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Students: Chapter 1. What is Performance Studies?

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Performance studies came into existence within, and as a response to, the radically changing intellectual and artistic circumstances of the last third of the twentieth century. As the twenty-first century unfolds, many people remain dissatisfied with the status quo. Equipped with ever more powerful means of finding and sharing information – the internet, cell phones, sophisticated computing – people are increasingly finding the world not a book to be read but a performance to be participated in. Performance studies is an academic discipline designed to answer the need to deal with the changing circumstances of the “glocal” – the powerful combination of the local and the global.

Performance studies is more interactive, hyper-textual, virtual, and fluid than most scholarly disciplines. At the same time, adherents to performance studies face daunting ethical and political questions. What limits, if any, ought there to be to the ways information is gathered, processed, and distributed? Should those with the means intervene in the interest of “human rights” or must they respect local cultural autonomy at whatever cost? Artists and scholars are playing increasingly decisive roles in addressing these ethical and political questions.

Classroom Activities


  1. Form a circle. Each person speaks her/his name. Continue until everyone in the class knows everyone else’s name.
  2. Someone walks across the room. Someone else describes that action. The person walks across the room again, “showing” what previously s/he was just “doing.” What were the differences between “walking” and “showing walking?
  3. Choose an example of performance from everyday life that you are familiar with (it can be any number of actions, from a job interview to going out to a nightclub) and adapt it to become a formal performance for an audience. How does the activity change once it happens “on stage”?
  4. J.L. Austin defined performatives as utterances such as bets, promises, namings, and so on that actually do something, that perform. Enact a performative and record your thoughts afterward. What did you accomplish with your performative? Was it successful? 


  1. Analyze the “Fan and the Web.” Which drawing helps you understand the broad spectrum of performance better? List examples of the different types of performance. Which types of performance are familiar to you, and which are areas that you would like to learn more about?
  2. Conduct your own investigation of the use of cell phones, mobile internet, and smart phone use around the world. How many people in China, for example, regularly use smart phones? How many people use Facebook on a mobile device? On a tablet? On a personal computer? How does access to the internet influence, create, and repeat performances?
  3. Analyze your own Facebook page: in what ways does your profile perform? When are you truly being yourself on Facebook and when are you performing a particular version of you? Do you create different selves for different sets of friends?
  4. Choose a performance—one that you are or were involved in either as a deviser, performer, director, or spectator—and write a short analysis using Dwight Conquergood’s three “A”s of performance studies: Artistry, Analysis, and Activism (see p. 26 of your book). How well does Conquergood’s model live up to your chosen performance? How would you critique or revise Conquergood’s three “A”s? 





Rest of World

Sample Discussion Questions


  1. Clifford Geertz wrote, “Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is” (Interpretation of Cultures, p. 29). Is this true of your own department in relation to performance studies? What is the “place” of performance studies in your department?
  2. How might performance studies help to deal with some of the problems facing the world, such as threats to the environment, the oppression and exploitation of people, overpopulation, and war?
  3. At the beginning of Chapter 1, Schechner details his own subjectivity in relationship to this book. How would you describe your own subjectivity? In what context have you come to learn about performance studies? What are your values and how do these relate to the values of your family, your friends, your school, your community, etc.?
  4. What are the differences between analyzing text and analyzing performance? Are different tools necessary for each?


Some readers will have noticed a couple of errors in the quiz for this chapter. We apologise to anyone for whom this caused problems, and have made sure that everything is now correct.


Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

Greek philosopher, student of Plato. Aristotle published numerous philosophical treatises, including the Poetics (c. 335 BCE), where he outlines the principles of Greek tragic drama. Aristotle’s ideas have profoundly influenced European and European-derived performance theory.


J. L. Austin (1911–60)

English philosopher and linguist. His influential Harvard lectures on the concept of the “performative” were posthumously published as How to Do Things with Words (1962).


Gregory Bateson (1904–80)

British-born anthropologist, cyberneticist, and communications theorist. Major works include Naven (1936), Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and Mind and Nature (1979).


Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007)

French cultural theorist known for his work on simulations. His books include Simulations (1983), The Illusion of the End (1994), and Selected Writings (2001).


Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002)

French sociologist who worked extensively in Algeria before becoming a professor at the Collège de France in Paris. Among his many books are Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972, Eng. 1977), Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action (1994, Eng. 1998), Acts of Resistance (1988), and Masculine Domination (2001).


Dwight Conquergood (1949–2004)

American ethnographer and performance theorist. Chair of Northwestern University’s Department of Performance Studies during a decisive, formative period, 1993–99. Through his teaching, ethnographic work, and lecturing, Conquergood was instrumental in shaping the NU brand of performance studies. Co-director (with Taggart Siegel) of the video documentary The Heart Broken in Half (1990).


