Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Girls of Llanbadarn

Watching the BBC programme My Life in Verse I was introduced to the following poem by the fourteenth century poet Dafydd ap Gwilym. It struck me because of its very contemporary expression of feeling and because Llanbadarn church is only a few minutes walk from where we're living. Tomorrow Anthea and I will be visiting Strata Florida Abbey where, according to tradition, Dafydd ap Gwilym is buried.

The Girls of Llanbadarn

I am bent with wrath,
a plague upon all the women of this parish!
for I've never had (cruel, oppressive longing)
a single one of them,
neither a virgin (a pleasant desire)
nor a little girl nor hag nor wife.
What hindrance, what wickedness,
what failing prevents them from wanting me?
What harm could it do to a fine–browed maiden
to have me in a dark, dense wood?
It would not be shameful for her
to see me in a bed of leaves.

There was never a time when I did not love —
never was any charm so persistent —
even more than men of Garwy's ilk,
one or two in a single day,
and yet I've come no closer to winning one of these
than if she'd been my foe.
There was never a Sunday in Llanbadarn church
(and others will condemn it)
that my face was not turned towards the splendid girl
and my nape towards the resplendent, holy Lord.
And after I'd been staring long
over my feathers across my fellow parishioners,
the sweet radiant girl would hiss
to her campanion, so wise, so fair:

'He has an adulterous look —
his eyes are adept at disguising his wickedness —
that pallid lad with the face of a coquette
and his sister's hair upon his head.'

'Is that what he has in mind?'
says the other girl by her side,
'While the world endures he'll get no response,
to hell with him, the imbecile!'

I was stunned by the bright girl's curse,
meagre payment for my stupefied love.
I might have to renounce
this way of life, terrifying dreams.
Indeed, I'd better become
a hermit, a calling fit for scoundrels.
Through constant staring (a sure lesson)
over my shoulder (a pitiful sight),
it has befallen me, who loves the power of verse,
to become wry–necked without a mate.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Performance Theology

[Salat - Wikipedia]

I've just read an article by Peter Civetta in the Spring 2008 edition of Performance Research entitled 'Body/Space/Worship: Performance Theology and Liturgical Expressions of Belief'. In it Civetta explores the relationship between performance and theology through two case studies: the first being the practice of Jum'ah Prayer in the Al-Nur Mosque in New York and the second looking at the impact of spatial layout on liturgical experience at Grace Episcopal Church in Chicago.

Discussing the first, Civetta observes that the possible meanings of the physical actions in salat (prayers) are rarely (if ever) speculated upon by Muslim believers; the actions are simply learnt and then reproduced. Civetta suggests that a result of this is that Muslims remain open to the experience of the actions: "Without recourse to definitive judgements as [to] what the movements represent, they must sit and experience them for what they are." (9) Reflecting further on this Civetta explains,
From this experience, I gain increased recognition of belief as not wholly thought, not a solely conscious and intellectualized process of discernment and acceptance (or rejection). Performance theology lives as a bodily function; how these people choose to live their lives is in part dictated by what they learn from their bodies (not their minds) in the act of prayer [...] Belief not only gets expressed by the body - an aftereffect of previously determined ideas - but comes from the body as well. (10-11)
With the example of Grace Episcopal Church Civetta comments on the restrictive nature of the building's spatial layout. Built in an English Gothic Revival style between 1898 and 1905 the church is a large and imposing structure that attempts in some way to reproduce the grandeur of European cathedrals. According to Civetta, the physical dimensions of the church - the sheer distances between floor and ceiling and from end to end - suggest "an epic God and a distant God", circumscribing the notion of God as Abba (Daddy). After discussing the positions and features of the high altar, pulpit and baptismal font Civetta turns to briefly discuss the lived experience of the space, commenting that in the weekly life of the congregation the space itself mitigates against intimacy and communality and instead "puts the emphasis for worship on individuality and visuality." (16) He summarises:
In this way, spatiality at Grace Church possesses its own performance theology, and that performance theology has determined to a large extent the possible performance theology of the worshiping congregation. (17)
It's an interesting article and does outline approaches for other performance scholars to take when exploring religious experience; the suggestion to avoid simply theatricalizing liturgy but to take into account its status as worship is a helpful one. At the same time I'm also uncomfortable with the way Civetta uses the term 'determined' in the sentence I've quoted above; can spatiality or architecture actually determine anything? In his analysis he places a great deal of importance on spatiality without, perhaps, taking into account wider sociocultural, historical and theological contexts that might also reinforce the influence of space on the lived experience of the congregation.

