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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 455-479

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Performance, Utopia, and the "Utopian Performative"

Jill Dolan


This essay is a rumination of sorts, the beginning of an inquiry into the ways in which performance might provide us with experiences of utopia. How can performance, in itself, be a utopian gesture? Why do people come together to watch other people labor on stage, when contemporary culture solicits their attention with myriad other forms of representation and opportunities for social gathering? Why do people continue to seek the liveness, the present-tenseness that performance and theatre offer? Is the desire to be there, in the moment, an expression of a utopian impulse? Certainly, people are drawn to theatre and performance by fashion and by taste, by the need to collect the cultural capital that theatre going provides. Live theatre remains a powerful site at which to establish and exchange notions of cultural taste, to set standards, and to model fashions, trends, and styles.

Yet I also believe that people are drawn to attend live theatre and performance for other, less tangible, more emotional, spiritual, or communitarian reasons. Desire, perhaps, compels us there, whether to the stark, ascetic "spaces" that house performance art, or to the aging opulence of Broadway houses, or to the serviceable aesthetics of regional theatres. 1 Audiences are compelled to gather with others, to see people perform live, hoping, perhaps, for moments of transformation that might let them reconsider and change the world outside the theatre, from its macro to its micro arrangements. Perhaps part of the desire to attend theatre and performance is to reach for something better, for new ideas about how to be and how to be with each other. I believe that theatre and performance can articulate a common future, one that's more just and equitable, one in which we can all participate more equally, with more chances to live fully and contribute to the making of culture. I'd like to argue that such [End Page 455] desire to be part of the intense present of performance offers us, if not expressly political then usefully emotional, expressions of what utopia might feel like.

I offer here a series of experiences, examples that moved me to begin to define utopia in performance. My thoughts come from my situation as an academic theatre person and as a writer. I want to train my students to use performance as a tool for making the world better, to use performance to incite people to profound responses that shake their consciousness of themselves in the world. Perhaps that, already, is utopian, the idea that theatre can do any of those things. Yet that's the depth of reaction for which I long when I go to the theatre--I don't think we should expect anything less. Theatre remains, for me, a space of desire, of longing, of loss, in which I'm moved, by a gesture, a word, a glance, in which I'm startled by a confrontation with mortality (my own and others'). I go to theatre and performance to hear stories that order, for a moment, my incoherent longings, that engage the complexity of personal and cultural relationships, and that critique the assumptions of a social system I find sorely lacking. I want a lot from theatre and performance.

In my new book Geographies of Learning: Theory and Practice, Activism and Performance, I argue for the ways in which theatre studies in the academy might be engaged as a site of progressive social and cultural practice. I urge students to be advocates for the arts, to be theatre-makers committed to creating performances of insight and compassion, and to become spectators who go to see performance because they want to learn something about their culture that extends beyond themselves and the present circumstances of our common humanity. 2 My argument is that theatre and performance create citizens and engage democracy as a participatory forum in which ideas and possibilities for social equity and justice are shared. I write quite a lot about how we might reimagine theatre studies programs...


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