WE ARE IN THE ARMY NOW theatre show
In April 2021, amidst the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Elias Adam’s We are in the Army NowWe’re in the Army Nowwas presented as part of the online theatre festival FUTURE N.O.W., hosted by Onassis Foundation-Stegi, one of the most well-known theatre venues and cultural institutions in Greece. Indeed, the proliferation of this hybrid kind of digital theatre which was imposed by the pandemic has triggered new discussions among theatre practitioners and theorists on the boundaries of traditional theatre, the (new?) relationship of performers and spectators, the (redefined?) concepts of space, time and liveness. Even though the current digitalization of theatre has often been seen as an imposed situation for artistic and/or financial survival, it still, however, has offered the space for the transgression of theatrical and personal boundaries, creating new trajectories of artistic and political expression. In this article, it will be argued that Elias Adam’smise en scène constitutes a brilliant example of queer, digital theatre, which has managed to creatively integrate the unprecedented conditions of the pandemic, making some strong political points in a highly aesthetic form with pop and social media references.
‘Forget the Upper Stage you once knew: it has been transformed into a hybrid social medium, something between an Instagram account and an iPhone screen. Forget theatre as you knew it too. Everything here sparkles with an ultrapop cyberspace aura’ (Stegi 2021). These words were used by Onassis Stegi, a well-known cultural center in Greece, to introduce the online theatre performance, We are in the Army NowWe’re in the army now, written and directed by Elias Adam. 1 The performance premiered in April 2021 on Stegi’s official YouTube channel as part of its online theatre festival FUTURE N.O.W. which was held during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. During that period, cultural institutions, venues, and theatre-makers in Greece -and worldwide- attempted to keep theatre alive, inventing ways of distant attendance that would comply with the restrictions that Covid-19 imposed. Technology proved a useful tool in this challenging endeavor which resulted in a range of hybridized digital theatre forms. Synchronous live-streaming performances in empty auditoria, small-scale theatre performances via zoom, and videotaped performances on-demand seemed to form a new experience of theatre-making and theatre-going that has challenged the boundaries of traditional theatre.
Indeed, the proliferation of this new hybrid kind of remote, digital theatre has triggered an interesting discussion among theatre practitioners and scholars on practices and concepts that have defined theatre so far, raising the fundamental question of whether what people made or watched during this period was theatre, after all.2 However, in this paper, we do not aim at an extensive analysis of the theoretical and/or practical challenges that theatre met due to the pandemic or at a simplistic, Manichean embracement or rejection of the kind(s) of theatre that emerged. On the contrary, we intend to focus on the description of the aforementioned performance and argue that it constitutes a brilliant example of a hybrid, mediatized theatre form which has managed to creatively embed the unprecedented restrictions of the pandemic, offering a complete work of art with strong political points and queer references that need to be accounted for. In our discussion, we will try to shed light both on the aesthetics and the content of the piece and the ways they inform each other, making it a worthy case study of experimental theatre art that wishes (and achieves) to challenge gender binarism and theatre traditionalism.
2. Mediatization: a ‘new’ theatre aesthetics?
The performance opens up with a gay couple kissing and sarcastically warning us that entrance is banned to all straights. The next moment, a woman wearing a wig, a mini skirt, and high-heeled boots, performs a voluptuously sexual dance while a loop of Cardi B’s ‘There’s some whores in the house’ is heard. Τhen, another character, inspired from animation, enters and informs us that this is ‘deadland,’ making caustic comments on our present-day sociopolitical dead-ends. Soon after, the four performers unite to execute an aggressive but at the same time very sexy choreography of Britney Spears’ hit ‘Work Bitch.’ From that point on, each of the performers tells us their stories, their ‘everyday life portraits,’ as they call them; a daughter’s confessing monologue to her father, a gay man’s story of living in a homophobic world, another character’s fight against cops (sic) through a social media campaign under her Pokemon profile, and finally a man’s bursting speech voicing his environmental worries, technology addiction, and extreme solitude. All stories reach their audience multiply mediatized through the use of a wide range of media; microphones, video, live streaming, projections, and digital scenography compose a multimedia show inspired by social media and internet interface.
Indeed, media are omnipresent throughout the performance. On stage left, there is always a laptop which the performers use to record themselves, to play with their image, to read their text, to surf the internet. On stage right, there is a big mobile effigy that presents the actors’ abundant use of mobiles during the performance; smartphones-just like in our everyday lives- are constantly used to record, take pictures, check social media, or even start an Instagram story. Indicative is the moment when one of the characters Sofia Priovolou informs the audience that the performance has gone live on Instagram and can also be watched through their mobiles on their Instagram accounts. Users’ reactions to polls, emojis, and comments in chats become part of the narrative and blend with what is happening on stage. Finally, there is a big projection screen center upstage which is used as a digital background where futuristic images and videos, as well as live-streamed scenes of the performance, are projected. The result is a compositional work of art where the real body of the actor is viewed vis a vis their technologically processed image, is disguised as an animation hero and merges into or interacts with the digital background of an animation projection, performs an activity that is juxtaposed with its social media filtered version. We, the remote audience, are provided with different versions of the stage world; we get an overall view of the stage which, however, is interrupted by camera-focused images from the actors’ recordings and photo-shootings through their mobiles or laptop. The stage ‘reality’ is constantly challenged, negated, reaffirmed by the intersectionality of ‘real’ and mediatized scenes.
Certainly, the integration of media in theatre art has been a common practice. Steve Dixon in hisDigital Performance (2007) traces the multimedia performance back to the early-twentieth-century avant- garde movements. Without aiming at a postmodernist, as he calls it (38), ‘it’s all been done before’ position, he argues that early experimental multimedia theatre work echoes and complements the discussion of current theatre experimentation with new media technologies. Similarly, Lehmann (2006) discusses the levels of media integration in post-dramatic theatre and distinguishes between different modes of media use; media can be occasionally used, be a source of inspiration for the theatre, function as a constitutive element for certain forms of theatre, and finally theatre art and media can meet in the form of video installations (167-68, emphasis original). Herbert Blau quite sarcastically argues ‘that there is nothing more illusory in performance than the illusion of the unmediated’(Blau1983, 143), while Chapple and Kattenbelt have defined theatre as a ‘hypermedium that incorporates all arts and media and [as] the stage of intermediality’(2006, 20 cited in Fiorato 2021, 5). Indeed, the catalogue of theatre practitioners worldwide that have experimented with the integration of media in theatre art is so long that would make the mise en scène by Elias Adam under scrutiny another example of a well- developed multimedia performance. However, the ‘newness’ of the performance’s aesthetics is a result of the very restrictive situation imposed by the pandemic itself; the fact that the performance had to be watched online for public health reasons and consequently it was already mediatized, filtered, edited.
Avra Sidiropoulou has argued that the extensive use of media in performance, apart from ‘updating’ theatre’s form to fit in a media-saturated world (Sidiropoulou 2018, n.p.), also ‘instigates fresh ways of looking at character and interrogates the multiple ways in which we perceive identity today’ (2021, 53). She continues:
However, the work the remote spectator is expected to do when watching this performance online is even more demanding. Here, the ‘real’ meets the ‘virtual’ but the ‘real’ has already been virtualized and mediatized. The character the spectator is watching on their screen is no ‘realer’ than the character’s image on the laptop screen; they watch a character recording a character but the first character is already recorded; they occasionally get an overall view of the stage but this is the view that the video designer has decided for them. Here, the multiple levels of mediatization cancel boundaries between ‘physical’ and ‘virtual’ further challenging one’s perception of identity construction and the notion of one ‘authentic’ self. When it was argued above, that the revolutionary aspect of Adam’s work relates to the conditions the pandemic imposed it was not intended to suggest that this has been an accidental event. On the contrary, it is believed that the director reacted immediately and creatively to the pandemic’s restrictions, making a digital performance which is near Dixon’s perception of the avant-garde: it not only experiments with new technologies for the sake of experimentation per se but ‘[has] encapsulated the historical avant-garde’s concern to cause and advance major social change and to transform “the way art functions in society”’ (2007, 9). The political implications of Adam’smise en scène will be further explored in the following section.
3. Queer as a political act
The way the director plays with the media, reflecting our super-mediatized world and questioning the concept of one and fixed authentic self, is not the only way identities are put under scrutiny. The ‘cross dressing’ of the physical into the virtual meets the more literal gender cross-dressing and along with gay-kissing, homosexual scenes, sexualized dance, and nudity challenge normative gender identities. Excellent movement, inspired costume design, music remixes by pop, gay idols such as Britney Spears, Cardi-B, and Todrick Hall not only accompany but become part of the performers’ narration which recaps and resists the social construction of the ‘male’ and the ‘female’. What is ‘normal’ sexuality? Is it ‘normal’ for a man to wear high heels and a top? Is it ‘normal’ for a woman to masturbate, to talk openly about menstruation, to be burdened with all domestic work? Is the oppressed gay man’s story of ‘coming out,’ the woman’s oppressed sexuality, and domestic abuse fragments of the same grand narrative of patriarchy? In what ways oppressed gendered identities meet, collide or inform each other? These questions are posed both through the performers’ stories and their overall presence on stage, dismantling sexual norms and prescriptive male and female identifications.
For the composition of the performance text, director and dramaturg Elias Adam has used personal stories; stories that are narrated, as Elias Adam explains, in the first person not only by those on stage but also by those behind it, echoing the voices of their parents, their brothers and sisters and many more (Pavlopoulos 2021). Through the narration of very personal stories, the feminist approach of the ‘personal as political’ is brought into the foreground but extends beyond feminism, reflecting the way gender relations are constituted. Judith Butler explains that ‘there is, latent in the personal as political formulation of feminist theory, a supposition that the life-world of gender relations is constituted, at least partially, through the concrete and historically mediated acts of individual’ (1988, 523, emphasis original). However, the acts can rarely be considered merely individualist, as ‘the act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been done before one arrived on the scene’ (Butler 1988, 526). Butler exemplifies the reproduction of certain gender acts within the family, for instance, through certain familial modes of punishment and reward, serving a social policy of performing one’s gender wrong or well. Similarly, in the performance we hear the stories of people who chose not to perform their gender as expected, we hear the ‘ongoing projects’ of people who have suffered a family or social punishment in the reification of a ‘false’ gender, as transvestites, gays, or lesbians. These people ‘are in the army now,’ claiming their own gender identities and resisting the homophobic and heteronormative logic of a patriarchal world. The words uttered by one of the performers [Styliana Ioannou] in her unique, stilted albeit intense delivery, speak for themselves: ‘Daddy, I live to make you feel shame. Do you love me?’ However, things become political, not only by contesting expected gender identities but also in the more ‘traditional’ sense of class politics. A working-class gay man [Jeo Pakitsas] challenges the status of the middle-class academic gay man [Gary Salomon] as a privileged elite that has come to represent –and therefore conquer?- ‘the global south.’ Similarly, Styliana’s disavowal of traditional female gender roles refers to unpaid domestic work, which is considered as a rather ‘female affair’ even in the ‘western’ world. Words such as ‘class’ or ‘capitalism’ are not ousted as old-fashioned signifiers of an era that has passed away long ago but are uttered by queer subjects, claiming equality and non-exclusionist politics on all grounds. Indeed, the problematic area of class and race bias in gay movements has already been underscored by scholars; Valocchi (1999) discusses the class-inflected production of the gay community, Barnard (2004) criticizes the normalization of whiteness in some queer theory that tends to elide gay and lesbian people of color, while Barrett and Pollack(2005) outline the material conditions that make sexuality expression and participation in the community an unaffordable business for working-class gays. In a similar vein, Brimm (2020) reports academic queer theory as reproducing high-class pedagogies that fail to acknowledge and all the more so to include underclass queers. He argues (2020, 92–93): What Brimm wishes for the queer theory in academic institutions, seems to have been accomplished by queer activists in queer festivals across Europe. Eleftheriadis argues that the festivals open queerness into a ‘radical inclusivity’ which, according to him, refers back to the legacy of queer studies and theory (Eleftheriadis 2018, 171). He continues: However, as Eleftheriadis and other theorists have noted, this is not a policy of ‘anything goes’ but a suggestion for careful examination of the intersectionality of sexuality, gender, race, and capitalism that needs to be thoroughly acknowledged and elaborated both in theory (Harr and Kane 2008) and in practice (Eleftheriadis 2018).
In the performance, there is an attempt to shed light on the intersectionality of these issues mainly through the performers’ narrations, as shown above. It could be argued that the piece’s dramaturgy tries to include everything; from climate crisis to gender identities and from capitalism to campaigns against police brutality. However, to the interview question why this fragmented style of narration was used, director and dramaturg Elias Adam replies (Pavlopoulos 2021, n.p.):
This fragmented, profoundly personal, non-literary style of narration is only one of the elements that add on the performance’s queerness. Its form will be further discussed below in relation to ‘queer theatre’ attributes as outlined by field experts.
