Performance as change, disturbance as necessity

The word performance has become a catch-all expression for any act performed in front of an audience or without an audience. Be it acting, dancing, rapping, singing or playing the oboe or an acoustic bass in a gilded opera house, in a blackbox theatre or on a sidewalk. In many cases, an act of installation or an act where an artist allows a stream of viewers to sit in front of her and stare at her nakedness as she sits immobile is also considered performance. It is also disturbing for many.

College students at the climate strike in Montréal, September 27, 2019 - Photo by Jody Freeman.jpg

Is there a contradiction between performance as entertainment, performance that is essentially an esthétique of form, beauty and years of extraordinary cultivation of skills, and performance that is by itself an act of change, designed to disturb?

For a moment, let’s step aside from the idea of performance, theatre, 3-act plays, previews, music concerts, gala opening nights and even acting and our views on it, and let us throw a bunch of words and phrases together and see if they can conjure up a recognizable human condition. Conditions like  helplessness, hopelessness, ridiculousness, absurdness, nonsensicalness, meaninglessness, bewilderment and obscureness, and extreme frustration. What feelings do such conditions conjure up? Maybe nothing? Maybe some disturbance?

Can we relate to such words and conditions and make a plot-less, language-neutral, dialogue-hostile, structure-less theatre production? Could such a production be staged on a street, on a balcony, on a patio, in a gym or in a cozy, close-up theatrical space? Could the response to that above condition end up being disturbing, provocative, unconventional, subversive and yet not foolish, but intelligent, persuasive and in fact maddening and anger-inducing about that very condition of helplessness?

It is the absurdity of the condition that generates or instigates a performance that is openly absurd, not only in the script, but also in the performance. While all formats of performance remain valid, it is often a performance with an element of absurdity that generates a significant departure, curiosity and disturbance in the traditional audience.

In this issue of Serai, we have a series of very engaging interviews, essays and dialogues featuring local and international figures: leading Montréal actor Howard Rosenstein; and the artistic director of the Montréal theatre group Teesri Duniya, Rahul Varma, for starters. Koulsy Lamko, Chadian exile and writer, actor/performer and artist speaks about his experiences as a theatre artist engaged in “theatre for development,” who founded the Centre Universitaire des Arts de l’Université nationale du Rwanda In 1999 in the aftermath of the genocide against the Tutsi. Visual artist Stanley Février reverberates globally from Montréal’s South Shore, using multimedia installations, sculpture, performance and guerrilla theatre to spur changes in personal and institutional practices, in our understanding of globalization and its ravages for humans and the planet. Février challenges and impels audiences to grapple with what it’s like to be marginalized or rendered invisible.

In fact, all of the above pieces emphasize the need for reflection, for practicing performance as change, for being disturbed as audience or reader. In a generation where a post-literate condition is worshipped and short attention span capabilities are taken as electrifying qualifications, performance as change could be a way to shake things up and cause a certain necessary disturbance.

Several critical reviews weigh in as well.  Blossom Thom reviews Lisa Bird-Wilson’s The Red Files, an anthology of poems in tribute to the children of residential schools—“about the soft facts that fall outside the frame of the stories.” Maya Khankhoje attends the 29th edition of the Montréal First Peoples Festival and reviews Quentura (Mari Corrêa, Brazil, 2018), a documentary on the effects of global warming on the health of the Amazon jungle. Himmat Shinhat reviews Run J Run by Montréal writer Su Sokol, about intense relationships in a non-traditional family, describing the novel as “brilliant and compelling.”

And to round things off, there is an endearing essay by one of our recent guest editors, film teacher and cineaste Dipti Gupta, on her encounters with India’s exceptionally innovative theatre director and dramaturge, the late Habib Tanvir. Dipti also contributes a spontaneous poem to the issue, one that is emotionally charged and yet quietly resilient. Continuing in that vein, Jan Jorgensen, an ordained United Church of Christ minister in Montréal and organizer of monthly readings at the Art Lounge, offers us an extraordinary poem entitled “A Post-Modern Hell.”

Disturbance is good!


Readers of Montréal Serai may have realized that we have removed an interview by Mayurakshi Sen with Indian theatre director Sudipto Chatterjee. This interview was done very recently and was made available as of October 10th in the current “Performance as Change” issue. We have been informed by Mayurakshi Sen that Sudipto Chatterjee was arrested this past Friday for alleged sexual assault on female students at the Academy where he taught. Mayurakshi herself has taken a stand against him and publicly disassociated herself from him. It is the view of Montréal Serai’s editorial board that although everyone should in principle be able to defend themselves through the judicial process, in cases of sexual assault, the traditional conspiracy of silence implicitly favours the accused and blames the victim, and in this case, three women have come forward with accusations of sexual assault.

Rana Bose, on behalf of the editorial board of Montréal Serai

Rana Bose has been involved with theatre from the age of 18. He later took courses in stagecraft and lighting design, while doing an engineering degree in the US. He has also written three novels and is a founding editor of Montréal Serai.