Guy Debord (1931–94)

French writer and filmmaker, founder of the Situationists (1957–72), a revolutionary group of artists and writers who came to prominence during the Paris riots of May 1968. Author of The Society of the Spectacle (1994).


Gilles Deleuze (1925–95)

French poststructuralist philosopher who collaborated with Félix Guattari (1930–92). Together they wrote Anti-Oedipus (1977) and A Thousand Plateaus (1987).


Jacques Derrida  (1930–2004)

Algerian-born French philosopher who pioneered the literary and cultural theory of deconstruction. Among his many books: Of Grammatology (1976), Writing and Difference (1978), Limited Inc (1988), Who’s Afraid of Philosophy? (2002), and On Touching (with Peter Dreyer, 2005).


Michel Foucault (1926–84)

French philosopher-historian who analyzed and criticized prison systems, psychiatry, and medicine. Foucault explored the relationships connecting power and knowledge. Among his works are Madness and Civilization (1965), The Order of Things (1970), The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), Discipline and Punish (1977), and The History of Sexuality (1978).


Erving Goffman (1922–82)

Canadian-born anthropologist who studied the performances and rituals of everyday life. His books include The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Behavior in Public Places (1963), Interaction Ritual (1967), and Frame Analysis (1974).


Richard Gough (1956– )

founder and director of the Centre for Performance Research (CPR) of Aberystwyth, Wales, and first president of PSi. Gough organized a series of conferences, “Points of Contact,” in the 1990s which helped define performance studies. He is a founding editor of the journal Performance Research.


James Joyce (1882–1941)

Irish author of Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), novels that experiment with language while celebrating the imaginations and peregrinations of Dubliners. Joyce was a big influence on his one-time assistant, Samuel Beckett.


Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1882–1941)

American performance theorist specializing in the aesthetics of everyday life, Jewish performance, and folklore. She was the founding chair of NYU’s Department of Performance Studies from 1981 to 1993. Author of Destination Culture (1998).


Jacques Lacan (1901–81)

French structuralist psychoanalyst who theorized the development of an alienated self in terms of interactions among the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. His works include Écrits (1977) and The Four Functions of Psychoanalysis (1978).


Jean-François Lyotard (1924–98)

French philosopher. Major works include The Postmodern Condition (1984), The Differend (1988), and Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event (1988).


Peggy Phelan

American feminist scholar, Ann O’Day Maples Professor in the Arts at Stanford University, and a founder of Performance Studies international. Author of Unmarked (1993), Mourning Sex (1997), and Art and Feminism (2001, with Helena Reckitt).


Plato (c. 427–c. 347 BCE)

Greek philosopher, the advocate of reason, restraint, and logic over excess and passion. Plato developed the dialogical or dialectical style of discourse – reasoning by means of dialogue and the confrontation of opposites. Ironically, Plato’s dialogues are extremely theatrical and he was very passionate about the life of the mind.


William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

playwright, poet, and actor generally regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. Among his 38 plays are Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, As You Like It, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest.


Suzuki Tadashi (1939– )

Japanese founding artistic director of the Suzuki Company of Toga, with whom he has directed a number of influential works including The Trojan Women and Dionysus. He advocates an intensely physical approach to actor training which he outlines in The Way of Acting (1986).


Diana Taylor (1950– )

leading theorist of Latin American performance and founding director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. Taylor chaired NYU’s Performance Studies Department from 1996 to 2002. Her books include Theatre of Crisis: Drama and Politics in Latin America (1991), Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s "Dirty War" (1997), and The Archive and the Repertoire (2003).


Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910)

Russian author, social thinker, and mystic. Novels include War and Peace (1863–69) and Anna Karenina (1875–77).


Victor Turner (1917–83)

Scottish-born anthropologist who theorized notions of liminality and social drama. Major works include Forest of Symbols (1967), The Ritual Process (1969), Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (1974), and From Ritual to Theatre (1982). Turner collaborated with his wife Edith Turner (1921– ) on projects. Among Edith Turner’s writings are Experiencing Ritual (1992) and The Hands Feel It (1996).


Andy Warhol (1928?–87)

American artist and filmmaker. Leader of the Pop Art movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Warhol appropriated images from American popular culture – Campbell’s soup cans, Marilyn Monroe – and repositioned them as high art.


Phillip Zarrilli (1947– )

American-born director, writer, and actor trainer. A Professor of Performance Practice at Exeter University, Zarrilli has developed a psychophysical acting process drawing on Asian martial, medical, and meditation practices. His books include When the Body Becomes All Eyes (1998), Kathakali Dance Drama (2000), and Acting (Re) Considered (editor, 2nd edition, 2002).



What is Performance Studies?