Making Friends with Uncertainty
A blank stage. The lights have not gone down yet. The audience waits for the show to begin.
Midshow an actor’s sleeve captures a vase. It falls to the stage and shatters. The show must go on.
Turning on the television to hear your hundredth report on climate change. You worry about what you can do.
The three scenarios listed above provide different grounds to examine what emerges in moments of uncertainty. In this essay, I will argue how in moments, such as beginnings, moments of failure, and how we respond to the global climate crisis, our human reaction, driven by our instinctual fight or flight response, demands our body find ground or stability amidst this uncertainty. How might we unbind this response and instead work with what Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, calls ‘potentiality’(1)? How might we make friends with uncertainty as a way to create and rehearse for the future?
I will explore this notion of potentiality by examining the theatrical experience. I will use the scenarios listed above, and, using the work of Daniel Sack and Jose Estaban Muñoz as my primary sources, examine what uncertainty does to us when creating and presenting theatrical work. I will also reference other theorists and writers such as Erwin Schrödinger, Peggy Phelan, Audre Lorde and Hannah Arendt to find interdisciplinary understandings of uncertainty and potentiality in the state of emergence.
Prior to writing these first two pages I sat in front of a blank page and asked myself: How do I face the uncertainty of a blank page when I am unsure of what will arise from my writing? This is a process, which ultimately, you will experience as the final paper that you are currently reading. My thoughts are not linear, but language and writing, demand linearity. I have chosen to reveal a bit of my process and have kept all my edits intact in an accompanying appendix. My hope is that this will reveal, more evidently, my emergent thought process. Peggy Phelan, American feminist scholar and co-founder of Performance Studies International, writes: “In writing the unmarked I mark it, inevitably. In seeing it I am marked by it. But because what I do not see and do not write is so much more vast than what I do it is impossible to ‘ruin’ the unmarked.” In submitting the accompanying draft version of this essay, I hope to demonstrate the emergent process that unfolded from the blank page to this final document you are currently reading.
I sit in a theatre awaiting a performance to begin. I am unsure of what I will experience. Before the house lights go dim, before the entrance of light, sound, props or of humans on stage, there we sit as an audience, fully open to what will emerge. This moment is crucial in understanding what I am attempting to investigate. In this ‘waiting’ state, I, the audience, begin to generate possibilities, through my imagination, of what I will see. But until I see them, I will not have had that experience. This is somewhat of a Schrodinger's cat phenomenon (2). I can anticipate, in my mind, what will occur. As the show opens, it emerges and continues to emerge in front of me. In real time, present with the other audience members and the actors and theatrical elements involved in the unfolding of this story, my emotions and thoughts emerge. However, in the beginning, before it all starts, the possibilities are endless. As Professor of Literature, Edward Said writes: beginnings are “histographical demarcations applied retrospectively to mark the initiation of a chain of actions…They are transitive since they are “for” something in the same way that a means is devoted toward, and consummated by, an end.” We refer to what we have seen in the show only after we have seen it. Until then, we imagine possibilities and stay present to what is immediately emerging.
In 2005, Kevin McCarty captured a series of photographs titled The Chameleon Club. The images are of empty stages in the underground queer nightclub scene of Las Angeles. These mundane images of bare stages, exposed lighting and sound systems, offer up space to think of the potential futures these stages could have. Queer performance theorist, Jose Estaban Munoz, examines McCarty’s photos through the lens of queer performativity (Muñoz 97-113). He considers how this potential of an empty stage, particularly in queer spaces, as the site of queer futurity. He writes: “Queerness is not yet here.” As if to say that queerness is not definitive of someone’s identity, but is an opening for the potential of intersecting identities in relationships with other individuals considering the dynamics of time, emotions, place, etc. and yet never arriving at a fixed point of queerness. Queerness is continually changing. Always in a state of emergence and potentiality. The queer potential of McCarty’s photographs, not only in the content (ie. drag performances) but also in form (ie. nightclub, experimentation, relationships, community, dancing, music, joy, rejection) generates a complex future to these static images of empty stages. McCarty uses photography to capture or hold in time, this space where any number of things could happen and have happened. Much like our experience of sitting in a theatre auditorium waiting for the show to start, these photographs allow our imagination to thread multiple complex and emergent futures out of one stable image. McCarty’s photographic series exemplifies this idea of beginnings, and, along with Estaban's consideration of the queerness of these photos, it allows us to ponder: what could happen?
