On Dramatic Rhythm. 2. Theatres of powerlessness

(The second of two online lectures on dramaturgies of temporality for the pedagogic programme Movimento Ritmico, convened by Associazione Raffaello Sanzio, Cesena, Italy, 14th and 15th May 2020)

I have three things to note as introduction to this second lecture on dramatic rhythm.

The first is that the lecture is concerned mainly with experience and description. That is to say, I will focus on experiences of temporal structuring, of temporal perception, that can seem to remove us from the more familiar rhythms by which we live our lives and relate to others in our worlds. Specifically, I am concerned with experiences that are imposed on us, that we are obliged to undergo, which can challenge or undermine the ways we make sense of – the ways we narrate, interpret or represent to ourselves – the world around us, and also how we make sense of ourselves. To experience a rhythmic break of this sort can involve an interruption of the grammar of sense-making – the structural relation, say, between now and not-now, between soon and later, between before and after and next – which we use to identify ourselves to ourselves and each other, to communicate our experience, and to organise our capacity to do and to act, independently or together. What gets put in question by a fundamental altering of temporal experience is the constitution of the social ‘we’ as such, the ‘us’, the ‘ourselves’ – or, if you will, referring back to yesterday’s lecture, the ensemble or the crowd – that gather or are made to gather according to this or that rhythmic regime. I should note immediately that this line of thought touches on a major theme, with distinct and complex histories and traditions both of political struggle and cultural achievement. I make no claim today to engage these histories, substantially of otherwise, but for an example of how such histories have been thought through at the level of ‘rhythm’, and the entanglement of rhythm in everything that matters, where ‘rhythm is life, the space of time danced thru’, I can recommend Fred Moten’s book In the Break: the Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Today, though, I aim to keep the focus on the challenges of representing an altered temporal experience, for oneself and others, and to follow this through a few contemporary examples of rhythmic dramatic structuring. So, experience and description, that is the first thing.

Secondly, the dramas I am going to discuss are all examples of structures in which we ourselves, so to speak, are the actors who find themselves on stage. I say this while acknowledging the proviso made earlier, that the altered temporal structure – and the pressure to live, think, act and communicate according to a different rhythm – puts pressure on the ways that individuals and groups of people might conceive themselves – however temporarily – as constituting a ‘we’, a group, a crowd, a collective. In particular, I am interested in the extent to which, even as we become the participants in the drama – and willing or unwilling subjects of its rhythmic regime – there remains an audience, outside, watching and listening, and making sense of us. Or there remains a need to seek out such an audience, perhaps to share with them something – an invitation, a report, a warning – of how it is for me, how it is for us, and how it will be for you too.

In summary, then, so far, I am looking today at how we describe or represent our experiences of altered temporal structures, of changed or unfamiliar rhythmic regimes, to ourselves and each other. And I am focusing on dramatic structures in which people gather and the spectators become the actors themselves, as if there were no other actors. But where – always – there is still an audience, some sort of need or requirement for an audience, however dispersed or invisibilised, an audience of ‘other actors’ before and after all.

Thirdly, and lastly, to complete this brief introduction I want to say something of what I understand by the terms ‘drama’ or ‘dramatic’. By drama I mean the representation of a situation in which something has already happened – an event, a crisis, a deed – to alter the lived situation of the drama’s participants. Drama, I suggest, is not so much the representation of actions and their consequences, but rather the presentation of lives being lived in the consequences of what has already occurred. Drama begins, so to speak, after the event. And it begins – and continues – with speech, action and other activity, through which the actor-participants attempt to understand and negotiate their altered situation, and, if they can – it depends no less on themselves than on whatever agency of discrete acts and indiscrete powers has authored their situation – to author and to enact different situations for themselves. Or, at least, accommodate to ways of surviving this one, to figure out the rhythms that are given by the altered situation, to ‘dance thru’ this ‘space of time’ that the drama makes available. And to do so while another group of people, the audience – whose implication in all this is still to be acknowledged – watch and listen, as if from outside. As if they were the powerful. As if their rhythms were more secure, more their own, less overdetermined, more naturally assumed, less subject to the consequences of the break. As if this thing that has happened already – the crime, the error, the rupture, the devastation – had not happened for them. As if they were still the audience.

Let’s watch a video. This is a two and a half minute segment of a 90 minute work by Ant Hampton. It was made in 2015 and is called The Extra People. I recommend using headphones.

The way that the performance works is as follows.

A group of ticket-holders – fifteen or so – gather at an appointed time at a building where the performance is taking place.



