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questions of representation

Closely related to the issue of recognition, which we have outlined on this blog, is the question of representation. Where recognition deals with the ways in which people may see their own stories and identities onstage, representation is a broader concept which covers the whole sweep of how we recreate the world around us in art. In community theatre (particularly the groups we’re working with), that representation is likely to be mostly concerned with telling the stories of particular communities and people within them. But even before we get to how those stories are told, the form of representation used to tell them can shape and channel the meaning of the performance.

So many of the fictions we watch regularly are basically realist in form (soap operas, mainstream plays, TV dramas) that we sometimes forget that realism is a specific kind of representation, and not simply the natural way to perform stories. Realism seeks to present the world more or less as it actually is, or as it appears to us, on an everyday basis. Realism’s features are more noticeable when we compare it with other forms. So unlike melodrama, the characters are assumed to be fully rounded personalities with both virtues and flaws. Unlike fantasy novels, the events in a realistic drama conform to the laws of physics as we understand them: no flying cars, no talking hats. And unlike agit-prop theatre, characters represent individuals, rather than abstractions like “capitalism” or groups like “the workers”.

A realistic portrayal of a community’s stories has the advantage of treating them with respect and weight. This may be particularly noticeable for ethnic and social groups who are often presented in mainstream media as peripheral characters, or as overly defined by their particular community: for example, the “comedy Northerner” in a detective drama, for example, or the young Muslim man in a soap struggling to reconcile his religion with his social life. Realism gives people’s stories the same weight as the fictions which surround us in the wider culture, and asserts their equal importance as the central figures of their own lives.

However, realism also has its critics as a mode of representation. In the early twentieth century, Bertolt Brecht complained that the realism of plays he saw in the theatre encouraged the audience to sink into the detailed and accurate representation, and accept it as a true picture of life. He worried that only been presented with accurate images of how things were might lull people into believing this was the way they had to be, and preclude them imagining it any other way. For Brecht, who was keen to remedy what he saw as the monstrous injustices of the world around him, realism persuaded audiences that there was no point in agitating for a better society, since it made the one they were living in seem inevitable and unalterable. Brecht’s own style of theatre strove to make it clear that things could have happened otherwise, to prevent the spectators being swept up into the imposing realism of the fiction. (1)

Elin Diamond picked up on this strand of Brecht’s critique of realism, and discussed its relation to feminism in her book Unmaking Mimesis. (2) Her approach grapples with the conflicting impulses of feminist drama: one the one hand, presenting women’s voices and experiences accurately is vitally necessary to allow us to hear from people who have historically been marginalised and written out of history. But on the other, too convincing a realistic portrayal might short-circuit the effect these stories are intended to have, and convince the audience that nothing can change.

More generally, the issue of representation may have an effect on how many groups respond to community theatre. Social and ethnic groups who find themselves in difficult circumstances may not find complete realism the most helpful way to describe and depict their experiences – particularly if that depiction is intended to help alter their circumstances to some extent. It may be particularly troubling or inappropriate to strive for a realistic representation when using theatre to address personal trauma, mental illness or experiences of crime. The tension which Diamond identifies between the desire to depict people’s experiences accurately, and the need to imagine other ways of living, may shed light on a range of community arts. Have you come up against the issue in your artistic practice? How have you negotiated the question of representation?

(1) Brecht’s views on the subject were built up in the writings included in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. John Willett (London: Eyre Methuen, 1978). “A Street Scene” gives a good snapshot of what he wanted to put in place of realism.
(2) Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis: Essays on Feminism and Theater (Routledge, 1997)

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One comment on “questions of representation

  1. Pingback: how about authenticity and truth? « performing impact

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This entry was posted on September 14, 2012 by in audience, Brecht, identity, realism, recognition, representation, respect and tagged , , , .

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