Performance Studies

Second Edition 2005

Performance studies is an interdisciplinary field of research that draws from the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. It focuses on the pervasiveness of performance as a central element of social and cultural life, including not only theater and dance but also such forms as sacred rituals and practices of everyday life, storytelling and public speaking, avant-garde performance art, popular entertainments, microconstructions of ethnicity, race, class, sex, and gender, world fairs and heritage festivals, nonverbal communication, play and sports, political demonstrations and electronic civil disobedience, sex shows and drag performance—potentially any instance of expressive behavior or cultural enactment. Within this field, performance entails the presentation or "reactualization" of symbolic systems through both living and mediated bodies. The paradigm of performance studies has been surveyed in numerous essays and book chapters by writers such as Dell Hymes, John J. MacAloon, Philip Zarrilli, Ronald J. Pelias and James VanOosting, Richard Schechner ( "Performance"), Dwight Conquergood, Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach, Jill Dolan, Carol Simpson Stern and Bruce Henderson, Peggy Phelan ( "Introduction"), and Jon McKenzie. The first book-length survey of the field was Marvin Carlson’s Performance: A Critical Introduction (1996), and a critical anthology, Performance: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, edited by Philip Auslander, appeared in 2003 .

The intellectual roots of performance studies in the United States can be found in the 1940s and 1950s, at a moment when theorists in the social sciences—linguistics, anthropology, and sociology—began to employ theater as a model for studying uses of language, ritual, and everyday interactions. Crucial texts here are kenneth burke’s Grammar of Motives (1945), Victor Turner’s Schism and Continuity in an African Society (1957), and Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). While Burke set forth a "dramatist" model for analyzing the motives behind phenomena ranging from communicative actions to the history of philosophy, Turner developed a theory of "social drama" to understand ritual processes in resolving conflicts and crises in agrarian African communities. Goffman likewise proposed a dramaturgical approach for studying how people negotiate everyday interactions through carefully managed social performances.

In the 1960s, experimental theater directors moved in the opposite direction: from theater to ritual. Directors such as Jerzi Grotowski, Eugenio Barba, and Peter Brook began exploring the boundaries between theater and ritual and between art and life. Seeking to transform theatrical practice, as well as theater’s role in contemporary life, this work was both applied and theoretical. Influenced by the writings of Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud, such artistic experiments frequently employed performance models from indigenous traditions around the world, drawing artists to research in folklore and anthropology.

At the same moment, visual artists and dancers were moving away from the image of the detached artist or choreographer and the disembodied work of art to focus on the creative body—the artist’s body as the work of art: spontaneous, corporeal, fully present. Inspired by an avant-garde performance-art tradition that stretched back to Dada, innovative new art forms included the dance of Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer, the Happenings of Allan Kaprow, and performance events by Carolee Schneemann, Nam June Paik, and others.

In the late 1960s and 1970s these developments in the arts and social sciences converged to produce and formalize the field of cultural performance. The performing arts provided a perspective for framing and analyzing social, personal, and communicative phenomena, while the social sciences provided conceptual tools for theorizing the social and psychological dimensions of performance. More specifically, theater provided a formal model for identifying and describing cultural performances across the landscape of social life, while ritual provided a functional model for understanding the role these activities might play in even wider social processes. Working across disciplinary traditions, a loose but dedicated community of researchers emerged, generating papers, panel sessions, and special conferences, such as the 1977 Burg Wartenstein Symposium, from which emerged the following definition of cultural performance: "occasions in which as a culture or society we reflect upon and define ourselves, dramatize our collective myths and history, present ourselves with alternatives, and eventually change in some ways while remaining the same in others" (MacAloon 1). This definition identifies three functions that scholars have regularly attributed to cultural performance: (1) social and self-reflection through the dramatization or embodiment of symbolic forms, (2) the presentation of alternative embodiments, and (3) the possibility for conservation or transformation of both individuals and society. Seeking to define cultural performances not simply as entertainment, performance scholars thus came to stress what Schechner called the "efficacy" of performance, its capability to feed back into and transform social life.

