Action hero: A Lexicon, Introduction & A-Z


Action Hero first came to my attention, purely by chance, when I happened to fall upon a review of A Western in The Guardian in 2009. The review by Lyn Gardner was highly positive and enthusiastic, and I was immediately intrigued by a company who, in Alan Read’s borrowing of Bruno Latour’s terminology, seemed committed to expanding‘the performance collective’ to include westerns, a filmic genre that has long resisted the black box enclosure of theatre (2013: 93). On the strength of Gardner’s resonant and sensitive piece of writing, and working, as i was at the time, in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies at Aberystwyth University, i booked them to perform at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. As I remember it, they arrived in the late spring of 2011, and brought their show Watch Me Fall to the main hall. They played two nights, and on the second night i returned again with my family – something that i only rarely do, given my eldest son’s disdain for experimental performance art. Some postgraduate students said i had a smile on my face all night. i imagine i must have looked like an idiot, a word i have often embraced for its stubborn refusal to make polite sense or to fall in line with accepted avant-garde definitions of good taste.

Looking back at it now, what attracted to me Action Hero on that spring night in Aberystwyth was their ability to make playful, clever and generous performance. They had no fear of looking stupid or playing the fool, and i admired them for it. in a sense, we could see Action Hero’s work as amateur performance in the double sense of the word. For not only are their performances rooted in a decidedly ‘DIY’ aesthetic, a kind of proper, that is, non-metaphoric version of Jerzy Grotowski’s ‘poor theatre’, but there is a generous affection – a love or amor – for the performance styles and genres they so assiduously and ethically deconstruct. This is not to say, of course, that Action Hero are somehow inept as performers, lacking basic skills and forever tumbling into chaos. That’s the very reverse of what i am struggling to say. Rather what i want to suggest by my use of the word ‘amateurism’ in this context, is a kind of open-minded spirit or attitude to performance that is willing to take risks, to engage in certain, impossible tasks that one is decidedly ill- equipped for – embodying the roles of stuntman, rock star, basketball player, cheerleader, and boxer, for instance.

In order to remain faithful to the performed amateurishness of Action Hero, this introduction to their work – what i have called a lexicon – is not a conventional history, detailing themes, performances and evolutions in chronological order. On the contrary, it is best approached as a kind of homage to Action Hero’s own dramaturgical structures and rule-based activities, a kind of doubling of a doubling, then. Moreover, unlike a standard lexicon that usually attempts to provide an alphabetic organization of a given subject or body of knowledge in a largely systematic and exhaustive sense, my lexicon or A-Z is decidedly personal and idiosyncratic. it does not seek to offer anything definitive or objective. Other spectators and lovers of Action Hero will undoubtedly have their own lexicon, and that’s exactly as it should be. The aim here is not to totalise but to suggest, to encourage the production of Borgesian lists of endless possibility and potential (1).

Two further pieces of explanation:
First, my lexicon for Action Hero is not some innocent user guide devoid
of all theorisation (how can one ever do that?); rather, it picks out key ideas, terms, and practices from their performances and attempts to relate these (at times) to general concepts from the wider field of theatre and performance. it is focused on Action Hero’s work from 2010-2015, and centres, exclusively, on work that i have seen: namely, A Western (2005), Watch Me Fall (2009), Frontman (2010), Hoke’s Bluff (2013) and Slap Talk (2013). There is no mention of relatively new work such as Wrecking Ball (2015) or Extraordinary Rendition (2015) in this lexicon. This not out of some fetish for liveness – much of my memory here has been supplemented by works on vimeo and by looking at printed performance texts – but simply because these pieces are unknown to me, and had not yet been documented at the time of writing (see Extraordinary Rendition in this volume, pp.167-183).

