- Viral Performance: Contagious Theaters from Modernism to the Digital Age by Miriam Felton-Dansky
The theatre, as they would say in Silicon Valley, does not scale well. Although its audiences can be large, a performance is ultimately a quite local phenomenon. Yet few who attend the theatre would disagree with Miriam Felton-Dansky's insight that "when people gather, something spreads" (8). Performance, then, seems both miniscule in its scope and vast in its effects. Viral Performance does not so much coin a new term for a certain genre of artwork as pry open this paradox, exploring a series of evocative works that appear to both resolve and heighten the contradiction between local transmission and global ambition. Focused on case studies, drawn mostly from North American experimental practitioners, Felton-Dansky poses sharp questions for those working on devised theatre, media, affect, and the political efficacy of performance. As her four chronologically organized chapters step from the 1960s and '70s to an ambitious tour through the 1990s, the interplay between virality and performance reveals itself to be a foundational anxiety of the postwar period. As the "spreading" of disease, information, emotion, and people has become more rapid and pervasive, Felton-Dansky argues that it is precisely to the small petri dishes of performance that we should look to understand our hopes and fears about the viral.
This metaphor has attached itself to performance for some time, as Felton-Dansky shows by drawing together Plato's Republic, Gabriel Tarde's sociology, and Artaud's "Theater of the Plague." With nods to more recent theories of affective politics such as those of Raymond Williams and Sarah Ahmed, the author returns most consistently to Artaud's provocations. He proves an appropriate if familiar guide: especially in North America, interest in the virality of performance tracked neatly along the postwar dissemination of The Theater and its Double. Influenced by Kimberly Jannarone's arguments for reading a reactionary Artaud, Felton-Dansky maintains a rigid agnosticism toward her artists' claims for an emancipatory "plague." Viral Performance could have benefited from deeper engagement with Artaud's work and context; Artaud, for example, might push this book to consider the pain of corporeal illness along with the form of "virality." The infectious panics aroused by the blood-throwing actions of ACT UP Paris beg for an Artaudian, theatre-historical reading, yet the HIV/AIDS crisis sits largely in the background of this volume. As a survey of Artaud's various interpretations by postwar theatre artists, however, Viral Performance excels.
The author's study of the Living Theatre is especially extensive. Working from detailed archival research and her interviews with Judith Malina, Felton-Dansky focuses on the Plague scene from Mysteries and the Rite of Guerrilla Theatre from Paradise Now (brilliantly considered through a stand-alone iteration performed on San Francisco television in 1969). Felton-Dansky argues that these scenes, along with much of the company's work, should be read as "acting exercises" and set into not just an Artaudian, but a Stanislavskian genealogy as well. As the group led their audiences through physical motions while urging them to draw on emotional memory, all while demonstrating the emotional extremity they sought to extend across the room, Malina and Julian Beck threaded these two icons of theatre theory—the saint of the avant-garde, the priest of the mainstream—together. This chapter's analysis of "theatrical contagion as a form of acting" functions not only as a significant recontextualization of major works, but also as an exemplary study of how theory became practice in postwar American theatre.
In her chapter on the 1970s, Felton-Dansky's archival methods again excel through her discussion of Canadian collective General Idea. Not only does she introduce these oft-neglected artists to a theatre studies audience, she provokes important questions as to the relations between the viral metaphor (employed by the group themselves), political subversion, and new telecommunications technology. Working with fax machines, radio, and mail-order subscriptions, the group made "transmission and circulation—not a singular live...