In addition to this convergence of research interests and methodologies, the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s—civil rights protests, antiwar demonstrations, women’s liberation marches, Watergate—seemed to underscore the transformative potential of social interaction and helped to contribute to the emergence of performance studies as a research paradigm. Celebrating the efficacy of cultural performances, scholars tended to privilege forms that in some way resisted or were outside mainstream Western cultural traditions, forms such as experimental, regional, and political theater, performance art, street demonstrations, low-brow popular entertainments such as vaudeville and sideshows, marginal practices of everyday life, and ritual, dance, and festival traditions from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. And the new field of performance studies not only focused on marginalized objects of study but also saw itself as an alternative to conventional fields of research: it was liminal or in-between. Suspicious of established disciplines—and of the Establishment—performance scholars came to see their place as necessarily between conventional fields of study. Indeed, even after the first official performance studies programs had been established in the 1980s at New York University and Northwestern University, Dwight Conquergood would stress the liminality of performance studies, while Joseph Roach contended that it constituted not a discipline but rather an "inter-discipline" or a "post-discipline."

Of all the practitioners and scholars who emerged during the 1960s, there is little doubt that Richard Schechner has played the most visible and consistent role in shaping the performance studies paradigm. As a director, theorist, editor, and educator, Schechner’s role extends across several decades and continues today. His work with The Performance Group in the 1960s and 1970s sought to embody what he called the "ritualization" of drama, the transformation of theater’s function from entertainment to efficacy. This practical work was informed by an eclectic though focused interest in the social sciences, in particular psychology and anthropology. Significantly, Schechner entered into a series of collaborations with Turner, collaborations that can be read in Turner’s From Ritual to Drama (1982)and Schechner’s Between Theatre and Anthropology (1985). Schechner has also served as perennial editor of TDR/The Drama Review, one of the most influential journals devoted to the study of performance, and he played an instrumental role in the formation of New York University’s Department of Performance Studies. While Schechner’s theorization of performance as "twice-behaved behaviors" remains one of the most influential definitions of the term, his arguments for a "broad spectrum" approach to the study of performance may prove to be his most important contribution, for it defines performance as stretching from arts to ritual to entertainment to politics and economics.

During the early decades of performance studies research, scholars valued three crucial components of performance: embodiment, presence, and transgression. Perhaps most important was physical embodiment. Paradoxically, although Burke, Goffman, and Turner had been essential to the formation of performance studies, these theorists all relied on rather traditional models of theater, models that artists and performance studies scholars had been learning to reject in favor of the more innovative embodiments of experimental theater and performance art. Researchers have come not only to value the performances of nontraditional theater but also to seek to break with the overwhelmingly text-based study of drama. Rather than focusing on playscripts, they turned their attention to the training of actors’ bodies, rehearsal processes, staging, and site specificity. Closely related to the emphasis on embodiment was the valorization of presence. Practitioners and scholars alike began to devalue the representation of preexisting texts, focusing instead on the spontaneity and liveness of the performance and the copresence of performers and audience. In theater, this entailed a shift in importance from the playwright to the director and, eventually, to the actor. Similarly, ethnographic studies of performance stressed ritual activities rather than the recording of myths, while folklorists focused as much on the immediate context of storytelling as on the stories themselves. Finally, the values of embodiment and presence, when combined with the stress on performance’s efficacy, produced a valorization of transgressive politics, that is, direct protests and actions mounted at dominant social institutions from positions located outside of them. This valorization of transgression was clearly informed by the social upheavals already mentioned—civil rights protests, antiwar demonstrations, women’s liberation marches, Watergate.

