In a World of Things

16 December 2020


Zoe Laughlin

Mike Pearson

The Conversation


At The Performance Theatre, we are always interested in the ideas that emerge from the intersection of science and the arts. Dr Zoe Laughlin, director of the Institute of Making, University College London and Dr Mike Pearson, Professor Emeritus of Performance Studies, Aberystwyth University collaborated with the National Theatre Wales on creating this piece for the final session of TPT 2020. We hope you enjoy this invitation to reconsider the things around us, our relationship with them and how that relationship may change in the future.

The performance text is shared below the video.  

1. On things and what they do

We dwell in a realm of things: natural things, manufactured things, elemental things; machinic things, technological things; sonic things, odiferous things; raw things; cooked things; insubstantial things; nebulous things; indeterminate things…

Objects and phenomena, matter and stuff: solid, liquid, gaseous, spectral…

Caught in a flux of immaterial, intangible things: ideas, concepts, beliefs, myths and attitudes.

We are never alone; we are always accompanied by things: they are beside us, on us, in us, constantly passing through us.

We are perpetually mixed with things: not only with their forms and fabrics, but also with the forces, densities and intensifications they give rise to, embody and release.

Things that are present in their own right; that have autonomy––with unique and discrete characteristics and properties––not only of mass, dimension, shape and surface, but also of vibrancy and vitality, at scales and speeds that can eclipse human enterprise.

That have agency: that have distinct powers and capacities; that create effects; that make things happen. Sometimes intentionality, on purpose.

That produce impacts––sensational, visceral, emotional and perceptual on us––as we encounter them, as they continuously cross our path, at different velocities, with varying degrees of percussion and repercussion.

That offer affordance to our physical functioning and labours, to our journeyings, to our engagements. Helping us get along, enhancing our efficiency and effectiveness.

But that also block our progress: that hinder our designs, that restrict our capacities to communicate, to live unimpeded lives, to survive. Constraining us, disbalancing us, confounding us, colliding with us. Sometimes jeopardising our well-being.

That make demands; that oblige us to modify our behaviour: to accommodate and to reckon with them as they shape our movements and compromise our abilities––through hazard and stress and overload.

That once animate, in motion, can be unruly and uncontrollable, disorderly and disruptive. That do things––like melting, rusting, burning, metamorphosing; accumulating, coagulating, evaporating––over periods of time beyond our measure; sometimes with unforeseen and spectacular outcomes.

And perhaps as theatre builds its scenic worlds, it offers an opportunity to contemplate and appraise the role of such things in human life, always remembering that however fictive or fantastical the setting, theatre’s material components always retain their heft and leverage, and capacity to impact upon its dwellers––the performers.

A chance here to ponder our relationships with things: what they do to us, we to them, they to each other; and what they might yet do as they provide for our wants, fulfil our desires and extend our ambitions.

And also what they do ‘do’, as of right: how they themselves perform.

To demonstrate the quiddity––the ‘whatness’, the qualities of things––and the haecceity––the ‘hereness’, the individuality of things.

To appreciate how they make a difference, altering the course of events––from local to global in their influence.

It is, after all, a minute organism that currently defines our world, real and theatrical.

2. On a world of people and things

We are intimately bound up with things, with their processes of becoming, their persistence, and their decomposition: entangled––intentionally and accidentally, in ways momentary and enduring, in linkages of dependence and of antipathy.

Some of which we recognize; others that we are indifferent to, still others that we are barely aware of.

Imagine then the world as a ‘living throbbing confederation’; or as a heterogeneous assemblage––of things fluid and solid, visible and invisible––and of the energies and         consequences triggered by their collisions and syntheses, their frictions and amalgamations: thing to body, body to thing, body to body, thing to thing.

In which human and non-human coexist in precarious balance, in a kind of symmetry.

Now––just as theatre constructs a scene, in which we take everything that appears to have purpose and meaning––Please picture a familiar domain: a landscape, a city street, your kitchen. Or just look around.

What is the range and extent of things there?

Where do they come from, what brings them there, and what do they bring with them?

What are the attributes that make them significant?

What are all the things doing: what is their function; and how are they functioning?

How are they arranged; and how do they articulate one with another?

How are they making things happen?

How are they prompting your actions?

How are they producing effects, generating affects: on you, for you, in spite of you?

Questions that now seem rather quaint or archaic, from a former time and place.

For a microbe, a barely visible life form that may be lurking anywhere, now sets the conditions for human activity worldwide, far beyond your scene.

Curtailing our transit; determining how we distance ourselves and move in relation to others and who and what we touch; regulating how we cleanse ourselves; prescribing the use of the same prophylactics––masks, visors, gloves––universally, in order to intervene, to protect us from it, and us from each other.

Demonstrating the connectivity of things.

3. On leadership in a world of things

As in life, so in theatre.

One casualty of the current emergency is the stage world itself, as it adapts to new constraints: necessitating the reassessment of creative and technical practices––leading to new spatialities and choreographies of habituation for its dweller-performers and to new modes of production and aesthetics of organisation; requiring new approaches to the handling and arranging of scenic materials, of things that have become potentially pestilential as they meet bodies, and as they cause bodies to meet bodies.

There is now a need to take account of all that is operative in each dramatic setting––actually and potentially, not simply representationally––as a matter of mortal concern.

And as theatre changes––remodelling itself for real whilst, as ever, holding up its metaphorical mirror––so it might induce a greater acknowledgement of symmetry and of connectivity in perceiving relations between humans and things, and of the desirability, in wider worlds, of closer regard to things, to what they do or might do.

As in theatre, so in life: compelling us to appreciate the entire composition of a context and its enmeshed components ever in process of change––the eco-system of bodies and substances, in their circulations and symbioses, their leakages and flows––imagining new or renewed relationships, and shared potentialities.

In order that we might capitalise sympathetically on the assets available: demonstrating respect and responsibility for environmental features; devising and enacting viable strategies of sustainability; and above all, acting transparently and accountably.

Leading us too to question just how heterogeneous––how diverse––any particular situation and assemblage––our visualised scene––actually is: which people, what things, what factors are included and embraced within its purview?

What is apparent, and apparently impactful here?

What––in our biases or ignorance––do we exclude, disregard, discard, render surplus to requirements?

And what here is simply beyond our ken?

And who, after all, really cares: for we can always ‘dance on the volcano’, can’t we?

Then to attend to those things––finite, damaged––that can no longer exist without our intervention, protection, maintenance and conservation?

What kinds of fixing solutions are required?

And what needs leaving well alone?

Ultimately, unsettling our anthropocentric perceptions––dismantling the human/object dichotomy––and challenging us to think with and through things: virally––in tracing the transmission and proliferation of our ideas and actions and their repercussions for others; and fungally––in operating in decentred webs of people and things, in which small moments of local encounter can have widespread outcomes.

In life and in theatre.


Models and images by John Rowley.

Art has always been a positive force in turbulent times, both to raise awareness and to provide inspiration.

We work with artists from around the globe to design our programme each year, illuminating our themes in unexpected ways.