Christopher Grobe

Associate Professor, Amherst College

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Working Session on "Impotent Performance"

Co-Organizer & Co-Chair

Flop (noun): a theatrical production that does not recoup its investment costs. This onomatopoetic word, so central to evaluating performance, evokes deflation and collapse, the opposite of arousal. If, as this conference's description asserts, "arousal is at the center of what performance can and should do," what are we to make of performances that flop, that do not create arousal?

Recent theater and performance studies scholarship has explored fruitfully impossible theaters, theater's inevitable (Beckettian) failure, and the productivity of a deliberate poetics of failure. Scholars have resisted, however, interrogating impotence without the compensatory possibility of redemption. But not all impotent performances can or should be redeemed. Sometimes, an unarousing performance warrants consideration precisely because it fails to arouse. How should we understand categories such as bad theater, unpersuasive agitprop, and misfired performatives? What’s the value in paying attention to apathetic audiences, comedians dying on stage, actors corpsing or going dry? What can performance scholars do with walkouts, embarrassments, bankruptcies, and disasters?

In short, this working session explores performances that either resist a paradigm of performance-as-arousal or that, despite their best efforts, fail to arouse. Considering the limitations of arousal—and synonyms such as interest, pleasure, efficacy, etc.—as a paradigm for theater and performance studies scholarship, we will explore performance without or against arousal. We seek answers to questions like these:

  1. What limits performance's ability to create arousal?

  2. What kinds of arousal is performance worst at achieving?

  3. What kinds of performance never pursue arousal at all?

  4. When is arousal a hindrance in the theater?

  5. Should certain forms of arousal be censored?

  6. How have theater and performance studies been defined (for good or ill) by love of arousal and fear of impotence?

copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe