Debates over efficacy as a theoretical keyword and value ascribed to performance practice have been central to debates within and between theatre and performance studies and the more specific subfields of applied, feminist and socially engaged theatre and performance over the last forty years or more. As Jon McKenzie, Dani Snyder-Young and others have explored, efficacy is a double-edged discourse and evaluative measure which holds both transgressive and assimilative (and particularly neoliberal capitalist) use-value.
This talk responds to the urgency of continuing to think through efficacy’s layers of hope and contradiction in this particular political moment with a focus on Western Europe and to some extent, North America. My departure point for rethinking efficacy responds concretely to a range of interrelated political and social dynamics that make questions about the efficacy of not only theatre and performance but activism and other performative actions along the broad spectrum of performance aimed at concrete intervention, coalition-building or dialogue particularly pressing. The often contradictory political dynamics to which I will refer include but are not limited to the rise of right-wing and far Right governments in Western Europe and the U.S., widespread economic precarity of the working and middle classes, an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in response to the ongoing world refugee crisis, and the proliferation of rights-based grassroots movements based around economic justice, race, gender, immigration, and gun control in the last ten years. In a moment where aspirations towards “progress” seem particularly evacuated, how else might we conceptualise of the work that “a” performance or performative action might do, individually or collectively, in the moment or over time as an ensemble of networked actions? What happens if we shift from thinking about performances’ results to thinking about and mapping the effort involved in executing the event (or the movement)?
I ultimately propose effort as an alternative critical and practical framework for use within not only our scholarship, but our pedagogy and theatrical practice that builds particularly on feminist theories of labour and practical organising strategies. I apply this framework to recent performance practice by companies including Painted Bird Productions (Cork, Ireland), Outlandish Theatre Platform (Dublin, Ireland) and Terra Nova Productions (Belfast, Northern Ireland) as well as referring to a range of non-theatrical performance examples from Western Europe and North America and my own practice-as-research engagement with sexual consent in the mediums of theatre and film with student collaborators over time. How might foregrounding effort as its own value help us conceptualise a sustained and materially grounded practice of renewable engagement with the work of change that does not have to succeed or even demonstrate impact in order to be valuable? In making this shift, I hope we might gain not only an adjusted intellectual perspective but a practicable language through which to articulate and defend the value of our work in ways that stealthily evade and challenge the ubiquity of bland (and coercive) neoliberal keywords like “impact” and “innovation” that repeatedly expose efficacy’s darker underbelly.