If these central values were not universal, it is nonetheless clear that embodiment, presence, and transgression gave the emerging performance studies paradigm both its direction and its verve throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. However, the 1980s also brought with it the full impact of what Janelle Reinelt and Joseph Roach would later call the "theory explosion," that is, the arrival from Europe of such theories as phenomenology, frankfurt school critical theory, semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis (see jacques lacan and psychoanalytic theory and criticism: 3. the post-lacanians), deconstruction, and a brand of feminism highly suspicious of gender identity. These theories not only provided new methodological approaches but also effected a revaluation of performance studies’ guiding ideas. Embodiment, presence, and transgression were not so much rejected as reinscribed within a critique of oppositional logic and politics. Thus, while embodiment remained important, it became situated in relation to a new understanding of discourse and textuality. This development did not return to the analysis of scripts but rather understood all dimensions of performance in terms of textuality, defined as the play of differences and repetitions across all media rather than as the fixity often ascribed to alphabet writing. Closely associated with this valorization of textuality was the deconstruction of presence. While earlier attention had focused on the liveness and copresence of performance, there now emerged an intense interest in representation and mediation, an interest reflected both in artistic practice and in a growing awareness of the philosophical assumptions informing scholarly research, writing, and presentation. These revaluations extended to the very efficacy of performance. As Philip Auslander argued in Presence and Resistance (1992), the experimental theater and performance art of the 1980s offered strategies of resistance that utilized representation and media forms to counter power from within institutions rather than seeking to transgress them from some site located outside of power.

Again, it is crucial to situate these developments in the context of other cultural movements unfolding in the United States during the 1980s. It was during this decade that the first official programs of performance studies were established, and thus resisting power from inside institutions had more saliency for scholars than transgressing them from outside. And as just suggested, many of the most influential artists in the 1980s had fully embraced practices that we now associate with postmodernism—allegory, parody and pastiche, hybridity, technological mediation, and recontextualization. Both of these developments, of course, occurred not in the social context of widespread political radicalization but instead within the context of Reaganism, with its neoliberal economic agenda, aggressive foreign policies, and a social conservatism spearheaded by Christian fundamentalism.

This conservative social context, coupled with the evaluative shift to textuality, mediation, and resistance, helped to produce a new set of formal and functional models within performance studies. Whereas theater and ritual had earlier served as privileged objects of study and provided, respectively, formal and functional models for conceptualizing the field of cultural performance and the performance studies paradigm itself, theater and ritual now ceded these roles to other performances. By the early 1990s, performance art had largely displaced theater as the privileged formal model, and critical theory had displaced the anthropological understanding of ritual as the guiding functional model. That is, performance art emerged as the site where postmodern aesthetic practices and such critical issues as gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, the AIDS crisis, and public funding for the arts came most emphatically to the fore, helping scholars to theorize these practices and issues as they appeared in other cultural performances. Similarly, the newly arrived theoretical approaches recast the ways that scholars conceived the role of performance in society, contributing not only to the theorization of resistant performances but also to experiments in performative theory and writing, such as those carried out by Michael Taussig and Peggy Phelan (Unmarked). In short, not only was performance being theorized as resistant efficacy but this theorization was itself being performed.

Over the course of the 1990s and into the new century, performance studies continued to develop and expand its terrain of objects, its methodological approaches, and its problematical institutionalization. The most prominent developments pertained to the role cultural performance plays in the construction of social identities, in particular those relating to race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality (see, e.g. , Jones; Muñoz; Phelan, Unmarked; Schneider). Also coming to prominence during this time were the increasing use of computers and other information technologies to explore the limits of the body (see Auslander, Liveness; Birringer; Case; Critical Art Ensemble), new modes of composing and perceiving performance (see Goulish, Reed), and the creation of new forms of social interaction and political activism (see Haedicke and Nellhaus, Taylor). Corresponding to these developments was the rise of such theoretical approaches to performance as postcolonial criticism (see postcolonial cultural studies), cultural studies, and media and queer theory (see gay theory and criticism: 3. queer theory). Supplementing these approaches, important historiographic studies emerged, such as Roach’s Cities of the Dead (1996), Shannon Jackson’s Lines of Activity (2000), and Harry Elam and David Krasner’s edited collection African-American Performance and Theater History (2001), as well as works on experimental pedagogies, such as Charles Garoian’s Performing Pedagogy (1999)and Jill Dolan’s Geographies of Learning (2001).

