Despite the (understandable) anthro-centrism of theatre and performance, there may be no subject more pressing in the present moment than the nonhuman, writ large. As I argued in this issue's call for papers, theatre has always relied upon nonhuman forces—from stage spectacle to nonhuman animals (live, pantomimed, imitated, or metaphorical), from technologies to environmental or site-based scenarios, from the chimeric figure to the mechanical robot. Nonhuman figures historically have populated texts and stages: from the Dog of Montargis and the robots of R.U.R. to the Chinese White Snake discussed within one of this issue's essays; actors "exit, pursued by a bear" and co-create figures with masks or puppets. Animals, chimeras, and spirits have long been central to ritual and religious performances. Often, this reliance upon the nonhuman is in service to entertainment (often at the nonhuman's expense, especially in the case of animals), allegory, or represents human emotions and fears. Artistic worldviews are beginning to reposition human/nonhuman relations, as noted, for example, in Caryl Churchill's Far Away: "the cats have come in on the side of the French." Practitioners are moving the nonhuman more centrally onstage, turning to bio-art, cyborg figures, animals, and environments devoid of human actors, all in an attempt to relate or evoke the nonhuman.
After centuries of damaging environmental practices, and now facing climate disaster, it is necessary to better acknowledge our intertwinement and reliance upon nonhuman elements—animals, insects, seas, forests, and so on. There is a growing need to figure out what to do and how to do it in relation to the nonhuman. This special issue is a small attempt at foregrounding this sea change and bringing the nonhuman into greater focus within theatre practices. Theatre and performance criticism, critical theory, and popular culture are now populated with terms to describe a condition, a time, or a mode of thought that broadens a decidedly anthropocentric world. From Deleuze and Guattari's "becomings-," through the many iterations of the "posthuman," the widely accepted "Anthropocene," to Donna Haraway's "Chthulucene," scholars are concerned with bringing human and nonhuman relations into greater proximity. These are themes I grapple with in my own research into human/animal/technological triangulations, and ones that drive many investigations into the nonhuman. In addition to the recent proliferation of practical suggestions addressing personal and collective habits that can begin to right ecological imbalances, it may be useful to also turn to the nonhuman as a crucial category within theatre and performance to begin to understand their "repertoires"—a concept pace Diana Taylor—that emerges in the issue.
This special issue, then, foregrounds the nonhuman not as a turn away from the (many) ongoing human concerns, indignities, and inequalities in the current global climate, but rather to suggest that a "nonhuman turn," as Richard Grusin has put it, might make us, as humans, more attuned and responsive to our reliance upon nonhuman others. In his edited collection The Nonhuman Turn, Grusin proposes that "[t]o turn toward the nonhuman is not only to confront the nonhuman but to lose the traditional way of the human, to move aside so that other nonhumans—animate and less animate—can make their way, turn toward movement themselves" (xxi). My own investment in a "becoming-animate," which I proposed in a Theatre Journal essay in December 2006 and have been developing since as an interrelation and reverberation between human/nonhuman/technological forces, propels the ideas in this issue, and how nonhuman forms and figures move through theatre and performance is the focus of the issue.
As this is also my final special issue as editor of Theatre Journal, I have been thinking about it as a kind of bookend to Ric Knowles's 2013 special issue, "Interspecies Performance," in which my own essay "Animal Ontologies and Media Representations: Robotics, Puppets, and the Real of War Horse" appeared, just before I took on the role as coeditor of the journal. Like Knowles's interest in interspecies performance, which emerged out of both intercultural and interdisciplinary concerns, this special issue's focus on the "nonhuman," which aims to examine and encounter nonhuman figures in theatre and performance practices, is always-already entangled with human cultural and disciplinary "inters-." In the essays, nonhuman figures and forms offer challenges to design practices and are cultural metaphors; they are hybridized and they are also themselves, silently reminding human inhabitants on the earth of all of our shared fragility.
