Dr Adam Alston
I'm a researcher and teacher inspired by the tenacity of theatre and performance: the tenacity of artists who make work in spite of adversity, and the ability of live performance to produce rousing or troublesome thoughts and feelings that persist. This is what motivates me to focus on some of the most urgent political and economic challenges that the arts face today across three core research areas: immersive theatre, performances that take place in complete darkness, and decadence and ruination in contemporary theatre and live art. All three projects focus on the politics and economics of artistic production and reception, and are fundamentally concerned with how different kinds of value are produced, sustained or contested in artistic practice.
My research into immersive theatre was initially intended to respond to a rising tide of 'immersive' experiences in the late-2000s and early-2010s that thrived amid substantive cuts to public funding. I wanted to know why it was able to do this when so many other styles and forms of theatre were struggling. This resulted in my first book, Beyond Immersive Theatre: Aesthetics, Politics and Productive Participation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), which is due to come out in paperback in 2019. In it, I explore immersive theatre's relationships to the public and private sectors in the UK, the demands that are made of its audiences, and what these demands mean for the 'freedoms' that these performances are often said to promote. More recently, I've been looking at how immersive theatre companies formed in the wake of the global financial crash in 2008 are responding to a fresh set of challenges in an increasingly competitive market, focusing on the risks they face, and what can be done to mitigate those risks.
In 2014 I organised a symposium at the University of Surrey called 'Theatre in the Dark', which resulted in a close collaboration with Martin Welton (QMUL). We wanted to document and evaluate the burgeoning field of theatre practices for gloomy or completely dark spaces that's been developing in the UK over the past couple of decades, contextualising it in light of experimentation across a range of cultures, historical precedents and performance forms. This led to an edited collection called Theatre in the Dark: Shadow, Gloom and Blackout in Contemporary Theatre (Bloomsbury, 2017), which includes a number of chapters that are co-written by leading practitioners and scholars. My own contribution to the book looks at dining in the dark experiences from Italian Futurism to present-day commercially-run dining in the dark restaurants, focusing on how 'no-thing' - how darkness - has entered the experience economy as a highly marketable phenomenon. Martin and I have since worked on a number of academic and public engagement initiatives exploring darkness and the senses in performance.
Most recently, I've been focusing on decadence and ruination in contemporary theatre and live art. I want to take seriously the claim that theatre, particularly in times of austerity, is 'decadent'. However, rather than using this to dismiss the value of theatre in a competitive funding climate, I'm interested in (re)turning to an understanding of decadence that can shed light on the critical potency of diverse live artworks that seek to 'ruin what ruins', exploring how trash, waste and excess might be turned against saturated markets and exclusionary forms of cultural production. This will result in a major funding bid that I'll be submitting in 2019 and, I hope, in a book as well as a range of related activities with key partners across the sector.
I'm currently co-convener of the Theatre and Performance Research Association's Performance, Identity and Community Working Group, and a Creative Associate with the devised, science-led theatre company Curious Directive. These are both organisations that I'm proud to be a part of at a point when collaboration with others, and spaces for debate, deliberation, and creative enquiry, are more important than ever.
Areas of specialism
theatre in the dark;
theatre and decadence;
theatre and politics
Affiliations and memberships
I'm interested in supervising postgraduate work in the following areas (scroll down):
- Immersive theatre (especially with a focus on audiences, politics, aesthetics and/or economics)
- Spectatorship and audience participation
- Theatre and decadence (the decadent movement, decadence in contemporary theatre, performance and live art, decadence studies)
- Darkness, shadow and gloom in theatre and performance
- Modernism and the avant-gardes
- Affect studies
- Risk in performance
- Performance, politics and philosophy (especially Marxism and post-Marxism)
- Theatre and economics (especially neoliberalism and the experience economy)
Incubate-Propagate: Towards Alternative Models for Artist Development in Theatre and Performance (AHRC network member)
Playing with Intimacy and Intensity: an interdisciplinary network for participatory performance practice. (AHRC network member)
Indicators of esteem
Keynote research papers
‘Anarchy in the UK: Immersive theatre and the new spirit of capitalism’. The Power of Immersion: Performance, Affect, Politics. Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin. 9-13 April 2018.
