by Ansley Valentine
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Pandemic Performance: Resilience, Liveness, and Protest in Quarantine Times. Edited by Kendra Capece, Patrick Scorese. New York: Routledge, 2023; Pp. 188
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when all of the theaters closed, many artists moved their work to digital platforms. While many disparaged these efforts, claiming that virtual performance was not legitimate performance, Pandemic Performance: Resilience, Liveness, and Protest in Quarantine Times documents the work experience and creativity of primarily American theatre and dance artists who not only moved to digital and other platforms, but who also developed new methods of working through these platforms, thereby sustaining and growing craft through the pandemic. Pandemic Performance includes scholarship in a variety of modes—traditional research alongside artists’ reflections—which makes this book an important record of the field, as well as of myriad artists’ experiences in this time. The range and level of detail given will serve as an important historical record from the inside of the changes in process and communities that artists undertook to maintain their artistry. Pandemic Performance is one of the first books to chronicle “resilience, liveness and protest in quarantine times” so thoroughly.
Editors Kendra Claire Capece and Patrick Scorese organize the book around three headings: PART I: America God Damn; PART II: Friction and Encounter; PART III: Building a New Future. In PART I: America God Damn, Capece and Scorese begin with the general societal upheaval that happened with the convergence of Black Lives Matter, Covid-19, and the death of George Floyd, framing how those critical events caused an awakening to systemic injustice in America in general and the performing arts, in particular. PART II: Friction and Encounter examines the difficulties artists and institutions faced as they tried to pivot to make art in different ways. PART III: Building a New Future shares views on how disruption and adaptation created models for sustained artist/community/institution realignment. This book focuses more on individual artists who document their reactions to disruption and how they’ve examined their own praxis. These artists developed performance models to supplement or replace their previous work, as the profession and society experienced crisis. Contributors focus on how artists shifted their relationships with institutions and ultimately became different artistically in light of the shifts in society.
In fact, this book seems to be one of the first to gather a variety of sources that address the impact of marked societal shifts on the working artist from the perspective of artists documenting their metamorphosis. There are certainly other resources that highlight data such as the economic impact on the arts in the United States, the number of arts organizations that failed to reopen after the shutdown, and so on. What makes this book unique is its centering on artists’ voices relative to their work, whether written by the artists themselves as in (Re)current Unrest: The Fire This Time (Charles O. Anderson) or gathered through conversations such as Performative Allyship and the Foxes That Drool: In Conversation with Brittany Talissa King (Brittany Talissa King with Kendra Claire Capece and Patrick Scorese). Here, disparate artists share their individual responses to the shutdown, their reaction to the disruption to their work practices and places, but also how they pivoted to make art in a different way. For example, some detail how they discovered ways of making media practice a part of their performance model while trying to maintain the immediacy they found in their previous live performance work. While the idea of mediated live performance is not completely new, the ways these artists experimented with media are new, as are the contexts—and communities engaged, at times—demonstrating resilience.
This book makes a cogent argument for the importance and practicality of these performances. Rather than simply being placeholder activities, Pandemic Performance makes a very clear argument for why these works actually discovered and explored new uses of performance theory. By necessity, the means of production were decentralized. In the absence of institutional support, the artists featured found new ways of creating their work. They also explored ways of working as collaborators while remaining in isolation. They took on new ways of using their work and artistry to support the change they saw around them.
The result is a book that will appeal to anyone interested in how artists invested in community engagement and social justice, as well as the performing arts, struggled with and adapted to the Covid-19 challenges they faced. On one hand, it validates the experiences of thousands of performing artists who embraced this unstable time as an opportunity to create despite obstacles. On the other hand, this book can serve to challenge those who questioned the legitimacy of virtual performance and whether it was worthy of serious artistic consideration or critique. The volume’s case study chapters give detailed accounts of the processes and experiences of those who joined the digital performance space, determined to create and persevere. The research presented documents methods, analysis, and outcomes of the disparate projects. One should also note that Pandemic Performance shares perspectives of BIPOC artists who found new life and opportunities in the pandemic that had not existed for them before, reimagining the field’s practices and hierarchies.
This book is important to the field because it captures in detail the seismic shifts that happened in performance. The writing is largely accessible and often very personal. Pandemic Performance can serve students, artists and scholars in performance studies, social justice, community development, and other disciplines. Some might question its scholarship because of the mixture of analysis and first-person accounts, however the volume is fascinating, instructive and can ground others’ future scholarship. Capece and Scorese critically frame the artists’ contributions effectively, moving from hypothesis to analysis via the Introduction and book structure. To an impressive degree, they also value the unfiltered voices of socially-engaged artists who helped to reimagine performance and work practices, making this an important primary source for scholars now and moving forward.