Although I have used the example of being an audience member in relation to an empty stage, I want to bring our attention to a different sort of beginning – the beginning of a creative process. We arrive in a studio – now what? There seems to be something about the beginning of a creative process that seems to create an opening of sorts. Much like the waiting audience member, for artists, this gateway of beginning initiates a future of emergence. One can argue that this gateway is not bound by an exact moment: at what point does a creative process actually begin? Is it from the inception of the idea? When the body becomes engaged in relation to other people, objects or space? When the artist steps back to reflect? When an audience witnesses the work? Emergence in the creative process can have no fixed starting point. However, I look to Hanna Arendt here to consider how we initiate work, not only through thought but also action (3). There seems to be a series of liminal gateways that one crosses in order to put thought into action into artistic work into reflection into development into sharing and witnessing and so forth. This action typically takes on a certain risk in the container of uncertainty. To use an overused academic saying: in unknowing comes knowing. Or in other words, in taking the first step we step towards emergence. And as we continue to take more steps, the creative process unfolds and the work reveals itself. My film professor Denise Kenny once reminded me that “The script you write, isn’t the script you film. The script you film isn’t the film you edit.” There seems to be something constantly emerging as we create. It is through risk-taking, regardless of how high or low the stakes are, that things iteratively unfold. However, without that initial step, the work is withheld and merely lives in thought.
Beginnings are prefigurative and the space in which we can begin to imagine. From this imagination, our thoughts need to lead to actions that, oftentimes, are also uncertain. This, in performance creation, may look like improvisation or play in order to generate something. The risk is low at the beginning but has limitless potential. In the example of waiting for the show to start, we anticipate what we might see on that stage. It’s like waking at 4 a.m. to watch the sun crest over the horizon and imagine what the rest of the day will be like. It's like beginning the first day of rehearsals with a new cast and getting to know each other and considering the depths and places that these relationships will go over the course of the process. It’s like opening the door to something you are curious about and not knowing what you will learn once you look back at the door frame you walked through. It’s like starting the writing of this essay with a blank page and coming to the end of this paragraph while understanding what I’ve learned in getting here.
I’d like to note my usage of the word theatre in the following paragraphs. Theatre is part of the larger umbrella that we call performance. To be clear, when I am referring to ‘theatre’, I am referring to dramatic theatre – one that is rooted in the literary and then performed on stage. Elements of dramatic theatre include a traditional plot or story arch, a linear narrative, scenes are linked together, and usually require that dialogue, sound and lighting cues work in sequential order without disruption. When I speak of theatre or dramatic theatre, I am not speaking of post-dramatic theatre, improvisation, dance, performance art or live music. Although much of what I write about can be applied to these art forms, and as I will argue, to life, I am using the dramatic theatre, not only because it was the training I was brought up with and am attempting to critically override, but because it, of all the other forms, works with set cues, entrances, and text. Any veering from what is expected to occur on stage would mean ‘going off script’.
Theatre has all the potential for something going wrong. In fact, there have been a number of dramatic scripts written using this theme such as “The Play That Goes Wrong” (4). Ironically, this show is scripted, cued up in sequential order and the spaces of failure are planned as gags and rehearsed for comedic purposes. However, in this section, I am not speaking of shows that have well-rehearsed failures as gags. Those are examples of stable states of theatre even though the narrative they are performing is not the case. What I am speaking about are well-rehearsed performances where certain cues and actions drive towards a linear plot but where an unrehearsed moment of failure arises between the actors (not the characters) that throws the moment, and sometimes even the entire show, off script. This is exemplified in the second scenario I have listed at the start of this essay.