With respect to queer theory and performance studies, the work of judith butler deserves particular notice. Although Butler was not the first performance theorist to address questions of gender and sexuality, she was the first to connect Turner’s concept of ritual performance with J. L. Austin’s concept of performative speech acts. Austin had developed this theory in the 1940s and 1950s, but for decades his work was largely ignored by performance studies scholars, no doubt because Austin had explicitly excluded theater from his analysis and had focused on linguistic concerns at a time when performance researchers valorized embodiment rather than discourse. In the 1990s, however, as attention turned both to discourse and to gay and lesbian performance, Butler’s deconstructive theorization of performatives in relation to gender and sexuality brought Austin’s work to the fore. For Butler, gender is dependent on the repetition—the reactualization—of social norms. Drag performance seems to unsettle those norms by drawing attention to the constructedness of gender. Initially, many scholars read her analysis of drag as simply providing an important contribution to the understanding of performative resistance. Butler, however, quickly offered a corrective: her concept of "performativity" pertains as much to normative power as to subversive performances; more precisely, performativity entails the incessant turning of normativity into subversion, and vice versa. Thus, Butler’s work is now recognized within performance studies as theorizing both performative resistance and normativity.

The late nineties saw the growing importance of performance in a global context. While Turner had recognized the conservative function liminal rituals often play in agrarian societies, his focus was on their transformative potential, and it was this dimension of liminality that informed research into the efficacy of cultural performance. But at the turn of the twenty-first century a few performance scholars have begun to investigate the resistant and normative potential of performance in society, and they have even come to theorize entire societies as "performative." Baz Kershaw argued that the confluence of capitalism and democracy has produced "performative societies" in which negotiations of power increasingly occur through cultural performances, while Jon McKenzie posited performance as an emerging formation of global power and knowledge, drawing on Herbert Marcuse’s "performance principle" and jean-françois lyotard’s "performativity," two concepts that, like Austin’s performative, had long escaped the attention of performance studies scholars.

While performance studies developed its first institutional structures in the United States, it is important to note that in 1997 an international professional organization emerged. Organizers gave it the name Performance Studies international, the lowercase i perhaps signaling a certain reservation about the international political order. Significantly, this organization was originally housed at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which was also the home of the Centre for Performance Research and the journal Performance Research. Several other universities in the United Kingdom now offer degrees or courses of study in performance studies, including the University of Bristol, De Montfort University, the University of Hull (Scarborough), the University of Leeds, and Manchester Metropolitan University. In France, the Université de Paris VI has a program in "ethnoscenology," which focuses on "organized human performing practices" and draws on such fields as neurobiology and cognitive science. In Germany, Freie Universität Berlin hosts the government-sponsored research group Kulturen des Performativen. In Australia, both the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales have programs of performance studies, as does the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. While no such programs exist in Asia, Dokkyo University in Japan organized an international forum on performance studies in 2002. In the United States, in addition to Northwestern University and New York University, performance studies programs or courses of study exist at Arizona State University, Brown University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Mary Hardin–Baylor, the University of North Carolina, and Southern Illinois University. Finally, the multi-institutional Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics offers courses through New York University, Ohio State University, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru in Lima, and the Universidade do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Some of the performance studies programs listed above are effectively "souped-up" theater and communications programs; some have explicitly modeled themselves on Schechner’s broad spectrum approach. All have set out on courses tailored to distinctive intellectual interests and/or local performance traditions. Surveys of these initiatives are hopefully forthcoming in the future.

Jon McKenzie



See also judith butler, cultural studies, drama theory, feminist theory and criticism: 5. 1990 and after, and gender theory and criticism.

Primary Sources

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