Performance studies

Performance studies is an interdisciplinary field that studies performance and uses performance as a lens to study the world. The term 'performance' is broad, and can include artistic and aesthetic performances like concerts, theatrical events, and performance art; sporting events; social, political and religious events like rituals, ceremonies, proclamations and public decisions; certain kinds of language use; and those components of identity which require someone to do, rather than just be, something. Consequently, performance studies is interdisciplinary, drawing from theories of the performing arts, anthropology and sociology, literary theory, and legal studies.

Performance Studies has been challenged as an emerging discipline. Many academics have been critical of its instability. As an academic field it is difficult to pin down; either that is the nature of the field itself or it is still too young to tell. There are, however, numerous degree-granting programs that train researchers being offered by universities. Some have referred to it as an "inter discipline" or a "post discipline".[1]

Performance Studies tends to concentrate on a mix of research methods. The application of practice-led or practice-based research methods has become a widespread phenomenon not just in the anglophone world. As such research projects integrate established methods like literature research and oral history with performance practice, i.e. artistic autoethnographic approaches and verbatim theatre. The documentation of Practice-as-Research in Performance (PARIP), a devoted research project conducted at the University of Bristol between 2001 and 2006, offers a number of inspiring articles and portraits of such research projects and was key for a breakthrough of using creative thinking within this subject field.[2]

Origins and basic concepts

Richard Schechner, author of Performance Studies: An Introduction, states that Performance Studies examine performances in two categories: Artistic and Cultural Performances. A. Artistic Performance are marked and understood as art. solo-performance, performance art, performance of literature, theatrical storytelling, plays, and performance poetry, This category considers performance as the art form. B. Cultural Performance includes events that occur in everyday life in which a culture's values are displayed for their perpetuation: rituals such as parades, religious ceremonies, community festivals, controversial storytelling, and performances of social and professional roles, and individual performances of race, gender, sexuality and class.

Theatre and anthropology

Performance Studies as an academic field has multiple origin narratives. On the theatrical and anthropological front, this origin is often regarded as the research collaborations of director Richard Schechner and anthropologist Victor Turner. This origin narrative emphasizes a definition of performance as being "between theatre and anthropology" and often stresses the importance of intercultural performances as an alternative to either traditional proscenium theatre or traditional anthropological fieldwork. Dwight Conquergood developed a branch of performance ethnography that centered the political nature of the practice and advocated for methodological dialogism from the point of encounter to the practices of research reporting. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has contributed an interest in tourist productions and ethnographic showmanship to the field, Judd Case has adapted performance to the study of media and religion,[3] Diana Taylor has brought a hemispheric perspective on Latin American performance and theorized the relationship between the archive and the performance repertoire, while Corinne Kratz developed a mode of performance analysis that emphasizes the role of multimedia communication in performance.[4] Laurie Frederik argues for the importance of ethnographic research and a solid theoretical base in anthropological perspective.


On the literature front, Wallace Bacon (1914–2001), considered by many to be the father of performance theory, taught the performance of literature as the ultimate act of humility. In his defining statement of performance theory, "Our center is in the interaction between readers and texts which enriches, extends, clarifies, and (yes) alters the interior and even the exterior lives of students [and performers and audiences] through the power of texts" (Literature in Performance, Vol 5 No 1, 1984; p. 84). In addition, Robert Breen's text Chamber Theatre is a cornerstone in the field for staging narrative texts, though it remains controversial in its assertions about the place of narrative details in chamber productions. Breen is also regarded by many as a founding theorist for the discipline, along with advocate Louise Rosenblatt. More recently, performance theorist and novelist Barbara Browning has suggested that narrative fiction itself—and particularly the novel—demands the performative participation of the reader.[5]

Speech-act theory and 'performatives'

An alternative origin narrative stresses the development of speech-act theory by philosophers J.L. Austin and Judith Butler, literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and also Shoshana Felman. The theory proposed by Austin in How To Do Things With Words states that "to say something is to do something, or in saying something we do something, and even by saying something we do something".[6] the most illustrative example being "I do", as part of a marriage ceremony. For any of these performative utterances to be felicitous, per Austin, they must be true, appropriate and conventional according to those with the proper authority: a priest, a judge, or the scholar, for instance. Austin accounts for the infelicitous by noting that "there will always occur difficult or marginal cases where nothing in the previous history of a conventional procedure will decide conclusively whether such a procedure is or is not correctly applied to such a case".[7] The possibility of failure in performatives (utterances made with language and the body) is taken up by Butler and is understood as the "political promise of the performative".[8] Her argument is that because the performative needs to maintain conventional power, convention itself has to be reiterated, and in this reiteration it can be expropriated by the unauthorized usage and thus create new futures. She cites Rosa Parks as an example:

When Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus, she had no prior right to do so guaranteed by any…conventions of the South. And yet, in laying claim to the right for which she had no prior authorization, she endowed a certain authority on the act, and began the insurrectionary process of overthrowing those established codes of legitimacy.[9]

The question of the infelicitous utterance (the misfire) is also taken up by Shoshana Felman when she states "Infelicity, or failure, is not for Austin an accident of the performative, it is inherent in it, essential to it. In other words…Austin conceives of failure not as external but as internal to the promise, as what actually constitutes it."[10]

Performance studies has also had a strong relationship to the fields of feminism, psychoanalysis, critical race theory and queer theory. Theorists like Peggy Phelan,[11] José Esteban Muñoz,[12] E. Patrick Johnson,[13] Rebecca Schneider,[14] and André Lepecki have been equally influential in both performance studies and these related fields.