Isabel Stuart: The Feelings in the Room: Reframing Emotions in (post) COVID-19 Theatre Spectators

What happens when audiences return to the theatre after this time away? How have our feelings about being part of a live audience changed because of the pandemic and what does this tell us about affective encounters in the theatre? Using Travis Alabanza’s Overflow – performed in December 2020 at the Bush Theatre in London – as a case study, this presentation explores the ways in which Covid-19 has reframed how we think about the emotions of going to, and being present at, the theatre. I argue that the experience of the past year has revealed the layers of affect and profusion of emotions that spectators experience while at the theatre, and that there is political value in paying attention to the wide range of emotions that are felt and the contexts in which they are created.

To demonstrate the complexity of the affective encounter during Overflow, I explore the paradox of experiencing what I felt to be a collective, joyful desire amongst the audience to ‘lift up’ the atmosphere of the performance and create a supportive space for the performer, while remaining acutely aware of the conditions of the pandemic. Building on Jill Dolan’s assertion that utopian moments at the theatre can ‘lifts everyone slightly above the present, in a hopeful feeling of what the world might be like’ (Dolan 2005), I argue that the collective, joyous atmosphere during Overflow was complicated and enriched by new feelings of anxiety and risk that are now associated with the audience as a result of the pandemic.

In light of this, I follow Sara Ahmed’s thinking that there is always a multitude of feelings ‘in the room’ which need to be acknowledged and explored, especially post-pandemic (Ahmed, 2004). I will end by looking at some responses from audience members who felt indifferent towards Overflow and ask what it means to feel unmoved in a year where collective emotions have been so high, and what the political value of experiencing feelings like indifference at the theatre might be.

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