'Errant Immersion: Mistakes and Accidental Transgression in Immersive Theatre'. Audience, Experience, Desire: Interactivity and Participation in Contemporary Performance and Cultural Industries. University of Exeter, Exeter. 30 January 2016.
'Dining in the Dark: Darkness, Commerce and Disappearance'. Keynote paper. Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London. 12 January 2016.
"Affective Societies" Research Centre, Institut für Theaterwissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin - Berlin. 16-20 April, 2018.
2014--17: Co-editor, Contemporary Theatre Review’s ‘Interventions’.
2011--13: Editor, Platform: Journal of Theatre and Performing Arts
THE3022 Performing Audiences
THE1025 Introduction to Theatre and Performance Studies
THE2017/THE2020 Independent Study
Courses I teach on
Postgraduate research supervision
Principal supervisor: Yaron Shyldkrot, 'How to Keep the Audience in the Dark: Uncertainty in Pitch-Black Theatre'.
Principal supervisor: Will Osmond, 'The Nature and Functions of Role-Playing in Immersive and Participatory Theatre'.
Principal supervisor: Gemma Kerr, ‘Bringing people together: producing ‘effect’ in socially engaged theatre through the integration of professional and participatory practice’.
Co-supervisor: Michelle Man, 'Lighting States - Lighting Scapes: Transformative Encounters with Light in the Development of Choreographic Language'.
Co-supervisor: Meg Cunningham, 'Experiencing Story: Stepping into the Scenography of Immersive Theatre'.
Principal supervisor: Julia Peetz, 'The Currency of Distrust: Populist Performance in the Twenty-First Century'.
Theatre in the Dark: Shadow, Gloom and Blackout in Contemporary Theatre. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. Co-edited with Martin Welton. https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/theatre-in-the-dark-9781474251181/
Beyond Immersive Theatre: Aesthetics, Politics and Productive Participation. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Sole-authored monograph. https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137480439
‘Audience Participation and Neoliberal Value: Risk, Agency and Responsibility in Immersive Theatre’. Performance Research 18.2 (June 2013): 128-38. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13528165.2013.807177
‘Immersive theatre and the aesthetics of decadence: on the ruined worlds of Punchdrunk, SHUNT and Hammer Film Productions’. Theatre and Performance Design 3.4 (2017): pp. 199-217.
This project is interdisciplinary both in its theoretical framework and its methods. It draws on theatre and performance theories of performativity, acting, and theatricality as well as on models of populism and political representation developed in political theory. Following the conceptual argument for the position of performance at the heart of representative democracy, the empirical implications of this argument are explored through a corpus of in-depth interviews with U.S. speechwriters spanning presidential administrations and campaigns from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. Drawing on the perspectives of those involved in crafting presidential performances, the empirical chapters investigate the significance of performance and theatricality to the institution of the U.S. presidency and the imperative to navigate and mobilise the distrust of political audiences. While positing that distrust inheres within a political system whose core is performance-based, the project thus moves towards an inquiry of what is at stake as this distrust increasingly becomes an explicit focal point around which the theatre of politics revolves.
‘Audience Participation and the Politics of Compromise’ in ‘Forum on the Art of Participation: A Curated Collection of Reflections, Explorations, and Instructions’, edited by Astrid Breel, Robbie Wilson and Hannah Newman. PARtake: The Journal of Performance as Research, 1.2 (2017): 35.
‘Contemporary Theatre “Philanthropy” and the Purchase of Participatory Privilege’, with Rebecca Daker. Backpages. Contemporary Theatre Review 22.3 (2012): 433-39.