Moments on stage where things fall apart and actors are left to put the show back together in a way that seems natural to the storyline inevitably draws everyone in the room into a state of true liveness. Although the form is being presented live, the reality is that dramatic theatre has been rehearsed tediously before it is presented in front of a live audience. It’s in the moment where it is evident that something unrehearsed has occurred on stage that we all (the actors, the technicians, the audience) imagine the many possible ways in which things can get back on track. This moment asks everyone to be present in order to re-find stability, certainty or to ‘get back on script’. Daniel Sack, in After Live: Possibility, Potentiality, and the Future of Performance writes: “In a small way, we encounter such an experience in the theater whenever we watch an actor forget his or her lines or an object malfunctions onstage, the mistake tearing open a small catastrophe where the potentiality of this singular moment suddenly appears and we wonder what or who (character or actor or other) will happen next.” (Sack)
Just like a beginning, failure is transitive. It’s a space to move through. In this moment of failure, we find ourselves again, in a momentary space of uncertainty. Failure allows us to work through the next steps. But in that moment of failure, we once again find ourselves in this space of instability reaching for the ground while traversing through all potential futures. As we move through failure, something emerges that we may not have known from the beginning.
I am particularly inspired by failure when considering queer theory perspectives. Jack Halberstram, queer theorist and author of The Queer Art of Failure writes “The queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.” (Halberstam) With this perspective, we consider how, within systemic dominant structures, certain people are born to fail that system. However, as Audre Lorde suggests in their book The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House the conventional way of doing things may not set everybody up for success and therefore, may require that failure leads individuals or communities to generate new systems that emancipate them from a system of oppression. This queer perspective on failure complexifies potentiality even further, considering a pluralistic possibility based on one’s lived experience and how that experience may offer different avenues of future-making through failure.
EARTH & HUMANS
My entire curiosity about emergence and potentiality has been to get to this point – how might we apply our understanding of emergence, potentiality, beginnings and failure to the real world? The theatre (and performance at large) are testing grounds for what occurs in the world.
There is a lot of uncertainty at this point in history. One would argue that humanity is always in a state of uncertainty about the future. However, at this specific moment in time, where we are faced with the realities of climate change and systemic oppression, how we might we re-imagine a future where all humans can thrive in a mutually respectful and copasetic relationship with Earth and with each other?
I imagine the land as the stage, the sky as the area above the stage and the sun as the lighting. This is a stage that has been here for 4.5 billion years (5). Upon humans starting the show they considered the multiple narratives that could unfold on stage. But no one noticed the leaking pipe above the stage. As the show progresses, the pipe drips onto the lighting grid and causes a small electrical fire. The electrical fire grows to consume the fabric of the curtains. Suddenly the entire stage is engulfed in fire. We are barely 5 minutes into a 2-hour performance and something has gone wrong. Reality has set in. How does this show go on?
For some, it’s hard to imagine a world without the use of fossil fuels. For others, it’s hard to imagine a world without corporate greed. And in the midst of all this consumption and extraction, we sit with a history of colonization and oppression. How do we individually take the first steps toward embodying the change? How does humanity get back on script? Or, does that script need to be thrown out and something new needs to be attempted? What can emerge from any of those actions?
I have examined theories centred around potentiality and synthesized them through queer and performance theory as a way to consider how we might create and rehearse for the future. I have explored the uncertainty that comes from initiating a project into the world or having something begin. I have looked at the failure that comes when we create prescribed stable structures without access or ability for flexibility. I have recognized that it is in attempting to hold something in a stable state that eventually leads to failure. How we respond to failure, generates its own potential for the future. And, finally, I’ve applied what I have understood from my research to climate change and humanity’s current destabilization and uncertainty as we simultaneously attempt to re-write a script, convince people to experiment with the dramatic theatre form, and all the while, recognize that the art is just the central piece that brings us all into a relationship with each other.
