The Country keeps the deep sexual tensions of the play under the surface of storytelling and mediated representation. In his talk „Absent Bodies: Ravenhill’s Phenomenology of Carnality“, Michał Lachman (University of Łódź) proceeded from a more general view on Ravenhill’s oeuvre, emphasising Ravenhill’s ongoing reflection on the possibilities and limits of representing the body, to a specific analysis of Ravenhill’s 2006 play pool (no water) and its criticism of bodily reification under the influence of a dehumanising artistic sensibility.

The afternoon and evening of the third conference day were devoted to practical theatre experience. First, Scottish writer playwright Rona Munro conducted an invigorating practical workshop on bodily movement in space, titled „Acting Bodies on Stage“. In the evening, conference delegates went to the Ringlokschoppen venue in Mülheim for a double production of Michael Yates Crowley’s play Righteous Money / Gerechtes Geld, performed first in English by Wolf 359, New York, directed by Michael Rau, and afterwards in German by Schlosstheater Moers, directed by Ulrich Greb. These very different productions of the same play were followed by a lively discussion with the playwright, who played the lead in the English-language production, as well as members of the two casts and production teams.

The last conference day opened with a lively keynote speech by translator, journalist, and lecturer Michael Raab, titled „Acting in Contemporary British and Irish Plays in the Original and in Translation“. He specifically addressed the different relationships of author, director and actor with regard to differing theatrical traditions as well as current trends in British and German/Austrian stage productions. Besides mapping current acting styles dominant on the German stage, Raab also reflected on the often conflicting demands of playwrights and directors in German theatre productions. In this context, he mentioned the close working relationship between Simon Stephens and Sebastian Nübling as a model for a mutually prosperous balance between writer and director.

The final panel of the conference could be considered a continuation of the concerns of the previous panel as it combined three talks on aspects of corporeality and materiality in plays by Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill. This last round of presentations was begun by Sarah Ablett’s (University of Hildesheim) talk on „The Body and the Bible in Sarah Kane’s Blasted„, in which she traced biblical roots and allusions in the representation of bodies in Kane’s play. Focussing on the character of Ian, Ablett investigated the specific analogies of the story of creation in Genesis and the ritual of cleansing to Ian’s development and behavioural patterns, respectively. Next, Sarah-Anna Wetzlmayr (University of Vienna) shed some more light on Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water) by putting the play’s theme of collapsing art and life in the context of the Wiener Aktionisten of the 1960s (Nitsch, Brus, Mühl, Schwarzkogler). Just as their avantgarde performances were physically concrete, but not aimed at representing an external reality, Ravenhill’s play, according to Wetzlmayr, transcends representationality by making the (absent) body of the character Sally the ultimate goal of the three protagonists‘ artistic proposition. In the conference’s closing paper, Elżbieta Baraniecka (University of Augsburg) advanced a reading of the disturbing collapse of all boundaries of character and rationality in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis by referring it to Jacques Derrida’s concept of parergon (in The Truth in Painting, 1987). In a similar interpretive move as Wetzlmayr before, Baraniecka maintained that the conventional boundary between work of art and external world is confounded in Kane’s play – namely by a use of language that, like Derrida’s concept of the frame, draws attention to its own materiality and thus emphasises both the arbitrariness of such boundaries and the possibility of their creative transformation.

All in all, the 21st annual conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English gave ample testimony to the persistent emphasis on exploring the body in contemporary Anglophone drama/theatre. The conference’s stimulating talks, fruitful discussions, and fitting theatrical events managed to offer numerous insights into the diverse facets of presenting and foregrounding corporeality in contemporary drama and performance.

Christoph Henke (Augsburg)