Workshop 2: Karen Juers-Munby, Events between script and freedom: improvising with text in contemporary experimental performance

Karen Juers-Munby (LICA, Lancaster University) in her presentation focused on the eventness of experimental (postdramatic) performances. She argued that the phenomenon of the event often arises precisely through the openly exhibited tension between script and performance.  Juers-Munby explored some contemporary experimental performances that openly exhibit text in performance and in which text or script becomes an acknowledged ‘player’ in improvisation. Using the examples of ‘Forced Entertainment’ and Julia Barclay’s ‘Apocryphal Theatre’ she illuminated the issues of presence and identity in terms of presenting and dis/placing identity. Juers-Munby argued that this new aesthetic forms are not merely formal innovations but can also be seen as political aesthetics.   

Juers-Munby opened her presentation by arguing that theatre has by nature always been closely related to the event but its ‘eventness’ has come to the fore in the 20th century avant-gardes (e.g. in DADA) and again since the ‘performative turn’ in the late 1960s (e.g. in happenings, fluxus events and in the practices of various new experimental companies such as The Performance Group, The Wooster Group, The Living Theatre, Squat Theatre etc.). She pointed out that this is also true for British experimental companies, such as Forced Entertainment, one of Britain’s leading and most innovative experimental theatre companies. Juers-Munby explained that Forced Entertainment always aim for performances that have the character of an event understood in Lyotard’s sense of something that ‘happens’ .


Karen Juers-Munby pointed out that her arguments is encapsulated by director Tim Etchells when he says:

“We don’t seek a meaning that has been placed but seek rather a sense of meanings falling into place. A meaning that happens to happen, a feeling that tumbles, a feeling on the very edge of accident. A sense that comes because that happened and you were there to see it (but you always knew you could’ve seen something else, heard another line, caught another gesture).  We’re seeking work that values the moment where you saw and connected. Where the job of piecing together torn paper is yours.”  (Tim Etchells, 1993, p. 3)

As this statement indicates, she argued, the ‘eventedness’ of these performances is created through a more open relationship with the audience, which turns them into active witnesses and even co-writers (Barthes).  Karen Juers-Munby referred to the work of her colleague Andrew Quick who has pointed out in an essay on ‘Time and the Event’, that this also resonates with Lyotard’s insistence that the perception of events requires a special openness: 

To  become sensitive to their quality as actual events, to become competent in listening to their sound underneath silence or noise, to become open to the ‘It happens that’ rather than to ‘What happens’, requires at the very least a high degree of refinement in the perception of small differences.  (Lyotard, 1988, as cited in Quick, 1998, 223)

However, Juers-Munby argued that the performances we are talking about here also have the capacity to train such perception.  They are engaged in what Hans-Thies Lehmann in his book Postdramatic Theatre has called a politics of perception.

Karen Juers-Munby subsequently outlined her interest in these issues in relation to text in performance.  She described how in traditional dramatic theatre, the relationship between text and performance is conventionally understood as a move from ‘page to stage’, from the written word to the spoken word – the actor’s aim usually being to hide his speech’s origin in script through the production of ‘stage presence’.  By contrast improvised theatre classically prides itself on absolute presence through the spontaneous creation of performance, including speech, ‘in the moment’ [Nachmanovich, Keith Johnstone, Chris Johnson].

Karen Juers-Munby admitted her suspicion of the claim that improvised performance is completely free and ‘unscripted’, following by questioning:  Are there not always going to be certain ‘generic’ grooves, tropes, patterns of speech and dialogue the performers are bound to fall into, even if they then ‘riff’ of these?  How free can free improvisation ever be, especially when it involves language?

Juers-Munby followed by using the example of Forced Entertainment. She described how ‘[w]e’re guilty of dice…’ is one of the confessions pronounced in Speak Bitterness, and the first one in the version later printed in Certain Fragments (Etchells 1999: 181) arguing that this could be read as a key to the procedure of the performance itself, a clandestine admission to its aleatory game – or rather its illicit combination of dice and cheating, of chance and choice.  

Karen Juers-Munby illuminated that Speak Bitterness features performers choosing texts from random bits of paper, which creates a dynamic of play - not only of fun and surprise but also of play’s darker side: of risk, challenge, and at times a strange sense of fatefulness.  The seven performers obsessively read confessions from sheets of paper strewn across a long brightly lit table – or make them up on the spot.  The confessions range from the criminal to the trivial, from the idiosyncratic to the inherently human, from the fictional to everyday urban disobedience:

[We’re guilty of murder, arson and theft.

We sold defective oven gloves door to door.

We confessed to crimes we hadn’t even committed to waste police time and get our names in the paper.

We had butterflies.

We cut off the hand of an evil-hearted pirate called Captain Hook in a fair fight.

Where people had written their names on walls and the side of the subway and the high-rises, we went around and added the words ‘is dead’. So it said ‘Rob is dead’, ‘Big Dave is dead’, ‘Lucy is dead’.]

Juers-Munby argued that depending on the nature of the actual confessions read and the context implied through performance, the meaning of the personal pronoun ‘we’ constantly shifts in our minds between the people present on stage, a larger, perhaps generational or gendered ‘we’, the ‘we’ of a specific social group or the ‘we’ of the human species.

She explained that the performers often create a strong sense of ‘presence’ and co-presence with the audience by meeting the spectator’s gaze. They make an effort to ‘own’ each statement they address to the audience and thus ‘own up’ to each confession with sincerity – even though it is often clear from the statements that they could not possibly have committed the acts they profess to (e.g. ‘We dropped atom bombs on Nagasaki, Coventry, Seattle, Belize, Belsize Park and Hiroshima’). 