‘Exhibit B: A Conversation’. With Diana Damian, Bojana Jankovic, Phoebe Patey-Ferguson, Donald Hutera, Neleswa Mclean-Thorne and Manick Govinda. Exeunt, 7 Oct. 2014.
‘New Music – New Audience: A Report’. Dutch Journal of Music Theory. 14.3 (2009): 194-97.
‘On the Injunction “Enjoy”’. Platform: Journal of Theatre and Performing Arts 7.2 (Autumn 2013): 71-73.
Rev. of Authenticity in Contemporary Theatre and Performance: Make it Real. By Daniel Schulze. New theatre Quarterly 34 (1): 91.
Rev. of Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. By Claire Bishop. Theatre Survey 54.3 (Sept. 2013): 466-68.
Rev. of Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation. By Gareth White. Contemporary Theatre Review 24.1 (2014): 115-16.
Rev. of Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism. By Jen Harvie. Theatre Research International. (2014).
Rev. of Immersive Theatres: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance. By Josephine Machon. Theatre Research International. (2014).
Rev. of The Art of Light on Stage: Lighting in Contemporary Theatre. By Yaron Abulafia. Theatre and Performance Design, 2.3/4 (2016): 341-42.
Rev. of Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism: Thinking the Political Anew. By Maurya Wickstrom. Performance Research 19.5 (2014).
Rev. of Spellbound. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK. Volupté: Interdisciplinary Journal of Decadence Studies. Forthcoming.
'Anarchy in the UK: Immersive theatre and the new spirit of capitalism’. The Power of Immersion: Performance, Affect, Politics. Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin. 9-13 April 2018.
'Errant Immersion: Mistakes and Accidental Transgression in Immersive Theatre'. Keynote paper. Audience, Experience, Desire: Interactivity and Participation in Contemporary Performance and Cultural Industries. University of Exeter, Exeter. 30 January 2016.
'Dining in the Dark: Darkness, Commerce and Disappearance'. Keynote paper. Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London. 12 January 2016.
CONFERENCE, SYMPOSIUM & SEMINAR PAPERS
‘Decadence and ruination in contemporary performance’, Jeudis seminar series, Decadence Research Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London. 28 March 2019.
‘Contemporary theatre and the aesthetics of decadence’, The Aesthetics of Decay: Ghost Stories and Mysteries, Birkbeck, University of London. 23 Feb. 2019.
'Immersive theatre and commercialisation'. Part of 'Performing Audiences: Immersive Theatre in 2018'. University of Surrey. 14 Nov. 2018.
‘Immersive theatre in austerity Britain’. Research seminar, Brunel University London. 17 Oct. 2018.
‘‘Burn the witch’: Decadent aesthetics in Lauren Barri Holstein’s Notorious’, Decadence, Magic(k) and the Occult, Goldsmiths, University of London. 19 July 2018.
‘The radical witch: Decadence and the scenographic body in Lauren Barri Holstein’s Notorious’. IFTR, University of Arts, Belgrade. 12 July 2018.
‘Decadence and ruination in contemporary theatre’. TECHNE Congress, University of Roehampton, London. 25 June 2018.
‘‘Burn the witch’: Decadent aesthetics in Lauren Barri Holstein’s Notorious’. Guest seminar. Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin. 19 April 2018.
‘Playing politics: On British game theatre’. The Power of Immersion: Performance, Affect, Politics. Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin. 10 April 2018.
'Theatre, Decadence and Radicalism: Appropriative Politics in Contemporary Theatre'. University of Exeter, 22 Nov. 2017.
'Theatre and Decadence in the Twenty-First Century: Immersion, Fetish and Decay'. University of Leeds, 17 Nov. 2017.
'Decadent Echoes: Scenography and Subjectivity in Immersive Theatre'. IFTR. University of Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo. 11 July 2017.
