Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Reflections on Theatre and Performance in the (Post-) Earthquake Zone

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Reflections on Theatre and Performance in the (Post-) Earthquake Zone

Article excerpt


After the earthquake, I stood outside the cordon looking to the rubble where my old nightclub had been, remembering all my first shows, and my hair salon - all the gossip, the gay clubs, the lovers and friends - gone. I lived here once, and now I'm locked out. I can't even go near where I used to go. My first dance studio in what is now the Cranmer Centre ... one of the first buildings down. My memories of a time gone, also now will be gone forever. What can come after...?


The first earthquake shook Christchurch on 4 September 2010. Because it was the middle of the night, we experienced it as discrete events in the privacy of our own homes. We stood in doorways or ran into the street, texted to say 'we're ok' and to ask 'u?' - and then most of us went back to sleep. In the bright sunshine of the Saturday that followed, we picked up what had fallen, swept up the silt and marvelled at our escapes from true disaster - most of us - as we replayed our stories for our families, friends and neighbours. This earthquake, we thought, was a singular event - disruptive and destructive, dramatic but finite.

As everyone now knows, the earthquake in Christchurch was, and continues to be, much more than that. More major earthquakes - notably the one that killed 182 people on 22 February 20112 - and over 14,000 aftershocks, that only now are diminishing in force and frequency, have fractured our city's infrastructure and shaken us out of the ordinary, it seems, forever. And more drama. Post-earthquake Christchurch is full of performances - in theatres, in community halls and on the streets - and it has been made to perform itself, vividly, especially on film: from cellphone captures uploaded to YouTube to, already, a full-length documentary, When A City Falls.3 In fact, we saw the first inklings of our city's new performativity in the evening after the February quake; as the power came on, fora fortunate few, our televisions showed us - and the rest of the country - the catastrophe not only as news but as a music video, collaged images underscored by music presented as a way of closing the broadcast. At the first memorial, outdoors at Hagley Park one month later, the performance on the platform - among them, Prince William, the Mayor, the Bishop, with singers Dame Malvina, Dave Dobbin and Hayley Westenra - was projected simultaneously onto Jumbotrons and onto 'live' television broadcasts on multiple stations. The climax of the performance was a lengthy film that silently mixed close-ups of the people in the park with fresh images of the devastated 'Red Zone' and the already familiar images of the catastrophe itself.

The earth's rupture has broken into our usual complacencies. We have been catapulted into a kind of consciousness that makes us see each other and ourselves as actors and spectators, both watched and watching. The ephemerality of the embodied experience at the moment of the earthquake provokes us in retrospect to construct narratives, both personal and civic, as if setting ourselves within the tropes of history and fiction can restore our sense of order, of place and time. In fact, we have been repeatedly enjoined to 'tell our stories' both as a kind of cathartic exercise and for the record. This certainly follows the conventional wisdom surrounding trauma. But it also propels us, I believe, toward an idealisation of our 'victimhood'. In the end, it is possible that an aesthetics of injury will subsume and supersede our felt experiences.4

At the same time, we have been flooded with images of our fortitude and our community spirit. In keeping with Christchurch's identity as a city more English than England, the rallying cry 'Keep Calm and Carry On' - a slogan created by the British during World War II - was repeated endlessly during the first few months and can still be seen blazoned on t-shirts and other memorabilia, souvenirs from the earthquake zone. The early images of men frantically moving concrete blocks and weeping women comforting each other, quickly gave way to more sustained images of valour: especially of the Student Volunteer Army and the Farmy Army, costumed in brightly coloured 'vis- vests' (high-visibility vests) and gumboots, and armed with shovels and wheelbarrows, marching into afflicted neighbourhoods. …

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