65. Carl Lavery, “Teaching Performance Studies: 25 Instructions for Performance in Cities”

by breavman99

In Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Phil Smith includes Carl Lavery’s article, “Teaching Performance Studies: 25 Instructions for Performance in Cities,” in a list of exemplary publications about walking. Why not take a look, I thought? Lavery is a walking artist—his account of walking to mark the ninth anniversary of his father’s death is included in Roberta Mock’s anthology Walking, Writing & Performance: Autobiographical Texts by Deirdre Heddon, Carl Lavery and Phil Smith—and so I thought his 25 instructions might have some relevance to my project.

Lavery begins by pointing out that he trained in a traditional drama department, but when he arrived at De Montfort University in Leicester in 2003 to teach performance, he didn’t know what to do: “You couldn’t rely on a text: there was no transcendental author to refer back to; and no history of criticism on which to base your teaching. The whole thing felt more like art school than drama school—the emphasis was on ‘making’ and ‘devising’ work from scratch, not on staging plays with ready-made scripts” (229). After six months of teaching, however, he came to 

regard the lack of method as the birth of method. I’ve become addicted. . . . Unlike teaching theatre or drama which always led me back to the safety net of the text . . . or books that prescribed well-known methods and exercises for acting . . . teaching performance is like being in free-fall. There is no script, no manual to rely on. This, for me, is where the productive and, ultimately, democratic nature of performance resides. (229-30)

Instead of authoritative texts, in teaching performance studies there is “a productive conversation with, and borrowing from, the relatively new history of the discipline” (230). “So,” Lavery continues, 

in keeping with the spirit of dialogue or bricolage that teaching Performance Studies demands, my dispatches from the rehearsal room will not be in the form of a conventional essay; rather they will take the form of what I have called instructions for performance. My objective here is to stimulate the creative imagination, to get you to execute or accomplish actions. (230)

However, the instructions are intended to be a stimulus, “not a strait-jacket,” and should be approached (and appropriated) with that caution in mind (230).

Lavery makes a pretty big claim about performance:

I realized that instructions for performance could easily be called instructions for living. Why? Because performance does not locate the aesthetic in some difficult realm or privileged zone (the gallery, the text, the mind of the author); rather it locates the aesthetic in where you would least expect to find it—in the material conditions of what the Marxian philosopher Henri Lefebvre calls “everyday life,” in what is closest to you, in what seems disposable and lacking in aesthetic substance. (230-31)

“[P]erformance, learning to live creatively with your environment,” he continues, “resists the direction of a world order that is becoming increasingly depressed, rationalized, and bureaucratized. Confronted with such a world, performance . . . is a mode of resistance, a strategy of playful subversion” (231). 

In more practical terms, Lavery notes that he uses the instructions described in this paper to teach a module called “Performance in the City”—that module explores cities through discourses taken from sociology, geography, ethnography, art, and theatre (231). In their work, he wants students to shift their perception of spaces they might visit or traverse regularly. That kind of shift in perception can be provoked by asking students to do a number of things:

  • List ten things you saw, heard and smelt on your way to class over a period of a week.
  • Return to the same spot every day for a week and witness what happens there.
  • Deliberately get lost in the city.
  • Ask a friend to guide you through the city via instructions given on a mobile phone.
  • Negotiate the city by bus, car, bike and on foot and document your impressions.
  • Collect lost or abandoned objects in the city streets and try to imagine narratives about them.
  • Visit what the French anthropologist Marc Augé in his book Non-Places: Introduction to the Anthropology of Supermodernity calls “non-places”: retail parks, car parks, airports, slip roads, roundabouts, garages and service stations. Experience how they make you feel. Think about what they were.
  • Navigate the city with a walkman playing a narrative about urban journeys that someone else has sampled.
  • Walk the city at night, paying attention to the everyday performances you see on the street.
  • Taken photographs of ten buildings in the city that fill you with inconsolable sadness.
  • Describe how buildings in the rain make you feel.
  • Allow the city to penetrate your senses, your skin.
  • Memorize where you walked during the day and use this to personalize a map of the city. (233)

Many of these suggestions could also be what Smith calls “catapults” for a dérive or drift, it seems to me, and they testify to the connection between what Lavery teaches and psychogeography. In some ways, I find them more useful for walking than the actual 25 instructions that are the purpose of Lavery’s paper. After students complete these exercises, he asks them to reflect on and share their experiences in a number of different ways, including “performative lectures, monologues about place, or simply by taking the class on a guided tour of the sites mentioned,” and the information they share

will then be used as a source for making work in a hybrid manner, combining sound recordings, digital images, film, movement, story-telling, text, dance and peripatetic performance. In this way, the students learn to see performance as something that resists categorization, something that is not-theatre, not-art, not-dance, not-film. Something, in other words, that allows you to do what you want. (233-34)

The notion of students taking the rest of the class on a guided tour of specific sites in the city is interesting, but probably not possible at the university where I teach, given the amount of paperwork involved in taking students off campus, and given the lack of a course budget to take students anywhere. Those barriers, and others, would also apply to his 25 instructions.

According to Lavery, his 25 instructions are of two kinds: general and specific (234). “In both cases, however, there is sufficient space left for the student practitioner to appropriate the instruction for her own ends,” he writes. “The instructions are not designed to be a recipe. It is up to the performer to write the text, find the site, and decide on the medium of expression” (234). The instructions themselves would, as I’ve suggested, generate loads of paperwork and permissions—as well as a need to run everything past the university’s Research Ethics Board, which is not an experience anyone wants to have. Maybe I’m lucky I teach English composition to first-year students, rather than a course on performance in the city. 

