Brian Lobel: Performance, Politics and Public Health

Brian Lobel
In conversation with Ella Parry-Davies

At the opening of his autobiographical play BALL (2008), Brian Lobel tells the audience,

I’m sorry, I often take it for granted that some people may not know that This Is A Story About Cancer, or at least, sort of about cancer – but I don’t die at the end, so this is probably less dramatic than you want it to be. Sorry to disappoint you.1

The provocative ‘sorry-not-sorry’ is characteristic of Lobel’s approach to talking about cancer: vernacular, unapologetic, brassy. His flippancy belies a profound critical care both for people experiencing illness and disability, and for the ways such experiences are narrated and performed, allowing him to puncture the moralising humanitarian tropes through which ‘care’ has more canonically been signposted and interpreted. The humour is the critique. In conversation, it’s hard not to join him in a disarmingly playful tone that cuts through the norms of relationships mediated by academic institutions. For once it made sense to be talking to a colleague at my kitchen table. Preparing for the conversation you can watch below, I assumed that, like most people who make creative work and then must take the (often unpaid) time to mediate, promote and recuperate it for audiences like funding bodies and researchers, Brian would be sick of recapping his history of work. So this discussion gets straight to the point, placing the terms of this Interventions issue – performance, politics and public health – in the ring from the outset. Links below the video are provided to guide you into the histories and scholarship behind the conversation, for those who want to dig deeper. I asked Brian if I should send him some questions in advance. “Let’s go full improv,” he replied.

Illness as Metaphor, by Susan Sontag
The Jimmy Fund
The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Smile or Die, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Henrietta Lacks
The ‘Tuskegee Experiment’
Undocumented migrants not accessing NHS healthcare during COVID-19
The number of COVID-19 excess deaths in the UK was reported as the highest in Europe
‘Cripping up’ critique of Sia’s Music
The Sick of the Fringe Festival

Brian Lobel is a performer, teacher and curator who is interested in creating work about bodies and how they are watched, policed, poked, prodded and loved by others. His work has been shown internationally in a range of contexts from Harvard Medical School, to Sydney Opera House, to the National Theatre (London) and Lagos Theatre Festival, blending provocative humour with insightful reflection. Last year, his book Theatre & Cancer was published by Red Globe Press. Brian has received commissions and grants from the Wellcome Trust, Complicite Jerwood, and Arts Council England, among others. Brian is a Professor of Theatre & Performance at Rose Bruford College, and the co-founder of The Sick of the Fringe

Ella Parry-Davies is a practitioner-researcher working on performance in contexts of transnational migration, and facilitates a collection of soundwalks co-edited with migrant domestic workers at She is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London.

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  1. Brian Lobel (2008) ‘BALL: The Script’, Text and Performance Quarterly, 28:1-2, 160-177, DOI: 10.1080/10462930701754416

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