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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Laura Levin

Interview with Laura Levin (2013)
Laura Levin is Associate Professor of Theatre at York University and teaches in York’s graduate programs in Theatre and Performance Studies and Communication and Culture. She has published several essays on contemporary theater and performance art with a focus on performing gender and sexuality,site-specific, immersive, and urban intervention performance, intermedial and digital performance, and disciplinary genealogies of performance studies. She is Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Theatre Review and has edited a number of collections: an issue of Theatre Research in Canada on Space and Subjectivity; CTR issues on Performance Art and Digital Performance; an issue of Performance Research on Performing Publics; Conversations Across Borders with Guillermo Gómez-Peña (Seagull 2011); and Theatre and Performance in Toronto (Playwrights Canada 2011). Her book Performing Ground: Space, Camouflage, and the Art of Blending In (Palgrave 2014) recently won the Canadian Association for Theatre Research's Ann Saddlemyer Award for best book published in English or French 2014. She has worked as a director and dramaturge on a number of North American productions and participated in practice-based research projects that explore intersections of performance, geography, and digital technologies. In 2008, Professor Levin began “The Performance Studies (Canada) Project,” the first major research study to theorize and map the field of performance studies as it has emerged in Canada (funded by SSHRC). As part of this project, she chaired the annual Performance Studies international (PSi) conference, held in Canada for the first time in June 2010. She is currently a co-investigator for the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics in the Americas, a SSHRC-funded partnership between NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics and a network of performance researchers from Canadian universities.X

Mark Matusoff: What do you understand by Performance Studies?

Laura Levin: On a basic level—if I was going to apply for a grant and had to explain to someone what performance studies is when they didn’t have a sense of it as a discipline—I would say that performance is a lens through which to read a range of different kinds of embodied cultural behaviors, including ritual, dance, popular entertainment, sporting events, and the enactment of self in everyday life. But in practice, the more that I've been teaching performance studies, I've started to think about it as a home for what I’ve been calling “disciplinary misfits.” So as a place of refuge for scholars and artists for whom certain kinds of conversations have stalled in their own home departments.I think that my sense of performance studies as a home for disciplinary misfits is influenced by my own location as a Canadian scholar. Just to give some context, I’m originally Canadian, and I left Canada because there were no performance studies programs here. So I went to the states to do my PhD. And when I came back, there were still no performance studies programs in Canada. So it's really taken a while for the discipline to establish itself, and, as a result, a lot of us misfits, let's say, have found it difficult to find a place where we really feel at home. So I really see the graduate classes that I teach in performance studies as a site where students from different departments can come together and feel understood and talk about a particular suite of issues that we all care about, around embodiment, or spectatorship, or political actions. And I've been calling it “disciplinary misfits” instead of “performance misfits” because my sense is that for a lot of these students the term “performance” is not necessarily the most important thing in what they're writing. In fact, performance is more important for them as an occasion or opportunity to do certain kinds of interdisciplinary thinking that they might not otherwise be able to do in their own kind of straight-jacketed disciplinary contexts.

"The more that I've been teaching performance studies, I've started to think about it as a home for what I’ve been calling “disciplinary misfits.” So as a place of refuge for scholars and artists for whom certain kinds of conversations have stalled in their own home departments."

And I think this is also influenced by the larger Canadian context, because it’s a place where disciplines are, by and large, very rigidly defined. I think that this has something to do with the kind of rituals that a number of us have to go through every year to apply for research funding. So, let's say, if you apply for a social sciences and humanities research grant, you often have to tick off a certain box that says what your "home discipline" is. And of course there's no “performance studies” box to tick off. So either you do something else, like “theater,” let's say, or “cultural studies,” or you tick off the “interdisciplinary” box, which is sort of problematic because “interdisciplinary” becomes a kind of catch-all for anyone in the arts who is doing work that doesn’t quite fit into one of the boxes. So that's extremely competitive in that respect. So anyways, these factors have sort of influenced my sense of performance studies as a home for disciplinary misfits, as a haven for inter-disciplinary or post-disciplinary thinking.

Mark: What kinds of questions or topics have performance studies methodologies allowed you to explore that might not have been possible otherwise?

Laura: So my own work in performance studies has been really influenced by my background, my training as a graduate student, which was at the University of California, Berkeley. And I worked under Shannon Jackson, specifically at the time that she was writing her awesome book Professing Performance
Jackson, Shannon. 2004. Professing Performance: Theatre in the Academy from Philololgy to Performativity. New York: Cambridge University Press.X
, which thinks about the importance of genealogy in articulating what it is that we mean by “performance.” And I got really fascinated by her argument that the term “performance” really shifts depending on your own location. So it's really influenced by your institutional, your disciplinary, your cultural, and your personal location. That argument was really vibrant for me and continues to be. And I’ve carried forward this sort of genealogical thinking into my own writing both about feminist and site-specific performance, but also into the research project that I’ve been involved in on the development of performance studies in Canada. And that project was influenced by and large by my experience coming back to Canada and starting to teach in the Theatre Department at York University. At that time, I was really doing some kind of searching about what it meant to be a performance studies scholar in a cultural landscape where there was no performance studies.