As I began thinking about the ideas for this special issue, I was fortunate to hear, at the 2017 ASTR conference, a version of the first essay, Tracy Davis's "How Do You Know a Mermaid When You See One? How Do You See a Mermaid When You Know One?" As she shared the many theatrical "merfolk" that have created a theatrical repertoire over time, I was mesmerized and began to think about this special issue as one grounded in history—the nonhuman; here a mythic, fictitious figure stands for imaginative understandings of creatures woven through human imaginaries. Davis's essay takes readers through an extraordinary archive of theatrical history of these merfolk; through stage décor, costume, movement, and shape, she identifies a nonhuman repertoire to provide a "representational history" that "reckon[s] with the problem of corporeality within an artistic practice" over 200 years. Unlike depictions of such nonhuman figures in other forms like art and literature, these mermaids are on the move, embodied, and present challenges to theatre designers. You will notice that this essay has more photographs than usual for Theatre Journal, but we felt that they are integral to Davis's argument that the archive (largely found in the Theater-wissenschaftliche Sammlung of the Universität zu Köln) produces an accumulative repertoire that continues into the twenty-first century. Additionally, I would like to point to our online platform, where Davis and online editor Margherita Laera have produced an additional photo essay to accompany this text. Here and elsewhere in the issue, nonhumans propel the human imagination, becoming a way of understanding the unknowable or acting as liminal figures between other nonhuman forces.
The "interspecies imaginary" takes a chronological leap forward in Rishika Mehrishi's "Sinner Scorpions and Erotic Women: Interspecies Imaginaries in Indian Song-and-Dance Sequences," in which the liminal figure becomes the performing body itself, here in the form of a scorpion. Although scorpions manifest through songs in Indian films from Madhumati in 1958 to Chamatkar in 1992, and onward into a music video by singer Ila Arun, "Scorpion" in 1994, they emerge from the theatrical vocabularies that regional dance-dramas share with film. In this essay, Mehrishi draws attention to how the nonhuman in performance shapes and articulates (gendered) South Asian erotic desires and challenges heteronormative structures not only through the metaphor of the scorpion, but through shared embodiments in which female dancers perform both as scorpion stinging and victim stung. Drawing on contemporary animal studies research, Mehrishi examines how these song-and-dance sequences work, following Kim Marra's work, to "queerly" blur the interspecies boundaries. Nonhuman others have provided the vocabularies in histories, movements, and corporeality itself through which the "human" has evolved—there are no borders.
Interactions and integrations with nonhuman animals or insects are never far removed from the technological other, and in Tarryn Li-Min Chun's "Mediated Transgression and Madame White: Technology and the Nonhuman in Contemporary Stagings of a Chinese Folktale," this provocative triangulation becomes a lens through which to examine the human/nonhuman transformations of the famous tale, the Legend of the White Snake. Chun looks at three versions of this tale—the Taiwanese opera company Ming Hwa Yuan's White Snake Spectacular (2004), director Zhang Yimou's Impression West Lake (2007), and Italian Giacomo Ravicchio's White Snake at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre (2009)—to see how "screens, projections, and other technological enhancements introduce a new form of otherness to the tale." She argues for a uniquely hybrid form that extends and transforms the tale, characters, actors, and the stage itself (and here also, please turn to our online platform for a playlist to accompany the essay). Like other "cyborgean forms," the intersections and interweavings between humans and nonhumans inform each other indelibly, leaving traces of one in the other.
Moving from the imaginary through the hybridized, the nonhuman permeates human stories and performances. However, in "Beyond the Scenic: Trees as Participants in Theatre and Performance," Megan De Roover turns readers to the "thing" itself, here in the form of trees. Despite having appeared in, as, and on theatrical stages for centuries, in this "nonhuman turn," De Roover asks us to consider trees as "exemplary nonhuman co-participants in theatre and performance." Thinking with Diana Taylor's "archive and repertoire," De Roover reminds us of the important archival roles that trees have played onstage as subject (as the cherry orchard, for example) and as prop or scenery, before providing a range of embodied, repertoire-based encounters with three arboreal case studies: the Anne Frank Tree, the tree Methuselah, and quaking aspen trees. This essay argues for a shift from representational recognition to one in which trees are understood as agentially possible participants in human/nonhuman performance events. Similar to the increasing focus on the nonhuman animal in the growing field of animal studies, a focus on trees, plants, and other environmental elements has driven an ecological performance turn, and addressing the nonhuman as a force itself is a crucial rebalancing act.