Although the presence of the written text on stage subverts theatrical presence to an extent, Juers-Munby argued that it does not subvert it altogether – in fact the production of presence is crucial to the nature of the game. This is despite the fact that any individual ‘identity’ that is established here is maintained only momentarily and is often contradicted by the next confession that is read. She pointed out that the very process of ‘presenting’ identity is modeled and dismantled in these performances and that the assumed possession of interiority and conscience is critically probed.

Karen Juers-Munby described how metaphorically, the effect of the written confessions on the table dominating the action could be read as the human ‘sins’ that pre-exist and go beyond the individual who enters culture and society, pre-scripted subject positions  of guilt and failure that the individual is asked to embody and identify with. She argued that Althusser would have described this as the mechanism of ideological ‘interpellation’.  Yet, here the offered confessions and their attendant subject positions accumulate to a preposterous and absurd degree.

Further, Juers-Munby pointed out that the mere fact that speech is prompted by visible text does not by itself subvert the sense of the performers’ ‘presence’, intimacy and spontaneity, which is produced not only through the performers’ direct communication with the audience (eye contact, direct address, etc.) but also through the game structure and live improvisation.  The question of ‘theatrical presence’ is thus a complicated one here.  There is a constant interplay between speech and writing,  improvised composition (making it up) and pre-designed composition.  She argued that the event arises precisely from surfing this very edge between writing and speech.

Karen Juers-Munby proposed that this is also true for the improvisation methods of American writer and director Julia Barclay and her London based company Apocryphal Theatre.  She explained how, influenced by William Burroughs’ concept of the ‘cut-up’, Barclay produces collaged and stream of consciousness texts around political subjects that are then played with by the performers in the space.  All performers initially memorize the whole text but the way in which it is enunciated in performance and by whom is improvised and different every night; there are no particular performers assigned to certain bits of text. 

Juers-Munby agreed with Cathy Turner, who illuminated in the relation to Barclay’s previous work, how this directorial strategy is also designed to undermine the one political ‘voice’ of the writer:

‘[Julia Barclay’s] writing implicitly questions the idea that one can satisfactorily ‘disinvest’ [from dominant ideology] since there can be no clearly established boundary between one’s own words and those of the media or one’s social group. Even words which have once seemed one’s own may not survive an older self. This perspective increasingly leads her to offer up the text to the performer as material to play with, use and abuse.  (Turner 2002: 61)

Juers-Munby emphasized that the political stakes are high: Apocryphal are trying to ‘undermine the reality-grid of right now’ (Apocryphal company website) by making both performers and spectators listen afresh to language in newly created contexts and connections, hoping to:

make visible the construction of the language with which we create the world we perceive; to allow us a moment in the gap between the understood and the unknown, to listen for the voices which have not yet formed, not yet been heard but still call to us in an undefined language which is perhaps no less real or pressing for being as yet unwritten. (Barclay 2005)

She argued that their almost utopian vision – calling to mind Bloch’s principle of hope, of the ‘not yet’ - is that new political impulses can be discovered through improvisation as they emerge in the interstices and gaps created in performance between the written and the not-yet-written.

Juers-Munby also referred to Apocryphal Theatre’s most recent piece, Besides, you lose your soul, or: The History of Western Civilization which is concerned with the legacy of Western philosophy, specifically the Western concept of the soul in relation to US and British imperialist acts of war and torture (the title was taken from a statement by a US army officer explaining the inefficiency of torture:  you don’t get the information you want and ‘besides, you lose your soul’). She described the performance space as littered with stacks of canonical philosophy books from Aristotle to Nietzsche, books taught in school as ‘Western Civilization’ in the USA and explained how,  at various points in the performance performers and spectators spontaneously read from these books.  This is juxtaposed with Barclay’s own collaged and stream of consciousness text in which at times the writer’s subjective voice seems to emerge arguing with the texts invoked in the performance.  Even though the performers have memorized this text, the seeming spontaneity of their speech – and by extension their metaphysical presence as ‘soul’ and ‘being’ - is contradicted by the fact that the text is also projected onto a screen in the space.  Moreover, the author is sitting at her laptop merrily amending the script with any alterations made by the performers, who in this way also become re-writers and co-writers of the script.  A feedback loop between reading and writing is created, the changes tracked on-screen.  Thus, Juers-Munby argued that both Speak Bitterness and Besides You Loose Your Soul can be seen as different attempts of ‘bringing the now into writing’, as Turner has called it.

In conclusion, Juers-Munby elaborated on how both discussed performances in various ways thrive on the openly exhibited tensions between texts and performers.  She argued that these frictions can become politically productive on the level of subject matter, as the performers’ attitude and energy is brought into play.  She also pointed out that the resistance of performers against text and vice versa can function to disturb ideological normalization and ‘business as usual’.   In Apocryphal Theatre’s Besides, you lose your soul, for example, one of the female performers had a real problem with the fact that all books quoted and present on the floor were by male authors. Juers-Munby claimed that this personal investment came out in her improvised performance and ultimately aided the feminist dimension of the performance’s critical probing of the ‘History of Western Civilization’.  

Finally, Karen Juers-Munby claimed that improvisations with texts as players remind us not only of the ways in which we are continually being ‘scripted’ and ‘conscripted’ by dominant ideologies but equally of the ways in which artists are engaged in creating spaces to reveal and probe these dominant scripts.