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  • Staging Process: The Aesthetic Politics of Collective Performance by Rachel Anderson-Rabern
  • George McConnell
STAGING PROCESS: THE AESTHETIC POLITICS OF COLLECTIVE PERFORMANCE. By Rachel Anderson-Rabern. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2020; pp 184.

In Staging Process: The Aesthetic Politics of Collective Performance, Rachel Anderson-Rabern engages the performance generating methods of US “third-wave” ensemble performance groups Goat Island, Elevator Repair Service (ERS), Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and the TEAM (4). She parses the complexities of the terms ensemble, collective, collaboration, and devising to deftly argue that, whether they intend to or not, the four case studies each model different ways of enacting politics through their methods of collective performance-making. She makes this argument by marshaling a cluster of concepts, unlike Sara Jane Bailes’s fantastic Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure, which focuses on one concept in relation to a similar set of ensemble performance groups (including Goat Island and ERS). Specifically, Anderson-Rabern approaches her case studies through the following concepts: artistic inheritance, the everyday manifested through employment, gesture, topology, and velocity. She carefully examines archived interviews, descriptions of creative process, and performance material to support her argument. She ultimately concludes that a politics emerges through the processes and creative methods deployed by her four case studies, regardless of the forms and contents of the performances that materialize.

Anderson-Rabern begins with the concept of artistic inheritance by comparing third-wave groups to their second-wave predecessors. She argues that second-wave artists explicitly enacted political agendas, although it is not always clear throughout her argument what she means by “politics” other than a consistent working together as a group in some way, whether protesting for civil rights or, for example, attempting to create performance using democratic/communal methods that hope to destabilize artistic hierarchies through formal experimentation. Second-wave artists referenced include the San Francisco Mime Troupe, El Teatro Campesino, the Black Revolutionary Theater (BRT), the Performance Group, the Living Theatre, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Yvonne Rainer. The truncated genealogy makes no mention of which artists constitute a first wave or what marks the shift from first to second. She marks the shift from second to third wave, however, by suggesting that third-wave groups continue some of the processual and formal experiments of the second-wave artists without the same overtly activist work. She nonetheless argues that her four case studies have not evacuated their practices of all political investment as they interrogate the role of the director in group work, the performer/spectator relationship, and the use of everyday tasks as obstacles in performance. While third-wave groups may not explicitly gravitate toward political activism, for Anderson-Rabern, complicating and continuing second-wave group practices implies a political engagement through the artistic process.

The second chapter focuses on the relationship between everyday gig employment and creative practice. The author notes that the name Elevator Repair Service comes from the “results of a career aptitude test the group’s director, John Collins, took as a young man,” and Nature Theater of Oklahoma borrows its name from Kafka’s novel Amerika, where “protagonist Karl Rossman encounters a poster advertising employment in the Great Nature Theater of Oklahoma” (52). Both ERS and Nature Theater of Oklahoma have company members and associates who survive by working in office spaces, and these everyday employment experiences have been transmogrified into performance material for the two groups: GATZ for ERS and No Dice for Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Anderson-Rabern weaves Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the everyday into the discussion to attempt the difficult task of demonstrating how artists’ lives outside the creative process directly impact their artistic output, as they have to work (employment) in order to make work (performance) (43).

Anderson-Rabern’s argument peaks in the third and most convincing chapter, which assays the concept of gesture through performances with movement vocabularies specific to each performance and set of performers. These movement vocabularies are often drawn from everyday gestures that dance critics call “hokey, illogical, and awkward” (90). Untrained bodies moving in choreographies invite the question: Are these movement vocabularies dance or something else? Anderson-Rabern answers that question by engaging with...


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pp. 595-596
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