Humans and the nonhuman elements/others around us are in a critical and ongoing interrelationship; all our lives depend upon one another. The print issue closes with an evocative call: Peta Tait's "Enveloping the Nonhuman: Australian Aboriginal Performance" looks to close a gap on the "hyper-separation" between humans and the environment around us. Tait argues for theatre and performance as a means by which to reduce this gap, building on her observations about nonhuman forces and figures through an analysis of her own embodied responses to works by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island performer/companies Marrugeku (Burrbgaja Yalirra and Cut the Sky) and Bangarra (Dark Emu). These works draw on Australian Aboriginal performance that conveys "impressions of bodily and sensory transformation across species and elements of the environment." Tait proposes a resonating notion of "enveloping" to understand how the affective impact of these works upon the spectator might reduce a human/nonhuman separation.
Separations are false binaries; humans and nonhumans rely upon each other for survival, and this is seen most clearly in the human relationship with the nonhuman animal, a fraught and violent relationship that is in need of revision. A final essay in this special issue, which was coedited by online editor Margherita Laera, Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca's "The Ethics of Interspecies Performance: Empathy beyond Analogy in Fevered Sleep's Sheep Pig Goat," appears as an online piece on our online platform: https://jhuptheatre.org/theatre-journal. In this essay, Cull Ó Maoilearca looks at how theatre and performance can be a "reciprocally transformative space" for human/nonhuman animal encounters. Through key theoretical engagements between human and nonhuman animals, especially around questions of empathy, she analyzes the project Sheep Pig Goat, which she worked on with UK company Fevered Sleep (2017). Cull Ó Maoilearca's philosophical expertise and practical work on this project combine to show "how bodies and ideas interact in and as forms of life where thinking, acting and 'point of view' take radically differing modalities than those afforded by the still humanist confines of the broad-spectrum." Perhaps it is the ethical encounter that matters most in theatre, this place for a face-to-face encounter. Here, humans might learn from our nonhuman counterparts and together might face an interspecies future, in which we are all agents, working together. Let us hope for and create this future.
In this, my final editorial for Theatre Journal, I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge and thank the long list of excellent editors who have built and shaped this journal and upheld a standard of excellence. I have valued conversations with Ric Knowles and David Román, for example, whose insights into TJ have informed my own editorial choices. I follow in very large footsteps, and none larger than those of Joanne Tompkins, whose diplomacy and intellect, attention to detail, and keen readings were skills I learned and have sought to emulate. Her continued friendship is invaluable to me. The journal is made richer by the book and performance reviews and online editorial team I have been fortunate to work with—Bradley Rogers, Isaiah Wooden, and Margherita Laera (and for a short time with their predecessors Ryan Claycomb, Daniel Sack, and Peter Campbell)—and I value the wisdom of our managing editor Bob Kowkabany and the structures of John Hopkins University Press. I relied throughout my editorship upon the sharp intellect of my editorial assistant Season Butler, who saw things I did not and contributed to the shape of the essays throughout the past four years, and I am grateful to my PhD student Lisa Moravec, whose artistic talents have shaped many of the recent issues' covers. I am lucky to have taken on this role at the same time as Lisa Brenner took on our "sister journal" Theatre Topics, and I have valued her support as we have worked together within ATHE, where our team of Soyica Colbert and now D.J. Hopkins has also helped the journals' visibility in the field. I also have received support from both the University of Roehampton and Royal Holloway, University of London, my employers during my editorship, without which I could not have taken on this role. Finally, I pass the torch on to the capable hands of E.J. Westlake, with whom I have worked for the past two years and who has continued in the spirit I started with Joanne, trying to work together across themes to bring a spectrum of ideas to TJ. I am fortunate to have had such interesting interlocutors during my time at the journal. This special issue was considered in conjunction with E.J.'s December "Water" special issue, and there are many similar themes flowing through them both. I sign off with a big welcome to Sean Metzger as our incoming coeditor with the March 2020 issue and a new team of review editors, book review editor Jason Fitzgerald and performance review editor Patrick Maley. I look forward to watching Theatre Journal grow with this new team.