They are given individual numbers, a yellow hi-vis security vest, and a headphone set. From this point, all instructions are relayed to them by a voice that they hear through the headphones.


The voice is a computer-generated voice designed to sound like the voice of a young girl. It is not the voice of any young girl that exists. As such, the voice never says ‘I’. There is no consciousness, no awareness, no self or subject there. No cogito to speak of. No ego. Even so, it does speak of itself. And it directs the participants in their actions, with the broken stuttering rhythm of a synthesised syntax. The voice is actually a piece of cheap, downloadable software, but the way that it is used in the performance is sophisticated, so that sometimes it sounds as if it is being played through the public address system for everyone to hear, and sometimes the sound is intimate, as if intended only for you. As if ‘you’ can be separated out – by your number, which the system has given you – from the others. It is the same sort of software that is used to direct warehouse workers, at businesses like Amazon, who have – as you will know – continued to operate during the current lockdown. There will be more on Amazon and their workplace rhythms later.

What happens in The Extra People – as you saw from the video – is that the participants are directed to sit, but as if socially distancing from each other, in the forward-facing seats of a darkened area that we would recognise as resembling a theatre auditorium. From there, they are instructed to watch another group of people – again, fifteen or so – performing a series of actions in a large, flat, framed and illuminated space in front of them, the sort of space that we would recognise as resembling a theatrical stage. Already, ‘our’ recognition of the resemblance of this structure to a theatrical arrangement – which the voice never refers to – feels like a kind of folk memory. As if ‘theatre’ is something that belongs to the past. As if something has happened in the meantime to make that particular cultural activity no longer operational. Although it would appear to be revived here, for some other purpose perhaps, and a rhythm we are still to learn.

Eventually, the people in the seats are instructed to go down and interact, minimally, with the people in the framed, flat, lit area, who by this point are wrapped in grey blankets on the floor. We are instructed to touch these people on the shoulder – we never see their faces close up, nor do they see ours – and then gently guide them out of the space.

These are moments that appear like a scene we might recognise, something we have seen before, in the news or in fiction or in ‘real life’, of emergency workers at the site of a disaster, attending to the victims. The victims of an attack, perhaps. Or people – objects, packages – that have been ‘washed up’, left behind in a place, confined to a place, by this or that circumstance outside our ken. Or else, we look like people rehearsing or training for such an event, preparing for a likely – or planned – eventuality. A force majeure, a natural disaster. A system error or a mechanical or human error. A ‘man-made’ catastrophe. It is impossible to tell from the image whether they – we – are rehearsing of not, training or not, whether we are in the time of anticipation and preparation or actual enactment, or – as it may be – mitigation. And it is impossible to tell what has happened, what this means, or what one’s part in this action will have turned out to be. Although, it could be that we read the yellow security vests as the uniform of logistics workers – receiving packages and moving them on – doing for real what we are supposed, instructed, to do. As it is, the people in the large, flat, framed, illuminated area will continue to follow the instructions of the synthesised voice, while – of course – another fifteen people arrive to sit in the seats in the darkened area above them, and to watch what they – we – are doing there.

As for dramatic rhythm: in spite of the arhythmic glitching of the voice in our earphones, which continues to direct us in our actions with such assumed, unselfconscious confidence in its authority to do so, it is not so much a case after all of us having entered a distinctly different temporal regime. At least, it is not a matter of things moving noticeably faster or slower than they might otherwise do, or of particular dilations or contractions of temporal experience, but rather a peculiar sense of removal from the sort of orientation by which the actions that oneself – and the others – are performing could be assimilated ‘as’ rhythm at all.

To put that another way: in spite of the large frame – and whichever side of that frame one happens to be positioned – it is impossible to see, as it were, the big picture. It is not a case of being in on it, or out of it. One is extra to it, whether you are there or not. Indeed, particularly if you are there. And, in spite of having gathered as a group, and – for the most part – being taken through our actions as a group, each one remains just one, apart from the others. Deterred from consenting otherwise. It is one of the more isolating – or to say better perhaps, alienating – experiences I have had at the theatre. Apart from all the others. But an alienation, if that is what this is, that I – of course, as a devotee of that old cultural practice that I and some others still refer to as ‘theatre’ – enjoy, as much as I enjoy reflecting upon it. To the extent that what still strikes me about this work is something to do with the apparent removal of the actor-spectator from the consequentiality of their actions, even while the signs of consequentiality are all around. The figures of the disaster and their hapless attendees. The proliferation of shadows and silhouettes inscribed upon the back wall, as if the ghosts were accumulating, trying to get in, or out. And the arrival of the next ‘shift’ of participant-attenders in the darkened seats, as if there were something going on here that needs attending to, as if by our actions we were showing them what that is. Although, whose agendas are served by these operations remains obscure.