And in a piece that I have written about this, I tell the story about a meeting that I was at where we were starting to talk about founding a graduate program—at that time in theater studies; it's now called Theatre and Performance Studies. I saw in a planning document that one of our specializations was “performative studies.” And I asked some of the people in the room: “Well, hat does ‘performative studies’ mean? Because I have a degree in something else, and other people do, too.” And they said, “We want to acknowledge the fact that some of the faculty in our graduate group are interested in performativity—you know, in the Austinian sense—but that we're definitively not doing 'performance studies,' and we certainly don’t do what Richard Schechner does down at NYU. That’s not what we are about at all.” So I thought it was very interesting that there's this sort of moment of founding a program, and you're doing all these kinds of disavowals.

And it made me sort of start asking questions about what performance studies is in a Canadian context and what the histories of performance studies in a Canadian context. And I think some of those methodologies around genealogy helped me to unsettle some of the givens around performance studies. I wanted to use them to understand how Canadian performance studies might depart from the US-centric model with which I had been familiar up until that point. So that led me to do research on a number of topics. Very briefly, things like the influence of policies of official multiculturalism or policies of official multiculturalism in Canada and how intercultural performers have responded to those policies; I've been interested in the articulation of performance in French Canada and how language is a performance of power in that provincial context; also how that's influenced the development of movement-based and visual performance, which in some ways translates across languages. I've also been interested in Indigenous performance. So looking at how Indigenous performance challenges some of the Eurocentric models of theater that have been central to histories of theater in Canada. And also just generally, looking at forms of Indigenous performance in storytelling, in ritual, and in activism. So, for example, I have been really fascinated by the Idle No More movement in Canada.

And I guess the second part of that project has been to think about Canadianess as itself a kind of performance, or nation as a kind of performance. And [I] have been influenced, for example, by Erin Hurley’s work on Québécité as performance, or Susan Bennett’s work on place as performance in that respect. And I’ve specifically been thinking about and writing about the way that performance studies has often been perceived as a kind of American, colonial parasite coming here to erode the stability of Canadian theater studies. And I think that this perception is obviously super influenced by our national context and by the history of our colleagues’ struggles in order to articulate or to legitimize Canadian theater as a thing that you could study and as a thing that you could stage. So previous to a “Canadian theater studies," only European and American plays showed up on our syllabi. So doing something called “Canadian theater” was really important, and performance studies has been, from time to time, perceived as this thing that might rob us of this discipline that we fought so hard in order to erect. So I've been interested in that as a performance of national disciplinary identity.

Mark: And finally, to what degree and how has performance studies as a discipline made itself felt in Canada?

Laura: So I think that... So before I said it's taken a long time to get started, but it is starting. So one place where you see performance studies establishing itself is in the form of graduate programs. The first graduate program in performance studies was started, I think, in 2006 by the University of Calgary; and then there were a couple of years in between, and most recently, since 2012, three new programs were established at U of T [University of Toronto], at [University of] Alberta, and in our program at York, which has now combined theater and performance studies. One of the interesting things is that a number of these programs in North America, and particularly in Canada, seem to have a graduate program in performance studies, but not an undergraduate program, or so-named undergraduate program, in performance studies. So that'll be interesting to see: whether the fact that there's graduate and not undergraduate poses a problem for the longevity of these programs, or of performance studies as a discipline. Most of those graduate programs are located in theater departments. There are a couple places where performance studies is taught outside of theater departments. At Concordia [University], there's a performance studies specialization in the Humanities Interdisciplinary PhD. Folklore departments have been a really important site for teaching performance and performance ethnography specifically. This is something that Brian Rusted, a prof at the University of Calgary, has been writing about, and he recently edited a wonderful issue on performance ethnography for the Canadian Theatre Review, which tries to trace that folklore history of performance studies in Canada and looks at Memorial University on the east coast, in Newfoundland, as a site of folklore performance, which is really fascinating.

But aside from those kind of beginnings of performance studies as a discipline within... let's say within departments, I would say that performance studies, in so far as it has established itself as a discipline, is more in the form of a network than as programs. So we have the beginnings of really vibrant research networks, which connect scholars and artists from across Canada around particular projects. There is the Performance Studies (Canada) Project, which I've been working on. And we organized a methodologies workshop for Canadian scholars—that was with my colleague Marlis Schweitzer. And more recently there's the Canadian Consortium for Performance and Politics in the Americas, which is an initiative out of the University of Manitoba, which now has a huge partnership grant to bring scholars together to think about performance hemispherically. And that's connected with the Hemispheric Institute at NYU, so that's really exciting. And so yeah, I'm excited to see where these collaborative ventures will lead. I think that they're great in the sense that they allow us to really talk across disciplinary boundaries and with people who are not at our home institutions. At the same time, there is the potential for them to be slightly problematic in the sense that they might allow for us to remain kind of curiosities as performance studies scholars within our own departments. But I'm really excited to see where all of this will lead and to be part of these collaborative adventures.

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