Second, the writing in the text is purposefully fragmentary, and, at times, elliptical. There are also lists of information about objects and songs that, in my view, speak for themselves, offering insights into Action Hero’s practice that have no need of further parsing. From a purely structural perspective, i also like how the lists of information break up the flow of writing and produce different rhythms, a dramaturgy of the page, if you will. This is part of a methodology of expression, a kind of praxis that seeks in some small way to communicate my own attempts at understanding what the work is doing, the way that it makes me think, in other words. To package a response to Action Hero in a manner that would totalise or purport to grasp the meaning of their performances in some definitive sense would be to flatten and misrepresent their own provocative mode of operation. One of the reasons why i have always liked Action Hero’s work is because it calls out for some sort of interpretation or engagement. Why are they doing this? What does it tell us about the world? How does it relate to the history of theatre and performance practice? This lexicon is intended to convey – and thus salvage, albeit belatedly and weakly – some sense of that perplexity. To that degree, it is directly opposed to a dominant trend in university teaching that would seem, sadly, to be welcomed by many students and administrators on account of its explanatory power, its disturbing ability to pigeonhole contemporary work by corralling it within a conceptual framework that can be easily consumed and regurgitated as ‘tick box’ knowledge. As such, and against such reactionary pedagogy, my aim here is not to explain Action Hero but to give an account of my experience of their performances, which, as the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has argued in Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience (2006), is something that never comes to end and which problematises all desire for neat explanation and hermeneutic closure.

1 My thinking here has been influenced by Ric Allsopp’s and David Williams’s alternative notion of a lexicon (2006) as well as by Maria Delgado’s personal alphabet for the French playwright Bernard Marie Koltès (2011).


The word action designates an act that has been done, carried out, practised – hence its intimate relationship with theatre and performance, both of which are cultural activities premised on doing(s). An action hero, then, is, to all extent and purpose, a tautology. For as defined by Aristotle in the Poetics, the hero of tragedy is not defined by what he or she is as a substance, an in-itself or essence, we might say, but rather by what s/he does. In the vernacular of the late twentieth-century, the term action hero was used by film critics to designate a particular kind of actor in a new genre of cinema – the action film. The hero was predominately white, male and muscled – key players were Sly Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and perhaps best of all Chuck Norris. They were usually advocates for neo-liberal values (the action hero was born in the Reaganite 1980s) and the narratives they found themselves at the centre of were predictably violent and redemptive. The action hero was a saviour. James Stenhouse and Gemma Paintin are neither overtly muscled nor particularly violent, and neither are they uniquely male. They offer us a different kind of action hero – a divided hero in whose being a whole series of binary oppositions collapse: USA/UK, comedy/tragedy, spectator/audience, acting/performing, here/there. Through their deconstructions of time, space and gender, the action hero is repositioned, perhaps even reduced to its fundamental essence – at least in its originary Aristotelian sense. in Paintin and Stenhouse’s work, the action hero is, quite simply, a person who does things, carries out tasks; someone who stands there and performs for us, in other words. in this way, the term action hero ceases to be tautological.



Andy Field, the programmer and artist, and one of Action Hero’s longstanding supporters, told me on a wet Sunday morning in Glasgow in May 2015 that Gemma and James refer to themselves in private as Action Zero. I like that; it makes sense. Within the context of this ‘A to Z,’ there is even, somewhat bizarrely, a formal logic to it. For what else is a zero, if not a big O, a circle of nothingness, in which beginnings and endings, the Alpha and Omega, are indistinguishable? 24 long letters ago, i suggested that the rationale of Action Hero’s work is to deconstruct the Aristotelian notion of the hero as a lofty figure who inspires fear and pity. And here at the very end of that lexicon, on the slopes of the letter Z, i’d like to propose that Action Hero’s playful act of zero-ing (if we can say that) is the very thing that fulfils that deconstructive operation. importantly – and this resonates with many of the points I have made – it does so in a way that chimes with Bertolt Brecht’s famous citation in Life of Galileo about the need to pity lands ‘where heroes are needed’ (2008: 129). By replacing the hero with a zero, Action Hero problematise the very premise of their name, erasing and complicating everything it appears to suggest, for the sake, i would propose, of a playful liberation; one that draws upon Brechtian techniques of alienation but with an Absurdist sense of the ridiculous. What we experience here is our own weakness in a world where all pretensions have been punctured. There is a certain generosity in that experience, a humility that I respect and would like, on my best days, to embrace.

Carl Lavery, 2015

Carl Lavery is Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of numerous books and articles about contemporary theatre, including, most recently, the Performance Research edition on Ruins and Ruination (June 2015) and Rethinking the Theatre of the Absurd: Ecology, Environment and the Greening of the Modern Stage (2015).

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