The Work of Performance

The School of Performance and Cultural Industries invites you to the second seminar in the 2019-20 research seminar series.

Location: Alec Clegg, stage@leeds, University of Leeds

Please register for you place by emailing Linda Watson

In a wide reaching panel, 3 scholars from Performance and Cultural Industries at the University of Leeds attend to how performance addresses, forges and implicates publics. In Bennett’s presentation on ASMR appointments, she considers forms of address; Walsh explores of South African choreographer Nyamza in relation to afro-fabulation; and Bartley’s presentation evokes different examples of people’s theatres.

Feigned Appointments: ’ASMR’ Role Play’s Temporal Theatrics

Dr Emma Bennett, Teaching Fellow in Contemporary Performance   

A YouTube phenomenon that has emerged in the last decade, the ‘ASMR’ role play video sets out to relax viewers by assuming the addressive conventions of a professionalised encounter. Popular scenarios include hotel check-in, medical examination, spa visit: sites of stranger intimacy where face-to-face encounters are, to differing degrees, scripted by official codes, professional protocols or quasi-ritual procedures.  

For ‘Wayward Temporalities’, I continue my examination of the peculiar pleasures of ASMR’s theatrics via the conceptual frame of the ‘appointment’. A privileged temporal category, the appointment is a time to ‘be seen’ by someone with a certain professional status, to be registered by a system, and thus called into a particular sort of official existence.  
ASMR role play relishes the social gestus of the appointment, with allusions to clock time (“you’re right on time”), enactments of logging (“I’ll just check your details on our system”), and of seeing itself (facial examinations are popular). Softly spoken, drawn-out and minutely amplified, such attentions become intensely pleasurable.  Of course, as a to-camera address, ASMR’s feigned encounter is unseeing, happens at no time in particular. Videos tend to be spectated in impulsive, non-linear ways as viewers scroll, swipe, skip and repeat at whim.  

Drawing on the work of Lauren Berlant (2011), I’ll attempt to understand and contextualise the feigned, aestheticized and amplified ‘appointment’ of ASMR as an emerging temporal genre indicative of a precarious public sphere. Acknowledging the weaponisation of the appointment by the neoliberal state against those who are without papers, unemployed, or sick, I will seek to understand and problematize my own enjoyment in ASMR’s playful appropriation of organizational procedures. I want to ask questions about subjection – the granting and withholding of official personhood – as it is staged, fictionalised, in videos that appropriate the appointment’s addressive conventions.


Emma Bennett is an artist, theorist and teacher of performance. She is interested in speech as improvised tactic, as bad metaphor and flippant technology. Her most recent stage work, WHAT MATTER (2016) involved bringing all the soft furnishings from her home onto the stage of a concert hall. 


Afro-fabulation: Black Privilege & centring the less good idea

Dr Aylwyn Walsh, Lecturer in Applied Theatre

In South Africa, artists and scholars attempt to move beyond replicating colonial oppressive visions of the notion that ‘another world is possible’. The politics of idealised futures under capitalism and the notion of ‘progress’ seem inevitably driven by hegemonic whiteness. The twin oppressions of optimism and nostalgia swing South Africa between memorialising racist conditions of Apartheid and predicting a colour-blind future. This does nothing to account for how social death, archival erasure and traumatic loss continue to forge the textures of everyday life.

I look to performance’s role in challenging these twin positions. This presentation takes as its core example a venue/ project initiated by one of South Africa’s most well-known visual artists, William Kentridge. Located in Johannesburg, The Centre for the Less Good Idea provides a counter-institutional space that is curated by different artists each season.

In season 4 (2018), Mamela Nyamza (now the artistic director of South Africa’s Dance Umbrella) choreographed a work called Black Privilege. Using this performance to draw a series of rhetorical positions, I look to the interplay of memory and imagination in producing the conditions for an afro-future. Seen alongside the wider moves to decolonise culture and institutions of all kinds, I turn to Tavia Nyong’o’s (2018) formulation of ‘Afro-fabulation’ in order to draw attention to how queer time, resistance and refusal become performance tactics that make space for what Saidiya Hartman calls a critical poetics of black life.       


Aylwyn Walsh leads the MA Applied Theatre and Intervention at the University of Leeds. In addition to artistic projects with Ministry of Untold Stories she runs Converge with mental health service users in Leeds. Her book Prison Cultures: Performance, Resistance, Desire (Intellect, 2019) furthers a feminist analysis of stage and screen representations of women in prison.

People’s Theatre in the UK: Civic Functions and the City

Dr Sarah Bartley,  Teaching Fellow in Contemporary Performance                                                                           

In recent years the United Kingdom (UK) has seen marked increase in number of new people’s theatres. As Baz Kershaw identifies, ‘the European notion of a people’s theatre was used to suggest either a broad, class-based politicised theatre or a liberal theatrical embrace of the whole population (2004: 350). Given this ideological history, and against a backdrop of retracting arts funding and social provision in the UK since 2010, this paper examines two companies at the forefront of the current people’s theatre movement to consider the civic function of performance in contemporary urban environments. I focus specifically on Brighton People’s Theatre, founded in 2015, and Slung Low, a long-established company now developing a people’s theatre for Leeds. By exploring the marginal city sites in which this work takes place (estates, railway arches, and a working men‘s clubs), I will consider the civic functions each initiative fulfils and articulate how that function is bound up with their locale. I examine the role of people‘s theatres in engaging urban populations, specifically how they occupy disparate sites across the cityscape and deliver non-performance practices that fulfil civic agendas. I argue that the contemporary people‘s theatre movement in the UK is a platform for citizens to identify the city as their own and also a performance space through which the civic functions previously aligned with the state – social provision, education – are being delivered.


Sarah Bartley is Teaching Fellow in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries and the School of English. Her research examines the intersections of work, participation, and performance at play within socially engaged and applied theatre practices. It considers how social and activist dimensions of applied theatre operate in relation to the political and economic priorities of austerity. Previously she has examined representations of work, labour, and unemployment onstage. Her current research expands on this to more broadly consider economies of participation in the UK.