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Students: Chapter 2. What is Performance?

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There are many ways to understand performance, but the two primary approaches are to talk about “as” performance and “is” performance:

Using the category “as” performance, one can look into things otherwise closed off to inquiry. In every human activity there are usually many players with different and even opposing points of view, goals, and feelings. One asks performance questions of events: How is an event deployed in space and disclosed in time? What special clothes or objects are put to use? What roles are played and how are these different, if at all, from who the performers usually are? How are the events controlled, distributed, received, and evaluated?

“Is” performance refers to more definite, bounded events marked by context, convention, usage, and tradition. However, in the twenty-first century, clear distinctions between “as” performance and “is” performance are vanishing. More and more people experience their lives as a connected series of performances that often overlap: dressing up for a party, interviewing for a job, experimenting with sexual orientations and gender roles, playing a life role such as mother or son, or a professional role such as doctor or teacher. The sense that “performance is everywhere” is heightened by an increasingly mediatized environment where people communicate by fax, phone, and the internet, where an unlimited quantity of information and entertainment comes through the air.

Classroom Activities


  1. Observe an everyday encounter of people you do not know. Intervene in the encounter yourself with a definite goal in mind. Afterwards, discuss how your intervention changed the performances of the others. Did they welcome or resent your intervention? Why?
  2. In small groups, take turns reproducing for your group a bit of behavior that you ordinarily do only in private. How did the behavior change when you were self-consciously performing for others?
  3. Work with a group to create a happening in the manner of Allan Kaprow’s “lifelike” art. The performance can be as simple or complicated as you wish (and can feasibly pull off). When it is over, discuss the performance’s “onceness.”
  4. Choose a performance (a scene from a play, an improvisation, a warm-up, a stand-up act, a famous speech, etc.) and rehearse the performance with different functions in mind. What happens to your performance when you are no longer performing to simply entertain? What happens to the performance when it is meant to heal, teach, or foster community?


  1. Look for examples of the word “performance” in popular culture. Look through magazines and newspapers; browse the internet; read through junk mail; etc. Collect anything you can find that includes the word “performance.” Once you have several examples, write about them with particular attention to how the word is used in different ways.
  2. Choose an act, behavior, or other event not typically considered to be a performance. Write a short analysis of your example as performance.
  3. The “onceness” of certain events that seem to happen for the first time – e.g., the events of 11 September 2001 – is a function of context, reception, and the countless ways bits of behavior can be organized, performed, and displayed. But there have been “other” September 11ths. Research this date in history. Write about what you find. Then look for examples of films and television programs in which similar events take place. How do your findings relate to the concept of restored behavior?
  4. Find an example of a politician speaking in public, either live or on television or the internet. Analyze the performance using the key concepts of “make believe” and “make belief.”

Sample Discussion Questions


  1. Pick an action not usually thought to be a performance. For example, waiting on line at a supermarket checkout counter, crossing the street at a busy intersection, visiting a sick friend. In what ways can each of these be analyzed “as” a performance?
  2. Select a sports match, a religious ritual, an everyday life occurrence, and a performing art. Discuss their similarities and differences “as” performances with regard to venue, function, authorship, audience involvement, event structure, and historical-cultural context.
  3. Definitions of performance change over time. For example, although now we think of Ancient Greek theatre competitions as theatre, they were considered more ritual than theatre at the time. What are examples of contemporary performances that have or may shift categories? In what category, for example, does reality television belong? True? Fiction? What about television news? Purely functional? Or aesthetic entertainment?
  4. What does it mean to say that “all behavior is restored behavior”? When are we aware of our behavior being “twice-behaved” and when do we just “live life”? Can behavior be “twice-behaved” even if we are not aware of its being so?
  5. What are some of the possible functions of performance? Working in a group, create a list of performances and their functions—in everyday life, in popular entertainments, in business, in the arts, etc. What functions are shared by some or all of these activities? Are any unique to a given activity?



Aeschylus (c. 525–c. 456 BCE)

Greek playwright and actor, regarded as the first great tragedian. Surviving works include The Persians (c. 472 BCE) and The Oresteia (458 BCE).


Amalarius of Metz (780–850)

Roman Catholic bishop and theologian, author of several major treatises on the performance of liturgical rites, including Eclogae de ordine romano (Pastoral Dialogues on the Roman Rite) (814) and Liber officialis (Book of the Service) (821).


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

German composer, choir director, and organist. His polyphonic compositions of sacred music place him among Europe’s most influential composers.


Bharata (c. second century BCE–c. second century CE)

 Indian sage, the putative author of The Natyasastra, the earliest and still very influential South Asian theoretical and practical treatise on all aspects of traditional Indian theatre, dance, playwriting, and, to a lesser extent, music.


Augusto Boal (1931–2009)

Brazilian director and theorist, founder of Theatre of the Oppressed. His books include Theatre of the Oppressed (1985), Games for Actors and Non-Actors (1980, Eng. 1992), Legislative Theatre (1998), and his autobiography, Hamlet and the Baker’s Son (2001).


Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956)

German playwright, director, and performance theorist. In 1949 he and actress Helene Weigel (1900–71), his wife, founded the Berliner Ensemble. Major works include The Threepenny Opera (1928), The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), Mother Courage and her Children (1941), Galileo (1943), The Good Woman of Szechwan (1943), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948 Ger; 1954 Eng). The dates refer to stage premieres. Many of his theoretical writings are anthologized in English, in Brecht on Theatre (1964).


