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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Joseph Roach

Interview with Joseph Roach (2007)
Joseph Roach is Sterling Professor of Theater and English and Director of the Theater Studies Program at Yale University. Professor Roach has chaired the Department of Performing Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre at Northwestern University, and the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. He has served as Director of Graduate Studies in English and as Chair of the Theater Studies Advisory Committee at Yale. His most recent book, It (University of Michigan Press 2007), presents a study of charismatic celebrity. His other books and articles include Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (Columbia University Press 1996), The Player's Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting (University of Michigan Press 1993), and essays in Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, The Drama Review, Theatre History Studies, Discourse, Theater, Text and Performance Quarterly, among others. Roach holds a BA from the University of Kansas, an MA from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and a PhD from Cornell University. His many honors include a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a Lifetime Distinguished Scholar Award from the American Society for Theatre Research. In 2006, he won a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create Yale's research program in "World Performance." In 2009, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Warwick and the Fletcher Jones Distinguished Fellowship from the Huntington Library. A foremost theater historian and pioneer in the development of performance studies methods and research, his research negotiates the Circum-Atlantic; the threshold between life and death; the relationships between religion, ritual, performance, and daily life; and the ways in which history "isn't over yet."X

Diana Taylor: So Joe, thank you so much for coming to talk to us about performance studies. Could you just…

Joseph Roach: Well, it’s a great pleasure to be here.

Diana: Thank you. Could you just say a little bit about yourself and about what you do?

Joseph: Sure. My name is Joseph Roach. I am the Charles C. and Dorothea S. Dilley Professor of Theater at Yale [University], and I’ve been there for about ten years. Before that I was at Tulane University in New Orleans. And my interests are in drama, theater, performance, and, because I’m appointed in an English department, in the whole complex of literary and cultural history that relates to the history of performance. And that’s something I want to underscore, is the historical dimension of performance because it’s very important to me and to my work.

Diana: So in those things you don’t say anything about having been Chair of Performance Studies here at NYU [New York University] or list...

Joseph: Well, that was lovely but brief!

Diana: ...or list performance studies as one of your interests...

Joseph: Oh, no, I put it in. I put performance in there and underscored it.

Diana: So is performance different from performance studies for you?

Joseph: Well, performance studies, to me, designates a certain formation in the academy around a number of departments that have named themselves “Performance Studies,” sometimes in surprising ways—the stories of how performance is attached to various kinds of work, very different kinds of work depending on the institution and how it is a contested site in the academy. There are different origin narratives, myths, and histories that are themselves constantly renegotiated. There are performance studies programs outside of North America, which is underscored by those who participate in them and those who created them, and wonderful interactions at Aberystwyth [University], as well as at NYU and at Northwestern [University], and also in Australia. So it is now a global academic structure, often instituted in a department. Beyond that it’s hard to say and specify because so many methodologies enter into it depending on the practitioners and their particular preparation and background.

“The persistence of the past has its consequences, and performance is the way in which you see it... The history that comes through gesture, that comes through speech, that comes through song is all the more important to imagining history and feeling its consequences. It can give you the affect, as well as the cognitive grasp of the issues of the past.”

Diana: So how has performance studies, however you choose to define it or characterize it... What kind of a methodology or what range of methodologies has it enabled you to use in your own work?

