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City Performances Within Confidence Games

December 17, 2012

Before we consider how theatre companies of all kinds from fairground jugglers to playing companies in the palaces of princes and cardinals, municipal and independent companies and street theatres perform in the city and perhaps change the city by performing there, we must consider the performance of the city itself. The city is not an empty space waiting to kissed to life by theatrical performances; it is already buzzing with life of all kinds. There are town halls, markets, churches, schools, hospitals, businesses, workshops; there is traffic and transport; there are people at home, people populating the streets, sitting in cars, waiting in hotels, arriving at airports, stations, and harbours, or leaving town.

The city is in full performance before theatre companies start thinking about how to perform there. It performs because all interaction, indeed all communication and action is carried out by somebody or something brought face to face either personally, institutionally, or anonymously with an audience, a public, or observers. All such performances, as we learn from Erving Goffman (see Goffman 1959; and with respect to a more general notion of public White 1995 and Ikegami 2000), are at constant risk of being diverted or subverted or of breaking down altogether due to performance errors, audience indignation, or switching publics. Thus, there is already knowledge of performances to be mistrusted and moderated in coping with the risks they pose when theatres begin to stage their plays, re-entering performance, audience, and mutual observation into the city (Agnew 1986).

Theatre companies may, if they consider the performances of the city at all, regard them as lacking animation, vitality, and spiritedness, and feel they should enhance them with imagination, expertise, and refinement, bringing comedy, drama, and beauty to the city. But this would amount to value judgments not necessarily shared by the people living in the city. City-dwellers may even judge a market, a schoolyard, or a protest demonstration to be much more interesting in terms of motives, purposes, procedures, addresses, and cunning than any theatre performance. Theatre companies may also come to believe that cities’ performances are somehow dishonest and deceitful because some actor or institution plays to its public and thus misleads them in certain ways. The theatre would then be the place to stage criticism of dishonesty and deceit, the place where sincere opinions and real feelings prevail. But then, how would the theatre judge its own need to gain the attention of an audience in the first place? Does it not have to play tricks as well, doing professionally in the midst of the city what other actors and institutions are still trying not only to master but also to figure out?

We thus have to compare performance with performance: performances already in progress in the city with performances intervening in the city, introduced by theatre companies acting as if they came from outside. How do theatre performances change the performance of the city, if at all?

I look firstly at how a city already performs, secondly at the role and function of theatre performing in the city, and thirdly at possible transformation of city performances by theatres performing in the city.

In a lecture given at Theatre Gessner Allee Zürich at the invitation of Imanuel Schipper, I eventually come up with the following Spencer-Brown form:


See here the manuscript of the lecture.

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