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Viewers in Distress

Race, Gender, Religion, and Avant-Garde Performance at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century

Subjects: Theater and Performance, Race and Ethnicity
Paperback : 9780472056323, 216 pages, 8 illustrations, 6 x 9, July 2023
Hardcover : 9780472076321, 216 pages, 8 illustrations, 6 x 9, July 2023
Open Access : 9780472903702, 216 pages, 8 illustrations, 6 x 9, July 2023
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The changing politics of reception, and how rebellious spectators are redefining the avant-garde

Table of contents




Introduction: “Can We All Get Along?”                                                                   

Chapter 1: The Radical Formalism of Suzan-Lori Parks and Sarah Kane    

Chapter 2: A Spectator Prepares: Forced Entertainment’s Theatre of Critical         


Chapter 3: The Behzti Riot as a Contemporary Avant-Garde                                  

Chapter 4: Feeling Bad about Being White: Young Jean Lee’s Theatre and           

the Progressive Avant-Garde

Coda: The Liberal Individual’s Postmodern Return



Conventional notions of avant-garde art suggest innovative artists rebelling against artistic convention and social propriety, shocking unwilling audiences into new ways of seeing and living. Viewers in Distress tells a different story. Beginning in the tumultuous 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the wake of the Los Angeles riots, rebellious spectators in American and British theaters broke with theater decorum and voiced their radical interpretations of shows that were not meant to be radical. In doing so, audiences tried to understand the complex racial, gender, and religious politics of their times, while insisting that liberal societies fulfill their promise of dignity for all. Stefka Mihaylova argues that such non-conforming viewing amounts to an avant-garde of its own: a bold reimagining of how we live together and tell stories of our lives together, aimed to achieve liberalism’s promise. In telling this story, she analyzes the production and reception politics of works by Susan-Lori Parks, Sarah Kane, Forced Entertainment, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, and Young Jean Lee, as well as non-theatrical controversies such as the conflict over Halloween costumes at Yale in 2015. At the core of spectators’ discontent, this book suggests, is an effort to figure out how to get along with people different from ourselves in the diverse U.S. and British societies in which we live.

Stefka G. Mihaylova is Associate Professor of Theatre Theory and Criticism at the University of Washington.

“This text maps a potential sea change in how we understand a work’s historical significance and ideological valence—a moment when ‘reliance on the formal qualities of an artwork’ has become not just problematic, but virtually useless. Even more troubling, it maps a collapse of the principles of Western liberalism. This is heady, thrilling, and, yes, deeply troubling stuff—and the epitome of critical scholarship.”

- Mike Sell, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

“Thought-provoking and drawing effectively on a wide range of scholarship . . . the author’s reading of these performances (and their reception) provides nuance and detail that works well for someone familiar with those performances or encountering them for the first time.”

- Susan Bennett, University of Calgary