Wednesday 16 October 2019
Miasmatic Performance: Carceral Atmospherics in the Theatre of Clean Break
In Clean Break’s Pests (2014), two rat-women scamper around a debris-strewn ‘nest’ of rotting mattresses; the company’s production Charged (2010) puts audiences on the case of a charged woman, yet the charge is never given or resolved; and the prison van of Sweatbox (2015-2016, 2019) drenches audiences in a slick of sweat, as women locked up in cells bang on the doors. In this presentation of doctoral research, I investigate the aesthetics that allow Clean Break Theatre Company, who work with women in prison and women at risk in the community, to plunge audiences into atmospheres of imprisonment, resilience and subversion at the theatre. Through an exploration of six plays made while I was a company member (2009-2015), I propose that concepts of prison and criminality in Clean Break’s theatre become porous, atmospheric events – miasmas as I argue here – which both elicit, and simultaneously confound, a collective desire to attribute a clear function for prison in society. Instead of treating prison as a setting through which storylines of incarceration move, in these productions ‘prison’ becomes a carceral logic, organising the dramaturgical semantics, temporalities and atmospheres of the play, to signify conditioning, coercive society at large. I call this ‘miasmatic performance.’ Miasmatic performance, I suggest, conjures juridical atmospheres, policing atmospheres and contagious atmospheres at the theatre. Yet while it works to reveal to audiences how the social imaginary of women and crime creates the material conditions for women to enter the criminal justice system, it also creates domains of solidarity, pleasure and radical subversion, designed to decompose carceral subject positions between performers and audience. A miasmatic register in these Clean Break productions becomes both hopeful, and encourages collective responsibility, as it provokes an affective experience of carceral power within audiences who are often only latently aware of their own participation in carceral society.
Molly McPhee is a doctoral candidate at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, and a Teaching Associate at Queen Mary University of London. Her publications include ‘Miasmatic Performance’ for Performance Research (2018); ‘“I don’t know why she’s crying”: Contagion and Criminality in Dream Pill and Little on the inside’ in Theatres of Contagion, edited by Fintan Walsh (2019); and ‘Theatre as Collective Casework’ in Applied Theatre: Women and Criminal Justice, edited by Caoimhe McAvinchey (2020). She holds an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and was the recipient of a Fulbright grant for research at University of Hamburg.