Contemporary Theatre: Representations of Crisis

In the last two decades, the field of global theatre production has witnessed the consolidation of an increasingly diverse and nuanced repertoire of representations of contemporary crises. Against this larger background, eco-theatre and refugee performance have offered a particularly productive space for critical reflection on the state of precariousness, structural insecurity, and vulnerability entailed by ongoing conditions of crisis, as well as a major platform for aesthetic innovation. Focusing on a range of thought-provoking case studies from the US and the UK, while providing occasional glimpses into other cultural spaces, this course examines the ethico-political and aesthetic stakes of responding to the climate crisis and the refugee crisis, respectively, in various theatrical formats ranging from scripted plays to documentary and community-based practices.

Some of the central questions to be tackled in our meetings are: How does theatre participate in performing current crisis formations, thus engaging with “the urgency of the struggle over the future of the past” (Martin 2010: 17)? How can theatre represent processes of “slow violence” (Nixon) or continued insecurity in a way that makes full use of the medium’s strengths while acknowledging its inherent spatial and temporal limitations? What are the broader ecologies underlying the development, production, and reception of theatres of crisis? What are the representational modes and aesthetic strategies employed in the performance of crisis? How are such representations shaped by particular dramaturgical processes and formats?

From a methodological perspective, the course seeks to introduce students to the current agenda of theatre and performance studies as an interdisciplinary field drawing on a broad range of theories and methodologies from the humanities and the social sciences.

Course instructor: Dr. Diana Benea


Week 1. Introduction. Course Objectives and Requirements.

Theatre as a medium. The elements of theatre. Play, production, performance.

Terminological distinctions: devised theatre, documentary theatre, “theatre of the real” (Martin), community-based theatre, site-specific theatre, theatre for social change, applied theatre.

Week 2. Theorizing Theatres of Crisis (and Change): Critical Genealogies and Contemporary Discourses

The ethics and politics of representing/performing “crisis.” Negotiating the place of the aesthetic.

Reading: Balestrini, Nassim Winnie, Lippert, Leopold and Löschnigg, Maria. “Theater of Crisis: Contemporary Aesthetic Responses to a Cross-Sectional Condition – An Introduction.” Journal of Contemporary Drama in English, vol. 8, no. 1, 2020.

CLUSTER #1. Towards an Eco-Theatre of the Anthropocene

Week 3. Framing the Field: Crises of “Slow Violence”

Readings: Arons, Wendy, and Theresa J. May, eds. Readings in Performance and Ecology. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 1-10.

Chaudhuri, Una. “‘There Must Be a Lot of Fish in That Lake’: Toward an Ecological Theater.” Theater, vol. 25, no. 1, 1994. 23-31.

Week 4. Ecological Interconnectedness and the Ethics of Stewardship

Primary reading: Malpede, Karen. Extreme Whether. From Plays in Time. Bristol: Intellect, 2017. 205-260.

Secondary reading: Malpede, Karen. “The Necessity of a New Green Federal Theatre Project.” HowlRound Theatre Commons, July 30, 2019.

Week 5. Indigenous Ecodramaturgies and Decolonial Visions

Production: Ping Chong + Company, in collaboration with the cast. When the Salmon Spoke. Directed by Ryan Conarro. Digital Production, US, 2020.

Reading: from Woynarski, Lisa. Ecodramaturgies: Theatre, Performance and Climate Change. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Week 6. Capitalism, Consumerism and Climate Injustice

Production: Koenig, Sînziana, and Nico Vaccari. Vinovat, –ă [Guilt,y]. BÉZNĂ Theatre and Centrul de Teatru Educațional Replika, 2020.

Reading: Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard UP, 2011. 1-22.

CLUSTER #2. Theatres of Sanctuary: Representing Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Undocumented Migrants  

Week 7. Framing the Field: Crises of Non-Representation

Readings: Cox, Emma, and Caroline Wake. “Envisioning asylum/engendering crisis: or, performance and forced migration 10 years on.” Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, vol. 23, no. 2, 2018. pp. 137-147.

Jeffers, Alison. Refugees, Theatre and Crisis: Performing Global Identities. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 16-42.

Week 8. Refugee Performance (I): The Ethics of Spectatorship

Production: Bayley, Clare. The Container. Directed by Tom Wright, Young Vic, 2009, London.

Reading: Little, Suzanne. “The Witness Turn in the Performance of Violence, Trauma, and the Real.” Ethical Exchanges in Translation, Adaptation and Dramaturgy. Eds. Emer O’Toole, Andrea Pelegrí Kristić, and Stuart Young. Brill, 2017. 43-62.

Week 9. Refugee Performance (II): The Ethics of Practice

Production: The Trojans. Directed by Victoria Beesley, adapted by Mariem Omari, from Euripides, with original writing by the cast. Platform Theatre, 2019, Glasgow.

Reading: Salverson, Julie. “Transgressive Storytelling or an Aesthetic of Injury: Performance, Pedagogy and Ethics.” Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada, vol. 20, no. 1, 1999.

Week 10. Performative Citizenship and Spaces of Belonging in the Theatre of Undocumentedness

Production: Wilson, Kirsten. Do You Know Who I Am? Based on monologues by Juan Juarez, Victor Galvan, Oscar Juarez, Ana Cristina Temu, and Hugo Juarez. Motus Theatre, Boulder, 2013/2017 (TBC).

Reading: Isin, Engin. “Performative Citizenship.” The Oxford Handbook of Citizenship. Eds. Ayelet Shachar, Rainer Bauböck, Irene Bloemraad, and Maarten Vink. Oxford UP, 2017. 500-523.

CLUSTER #3. Researching Contemporary Theatre: A Cultural Studies Approach

Week 11. Sources and Methodologies

Working with archival sources. Ethnographic and auto-ethnographic practices. Interviews and oral history; participatory research; audience surveys.

Week 12. Evidence, Impact, and the Politics of Funding

Framing and assessing impact in socially engaged theatre. Intrinsic and instrumental impacts. Institutional relationships and the neoliberalization of arts funding.

Reading: Reason, Matthew, and Nick Rowe, eds. Applied Practice: Evidence and Impact in Theatre, Music and Art. London/NY: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Week 13. Local and Global Connections. Student-moderated discussion with guest playwright (TBC).

Week 14. Final Reflections. Theatres of Lockdown: Rethinking the Medium in the (Post-)COVID-19 Era.


  • A minimum of 50% attendance
  • Participation in class discussions and a presentation/3-page critical essay, counting for 50% of the final mark
  • An end-of-term written essay, counting for 50% of the final mark