‘The Aesthetics and Commerce of Darkness: Dining in the Dark from Italian Futurism to Global Franchise’. Quorum. Queen Mary, University of London, London, 21 Oct. 2015.
‘Making Mistakes in Immersive Theatre: Spectatorship and Errant Immersion’. Theatre and Spectatorship, 24th Annual Conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE), Barcelona. 4-7 June 2015.
‘The Politics of Paradise: The Living Theatre, the New Left and the New Spirit of Capitalism’. TaPRA. Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham. 4 September 2014.
‘Frustrating Participation: Shunt’s The Architects as Postimmersive Theatre’. IFTR. University of Warwick, Coventry. 30 July 2014.
‘Secret Cinema, Secret Escapes and the Paradox of Secrecy’. Dance Research Seminar. University of Surrey, Guildford. 20 Mar. 2014.
‘Performing Labour: Labour and Performance in Look Left Look Right’s Above and Beyond’. Questions of Aesthetics and Participation. Gulbenkian Centre, University of Hull. 18 Sept 2013.
‘Reflections on Intimacy and Narcissism in Ontroerend Goed’s Personal Trilogy’. London Theatre Seminar. Senate House, University of London, London. 13 Dec 2012.
‘Affect and/as Risk in Lundahl and Seitl’s Rotating in a Room of Images’. Affective Science and Performance. University of Kent, Canterbury. 7-8 Sept. 2012.
‘Audience Participation and Neoliberal Value: Risk, Agency and Responsibility in Immersive Theatre’. PSi. University of Leeds, Leeds. 27 June-1 July 2012.
‘Product Placement in Punchdrunk’s The Black Diamond: ACE, Stella and the Privatisation of Theatre Funding’. Subsidy, Patronage and Sponsorship: Theatre and Performance Culture in Uncertain Times. V & A, London. 19-21 July 2012.
‘Contemporary Theatre “Philanthropy” and the Purchase of Participatory Privilege’, with Rebecca Daker. Politics at RHUL. Royal Holloway, University of London. 31 May 2012.
‘Participation and the Production of Affect in Ray Lee’s Cold Storage’. TaPRA. University of Kent, Canterbury. 5 Sept. 2012
‘Audience Participation and the Aesthetics of Risk’. Relate Participate. Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Aberystwyth. 2-4 May 2011.
DIALOGUES ON DARKNESS (ongoing initiative affiliated with Theatre in the Dark publication)
‘Theatre Sense – a one-day symposium’. Battersea Arts Centre, London. 25 May 2018. With Martin Welton, Seth Kriebal and Maria Oshodi.
‘Theatre in the Dark – Fiction, post-show discussion’. Battersea Arts Centre, London. 7 February 2018. With Martin Welton, Glen Neath, David Rosenberg and Lynne Kendrick.
‘Dialogue on Darkness III: Ethics, Gloom and Listening in Theatre in the dark’. Drama Staff and PhD Research Symposium. Queen Mary, University of London. 9 June 2016. With Martin Welton.
‘Dialogue on darkness II: theatre in the dark in the 21st century’. Conventions of Proximity in Art, Theatre and Performance. Birkbeck, University of London. 6 May 2016. With Martin Welton and Liam Jarvis.
‘Dialogue on Darkness I: Harnessing shadows: Darkness and the theatrical experience’. University of Surrey. 17 February 2016. With Martin Welton and Scott Palmer.
‘Audience participation and the politics of compromise’. Forum on the Art of Participation. University of Kent. 7 May 2016.
‘Two provocations on counting the uncounted’. TaPRA – Performance, Identity and Community study day: Willing to be Included? Institutions, Outsiders, Performance. Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London. 30 April 2016.
‘Successful Publication’. TaPRA, University of Worcester. 9 Sept. 2015.
‘Early Careers Panel’. SCUDD. Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth. 11 April 2014.
‘Participatory Performance’. Stand-up comedy set. Bright Club. Bar des Arts, Guildford. 13 February 2014.