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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Diana Taylor

Interview with Diana Taylor (2002)
Diana Taylor is University Professor in the Department of Performance Studies and in the Spanish Department at New York University and also Founding Director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. She is the author of Theatre of Crisis: Drama and Politics in Latin America (Kentucky University Press 1991), which won the Best Book Award given by the New England Council on Latin American Studies and Honorable Mention for the Joe E. Callaway Prize for the Best Book on Drama. She is also author of Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's "Dirty War" (Duke University Press 1997) and The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Duke University Press 2003), which won the ATHE Research Award in Theatre Practice and Pedagogy and the Modern Language Association Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize for the best book in Latin American and Spanish Literatures and Culture. She is also editor, with Sarah J. Townsend, of Stages of Conflict: A Critical Anthology of Latin American Theater and Performance (University of Michigan Press 2008) and co-editor of Holy Terrors: Latin American Women Perform (Duke University Press 2004), Defiant Acts/Actos Desafiantes: Four Plays by Diana Raznovich (Bucknell University Press 2002), Negotiating Performance in Latin/o America: Gender, Sexuality and Theatricality (Duke University Press 1994), and The Politics of Motherhood: Activists from Left to Right (UPNE 1997). Her publications in Spanish include her book Performance (Asunto Impreso 2012) and the anthology of key essays in performance studies Estudios avanzados de performance, co-edited with Marcela A. Fuentes (Fondo de Cultura Económica 2011). Taylor has edited five volumes of critical essays on Latin American, Latino, and Spanish playwrights. Her articles  have appeared in Critical InquiryPMLAThe Drama Review, Theatre Journal, Performing Arts Journal, Latin American Theatre Review, Estreno, Gestos, Signs, MLQ, and other scholarly journals.X

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett: Diana, how would you define performance studies?

Diana Taylor
: Well, I think it’s very difficult to define performance studies, because it’s clearly informed by lots of different disciplines and ways of thinking about embodied behavior. So we have from anthropology, we have from sociology, we have from phenomenology, we have the French school, from Lyotard on, talking about performance. So I think it’s difficult to define whether it’s just an object of analysis, whether it’s a praxis, whether it’s an episteme, as a way of knowing; whether it’s a business transaction, whether it’s a measure of efficacy. So what’s important to me about performance and performance studies is that it allows us to look at all of those things as mutually constituting, so that we really can’t think about behavior and embodied practice without thinking about disciplinary kind of performances—how we do gender, how we do race, and the way that we get constructed as bodies—but at the same time there is a really wonderful liberatory, contestatory aspect to it, because we can perform things in different ways: performance is about action, it’s about intervention, it’s about breaking into a structure and finding other options for it. So I think that performance studies is no one thing, and its multi-valence is in fact the promise of the field.

: Now, in terms of your own work, what has it meant for you to be doing your work in the context of a field called “performance studies”?

: Well, it’s interesting, because I came to performance studies because that’s the only place I wanted to be. I had started off thinking about theater in a Latin American context, and all I heard was that Latin American theater wasn’t interesting, that it was derivative, that it just followed colonial models. And I kept thinking: but there’s so much in terms of performance in the Americas that is not strictly speaking “theater”—I still think that there’s a lot of very good theater in Latin America—but it’s still... they’re just a small, small part of all the things having to do with performance. So for me I grew out of my field if we thought about it as a “Latin American Theater” area and had to look at performance as a way in which popular performance impacted on what was going on in the public arena, if we thought about how excluded groups, maybe sometimes indigenous groups, sometimes Afro-American—in the larger term of Afro-Americas—groups, women’s groups, that are not normally represented in the Latin American theater, how do their performances intersect or intervene in public space? And, so it became much more interesting for me to see those tensions between performance and all of these spaces. And therefore performance studies, as a term that could encompass theater and ritual and dance and public performance, became a really wonderful way of bringing all of these materials together.

BKG: Now what has it meant for you to teach in a performance studies context?

: It’s wonderful. It’s difficult in the sense that students, I think, very often come to performance studies with this incredible enthusiasm for what they see as its radical edge. Performance studies is a field that has never constituted itself as a field: it's always been about crossing borders and about breaking boundaries. And so there’s a wonderful enthusiasm about that, and I think that the tension that we find is that, of course, situated within an institution, as a department, we also have to make the case that we are our own field and that we have, you know, “area exams” and that we have work that gets done in this field that’s sort of different from work that gets done in other fields. And so there’s a way in which institutional demands create their own boundaries. So there’s this tension between the boundedness of, I think, any kind of scholarship done in an academic setting, and the promise of boundary-crossing that the field affords. And I don’t think that’s a tension that’s ever going to get resolved; it’s just one that we rehearse in the classroom all the time. And I think it’s really good for the students, too, because I think there they see what they’re pushing up against and understand where they can sort of break through, or make their own intervention. And it gives them a boundary, I guess, to push against.

