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Inaugural Lecture: Alan Read: Stage Hands: The Manual Labour of Performance

Anatomy Lecture Theatre
16/10/2012 (18:00-19:30)

Part of the Arts & Humanities Festival 2012: Metamorphoses: Transformations and Conversions

Presented by the English Department


Taking its starting point from the pre-historic invention of the spectator in the caves of Peche Merle this talk considers three foundational conditions of performance: audience, act and acclamation. Each is inaugurated by a small gesture, or manual labour, that marks the transition from individual to observer, from viewer to participant, and from indifference to engagement.

Plato ignored these stagehands in his narrative of the cave preferring to focus his philosophical attention on the threat of illusion to the ideal of Truth in his model Republic. Those labouring to bring the shadow world of the cave about are described, but quickly forgotten, despite the uncomfortable fact that the audience is riveted by their hand-made images.

Not withstanding Plato’s anti theatrical prejudice, it is this labour that returns to manipulate, maintain and manage theatre at every stage of its development: from the first faltering wave of a child on stage to their eventual apotheosis as a star leaving their mark on Hollywood Boulevard.

On the one hand there has been a striking body of work from the anthropology of performance on the rhetorics of virtuosity – the manual dexterity of Flamenco, Kathakali, Classical acting and ballet, for instance. But from a left handed perspective this talk will consider some more sinister perspectives that arise when withdrawal from the image is what is being initiated by the action. In this sense performance will be seen to come about not through accumulative acts of accretion, from an ideal, artist led tabular rasa, but rather through a paring away, a rendering, from a state that could be described as saturated to one that could be described as spare.

Thinkers from Heraclitus to Heidegger have made play with manual distinction, the bespoke, the artisanal and the hand made have always been presumed to be both uniquely human and defining of aesthetic acts. But by severing the digital from its properly manual source, theatre in the 21st century risks losing its peculiarly enduring touch to affect and activate in what will be, after all, the last human venue.

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