Some of Lavery’s instructions are things that students could accomplish while working with other students. Take, for instance, his first instruction:

1. Read everything you can about Sophie Calle’s Dangerous Game (1988), Fiona Templeton’s You—The City (1988), and Mugger Music (1997) by Nick Crowe, Graham Parker and Ian Rawlinson. Meditate on what you read. Try to imagine what the work would be like and how it could be staged in your city. Then proceed to (a) plan your own version of the work; (b) find sites in your city or town that could accommodate the work; (c) rehearse and perform your version with a team of performers. . . . (234)

I’m assuming that “team of performers” would consist of other students, although I could be wrong about that. His third and fourth instructions would also involve students working with their colleagues:

3. Choose a play that is set in a city. Rehearse one scene from the play so that the cast are familiar with it. As the scene is being performed, project (on one of the adjacent walls) silent video footage in real time of cars travelling through the city. Each time the cars stop at a set of traffic lights allow the actors to speak. (235)

4. Point a camera at a location in the city (say for two hours) so that it simply records what comes into view. Edit the footage. Screen the footage in a theatre or at a designated site. On microphones ask live performers stationed to the side of the screen to improvise stories about the people caught on the camera. (235)

The instructions that ask students to confine themselves to a theatre or rehearsal space would be relatively easy to accomplish; others, which demand an engagement with the world off-campus, would be much more difficult. Take, for instance, instruction number nine:

9. Make the private public. Perform what you normally do indoors outdoors. This should include: cooking, eating, reading, washing, brushing your teeth, watching television and sleeping. Do this over a period of twenty-four hours. Stage it in a city square, theatre or shop window. (235)

How would students in Regina be able to live outside for 24 hours during the school year? Where would they find a landlord with vacant retail space (there’s no shortage of that) willing to allow them to rent that space for a short period of time? I can’t imagine. Nor can I imagine putting students at risk by asking them to do these things over 24 hours in the city’s downtown. No, I’m afraid number 9 is a non-starter.

Other instructions, which involve the general public, would definitely require approval from the Research Ethics Board. Take number two, for instance:

2. Place an advertisement in a local newspaper asking for volunteer-participants to meet at a central location in your city at any time after dark. Make it clear that there is a limited number of places for the performance. Choose a master of ceremonies who will greet the participants when they arrive and provide them with a list of instructions. Three participants are then selected to get in a car and warned not to talk to each other or to the performer/chauffeur. A narrative or series of narratives about the city you have created out of newspapers or lies is then played on the car stereo. After ten minutes of travel, the car stops at a garage, ideally positioned on the outer ring-road of the city you live in. The participants are asked via a text message to change cars. After cruising on the outer ring-road for forty minutes the participants are let out at a service station and instructed to carry out a series of tasks. They are then ferried back to the central location in the city and asked to share their experience of the city on a tape recorder, which may or, may not, provide the soundtrack to another performance. (234-35)

Or number five: “Create an installation of the city out of lost objects and the recorded testimonies of local people” (235). Or number 23:

23. Set up a series of booths in the city advertising palmistry, tasseography and tarot readings. Deliberately lie to your customers—predict futures of great happiness, collective joy and ecstatic being. (236)

Lying to participants, deliberately? The REB would freak out at the thought of lying to participants. I don’t know how Lavery is (or was) able to get away with asking his students to do these things: I don’t know how it would be possible where I teach.

There are instructions that would be useful for a walking art practice, though, and which show the influence of psychogeography on Lavery’s teaching. Instructions number six, for example—“6. Perform a series of urban rituals in the city, paying particular attention to liminal sites and sacred spaces that are found in cities” (235)—and number 20— “20. Take your audience on a series of mythical journeys or quests in the city. Try to find kingfishers, sacred groves, fabled wells, underground streams, haunted houses, sites of healing, etc.” (236)—with their attention to myth and ritual, definitely show the influence of British psychogeography. Some of the instructions are things I would consider doing, if only as a way to shake up my walking practice (and to find some value in the city I live in):

7. Explore different types of walking practices in the city: flânerie, drifting, wandering, fuguerie, nomadism and pilgrimage. Use these practices to create performance texts about the city, combining sound, image and text. (235)

12. Read Robert Smithson’s essays on sites and non-sites in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writing (1996). Produce a series of site-specific works according to Smithson’s dialectical methodology. (236)

14. Produce a series of soundscapes of shopping malls, car parks, supermarkets, ring-roads, alleyways, churches and playgrounds. (236)

18. Sketch out smell maps, taste maps, audio maps, affective maps and geological maps of the city. (236)

19. Take a video camera into the city and follow a dog or a cat for as long as you can. Make a film out of this. (236)

24. Draw a straight line through the city from north-south or east-west. Follow the line and produce a performance from what you encounter on the way. (236)

And number 22 is standard advice for writers: “Sit in a park, café or bar and listen to the stories spoken around you. Use this as the basis for a performance text” (236).

If I were ever to be asked to teach a course like the one Lavery teaches—not that likely, I know—his article would be an excellent resource. I might even figure out how to put some of his less practical instructions—at least, the ones that involve the most paperwork—into practice. (Who knows? Maybe getting some of these ideas past the REB wouldn’t be that difficult.) But some of his instructions are things I would consider doing myself, and his suggestions about shifting one’s perceptions of the urban environment are excellent as teaching aids and as ways to see the city with fresh eyes. And all of that makes this article valuable.

Works Cited

Lavery, Carl. “Teaching Performance Studies: 25 Instructions for Performance in Cities.” Studies in Theatre and Performance, vol 25, no. 3, 2005, pp. 229-38.

Mock, Roberta, ed.. Walking, Writing and Performance : Autobiographical Texts by Deirdre Heddon, Carl Lavery and Phil Smith, Intellect, 2009.