Finally, reading this article through my own particular 'binocular' view - as a Christian and a performance scholar - I also take it as a challenge to re-examine my own 'performance theology', considering how what I do necessarily impacts upon what I believe and how, in the knowledge of this, I might instead seek to enact a more 'faithful' performance.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


From "101 Things I Learned in Architecture School":
The most effective, most creative problem solvers engage in a process of meta-thinking, or "thing about the thinking." Meta-thinking means that you are aware of how you are thinking as you are doing the thinking. Meta-thinkers engage in continual dialogue of testing, stretching, criticizing, and redirecting their thought processes.

Friday, April 17, 2009


[On top of Plynlimon (725m) highest mountain in mid Wales]

3 Conferences: 3 Abstracts

Here's three conferences I'll be attending over the (northern hemisphere) summer, with the abstracts for the papers I'll be giving:

1. Living Landscapes (18th-21st June, Aberystwyth)

Terrains of Power: Performing Parliamentary Architecture

In The Symbolic Uses of Politics (1964) Murray Edelman notes that, “The appropriateness of act to setting is normally so carefully plotted in the political realm that we are rarely conscious of the importance or ramifications of the tie between the two.” (99) This statement is nowhere more relevant than when considering the design, construction, and use of parliamentary buildings and precincts.

Such buildings and precincts perform various symbolic functions: they help to construct a sense of national identity, to represent the processes of government, and to assert the authority and legitimacy of the state. More immediately however, at the level of spatial program and built form, they also promote and entrench certain possibilities for movement and interaction whilst discouraging others. In this respect they exert a material influence on the way in which government operates and the way in which the public interacts with it.

In this paper I apply interpretive strategies drawn from Performance Studies to examine two recently constructed precincts: the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood (2004) and the Welsh Senedd on the shore of Cardiff Bay (2006). By focussing on the performative relationship between bodies and the environment I seek to build on existing studies of civic space and capital city design and, in doing so, to assess the extent to which the design of these new precincts might remain “closely tied to political forces that reinforce existing patterns of dominance and submission.” (Lawrence J. Vale 1992:10)

2. Performance Studies International: "Misperformance: Misfiring, Misfitting, Misreading" (24th-28th June, Zagreb)

Duplicitous Sites: Misperforming Parliament

In The Symbolic Uses of Politics (1964) Murray Edelman notes that, “The appropriateness of act to setting is normally so carefully plotted in the political realm that we are rarely conscious of the importance or ramifications of the tie between the two.” (99) This statement is nowhere more relevant than when considering the design and use of parliamentary buildings and precincts.

In this paper I investigate how the ostensive signification of modern parliamentary buildings can be undercut or exposed by practices that naively or deliberately misperform them. Viewed against a variety of protest actions, this paper focuses on the impromptu performance of the choral piece Lament in the foyer of Australia’s New Parliament House on the 18th March 2003. Performed by a choir of one hundred and fifty women who simply walked into the building unnoticed, Lament was timed to coincide with the then Prime Minister’s announcement of Australia’s commitment of troops to the imminent war in Iraq. Through a close examination of performers’ experiences of Lament I will consider the productiveness of this action in exposing how modern parliamentary architecture remains “closely tied to political forces that reinforce existing patterns of dominance and submission.” (Vale 1992:10)

3. International Federation for Theatre Research: Theatre Architecture Working Group (12th-18th July, Lisbon)

Architecture, Audience and Desire

This paper will argue that audiences are not only constructed through their interaction with theatre auditoriums and stages, but also through the relations between an auditorium and the other spaces known or presumed to exist. The popularity of ‘behind-the-scenes’ tours, ‘backstage’ musicals and plays and actors’ memoirs are all evidence of a western cultural fascination with the actual and imagined realms that lie hidden beyond the stage. Such a fascination derives in part from the spatial delineations that mark out theatre space from everyday social space, backstage from front-of-house, and auditorium from stage. The delineations that separate out the spaces used by spectators and practitioners in more traditional theatres are significant because they create what Alice Rayner has described as “a geometry of seeming difference.” This geometry, Rayner suggests, “carries a powerful affect that connects actual spaces to a more general form of aggression and desire.” (2002: 539)

In this paper I will examine how the geometry that Rayner describes is negotiated in the design and use of a number of more modern theatres in Australia and the United Kingdom. Through this I seek to map out dimensions of the relationship between theatre audiences and theatre architecture and suggest how being an audience to theatre involves a tension between a desire for access to the more hidden realms and operations that sustain a performance and a desire to be denied that access.