Through an exploration of both practice and theory, this book investigates the relationship between listening and the theatrical encounter in the context of Western theatre and performance. Rather than looking to the stage for a politics or ethics of performance, Rajni Shah asks what work needs to happen in order for the stage itself to appear, exploring some of the factors that might allow or prevent a group of individuals to gather together as an ‘audience’. Shah proposes that the theatrical encounter is a structure that prioritises the attentive over the declarative; each of the five chapters is an exploration of this proposition. The first two chapters propose readings for the terms ‘listening’ and ‘audience’, drawing primarily on Gemma Corradi Fiumara’s writing about the philosophy of listening and Stanley Cavell’s writing about being-in-audience. The third chapter reflects on the work of Lying Fallow, the first of two practice elements which were part of this research, asking whether and how this project aligns with the modes of listening that Shah has proposed thus far, and introducing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s writing about the preposition ‘beside’ in relation to being-in-audience. In the fourth chapter, Shah examines the role of the invitation in setting up the parameters for being-in-audience, in relation to Sara Ahmed’s writing about arrival and encounter. And in the final chapter the second practice element, Experiments in Listening, operates to expand our thinking about where and how the work of being-in-audience takes place.Blending the boundaries of theoretical, creative and practice-based artistic work, this book is accompanied by a series of five zines. These describe an embodied experience of knowledge from a personal perspective, both playfully and seriously following a line of enquiry developed in each of the chapters.
Rajni Shah (they/them) is an artist whose practice is focused on listening and gathering as creative and political acts. Key projects—always created alongside and in collaboration with others—include hold each as we fall (1999), The Awkward Position (2003-2004), Mr Quiver (2005-2008), small gifts (2006-2008), Dinner with America (2007-2009), Glorious (2010-2012), Experiments in Listening (2014-2015), Lying Fallow (2014-2015), Song (2016), I don’t know how (to decolonize myself) (2018), Feminist Killjoys Reading Group (2016-2020) and Listening Tables (2019-2020). Archive of works: www.rajnishah.com
They completed a PhD at Lancaster University, which explored the value of listening in theatre and performance.
Experiments in Listening is a critical, caring, poetic and generous gift to scholars invested in epistemic undoings of Euro-colonial conceptualisations of ‘theatre’ and ‘performance’. In this beautifully written book, Shah offers a philosophical recalibration of our fields by enabling readers to enter a mode of listening – an attentiveness to words, worlds and actions – through a ‘commitment to not-knowing’. By compellingly centring hitherto marginalised voices, perspectives and practices, the book demands a recognition of performance-making as a process through which iterative, non-linear and embodied knowledge-systems live and breathe.
Rajni Shah invites as they unsettle. The generous, radical proposal of the book reaches beyond the ‘audience’ and ‘performers’ who feature in its pages. This starts with the act of invitation itself, as plural and complex: it determines which bodies are present, which are absent, how they relate to each other. The shared activity of not-doing in explicitly constructed acts of gathering is provocative, an explosion. In this listening to form a politics of compassion is catalysed, to see and hear ‘beside’ and not for the suffering of others while recognising oneself as implicated in systems that hold listenings in place. In the stillness, invitations are offered – to care, reciprocity, responsibility. To re-orient ourselves to a clamouring, hostile world and refuse to yield this practice and promise of listening to its tyrannies.
Experiments in Listening gathers the concerns of a career in thoughtful practice that is acute to recent discussions taking place in theatre and also more widely, as for example, in philosophy and cultural theory. The prose is entirely appropriate to the ethos and purpose of the book, very clear without oversimplifying, very attentive to terminology, and supple with its slight shifts in register for dealing with different aspects, especially within the experiments. The stanzaic structure (organised like rooms; in other words, shaped the same but perhaps with different functions) helps Shah to avoid what, given the topic, would be a contradictory teleological movement towards a conclusion. At the heart of the methodology is a sustained attempt to think in, for and beyond practice within the generous sense that a specific arts practice is always a practice too of being in the world: the material, ecological world and the world constituted of social relations.
Drawing on philosophy, feminist practice and queer theory, Rajni opens up fresh ways of thinking about the symbiotic relationship between performance and its audiences. The word 'audience' itself is gently unpicked, as Rajni explores the radical potential in gathering, giving attention and above all listening. As they shift their point of view between that of performer and that of audience, Rajni builds an argument for a kind of listening that is compassionate and responsible, not least in the face of difference. In doing so, they shape a refreshed and necessary language not only for audience relationships, but a society in which the hierarchies of speaking and listening - and so of action and seeming passivity - have irrevocably shifted.
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