John Cage (1912–92)

American composer and music theorist whose interests spanned using indeterminacy to make art, Zen Buddhism, and mushrooms. Author of Silence: Selected Lectures and Writings (1961) and A Year from Monday (1967). His many musical compositions include Fontana Mix (1960) and Roaratorio (1982).


Euripides (c. 485–c. 405 BCE)

Greek playwright whose surviving works include Medea (431 BCE), Hippolytus (428 BCE), The Trojan Women (415 BCE), and The Bacchae (c. 405 BCE).


Coco Fusco (1960– )

Cuban-born interdisciplinary artist based in New York City. Collaborated with Guillermo Gómez-Peña on the performance Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992). Other performances include: Dolores from 10h to 22h (2002, with Ricardo Dominguez) and The Incredible Disappearing Woman (2003, with Ricardo Dominguez). Fusco is the author of English is Broken Here (1995), Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas (2000), The Bodies That Were Not Ours (2001), and Only Skin Deep (2003, with Brian Wallis).


Guillermo Gómez-Peña (1955– )

Mexican-born bi-national performance artist and author, leader of La Pocha Nostra. His works include both writings Warrior for Gringostroika (1993), The New World Border (1996), Dangerous Border Crossers (2000), and Ethno-Techno Writings on Performance, Activism, and Pedagogy (2005, with Elaine Peña) – and performances: Border Brujo (1990), El Naftazeca (1994), Border Stasis (1998), Brownout: Border Pulp Stories (2001), and Mexterminator vs the Global Predator (2005).


Francisco de Goya y Luciente (1746–1828)

Spanish artist. Often referred to simply as “Goya.” His series of etchings titled The Disasters of War chronicled the Peninsular Wars (1808–14) among Spain, Portugal, and France.


Vaclav Havel (1936–2011)

Czech playwright who was the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and the first of the Czech Republic (1993–2003). A fierce defender of free speech and leader of the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 overturning Communist rule, Havel’s often political plays include The Memorandum (1965), Protest (1978), and Redevelopment (1978).


Werner Heisenberg (1901–76)

German physicist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1932 for his formulation of quantum mechanics which is closely related to his uncertainty principle.


Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535–475 BCE)

Greek philosopher credited with the creation of the doctrine of “flux,” the theory of impermanence and change. You can’t step into the same river twice because the flow of the river insures that new water continually replaces the old.


Horace (65–68 BCE)

Roman poet whose Ars poetica (The Art of Poetry, 1974) offers advice on the construction of drama. His basic instruction that art should both “entertain and educate” is very close to Brecht’s ideas on the function of theatre.


Allan Kaprow (1927–2006)

American artist who coined the term “Happening” to describe his 1959 installation/performance 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. Author of Assemblage, Environments and Happenings (1966), Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (2003, with Jeff Kelley), and Childsplay (2004, with Jeff Kelley).


Susanne K. Langer (1895–1985)

American philosopher and aesthetician. Her major works include Philosophy in a New Key (1942), Feeling and Form (1953), and Problems of Art (1957).


Gerardus Mercator (1512–94)

Flemish geographer-cartographer whose basic system of map-making is still practiced today. His actual name was Gerhard Kremer, but like many European scholars of his day, he Latinized his name.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91)

Austrian composer whose vast output and range of compositions include operas, symphonies, and liturgical music.


Andrea Palladio (1508–80)

Italian architect who worked in Vicenza and Venice designing villas and churches. Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico, completed four years after his death, is the only remaining example of an indoor Renaissance theatre. Author of I Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura (1570, The Four Books on Architecture, 1997).


Bill Parcells (1941– )

American football coach. Winner in 1987 and 1991 of two Superbowls with the New York Giants.


Arno Peters (1916–2002)

German historian. Developed in 1974 an area-accurate world map, known as the Peters Projection.


Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II (1920–2005)

Polish actor and playwright who in 1978 became pope. During World War II, Wojtyla was a member of the Rhapsodic Theatre, an underground resistance group. Ordained as a priest in 1945, Wojtyla continued to write for and about the theatre. His theatrical knowledge served him well as a globe-trotting, media-savvy pontiff. See his Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (1987).


Jiang Qing (1914–91)

Chinese Communist leader, wife of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893–1976). As Deputy Director of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), Jiang Qing sought to redefine all forms of artistic expression in strict adherence to revolutionary ideals. She oversaw the development of “model operas” and “model ballets,” versions of Chinese traditional performance genres that made heroes of peasants and workers instead of aristocrats. After the Cultural Revolution, she was tried as one of “The Gang of Four.” She died in prison.


Ronald Reagan (1911–2004)

fortieth president of the United States (1981–89) and governor of California (1967–75), Reagan was a broadcaster, movie actor, and public speaker before entering electoral politics. Known as the “Great Communicator,” Reagan’s self-deprecating quips and relaxed manner on camera endeared him to millions despite his conservative and often bellicose policies.


Sophocles (c. 496–c. 406 BCE)

Greek playwright, credited with introducing the third actor onto the stage of tragedy. Surviving plays include Oedipus the King (c. 429 BCE), Electra (date uncertain), and Antigone (c. 441 BCE).



What is Performance?

The Fan and the Web

Restored Behaviour

Is/As Performance

Make Believe/Make Belief

Spheres of Performance

Performance Continuum