<Book Review>
Performing Loss: Rebuilding Community through Theater and Writing. Jodi Kanter. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2007.

I did not want to read this book. Not only did I not want to read it, I certainly did not want to respond to it. Let me explain. My work in photography, performance, and memory comes as a result of losing my mother and father, a year apart, while working on my Ph.D. My work doesn’t come easily, as the visceral experience of being a still grieving, always grieving daughter clashes with the mandate I often hear that “there’s no crying in academia.” So, why, when my own grief is more than enough to handle, would I want to subject myself to a book that speaks about our losses and the ability of performance to move us through such grief? Why? Because in Jodi Kanter’s revelation of a book, loss is handled with caring, understanding, and dare I say pluck. There is an honesty to Kanter’s narrative and meta-performance narratives that makes me envious. Indeed, if I could write a book about the intersections of grief and performance, it would be this book. Kanter, quite simply, gives our discipline a ready example of performance history, critical theory, and performance practice. To hearken back to the ubiquitous sales pitches of old—if you read only one book this year about performance make it this one.

At the beginning of Chapter Two, Kanter writes, “Dying involves the mingling of multiple griefs” (30). This mingling is Performing Loss’s greatest attribute. Kanter is able to mingle cultural and personal griefs alongside multiple performative strategies to help ease those losses, while giving them the respect they deserve. Never dreary or morose, the respect Jodi Kanter has for loss is palpable. And this is rare. Kanter acknowledges that as a Western culture, we here in the United States don’t deal well with our grief, our loss. We are ill-equipped to deal with the emotional giving that loss requires of us. At the school where I teach, this semester we have had one professor diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and another professor die, only to be followed by the death of a Head Resident in the dorms. My classes are filled with students numb in their losses. When I ask how they are, they respond with a quick and tidy, “I’m fine. I’m fine,” as they try desperately to turn off their ‘crying switch.’ The minute I ask about how they’re doing, their eyes seem to follow a command. They fear they’ve ‘cried too much’ already. As Kanter explains this challenge:
If we can articulate our losses more honestly, we can create more productive, collective responses to tragedy. If we can register and enact our responses to grief more fully, we can negotiate our own losses without begetting others. And if we can diversify the range of responses to loss we are willing to explore, we can devise more creative and more effective strategies for rebuilding the national community. (2)
Published in 2007 as a part of the Theater in the Americas series by Southern Illinois University Press, Performing Loss has eight sections. Among them, examinations of Great Holes in History; Loss, Performance, and the Future; Race, Class, and Specters of Justice—which analyzes the work of Jamaica Kincaid; Representing National Tragedy, and Loss in Contemporary Culture. A particularly intriguing section of the book about adaptation of literature revolves around Kanter’s assertion that “The process of adaption always entails some measure of loss” (56). This chapter, in particular, would not exist without Kanter’s steady hand at performance history. Succinctly addressing disciplinary tangents, it is our Performance Studies history where Kanter’s deftness is especially evident. Reminding us of the work of Literature in Performance and practicioners like Robert Breen, Beverly Whitaker Long, and Mary Frances HopKins, I couldn’t help but feel visited by performance ghosts that Kanter sends back to look over us in our post-modern, autoethnographic world. Surely they, with Kanter, are whispering a reminder to us, that performance of literature is not passé.

Our move to the auto-narrative is not at fault. We seem to have forgotten that the intimacy we present on stage in autobiographical and authoethnographic work isn’t the only access to intimacy. As Kanter points out, “the direct address of [a] narrator offers a kind of intimacy with the story that no traditional drama can provide.” Citing the work of director Derek Goldman, she continues, that there are “two different kinds of intimacy, that between audience and narrator and that between audience and character” (65). When we adapt literature for the stage, we often cut entirely or limit greatly the narrative voice, thereby failing to fully realize the intimacy before us. We have, at our own hands, created a theatrical loss.

Another strength of Performing Loss is the wealth of performance scripts, assignments, and pedagogical techniques to bring to our own classrooms and performance troupes. From her own process adapting the novel Blindness, to poetry borne out of workshops at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, Kanter does not advocate one mode of performance over another. The doing, or the “showing doing” according to Schechner, is what’s most important. In large measure, Kanter’s variety of performance work is impressive, but it is never ego-centric. In the appendices of the book, for instance, Kanter opens up her experience in a sharing, personal way. A sharing and personal ethic drives the book—to be open and honest is the only way to deal with our losses and our successes. In each performance assignment or technique, Kanter gives credit where credit is due. “Staging from Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints,” for example, shows us that we are all connected more tightly than we are separated by academic paradigms, alma maters, or oxygen-burning hubris. Again, in the Western tradition we have an inability to “mourn collectively” and, consequently, to live collectively. Kanter reminds us of the necessity to do both.

On a final note, I want to thank Jodi Kanter for her contribution to performing loss. Although authors like Annette Kuhn, Peggy Phelan, Della Pollock and others write on the subject, I am left at a loss—no pun intended—by our ability to still side-step the intimacy that loss evokes. It is not about forcing vulnerability, but extending an academic hand of compassion. I think of Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Ehrenreich posits that our effusive passion for all things positive is a result of our inability to empathize. And ultimately, we as a collective are the worse for it. Until we as a collective are able to deal with “the messes,” as Emma Pillsbury describes them in the television show Glee, how can we truly embrace the beauty and joy and life surrounding us? Death is the greatest drama we know. Many of us will be center stage performing our deaths. Others of us won’t have this opportunity, for it will be sudden and without warning. In either case, “Deaths, both aesthetic and real, may become performance by teaching us, as performance does, to value the present” (35).

     — Amy Darnell

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