“What’s important to me about performance and performance studies is that it allows us to look at all of those things as mutually constituting, so that we really can’t think about behavior and embodied practice without thinking about disciplinary kind of performances—how we do gender, how we do race, and the way that we get constructed as bodies—but at the same time there is a really wonderful liberatory, contestatory aspect to it... performance is about action, it’s about intervention, it’s about breaking into a structure and finding other options for it.”

BKG: And do you find that performance studies encourages you to develop a particular pedagogy?

Diana: Yes, I do. I think that it’s really important because we are not looking at only discursive systems in performance studies; we’re also looking at performative or performatic—what I prefer to call performatic—systems. We’re also looking at digital systems. So there’s no one way to think about knowledge, and there’s no one way to go about the transmission of knowledge or the creation of knowledge. So one of the things I like very much about this department is that we do a lot of the writing, of course, but there’s also a real, I think, effort to think about performance and performance practice as its own form of transmission of knowledge. And there’s also an increased emphasis in this department on digital, virtual spaces and how we intervene there, and how does embodiment play out there, what can we think of if we’re thinking about, for example, race or gender online, where, you know, nobody has a “body” as such. So I think that keeping all of these different systems together is an extraordinarily rich pedagogical focus that is offering a lot of different ways of getting at some of these questions.

: Could you give an example from one of your courses?

: Well, for example, I teach a whole series of courses in the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. And those courses are collaborative because we teach them with institutions in Latin America. So we have like five different courses being taught simultaneously in the Americas. Then they’re collaborative also because students do collaborative projects on the web, so they have to look at new pedagogies, new technical, technological pedagogies, for example, new content, because they’re looking at material in a comparatist way—what’s happening in Mexico, or Peru, or Brazil, or the United States, for example. It’s also, I think, important because we’re all doing shared readings, and I think that sharing certain readings makes it very clear what the different discussions are from different positionalities—we’re not all reading these materials in the same way. And then the creation of the digital archive at the end of it, the projects that they’re doing, is a way of thinking about how you would transmit that knowledge in other ways, not just necessarily through written explorational materials. So it really challenges us to think about how we’re getting materials across and interacting and collaborating in a process that is dynamic, rather than thinking of knowledge as something that is already there, discretely bound, and transferable like a package or an object. So I think that that offers me the best example of the different ways of bringing these systems together.

BKG: And what role does the making of performances play in your teaching?

Diana: We haven’t done as much with making a performance, in the sense that students are very often performers, but what we’re looking at in the classroom is not the making of performance. But the making of performance has been vital for other parts of our project, which is that in the department we’ve always had live performance, we have events, our students visit events, and then in the Hemispheric Institute we have a lot of events and workshops on performance. And so there’s always that understanding that how we learn through our bodies and the way that we participate as audience, as students, as witnesses, as participants in general is vital for the kind of work that we’re able to do together. So the live and the liveness is very present, whether we’re doing it in a performance venue or even in the classroom.

: Right. And, by way of the last question, what is your feeling about the value or the importance of performance studies within the larger university world?

: I think that performance studies is in fact one of the few interdisciplinary projects that has really succeeded in the academic world, because I think what it’s laid down is a new paradigm for learning. And I say this because we’ve had other interdisciplinary projects, if you want—like comparative literature for example, that brings together different language, national literatures and looks at them. Which is great, and I love that and I’ve done a lot of that work myself. But I think that with performance studies what we’re looking at is a different way also of thinking about knowledge, and it offers a venue that would allow us to say you could have a performance studies analysis or theoretical lens that could look at history, it could look at economics, it could look at law, it could look at medicine. So what we’re offering is not a body of work, as it might be in national literature or a canon. We’re offering a methodology that brings these different areas into discussion, and I think that that is a very important way to think of—not a post-disciplinary world, because I think academia is deeply bound up with disciplines. But it’s a way of cutting across and speaking to each other, which brings us back to that first question that you asked: what is performance studies? And it’s all of these things together. So the more that we can complicate our understandings of what we do by looking at embodied behavior, I think we can bring a whole other world of... or let’s say another world into consideration in performance studies and into academia that only values, if you want, or mainly values written knowledge, and so forth. So here’s a whole other area that can be examined from all these different venues and offer us, I think, a whole other way of thinking about knowledge.

: Thank you very much.

Diana: Thank you.

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