Although my research, metaphor and application of my study have led me to some interesting curiosities as I approach the end of this paper, I am still left grappling with the uncertainty beyond this paper. This has left me, ultimately, with more questions than answers. What I do know from the research I have gathered is that it’s through uncertainty that we can begin to reimagine other potential futures. Some of these futures will mean that we close the show early to reassess our next steps. Others will leave us in excruciating pain while we beg for it to end. And finally, there may be a future that leaves every single one of us in a closer relationship with that 4 a.m. sunrise. One that redefines what living is (or in the case of dramatic theatre, what “liveness” is defined as) and being in relation with all the other elements of the stage, including, and most importantly, with each other as audience and performer(s).
It’s this that I have hope in – a relationship that reminds us that no matter what, the curtain will always rise, that we may not individually know what show we are doing (or watching) but in doing and failing and considering all potentials, something else, unexpectedly, emerges.
Agamben cites’s Aristotle’s proposal in Book Theta of his Metaphysics, suggesting that “a thing is said to be potential if, when the act of which it is said to be potential is realized, there will be nothing im-potential”. He argues that this should not mean simply that “what is not impossible is possible” but rather, that in the suspension of im-potentiatlity lies a passage to actuality. (Agamben)
In simple terms, ErwinSchrödinger stated that if you place a cat and something that could kill the cat (a radioactive atom) in a box and sealed it, you would not know if the cat was dead or alive until you opened the box, so that until the box was opened, the cat was (in a sense) both "dead and alive". (Schrödinger, 807-812)
Arendt, Chapter 28. In this chapter, Arendt, outlines the role that potential has in power and action. She writes: “Only when men live so close together that the potentialiities of action are always present can power remain with them, and the foundation of cities, which as city-states have remained paradigmatic for all Western political organizations, is thereore indeed the most important material prerequisite for power.” (Arendt, 201) This is just one example of how Arendt elaborates on initiating action and the power that action has in relation to others. But it is in this unfolding action that ‘city-states’ get built. Or, in the case of what I am explaining here, that art gets made.
On the show’s website, it describes the show as: “The Cornley Drama Society are putting on a 1920s murder mystery, but as the title suggests, everything that can go wrong… does!The accident-prone thespians battle against all odds to make it through to their final curtain call, with hilarious consequences!” (Mischief Theatre)
“Age of Earth Collection.” National Geographic Society
Agamben, Giorgio. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Edited by Daniel Heller-Roazen, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, 1999.
“Age of Earth Collection.” National Geographic Society, https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/resource-library-age-earth.
Arendt, Hannah. “The Human Condition.” The University of Chicago Press, 1958, https://monoskop.org/images/e/e2/Arendt_Hannah_The_Human_Condition_2nd_1998.pdf.
Halberstam, Judith, and Jack Halberstam. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011.
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” This Bridge Called My Back, Suny Press, 2015.
Mischief Theatre. “The Play That Goes Wrong.” The Play That Goes Wrong | MISCHIEF, https://theplaythatgoeswrong.com/.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.
Phelan, Ann O'Day Maples Professor of the Arts/Professor of English Peggy, and Peggy Phelan. Unmarked : the politics of performance. Routledge, 1992. Accessed 5 December 2022.
Sack, Daniel. After Live: Possibility, Potentiality, and the Future of Performance. University of Michigan Press, 2015. Accessed 5 December 2022.
Said, Edward W. Beginnings: Intention and Method. Columbia University Press, 1985.
Schrödinger, Erwin. “Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik (The present situation in quantum mechanics).” Naturwissenschaften, vol. 23, 1935, pp. 807-812, https://www.jstor.org/stable/986572#metadata_info_tab_contents.