4. Queerness in form
Echoing the tensions and the multiple, often contradictory, connotations of ‘queerness,’ the politics and aesthetics of ‘queer theatre’ have been also difficult to define. As put by Jill Dolan in her introduction toThe Queerest Art, [‘i]f queer means anything at all, especially as an adjective for theatre, it means multiplicity’(Dolan2002, 1). Developing from modern, gay, and lesbian plays to post-modern experimental performances, ‘queer theatre’ has been given different attributes. Senelick(2002, 21) defines queer theatre as ‘grounded in and expressive of unorthodox sexuality or gender identity, antiestablishment and confrontational in tone, experimental and unconventional in format,’ while for Campbell and Farrier, queer dramaturgy is ‘fundamentally connected to performance that is often hived off from literary traditions in theatre, as forms of low-brow and popular performance, often in cabaret or nightclubs’ (Campbell and Farrier 2016, 6). Stephen Greer draws on queer theory’s ‘deconstruction of monolithic categories of sex and gender’ and sees queer performance as ‘eschewing fixed categories for identity in recognition of openness, fluidity and flux’ (Greer 2012, 6). Jaclyn Pryor, on the other hand, frames queer performance as a site of resistance rendering visible the trauma of the ‘abject’ (Pryor 2017, 6, emphasis original) and offering moments of queer temporalities that challenge the notion of ‘a linear, teleological and straight’ sense of time which reiterates the logic of capitalism (Pryor 2017, 4, emphasis original).
In this sense, technology is a determining factor of identity construction. Decomposing body from image, authentic voice from its sonic reproduction, it also stimulates a tension in the audience, who needs a creative leap in order to bridge those clashes into a credible ‘character whole’. The competition between the corporeal self, the bodily voice and their digital reincarnations is taxing, if also exciting, in that it forces the spectator to work doubly in order to make meaning out of this duality.
An alternate history might frame queer theory less as an edgy new field with an anti-normative chip on its shoulder than as the product of intentional strategies for excluding underclass queers and queernesses from well-resourced sites of knowledge production, including queer theory’s most prominent campuses and its class- curated virtual conversations. Now, queer theory has the chance to recognize class warfare in the university as a largely unspoken but field-defining trouble of its own. [...] It must orient itself downward, outward, toward the full complement of queer ideas being produced not only across the tiers of academe but beyond its gates. So much about class-based queer life has been purposefully made unknown that a good deal of corrective work has been cut out for us; it will require reimagining not only the ‘what’ of queer theory but also the ‘who’ and the ‘where.’
The discursive strategy builds on the idea of including people subject to various forms of discrimination, economic, linguistic, and regarding disability, while queer festivals demonstrate a discursive sensitivity for migration and race issues. Moreover, the queer legacy is continued through a celebration of abnormality: queer identity is imagined as a deviation from the mainstream, and this imaginary links queerness to an alternative lifestyle.
Reality is very complicated at the moment. And it does not permit to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Because such a story would include grand narratives. And for me, at this very moment, there are no grand narratives [...]. Everything is so complicated. The fragmentation of the scenes refers back to the fragmentation of reality, and my own personal fragmentation.
Concerning Greek queer theatre, Konstantinos Kiriakos (2019, 37) has stated that: Contrary to the Greek cinema (‘new queer cinema’), where clear boundaries between the concepts of ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ are set from the early ‘90s, a similar systematic recognition of queer postmodernity regarding the Greek theatre is not noticed until the first decade of the twenty-first century. From that point on we pass from the exploration of the perception of plays from gay dramaturgy and stereotyping in Greek plays of the same content to performances that share characteristics such as the playful use of self-referentiality, and irony, parody, and the exploration of language, double meanings, and equivocality and the tendency of postmodernism as much for internalization and establishment as for undermining and subversion of the very norms and perceptions it seems to challenge. Likewise, for Giorgos Sampatakakis, queer theatre in Greece is permeated by a new (anti)Greekness, which sarcastically undermines and therefore renegotiates the representation of the national self(Kladis etal.n.d.).For,asheargueselsewhere ‘queernarrativescontinueBeckett’slegacyofdeconstructionoftheselfwho'becomesafragmentedvoice, ormoreoftenacarrieroftransgressiveknowledgethat comesfromthemarginofanyoppressedanti-normality(anti-national,anti-social,anti-theatrical)’(Sampatakakis forthcoming.,24).
