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  3. Performing Memory: project background

Performing Memory: project background

The Project: background

Memory – individual and collective – has been central to the processes of redefining and representing identities in post-Apartheid South Africa. In the rush to produce ‘new’ histories, and define a ‘new’ South Africa, the focus upon memory has not only affected how archives are constructed, but also how they are ‘performed’. This project aims to analyse the implications of these processes, and their impact upon cultural practices, including the theatrical, broadly defined.

A key element of the project lies in a comparative exploration of how ‘identity’ is constructed and performed – taking ‘performed’ to signify behaviour that is rehearsed or learnt. The notion of ‘embodied’ memory is particularly important in highlighting the presence or absence of the subject in the construction of personal and communal identities within South Africa – a country struggling to identify itself in relation to a traumatic recent past. Although a range of media comes within the project’s purview, the dominant conceptual and communicative metaphor will be theatrical, with an emphasis upon the following hypotheses:

  • That memory functions as a key element in contemporary South African re-imagining of historical events
  • That this re-imagining involves new definitions of personal and national identity
  • That the insertion of personal narratives within the memory-driven re-imaginings of individual, communal and social identities by current theatre practitioners is creating significant challenges to state-defined versions of the ‘rainbow nation’
  • That these personal narratives are shifting from a ‘realist’ and ‘verbatim’ aesthetic towards more exaggerated, hyper-theatricalised forms

These hypotheses have led us to ask the following questions:

  • How does recent theatrical practice in South Africa represent longing or nostalgia for a new homeland?
  • How is the historical narratives of the country being internalised through newly dramatised forms of consciousness?
  • What specific theatrical forms represent regressive and/or emerging structures of self in the community?
  • Is there a sense in which the clash of different memories and imaginative forms is transforming definitions of theatre and identity in South Africa?

The collaboration between Dr Hutchison (Warwick) and Professor Walder (Open) has been established to enable a mutually enriching engagement with these important questions, and to seek a better understanding of the relation between theatrical practices broadly conceived, and ways of defining or redefining identity in the postcolonial state.

Dr Hutchison aims to focus upon particular archives, museums and performances, as they contribute to the encoding of the nation, as well as providing alternative embodied memories; Professor Walder is focusing upon how the testimony-theatre of the Apartheid era has been transformed into a new way of responding to the present through memory. These aims are seen as overlapping and complementary, hence the desire to supervise two postgraduates researching in parallel as far as is practicable in terms of the two institutions involved.

Aims and objectives

The project aims to explore the relationship between memory and identity, particularly in terms of how identities have been structured and ‘performed’, and the role personal and collective memories have played in these performative processes. It will explore how South Africa has encoded itself linguistically (through oral and written narrative), spatially and temporally (through physical embodiments such as archives, memorials, installations, exhibitions, and plays). The historical boundaries of the project include the Apartheid period, the transition to democracy, to the new millennium.

The focus of the research lies primarily upon theatre and performance, rather than social, religious, legal or political perspectives. It particularly aims to engage with how specifically African cultural forms have impacted upon the negotiation of South Africa’s current social values and ideological paradigms, through examining the relationship between archival and embodied knowledge, or lived experience; and the role performance plays insofar as it facilitates dialogue between audience and performer. The fact that performance demands embodied subjects raises questions about the way state or public narratives intersect with cultural narratives more narrowly defined, especially in terms of marginal communities or groups identified in racial or gender terms. The issue of reliability is also key, given the complex ways in which memory defines both personal and national identities, their construction and de- or re-construction.


It is intended that an archive of materials collected as part of the research will be created, to be lodged in the Ferguson Centre as part of a South African Theatre Archive, initially established with the research materials gathered over many years by Professor Walder and made available to both students.


Jenny Doubt, BA (McGill) MA (Sussex) is joining the Ferguson Centre from 1 February 2010 for three years as a fully-funded PhD student to work with Dennis Walder on the Leverhulme Research Project 'Performing Memory: Theatricalising Identity in Contemporary South Africa'. Jenny is an experienced researcher and freelance editor, and her provisional thesis topic is 'Making Memory Work: Performing and Inscribing AIDS in post-TRC South Africa'.

As part of the collaborative aspect of the project, a second studentship has been awarded to Awolani Moyo, a South African theatre director and performer, who will be working simultaneously with Dr Yvette Hutchison, of the School of Performing Arts, University of Warwick, on 'Performing Diaspory and Memory'.

The Leverhulme Trust has also provided funding for fieldwork in South Africa, and for a cataloguer to work on Professor Walder's South African Theatre Archive. Hutchsion and Walder are both currently preparing publications about memory and performance in South Africa and beyond.

The project was initiated by Dennis Walder and Yvette Hutchison (Warwick) in 2009 as a collaborative development of their ongoing individual work on South African Theatre - that is to say, Hutchison's work on memory and performance, and Walder's work on theatre as 'witness' especially in relation to Athol Fugard (see publications).

Link to project website at Warwick University