A photograph of a long, straight road lined with utility poles going off into the distance. On either side of the road are empty green fields. The sky is filled with dark grey clouds which are coloured by the golden-orange sunset. The sun is also depicted setting on the right side of the photo.

Performance and Pandemic:

Mirrored Themes in Life and On-Stage

Saturday, June 26, 2021 | 15:00 - 16: 30

Live panel on Zoom; spoken in English. No ASL interpretation or translation will be offered for this event.

Sponsored by the University of Manitoba, Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media

(Chair: Julie Burelle) Olivia Michiko Gagnon, Hannah Rizun & Katrina Dunn

Join Now in Room D

Moving Through Crisis: Sculpture and Score in Mariana Valencia’s “Solo B”


In this paper, I spend time with Mariana Valencia’s recent performance “Solo B” (2020), which was adapted for an online environment when her commission for The Shed in New York City was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving between reflections on the work’s formal transfiguration for its shift online, on the one hand, and its conceptual engagement with the poses of classical and pre-Columbian sculptures and a contemporary movement score, on the other, I ask what Valencia’s transhistorical performance––its meditations on bodies and race, kinship and healing––can teach us about (literally and figuratively) moving through crisis.


Olivia Michiko Gagnon is Assistant Professor of Theatre in the Department of Theatre & Film at UBC, where she writes and teaches across performance studies, critical race theory, queer and feminist theory, and critical Indigenous studies. She is currently working on her first monograph which theorizes closeness as a minoritarian method of doing history through art & performance and beyond archival stricture. Her writing has appeared in ASAP/Journal, Canadian Theatre Review, emisférica, Syndicate, and Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, where she was Managing Editor from 2017 – 2019 and is co-editor (with James McMaster) of a special issue titled The Between: Couple Forms, Performing Together. She has also written for the Vancouver Art Gallery (with Monika Kin Gagnon) and the New Museum, and was formerly Managing Editor of HemiPress at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics in New York City. She received her PhD from the Department of Performance Studies at NYU and was formerly a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University.

“… he suddenly kisses her passionately on top of her mask”: Arousal and contagion in Kevin Kerr’s Unity (1918)


On September 2nd 2020, The Globe and Mail reported that Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief medical officer, recommended that Canadians “consider wearing a mask when having sex to protect yourself from catching the coronavirus” (Gordon). Likely the only national performance culture that can boast an influential, award-winning play about a flu epidemic, Canadian theatre did the pandemic before the pandemic when multiple productions of Kevin Kerr’s Unity (1918) sprang up at mid-sized theatres and universities in the early 2000s. Unlike Dr. Tam’s advice, the link that Kerr makes between arousal and contagion in his eerily prescient play is not simply one of protection. Instead, the sexual connections he crafts are charged by the atmosphere of contagion and emerge transcendent and uniting: love blooms in a mortuary littered with corpses, a young woman risks all to “see herself” through the lips of blind, dying man, a WWI soldier gazes between the legs of a prostitute and sees through to the other side of existence. Mark Robson notes that the first half of the 20th C brought us unprecedented purges, exterminations, and technologies of war that asked us to consider death on a new scale (he doesn’t mention the estimated 50 million deaths attributed to the Spanish Flu epidemic). “This presents a challenge to theatre, which has always been better at portraying exemplary figures than it has been at staging collective experience” (42). In this paper I argue that Unity (1918)’s surprising knitting of sexual arousal to contagion, ravaging illness, and death, offers audiences a rare opportunity in the theatre to experience both sex and death collectively, in the alone/together space so painfully unique to pandemic times.

Works Cited

Gordon, Julie, “Wear a mask while having sex, Dr. Theresa Tam suggests.” The Globe and Mail, 2 September 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-wear-a-mask-whilehaving-sex-dr-theresa-tam-suggests/

Kerr, Kevin. Unity (1918). Talonbooks, 2002.

Robson, Mark. Theatre & Death. Macmillan International, 2019.


Dr. Katrina Dunn is an Assistant Professor in the University of Manitoba’s Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media where she teaches in the Theatre Program. Her scholarly work explores the spatial manifestations of theatre as well as ecocritical theatre. Dunn has twice been awarded the Robert G. Lawrence Prize for an Emerging Scholar by CATR, first in 2015 and then sharing the award in 2017. She was also one of the 2017 recipients of the Heather McCallum Award. Katrina’s long career as a stage director and producer has had considerable impact on the performing arts in western Canada and has been recognized with numerous awards. She commissioned, produced, and directed the original production of Unity (1918). She is a graduate of UBC’s Department of Theatre and Film.

The only way forward is together: Bilodeau’s Sila, breath, and images of the Covid-19 pandemic


Weaving together the human and the non-human animal, Chantal Bilodeau’s 2014 play, Sila, centers upon the concept of breath. “Sila,” the Inuktitut word for “the breath that circulates into every living thing,” came to dominate not only the narrative of the story, but the ways in which the play was performed: a puppeteer slowly reflected a hand-held halogen light off a pile of coloured gel, as if the light itself was breathing, and a soundscape was recorded by using the breath of the actors. The play also breathes life into two polar puppets – the non-human animals through which we understand the ramifications of climate change in the Arctic. By centering on breath, Sila is able to articulate the fragility of our lives and our ecosystems.

Images of breathing also dominated media depictions and discourses surrounding the novel coronavirus. Indeed, the need for ventilators, respirators and personal protective equipment (PPE) was a key concern during the spring wave of the pandemic. The question of mask-wearing has further divided the population; as I write this, anti-mask protests are on the rise in Canada. While all of this is taking place, however, news coverage has centred on a newly thriving ecological system in the absence of rampant pollution. Nature, it seems, is able to breathe again. Here arrives the central tension of our current political climate and of Bilodeau’s Sila: for nature to breathe, do we need to be stifled? Are we able to breathe in a way that does not destroy our ecosystems? I turn to Bilodeau’s Sila to think about competing ontological views of non-human nature, and the ways in which theatre creates space to come together in collective breath.


Hannah Rizun has a M.A. in English Literature from the University of Victoria, focusing on works by Canadian playwright, Joan MacLeod. She is currently finishing a Bachelor of Education degree at the University of British Columbia, and she is looking forward to applying for doctoral programs in the coming years.