Elias Adam’s direction develops around these axes; intentional ambiguities, self-referentiality, sarcasm, irony, and above all overt confrontation with the ‘norms.’ After all, the way the mise en scène resists the Greek mainstream culture of neo-conservatism, dismantling its mythologies and challenging its heteronormative, homophobic, and misogynist logic, is proved by the reaction it has caused to conservative media. 4 Thus, it is mainly the piece’s political efficacy, its trace on the normative way of thinking, that constitutes its queerness, for as Dolan says ‘[t]o be queer is not who youare, it’s what you do, it’s your relation to dominant power, and your relation to marginality, as a place of empowerment’ (Dolan2002, 5, italics original). Additionally, its fragmented, non-linear, compositional form which intermingles narration with pop music, dance, and singing makes it a pastiche, a flamboyant show which manages, in the end, to move, in the sense that Farrier and Campbell use it, even the physically distanced spectator; for despite its digitalized form, the rhythm, energy and intense physicality of the performers, combined with the extreme conditions of the period, created a powerful experience of queer, hybrid, theatre-going, which ‘resonated in a particularly profound way,’ ‘in a way that was different from what we had otherwise experienced,’ causing an ‘affective connection with the work’ and finally moving one ‘to emotion, to thought or even [...] to action’ (Farrier and Campbell and Farrier, 2016 [Q2], p. 1).
5. Conclusionary remarks
‘Moving one to emotion, to thought, to action.’ These words describe at its best the author’s experience of the first screening of the digital performance discussed here. Erika Fischer-Lichte argues that performance analysis ‘must be based on our own memories of what we perceived during the performance, regardless of whether it relates to the actions on stage, the conduct of the audience, or our own physiological, emotional, energetic, or motor conditions and the way they change during the performance’(Fischer-Lichte2014, 50, my emphasis). The author, therefore, wishes to close this report, in a personal tone, reiterating her own memories and experiences of the very first screening of this digital performance, as unique and unrepeatable5 constituent elements of the event, despite the fact that numerous screenings followed.
The sense of community that arose from the other spectators’ comments on the chatbox, the feeling of hope that things can (and must) change, the aesthetic pleasure but above all the physical and psychological motivation that made ‘the return to normalcy’ seem possible but the revision of the social norms seem indispensable, too. Would it be a more powerful or fulfilling experience of theatre, had the performance been attended physically, in a proper venue with other spectators sitting around? Probably yes. However, in those very moments of obligatory social distanciation and cultural stagnation this queer hybridized, digitalized theatrical performance was a successful event; for it managed to artistically integrate the pandemic’s restrictions for technologically mediated theatre art, to create an affective connection with the work and the world, and last but not least, to subvert mainstream perceptions of gender identities and encourage an alternate, more inclusive and non-assimilationist kind of logic.
1 Dramaturgy and text collaborators include ChrisVrettos and ChristinaMavrommati. See performance credits onhttps://www.onassis.org/whats-on/future-now/we-are-army-now-elias-adam 2 Awell-knowngreektheatresiteopensthediscussiononthepost-Covidtheatreeraandthewaysthiswillbeinfluencedbytheproliferationofdigitaltheatreduringthepandemic.See:https://www.athinorama.gr/theatre/article/ti_kainourgio_tha_ferei_i_na_epoxi_tou_theatrou-2547698.html Similarly, in the first conference of the Greek theatre critics’ union which was conducted online in the beginning of October 2021 ‘digital theatre’ seemed to be a central part of the discussion with a range of definitions and attributes being discussed. Indicatively, we cite the conference’s program here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1F5EviuDpLMyLdaIwLBYRHjMcO7weTYbf/view?fbclid=IwAR3cJDhs0bdWe6CKiGehAVsMbSuOs1baFKpIzjyt1Q6iEnFDJRBsk5TwBtw 3 Author’stranslationfromGreek,aswithallGreeksourcesprovidedinthepaper. 4We refer to the greek newspaper Dimokratia which on Saturday July 3rd had a front cover reporting the artistic choices of the cultural institution that carries Onassis’ name, focusing, however, on the director’s other artistic project, Kivotos Channel. See: https://www.newsbreak.gr/media/220970/siko-onasi-na-toys-deis/ Alexandra Simou
Department of Philology (Laboratory of Theatre, Music and Film Studies), University of Crete - Rethimnon Campus, Heraklion, Greece CONTACT Alexandra Simou email@example.com Department of Philology (Laboratory of Theatre, Music and Film Studies), University of Crete - Rethimnon Campus, Heraklion, Greece