It is as if, somewhere just beyond our intensely self-conscious awareness that our larger human capacities are irrelevant to this self-perpetuating production-consumption operation, there were a rhythm to account for it, which we are playing, in spite of ourselves, as the catastrophe – and its consequences – prepares to come round again. And to come round again when we are gone, when our attention has turned to other matters.

Maybe that rhythm is seasonal. Or it presents as seasonal, calls itself seasonal, to interpellate its agents into a cyclic rhythm of engagement they might take to be natural. I mentioned that the action of Hampton’s The Extra People is directed by some sort of synthetic voice software that is used for the shop-floor logistical management of warehouse workers at large-scale corporations such as Amazon. In 2014, the same year that Ant Hampton was making The Extra People, the novelist Heike Geissler published Seasonal Associate, a book-length account of her experience as temporary worker at the Amazon Order Fulfilment Unit in Leipzig during the Christmas rush, at a time when she was unable to support herself as a freelance writer.


Geissler’s book is structured as a narrative description, a kind of autofiction, basically a day to day account of her experiences, detailing the tensions and anxieties, the workplace politics, the money worries, the exhaustion, the boredom, the small mean victories, the small mean defeats, the commute, the canteen regime, the habits, tricks and workarounds, and the minor and imaginary acts of resistance that make up the work-life rhythm that comes – pretty much – to consume her during her time at Amazon.

Of course, she does come out the other side of her experience of being a seasonal associate – in fact, she leaves slightly before her contracted time (this may be the one small act of resistance that is not imaginary) – and she writes her book, and her book is successful. She does not have to work at Amazon again. At least, not yet. And so the experience is not, for Geissler – as she acknowledges at the very beginning of her account – a matter of life and death. It is, though, she claims, ‘a matter of how far death is allowed into our lives. Or the fatal, that which kills us.’ And the fatal, that which ‘from now on’ is ‘your constant companion,’ becomes intimate to her experience, primarily as a structuring of time – structured, that is to say, by rhythm, duration, repetition, acceleration, waiting and so on – that binds the person, at the expense of their more complete personhood, if such there be, to the rhythms and requirements of the corporation.

To return briefly to Ant Hampton’s The Extra People and the synthesised voice that puts us through our paces: a refrain of that voice is the line ‘It requires the human element’. The requirement is repeated at regular intervals. Like the theatre, the Amazon Order Fulfilment Unit requires the human element at all ends of its operation, and requires it in generic form. Geissler writes: ‘your trouble and suffering are by no means specific to you, but astonishingly generic. Yes, you are generic; I intend to regard you as generic and introduce you to your most generic traits.’ However, as she says, returning to the account of her own concrete experience: ‘the specific ones come first.’ And, they come up first against a temporal, rhythmic determination.

It is a gradual process of enculturation. It is to be noted, also, that this is an enculturation that impacts in particular ways with respect to gender, which Geissler’s writing is ever alert to. Some examples of how ‘Amazon time’ gets a grip on her. She writes: ‘When you spot the handrail photo on the next level of the tower, you put your hands in your pockets and grace the surveillance cameras in the corner of the ceiling with a cool stare. You still have the time and energy for that sort of thing.’ Later: ‘Everything takes a while; they’re very greedy with your time here. They aren’t actually keeping an eye on your time. You’re at their disposal from the very beginning.’ Later still: ‘You carry the luminous vest in one hand, not putting it on right away. That’s your sign of not belonging, a small luxury that interests no one, an act for which you’ll soon have no time.’ And then soon enough, speaking of a co-worker: ‘Norman’s movements follow a strict sense of timing; he seems to use the exact same amount of time for each activity, everything is subordinated to his sense of time, and each product to be processed is merely something that impairs the adherence to time requirements more or less than others.’ As Geissler says: ‘everyone here wants at their core to belong, which is mainly because no one has any time left to belong elsewhere.’

It goes on like this.

There is, however, something else going on, which is where the temporality of the ‘dramatic’ is also at work. You may already have noticed it. As Geissler describes her experience, she does not say ‘I’ so much as she says ‘you’. The way you do, when you describe what you do. It means, though, her account is dialogical. There is another – second – person: you. As if out there, invisible and dispersed, or here where we each are reading Geissler’s account, there is an other, for now removed from the rhythms of the corporation, who is able to think and imagine and – it may well be – to act, and to resist, in ways that Geissler herself feels unable.

