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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Kay Turner

Interview with Kay Turner (2007)

Kay Turner works across disciplines, including writing, music performance, and folklore. She holds a PhD in folklore and anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin. Her areas of specialization are women's performed folklore (especially in the arenas of oral narrative, folk religion, and material culture) and feminist and lesbian/gay/queer interpretations of folklore and popular culture. She is Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Performance Studies Department at New York University, where she teaches courses on gender, theory of time and performance, ghosts and their ontology, ephermerality, and performed story and oral narrative theory. Among her publications are Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars (Thames and Hudson 1999), an extended treatment of her dissertation on Texas-Mexican women’s home altars in south Texas and Baby Precious Always Shines: The Love Notes of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (St. Martins Press 2000). Turner’s essay “September 11 and the Burden of the Ephemeral” was published in Western Folklore in 2009. Her most recent book, with Pauline Greenhill, is Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms (Wayne State University Press 2012). Turner’s project on queer fairy tale performance continues with “At Home in the Realm of Enchantment: The Queer Enticements of the Grimms’ ‘Mother Holle,’” published in Marvels and Tales (2015) and an essay for a monograph on the Swiss feminist artist Doris Stauffer (University of Chicago Press 2016, forthcoming). Turner is at work on a new book, What a Witch, a radical reinterpretation of the witch figure in folklore and performance. In 2014 she retired from the Brooklyn Arts Council, where she was the Folk Arts Director for 14 years, researching and presenting the diverse folk arts and artists of Brooklyn. Turner is the incoming President of the American Folklore Society (2015-2018). She remains dedicated to her own artistic pursuits in singing, songwriting, collaborative performance works, and alternative curatorial initiatives. Recent performance works conceived and performed by Turner include, “When Gertrude (Stein) Met Susan (Sontag)," San Francisco Queer Arts Festival (2014); "The Black Kiss," Museum of Contemporary Art, Brittany, France (2014); "Otherwise: Queer Scholarship into Song" (2013); "Rethinking Memorial: Ephemeral Gestures for September 11," Brooklyn Arts Council (2011); "Extraordinary Rendition," Hamilton College (2009); "Creating Queer Genealogies: The Spinster Aunt Project," with Ella Gant, Denniston Hill (2009); and the curatorial and performance project "HomoHome" Cinders Gallery, Williamsburg, Brooklyn (2006). She has written songs and performed as lead singer in numerous bands, most notably the lesbian feminist punk rock group "Girls in the Nose"(1985-1996), which is currently doing a series of 30th anniversary reunion tours.X

Diana Taylor: Hi, Kay, thank you so much for meeting with us. Could you just tell me a little bit about yourself?

Kay Turner
: Glad to. I was born in Detroit, Michigan. I come kind of out of an old-time, auto-based, working-class family, and I was the first of my generation in our family to go to university. And very early on, I think, the thing that was formative for me about sort of talking about performance studies long term in my life is that I got very... I was raised a Presbyterian, and the Presbyterian church I was raised in was a very liberal church, and it afforded an opportunity to investigate different ways of thinking about religion—this would have been in the 60s, late 50s actually, as well—really kind of a different opportunity. And I got very interested in myth and mythic narrative. And there was a pastor at the church who was a very bright guy who had gone to Yale Drama School, and he encouraged this in me. And, you know, my long trajectory in terms of where I then sort of came out of undergraduate as a philosophy and literature major, but then went on to graduate school in folklore at the University of Texas, and I have my PhD from UT Austin. I was thinking about this, that this trajectory is a very long one for me, a very long- term interest in, especially in performed narratives, and ways that stories perform. And I actually am teaching a course on the performed story in culture right now, which I’ll be leaving to go teach as soon as we’re done here.

: How would you define performance studies?

Kay: Well, I think for me, because I come out of folklore, I come out of folklore training, where I was very, very fortunate to be in graduate school in the late 70s and early 80s when Richard Bauman, Joel Sherzer, and a number of other people were at the University of Texas, and the kind of “verbal art as performance” school of folklore, the performance school of folklore was having its heyday. Also the ethnography of speaking. So, who knows: had I gone somewhere else, where genre classification and the textual materiality of folklore had played a stronger role, I don’t know what would have happened to me. But I was, of course, sucked right in to the beautiful way of looking at performance and folklore through the lens of artistic action and action that could have meaning, could have a sort of political side, could express ambiguity—these were the kinds of things that were sort of the hotbed of our discussions in those days. And then if you add into that that I was also, at that time, early queer, early lesbian, early feminist scholar trying to bring that emphasis into the realm of folklore, which was also very new at that time. I think that performance studies... I didn’t even know that it existed, but I read Richard [Schechner], and I read Victor Turner, and I had Dick Bauman, and I had, you know these people who were in that milieu. So for me performance studies was a natural way of beginning a process of unloosing folklore, and the kind of classification, genre-centered nature of folklore, kind of participating in the unloosening of that, which landed me in performance. So, I think that, in great part, I see this connection between folklore and performance studies that is an old connection. It’s one that I think tends to get lost now, and it’s actually one that I bring to my teaching quite a bit, because I want my students to have an understanding of the disciplinary differences between anthropology, folklore, performance studies, and theater studies. So, for the most part, they have a sense of what those other things are, but folklore is a little bit different for them. And so I’m happy to do that.

“I was, of course, sucked right in to the beautiful way of looking at performance and folklore through the lens of artistic action and action that could have meaning, could have a sort of political side, could express ambiguity.”

Diana: So how would you define those distinctions, those disciplinary distinctions between folklore and performance studies?

Kay: Well, I think folklore, you know folklore is always looking at, really, the oral basis of culture, the sort of interactive basis of culture on a very intimate level, on a face-to-face level. And so that’s the concentrated area where folkloric materials are expressed. And it doesn’t mean that they can’t have popular edges to them, but I think, to a certain extent, there is a way that folklore still relies on a notion of tradition: bringing the past into the present through art, through the making of art forms, and the carrying forward of art forms that have been culturally salient. And, I mean, part of the real fun of folklore is looking at tradition and custom and those kinds of things through the lens of performance, which gives you an edge towards emergence and the way in which those materials are constantly in a process of transformation. So I think that performance studies brings a great deal to folklore by virtue of having this expressive side, this side that, you know, speaks to the creative and to the creative composition of traditional materials as they continue to have a place in cultural settings. So, you know, there’s a difference, but they, they really... more and more in my discipline, a lot of people in my discipline make use of performance studies. Barbara KG [Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett] is a folklorist, Deborah Kapchan was trained as a folklorist, a lot of folklorists have certainly come into the family of performance studies, you know, very, very happily because it makes it possible to do the kind of work that we want to be doing a little bit more, I mean, certainly for my purposes, a lot more politically.

: Well, thank you so much.

Kay: You’re welcome.

: So interesting.

: Very welcome.

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