Joseph: Well, that is a question that I have to put in biographical terms. It’s useful to understand my relationship to the field that I was born and raised in Evanston, right near Northwestern, and my schools growing up had drama K[indergarden] through 12[th grade] because of the activity of the faculty of the School of Speech, now the School of Communication. And in high school, my teachers were all graduates of, doctoral graduates of the Department of Oral Interpretation, which was the founding department of the School of Speech when it was the Cumnock School of Oratory in the 19th century, a Delsartean elocution academy—speaking Wordsworth in pear-shaped tones—and important as an institution for what it meant for its ambitions. This was a time at its founding when the idea was, for a democratic populace, if you could provide everyone with eloquence, you would have a citizenry that was not only informed, but able to articulate their program politically. And the Elocution Academy stemmed from the democratic impulse. Whether they ended up that way is another question entirely, but that was the inspiration. And oral interpretation, as where I came into the story, in competing in events through my high school, was still elocutionary. You spoke from a poetic text, from a lectern or read from a novel or actually staged a drama, alternating your eyes from one side of the room to  the other to differentiate between characters. That was my training as an actor, was through oral interpretation. And that’s never left me, and I keep returning to it. It’s one reason that it’s possible to participate happily in an English department, where my central appointment is now, because of the range of poetry that I was exposed to and, indeed, memorized, because part of the training was to memorize these poetic texts. So they have been embodied. Later on—and this is another part of the story pertinent to where we are right now—when I was just a beginning Chair, my first appointment was at a small liberal arts college for women. And the first thing I did as a Chair was to invite Richard Schechner to speak at the college. And I had followed The Drama Review from the 1960s, from the time I was in college, and when Richard came it was at a moment when he was working with Victor Turner. And the field of performance studies, the method that Richard was developing struck me as so forward-looking because it encompassed the success of the sciences in a studio, putting together principal investigators like Richard Schechner and Victor Turner in a room with their students working on a problem, an experiment, an issue, a question, and seeing what results were disclosed. And I thought at the time this may be a way to reorient theater programs to a more intellectually satisfying and productive agenda of research. In that in so many theater programs, whether they're good or not so good, the end product is the production, and there’s very little commentary about it afterwards. And certainly very little gets written about what goes on in university and college theaters. And in many cases that’s a good thing, but it isn’t structurally a healthy thing in the long run: all that human energy and a lot of creative talent not issuing forth in anything that a research university can really value. And it’s one reason why theater faculties are underpaid, under-tenured, and, in many cases, undervalued. To me, it doesn’t have to be that way. And performance studies has taken up that challenge. But to me it’s, to this point, an incomplete revolution because we still, in performance studies—I did slip into the first person plural there—in the field of performance studies, practitioners still follow the humanistic model of research. They go off, they write their books or their articles, and they come back and it's published under one name, for the most part. There is collaborative work, but that’s definitely subordinated to the humanistic model of the pronouncement of the scholar on the body of materials studied. And it seems to me that’s a useful model and a productive one. But for our field, we have a comparative advantage that other fields don’t enjoy—and the field broadly, all the performing arts taken together. The comparative advantage is we put on these productions, we make the experiments, we do the work, we invest the creative energy that goes into that. And to me there is a great unrealized opportunity to harvest that in terms of research outcomes.

Diana: One of the things that has really characterized your work, I think, and that has been one of the great interventions you have made is bringing together history and performance studies. So how would you think of that relationship? What could performance tell us about the past? And what are some of the forms of transmission that we might be able to think of in historical terms so that we can think about performance as more than just something in the here and now?

Joseph: Yes, that’s a great question, and it’s moving and significant that you’re asking that question since it characterizes your work as well, Diana [Taylor]. There it’s important to fill in the detail that my training is as a theater historian and more broadly an historian of performance—I’m interested in music and dance as well. So that, to me, the most important thing about the 18th century—which is my specialist period of study and how I justify my life within an English department—the most important thing to know about it before you go to the next step is that it isn’t over yet. The past continues to return, God help us. We don’t always want to live with what it brings us, but it comes back. And to imagine a better future, it’s really important to understand that the persistence of the past has its consequences, and performance is the way in which you see it. It’s vivid, it’s tangible, it’s real, it’s touchable, knowable through the senses. And because it isn’t only abstracted in texts, the history that comes through gesture, that comes through speech, that comes through song is all the more important to imagining history and feeling its consequences. It can give you the affect, as well as the cognitive grasp of the issues of the past.

Diana: Well, I’m very interested, too, in when you are talking about spaces of transmission, vortexes of behavior. You’re talking about different ways of thinking about how transmission takes place. And these sites, just in cultural spaces maybe we don’t pay attention to the market place, or I think the boulevard is one of your examples... I mean these places where these transmissions take place. And so thinking about intangible cultural heritage or thinking about how do we protect or safeguard—at least in the language of UNESCO, however complicated that is—practices...

Joseph: Yes, yeah...

Diana: ...that we have to look also at spaces of those transmissions, and I think that that’s one of the ways in which your work has also been extremely important.

Joseph: That’s right. I’m glad to subscribe to “culture” in the opera house tradition. But if it ends there, so many possibilities are lost because beautiful work happens in the performance of daily life. And to be sensitized to that, to take some of the techniques that one learns in one’s training as an artist and to apply them to envisioning the behavior of everyday life is one of the most fruitful methodologies of theater studies. And it’s true that sometimes critics will say, “Well, it’s just renaming everything ‘performance.’ What isn’t performance?” That’s a kind of litany that runs into it. And it’s true that when you start enumerating the kinds of things that one can look at with this lens it can be dizzying and in a way disabling. But the important thing is to keep the critical balance and scrutiny, the focus on the particularities of the event. And that’s one thing that learning artistic technique helps to sensitize: your sensorium—it’s not just your eyes, it’s all of it. To be able to isolate and analyze and interpret the very particular events that are occurring before your eyes, even though they may not have been staged in a conscious way as events, still culture speaks through them in a way that’s palpable.

: Thank you very much, Joe.

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