As the account develops, and as Geissler ‘herself’ becomes more constrained to the temporal requirements of the corporation (as she says: ‘it’s all about sheer endurance, about presence, about translating your time and energy into money’), this other figure, this audience, comes into clearer focus, even at one point being invited to fulfil her – Geissler’s – shift at the warehouse, while she – Geissler – takes the day off and goes window-shopping in Munich. The dramatic plot, then, of Geissler’s book is worked out not so much through the relation between Geissler and Amazon, but through the rhythms of the dialogical relation between the authorial ‘I’ and the audience-like ‘you’, the addressee, the reader, and their respective capacities for effective – or at least significant or meaningful – action, in relation to the altered situation: the historical conditions, so to speak, that have provoked this consciousness to express itself in this way.

Eventually, Geissler appears to be speaking from the perspective of one who is inducting her other – her audience – into the altered situation, as an actor in that situation, which she – as what? the spectator of her own alienated capacity to act politically? to break the rhythm? – has already left behind. As she says: ‘you’re the one bearing the everyday burden of perfidious wage labour and it’s easy for me to talk, I’ve got it all behind me.’ She says: ‘You ought to prove to your employer that you’re alive.’ And she says: ‘We’re not leaving this book until you’re taken action.’ It needs the human element, alright. As if that element is – the longer this goes on – less and less herself, and has to be imagined elsewhere, as a necessary fiction. As she meanwhile becomes a kind of badly-functioning, order-fulfilling automaton. Or is supposed to.

Let me change direction, and move towards the conclusion of this lecture with a final theatrical example. Instead of a video, I will share with you some still photographs. This is a work that involved hundreds of participants. This is just a selection of images.

The work is called Inventory of Powerlessness, and it was made by theatre-maker Edit Kaldor between 2013 and 2016 – again, at the same time as the other works I have been discussing. Performances of Inventory were made and shown in a number of European cities: Amsterdan, Poznan, Berlin and Prague. The photographs here are mainly from the Polish version. In each of these places Kaldor worked closely with groups of people of different ages and backgrounds, including for instance – across a wide range of ‘ordinary’ experience – school children, professional sex-workers, elderly retirees, or teenage residents of an asylum seekers centre.

The structure of the performances was, on the face of it, very simple. People would come on stage one by one, go to the microphone, and describe – or narrate – a paticular experience of their own. Particular experiences, that is to say, of powerlessness. They speak of several different kinds of powerlessness. There are stories of violence, of abuse, of extreme alienation, along with accounts of everyday displacements and frustrations, familial, personal, burocratic and so on. Many of the stories touch on experiences of altered temporality, and – very much – solitary experiences of unfamiliar and destabilising temporal perception, of having to accommodate to interruptive life rhythms, or being thrown out of time altogether.



For example (all of these stories have been translated into English, from Dutch, Polish, German or Czech):

‘I have lost years of my life living in a refugee centre. Even if I make it out of this state of limbo, I’ll never be able to make up for the lost time. When I came to the Netherlands I was already 18 years old and therefore I was not allowed to study anymore. I cannot work. I cannot do anything at all. now I am 21 and I can sum up the last three years of my life in just three seconds: sleeping, eating and reporting every day at 2 in the afternoon. I have not experienced many beautiful things, just the same monotony, day in, day out. I have gotten nowhere in the last three years of my life and I do not know how much longer I have to wait before I can get out and begin living again.’


‘While being treated for schizophrenia, I was kept in hospital for what felt like an eternity. It was a disorienting experience. The days drag on while you wait to get your freedom back. You wake up in a darkened room with window blinds, no clue where you are. You are tied to the bed and cannot move. You do not know why you are tied down – there seems to be no reason for it. On the bed next to you lies a man, both legs in plaster and moaning with pain. You ask for some water, and for a terribly long time no one comes, but eventually they bring you some. When the nurse comes back you ask what year it is. Although you are sure it is the year 2000, they answer that it is 2005, leaving you deeply confused.’

