AFFECTIVE PERFORMANCE ECOLOGY:The Radical Act of Applied Theatre

I recently presented a paper at the TaPRA conference at Salford University, introducing the concept I've been working on as part of my PhD studies. 'An affective performance ecology' is my re-framing of affect theory in relation to the process of collaborative theatre-making (and performance) with people with lived experiences of recovery from addiction. Here are some snippets from the paper:

In this paper, I wish to address issues I am concerned with in relation to my own research and practice – issues around affect, change, transformation – much debated already in the field - but which I shall contribute my own particular stance from the context of my work with addiction and creative collaborators in recovery. The people with whom I co-create performances have chosen recovery.They have chosen to connect with others in recovery and participate in a theatre-making process.

I would argue that my role is not to change or transform, but to support and perhaps provoke active choice-making through a process of inter-relating with others in a theatrical experience. What I share with you in this paper is the beginnings of an altered theoretical framework, or perhaps, a philosophy of a way of approaching theatre-making in response to the combination of issues I encounter in working with people affected by addiction, understanding and incorporating a practice of recovery that is also critically engaged with the politics of change, transformation and the social impact agenda. I am calling it an affective performance ecology.

What do I mean by an affective performance ecology?

First, I wish to note that I recognise the established use of the term performance ecology, by Baz Kershaw (2007) and others, in relation to environmentalism. I do not wish to detract from this discourse, nonetheless, I adopt and re-orientate the term towards a human-to-human focus – a human ecology of the processes, relations and connections of human aliveness which in turn I relate directly to a process of recovery from addiction. This concept began from my use of affect theory in analysing my practice.


I first ‘turned to affect’ upon encountering James Thompson’s Performance Affects (2011) which was conveniently published at the same time as my MA studies. He proposed a reorientation of critical reflection on practice towards the ‘affective registry’ of joy, fun, pleasure or beauty (ibid: 116). It made sense to me that without affect, there is no effect, therefore the affective experience required more attention. I was also drawn by his correlation of the ‘call of beauty’ with the political potential of practice. The pleasurable and political aspects of affect were re-emphasised, re-affirmed as the force behind the radical impact of applied theatre – or at least its radical potential.

I wish to move the conversation forward to consider how affect can underpin our very approach to the doing of our practice as applied theatre practitioners. I also wish to offer a way of moving beyond the inadvertent confusion of affect with emotion. Affect theory, in philosophy and cultural theory is considered to be more than emotion, in fact prior to it. For instance, Deleuze interpreted affect as a ‘continuous variation of someone's force of existing’ (2007[1]). It is a force, or flow, of energy in the body.

By adopting affect theory as a philosophy of understanding the body’s capacity for movement in the world around it, I consider the experience of life, as a human, to be bound up in the fluctuations of affect, the embodied sensation of experiencing encounters with the world around us. I, therefore, wish to resist the inadvertent tendency to imbricate affect with emotion, given that pleasure, joy, sadness, shame and so on are just one way in which the sensation of affect transmits from the bodily sensation and is expressed in what are cultural-specific modes of communication. By focusing on the emotional expression, affect inadvertently becomes confused by discussion of emotion as this is relatively easy to identify and track than an ineffable bodily sensation. Yet how do I communicate an approach to practice that does not rely on emotion words to convey how one might create an affective experience?


The solution emerged through an encounter with Erin Manning’ process philosophy which led me to develop an understanding of affect as part of an ecology of human processes. In Always More Than One (2013), Manning explored the process of a body’s becoming, the multiple variations incorporated in what the body can be and what in-forms its creation. She depicted a body’s ‘becoming’ into being as a process involving multiple phases.

I relate Manning’s concept of human ecology to the experience of human connection, interaction and the embodied sensation of participation in theatre-making. Creating a performance, whilst it may occur in a rehearsal room within a set time period, is very much an act of being alive – perhaps an extra-aliveness. It is an active engagement with the world as a human, propelled in to interaction through the embodied sensation of creative activity with others. I’ve, therefore, begun to re-frame affect in my work as an ecology of being human and a process of facilitating connection and inter-relation that opens a space for potential to emerge. Nonetheless, what does this look like in practice?


One concept I’ve been working on in relation to the practice of an affective performance ecology – and the topic of the essay I wrote for the TaPRA Postgraduate essay award - is the way in which a theatre-maker might ‘create a space of potentiality’. I suggest that a space of potentiality is an approach to constructing a theatre-making experience that combines a particular ethic of reflexivity with collaborative creative activity to allow an indeterminacy that enables choice-making. It is, as far as is possible, a space that may inspire change through resisting presumptions about change or transformation.

(For more, see blog post titled ‘A Space of Potentiality’.)

[1] On-line publication of lecture originally given in 1977.