Theater and Performance

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"Performance" is an influential theoretical paradigm in the arts and humanities, with adherents in disciplines as diverse as anthropology, linguistic philosophy, and theater. Since the early 1980s, thinking about performance has been fostered in "performance studies" programs, disciplinary hybrids with widely variant intellectual genealogies, united by their commitment to performance as their central object and method of research.

Performance Studies' Interdisciplinary Genealogy

Histories of performance studies most frequently cite its formation in the convergence of experimental theater and structuralist anthropology in the late 1960s. Avant-garde theater practitioners in the United States such as Richard Schechner were exploring cultural traditions of performance that fell outside entrenched disciplinary traditions of Western theatrical practice and theater studies. Their work drew on research into archaic ritual and non-Western performance forms, unsettling representational conventions of illusionism and distinctions between artistic disciplines, exploring the significance of neglected parts of the performance process, such as audience response, rehearsal, and training, and blurring the boundaries between art and everyday life. Their investigations coincided with the structural anthropologist Victor Turner's interest in ritual, festival, and other forms of symbolic, collective action. Turner's dramatically inflected analysis of public culture and social events saw performance as the site of a given culture's fullest and most self-conscious expression of its unique values and categories, and the engine of its perpetuation and transformation. Schechner and Turner's research collaboration spurred the formation of New York University's Performance Studies Department in 1980.

The contemporary field of performance studies as a whole owes its genesis to a still broader range of disciplinary interests.

The Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, for example, grew from the tradition of oral interpretation of literature dating back to the late nineteenth century. Attuned to the rhetorical power of acts of verbal and embodied performance, the Northwestern school's interest is still primarily in performance as a mode of human communication that is "creative, constructed, collaborative, and contingent." Influential currents in the sociology and psychology of the 1960s and 1970s also informed the development of performance studies. These included the theorization of play, social dramaturgy, and the presentation of self in everyday life developed in the work of Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois, Erving Goffman, and others, and the interpretive or symbolic anthropology of Clifford Geertz. At its broadest level, performance studies probably owes most to the linguistic turn in the arts and humanities, and its development has been closely aligned with poststructuralist or postmodernist innovation in philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, feminism, area studies, cultural studies, folklore, postcolonial studies, and queer studies.

Performance as Object

As an "interdiscipline," performance studies prides itself on its open, multivocal, and fluid character, refusing to dictate either a core methodology or canonical body of knowledge and resisting a fixed or exclusive definition of performance itself. That said, scholarship that goes under the banner of performance studies has in common a focus on process, action, events, and behaviors, be they physical, verbal, artistic, or technological, and claims performancethe execution or carrying out of thingsas both its object and its method of study. This focus entails abandoning static, object-oriented, or textual approaches to cultural analysis, inclining instead toward processual, interactional, and experiential perspectives. An art historian or archaeologist working in performance studies, for example, might examine how a given object has functioned or been understood over time and in particular material and social contexts; a performance historian might concentrate on situating a historical document in the contexts and moments of its enunciation; an idea or political principle would not be approached in the abstract but through an analysis of its embodied enactment in ceremony, debate, or communal events. In the words of one of its more famous exponents, Dwight Conquergood, performance studies means understanding "culture" as a verb rather than a noun.

Among the basic premises shared by scholars in performance studies is the conviction that performance is one of the most powerful means that humans have for constructing reality, forging and sustaining collectivities, social relationships, and individual identities, and for questioning or imagining them otherwise. Performance is also a means for accomplishing agendas and forwarding arguments, for learning and persuading through the agency of narrative, semiotic communication, corporeal style and training, pleasure, and participation. While performance studies retains close ties to the study of Western theatrical practice, it regards illusionistic, representational theater as but one category in a broad spectrum of performance practices, the majority of which are more concerned with poesis than mimesis, with making (of realities and meanings) rather than faking. Performance studies resists drawing hard and fast lines between aesthetic modes of performance and deliberative or habitual forms of action, arguing instead that analytical models used for either can be productively applied to both. However, the bulk of performance studies scholarship is still drawn to those actions along what Richard Schechner has called the "performance continuum" between everyday enactments and the performing arts, actions that are framed or designated in specific social contexts as performance.

