Theses Doctoral

Staging Sleep: Labor, Care, and Rest in Contemporary Performance

Drees, Danielle Nicole

Staging Sleep: Labor, Care, and Rest in Contemporary Performance examines an archive of plays and performances from the past forty years—which I term sleep theatre—including dramatic literature that foregrounds sleep and sleeplessness and performance art in which the artist sleeps in front of an audience. Contemporary theatre about sleep exposes the roots of sleep loss in overwork, healthcare disparities, and housing insecurity and imagines alternative social possibilities for sustainable rest. I understand the concerns and possibilities raised by sleep theatre through the framework of social reproduction theory, a feminist analysis of the vital forms of labor antecedent to commodity production, including housework and dependent care, that keep us all alive. I reorient theatre scholarship on sleep away from psychoanalytic readings of staged dreams and toward an understanding of sleep as a political act shaped by social and material contexts. In Staging Sleep, I argue that studying sleep in theatre and performance art offers new insights into social relations of care and interdependence among performers and spectators, and that sleep onstage not only critiques inhumane economic arrangements but also imagines myriad new social configurations that value rest over work.

Staging Sleep begins in 1980, in the immediate aftermath of two decades of international Marxist feminist organizing that saw politicized housewives agitating for recognition of the value of both their work and their leisure. I demonstrate how sleep theatre expands and complicates this political legacy, beginning with the continuing global assault on welfare and unions in the 1980s. In my first chapter, I track how pioneering socialist feminist playwright Caryl Churchill develops the sleepless housewife as a character type, bringing sleep to the stage in a new way as a linchpin of her critique of the family. I then track sleep in theatre as a site of experimentation informed by feminist, queer, and disability studies through the 2010s. Chapter 2 explores sleep in plays by Sarah Kane, Maria Irene Fornes, and Peggy Shaw at the nexus of illness, friendship, and a fraying welfare state. Chapter 3 examines how directors stage homeless sleep in four recent adaptations of Cymbeline from the UK and South Sudan. My final chapter asks how performance itself creates the care and attention necessary to sustain sleep in the globe-touring, iterative performance artworks Best Place to Sleep and Black Power Naps.

Sleep performances imagine, enact, and test the limits of very different configurations of labor and rest: ways of life in which caretaking labor is redistributed, and resilience and health become collective concerns rather than individual responsibilities. I suggest that sleep performance is a nascent theatrical phenomenon that will continue to reappear as politically-minded artists work through the theatrical possibilities of spectatorship, site, and immersion in the context of deep questions of everyday justice and equity. Staging Sleep shows how theatre can exploit and transform the weirdness of watching someone sleep, or of falling asleep in the audience, into a restructuring of our practices of work and rest, space and shelter, toward ensuring safe and restorative sleep as a universal right.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Howard, Jean E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 5, 2021