Stop pretending | John Jordan
A LOVE LETTER FOR THE MAKERS OF POLITICAL THEATRE AND THEIR SPECTATORS
June 1st 2020.
The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination
La zad de Notre-Dame-des-Landes.
Dear fellow lover,
Do you remember when you first fell in love with theatre? Do you remember how your body reacted? Was it an erotic experience or simply a spark of intellectual excitement? And what about the bodies you were watching?
Shut your eyes. Feel back to that moment.
I, for one, was a teenager. I remember a stage writhing with flesh. Swarming orgiastic beings, touching, breathing. Repetitive, trance like music. A forest of hands gesticulating. A woman’s voice, repeating: “What do I care for your orders! You can’t frighten me!”
It all took place in Brussels’ Monnaie theatre, and I found it erotic, because it made me realise what it is to feel truly alive. In antiquity Eros was not considered a god of pleasurable satisfactory love, but a tragic figure. He was the embodiment of emotional intensity, the desire for life that burns just as hotly, if not more so, when unsatisfied. And after falling in love came my dissatisfaction. Theatre had shown me what it could mean to live a fuller life, but that feeling faded away when the show ended.
My mother who took me to the Monnaie, never told me that it was infamous for being the only theatre to have sparked an actual revolution. It was summer 1830, insurrection was in the air, Paris had just seen 4000 barricades rise. In Brussels, an operetta set during a 17th century anti colonial rebellion in Naples was programmed. The Monnaie was packed. Act three began. Following a rousing chorus, the tenor paused and stepped out of his role, out of the past into the present. He shouted : “To arms citizens!” The audience replied: “Long live liberty!” He had stopped pretending and started acting, acting on and with the world, interacting with the reality of the situation; action had replaced representation.
The audience broke their normative contemplation, pouring out of the theatre to build barricades: the spectators had become the spectacle. Shops were looted, the houses of the rich burnt, factories occupied and weeks later Belgium gained independence. For a brief moment theatre was no longer a rehearsal for revolution, nor an evocation of insurrection, but the real thing. It had returned to its roots in ritual – the age old theatre of magic, where a community performs a desire that is so intense and focused, that it bends reality.
Aged 25 I would finally desert theatre to re-find its magic. I became an organiser in climate justice and anti-capitalist movements, co-designing new forms of disobedience that attempted to make resistance desirable, libidinous, fun and most importantly, politically effective. Faced with the very foundations of life on this planet being undone by the cancer-like logic of capitalism, I could no longer pretend to do politics on stage, in theatres funded by corporate criminals, watched by audiences, who came for the thrill, experiencing conflict and justice, only to return to business as usual when they left the building. The only theatre that made sense anymore was the social drama of rebellion against the suicidal system that was putting profit in front of life.
The activist collectives with which I worked recognised the beauty of rebel bodies. Together we crafted and choreographed humorous actions, blockades, occupations, climate camps, street parties and riots – knowing that these theatrical rebellions would amplify the emotional intensity of their participants, and that by focusing collective intensity on a vision – be it shutting down a coal fired power station, blocking an airport project, creating an alternative summit – reality could often be transformed, struggles could be won, new stories about the world told, human and more than human life protected.
Such mass participatory rituals often have audiences that seemed unimaginable when I was working in theatre. As I write, the Black Lives Matter uprising is spreading across the US, so many bodies refusing curfews, performing their rage. Reminding us that disobedience makes history. Last night on Twitter I saw live, thousands of people lying on the ground, hands behind their backs chanting: “I can’t breathe!” for 9 minutes, the time it took for the police to lynch George Floyd. More than 6 million people watched that video last night. Good theatre gives me goose- bumps, it charges and changes our bodies, and when it stops pretending it can change our worlds.
Yet so much of the theatre world seems frightened of the messy fleshy off-stage life world. I live on the ZAD, Zone à Défendre (the zone to defend), 1650 hectares of wetlands where a 50-year-long struggle defeated plans for an airport. The resistance brought farmers and activists together against a backdrop of treehouses, cabins and building the commons against a climate crime. A young theatre student was so inspired by his visit here that he asked the head of Le Conservatoire National Superieure d’Art Dramatique, if their annual ‘rural workshop’ could go to the ZAD and work with our collective, the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, on how to merge theatre and politics. At the time the school’s end of year show was Zone à Étendre, inspired by the ZAD, where students dressed up as activists against a backdrop of cabins. “If I let you go to the ZAD”, the head of the conservatoire replied, “I will lose my job!” It was only ok for her students to stay in their roles and pretend to do politics.
And will you stay in your role? Will you make dance pieces about protests when your skills as a choreographer could help crowds move through the streets to avoid the police? Will you design sets for plays about refugees when you could design tools to cut through the border fences? Will you perform the silence left where there were once songbirds, when you could beautifully block the pesticide factories that are annihilating them?
Why make theatre that pretends, why not fall in love with life again?
John Jordan is a British artist and activist. He co-founded Reclaim the Streets and the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. He now co-facilitates the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (labofii), researching creative forms of resistance across Europe against cooperate globalisation, war and environmental issues. The labofii now inhabits the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, “a territory lost to the republic,” according to the French government.