Performance as Method

While performance studies scholars espouse a range of often innovative methodologies, the ephemeral, subjective nature of performance as its subject matter poses unique challenges. For a majority of those in the field, understanding performance as a way of knowing entails a commitment to participant-observer ethnography as the principal research methodology. Dwight Conquergood, who has written extensively on this issue, sees the performance ethnographer and her "informant" (or the teacher and student, performer and audience) as engaged in reciprocal, collaborative performances. Studying performance in this way foregrounds cultural knowledge as contingent, socially located, embodied, and contested, and implies that the ethnographer is directly implicated in and responsible to the community in which he or she studies. Following from this assumption, performance studies scholars frequently vaunt an open, politicized commitment to a position within their field and understand their performance scholarship as a mode of advocacy as much as analysis. Furthermore, they are frequently practitioners or artists themselves, confusing traditional anthropological distinctions between the subject and object of research.

Performance, Performativity, and Theatricality

The performance concept has since the late 1980s enjoyed a reach beyond this interdisciplinary constellation of performance studies through the elaboration of theories of performativity. Judith Butler's famous formulation draws on continental philosophy and the work of the linguist J. L. Austin to argue that, through processes of forcible iteration, discourse has the power to enact or materialize (to "perform") that which it names. Adherents of performativity use these theories, in the place of earlier theories of "representation," to explain the ways in which norms of gender and sexuality are produced, reproduced, and modulated in cultural production. Thanks to this work, the performance concept has a life throughout the arts and humanities, even as current debates in performance studies seek to reconcile their field's orientation around acts of performance (the tactical and interpretive agency of the performer and audience, and the subversive or deconstructive nature of theatrical traditions) with performativity's emphasis on the power of textual systems.

The State of the Field

Performance studies has been most notable for work that examines the politics and poetics of identity (gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality) in ways that are both responsive to the claims of human creativity and criticality and cognizant of the normative forces that constrain such expressions. This work avoids the Enlightenment distinctions between mind and body that have proved an obstacle to similar critique from other disciplines. Significant areas of interest in the field in the early twenty-first century include tourism, urban festivity, historical ethnography, pedagogy, and the performance of space and place. True to the origins of performance studies, much work examines contemporary performance art and experimental theater from a perspective that provocatively mixes criticism and practice. In a field that has historically privileged the localized study of live, embodied action and interaction, interest in globalization, diaspora, cyber-communities, and virtual, technological, and "mediatized" performance has proved theoretically fertile. Some prominent scholars have made broad claims that performance is the predominant paradigm of a globalized age, comparable to the colonial era's orientation around models of "discipline."

Performance studies is flourishing both within and outside the United States. Its flagship journals, The Drama Review (TDR) and Text and Performance Quarterly have been joined by publications such as Performance Research; performance research centers have been established in Cardiff, Wales, and Christchurch, New Zealand; and conferences have been held in Japan, Germany, and Singapore. The doctoral programs at New York University and Northwestern University, and the performance studies focus areas of numerous communications programs, have been joined by a world theater and dance program at UCLA, and formerly traditional theater programs (at the University of California at Berkeley, for example) are adopting the performance studies moniker as they increasingly embrace research interests and theoretical paradigms from outside the bounds of Western institutionalized theater.

Whether performance studies can sustain itself as an "interdisciplinary" formation, given the claims made on the performance concept by a range of disciplinary competitors, has been a matter for debate since the earliest inception of performance studies institutions. As a powerful tool for thinking about cultural process from the point of view of human action and expression, however, the performance concept will doubtless be a significant feature in the landscape of cultural criticism for some time to come.

See also Avant-Garde ; Musical Performance and Audiences ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism .


Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

Carlson, Marvin. Performance: A Critical Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Conquergood, Dwight. "Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research." TDR: The Drama Review 46, no. 2 (2002): 145156.

Dailey, Sheron J., ed. The Future of Performance Studies: Visions and Revisions. Annandale, Va.: National Communication Association, 1998.

McKenzie, Jon. Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Margaret Werry