Or finally, a story that could apply to many different situations:

‘I feel like I’m on the edge of a burnout. I have so many thoughts racing through my head at all times that I barely get rest anymore. The stress is undoing me. I am laying in bed. It’s 6.30am, half an hour before my alarm rings to get up. It has been three months since I moved to a new city in a new apartment. Nine months since I graduated. It’s already light this early because spring is underway, but I can’t process that yet because I’m still half-asleep. I have not yet fully arrived in my body…’

The performance that I saw of Kaldor’s Inventory of Powerlessness was in Poznan, in Poland. The room was very crowded, a situation that would be impossible to realise right now. The stage was small. Or I remember it as being small, as if there were barely any space between us, and the people who came on stage to speak were indistinguishable from the rest of us, sat around on three sides to watch and listen, the audience. Everyone spoke in Polish. There was an invitation made – during the early part of the event – for those of us who did not understand Polish, to climb over other spectators and gather together in an area where we could listen to ‘whisperers’, rough-translating or summarising the speeches in English, as they were spoken. The performance felt like it could just go on and on, bound as it was – clearly – to an exposition of the many, the crowd, and bound to this extended rhythm of their coming and going. If I remember rightly, the performance lasted a couple of hours, and then continued as members of the audience were invited to  add their own stories to the gathering inventory, of which I should now say a little more.

You will have noticed in some of the photographs that there are screens in the space, behind the speakers. The screens – we might say – have to do with the transposition of the temporal and linear sequence of the speakers’ coming and going, to the spatial and diagrammatic rhythms – and the transferable, recoverable, adaptable and transformable dramaturgy – of the database.

I shall explain. As each person speaks, a dedicated operator at a keyboard summarises what has been said, these summaries made visible on a medium-sized screen to the side of the stage. As the performance progresses, individual speakers begin to refer to these summaries. Specifically, they connect their own experience to the experience of another, using a keyword that a speaker might propose herself – for instance, #family, #health, #violecnce, #work, #anxiety – assembling a complex intersection of connections between different experiences, and the knowledge derived from those experiences that people carry with them. These connections and keywords are transferred to a visual database during the performance, projected on the large screen at the back of the stage.

During the performance, speakers might return to the stage to make a link between their earlier story and the story of others that have been heard since. When members of the audience are invited to contribute, towards the end, they are asked to identify some element of others’ experience, visible in the inventory, to which their own contribution can connect. Knowledge is added to knowledge, in an ongoing act-by-act modification.

The structure reminds me not a little of the early humanist memory theatres, those conceived by Giulio Camillo or Robert Fludd in the 16th and 17th centuries, or even the canopy of the Globe theatre – Shakespeare’s theatre, where Hamlet would have been performed – painted with the signs of the zodiac, the heavens, the externalised summation of what we ‘know’ of the forces, the rhythms, that were supposed to govern sublunary and human affairs.

Except – of course – Edit Kaldor’s inventory, or knowledge-map, upends that sort of hierarchised structure and unfixes its elements, setting them into fluid, dynamic, contingent relation with each other, refusing the given, structured, rhythmic arrangement – of cyclic, or ‘cosmic’ forces – for utterance, recognitions, connections, alliances that operate person to person, and which move – with and alongside each other – beyond any given rhythm, and with an awakened sense that is at once fine-grained, alert to concrete specificities, historically attuned, self-representing and – above all – collective. At the end of the evening, the inventory that has accumulated at a particular performance – during an evening, say, in Poznan in western Poland – is added to the larger inventory that has accumulated across other performances in other cities, in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Prague.


To return to the event that happens in the theatre, something that interests me is an implication of the logic of this work: namely, that if every member of the audience can contribute an element to the inventory – a story, a description, a reflection on experience and powerlessness – then eventually there will be no audience. And everyone can make such a contribution – if only silently – there is none of us without powerlessness of some sort, none who are unable to find something in the inventory to connect with. Except… in actuality, the audience is still there, still watching and listening, still attuning to the specificity of a rhythm – of speech, of action, of coming and going, of recogniton and anticipation and so on – that marks off the theatrical, dramatic event  from the world in which it locates itself, and which it represents. I imagine, then, something like the theatre still waiting on us, although we have been everso absent in these days, in the manner of Heike Geissler’s demand: We’re not leaving the stage until you’ve taken action. (Which is, of course, the same demand that Hamlet receives from the ghost, at the commencement of his drama). Whereby, ‘action’ here would be something like the minimum acknowledgment – whether articulated out loud or not – of ourselves having been spoken to. Of this speaking, this addressing, having happened. Acknowledging the impression that another’s speech, action or appearance makes on me. And, perhaps, registering a rhythm that I might join in with, or oppose with a playing of my own – a dramatic rhythm therefore – when that impression is felt again, directly on the person, as now.