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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Rebecca Schneider

Interview with Rebecca Schneider (2007)
Rebecca Schneider is Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University. She is also appointed in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture and is a faculty affiliate in Modern Culture and Media. She teaches performance studies, theater studies, theories of intermedia, and new materialisms. She is the author of The Explicit Body in Performance (Routledge 1997) and Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (Routledge 2011). She has also co-edited the special issue of TDR: The Drama Review on "Precarity and Performance" (2012) and the anthology Re:Direction: A Theoretical and Practical Guide to 20th-Century Directing (Routledge 2001). She is a consortium editor for TDR: The Drama Review, contributing editor to Women and Theatre, coeditor of the book series "Theatre: Theory/Text/Performance" with University of Michigan Press, and consulting editor for the series "Performance Interventions" with Palgrave McMillan. Schneider has published essays in Psychoanalysis and Performance, Acting Out: Feminist Performance, Performance and Cultural Politics, Performance Cosmologies, Performance and the City, and the essay "Solo Solo Solo" in After Criticism. As a "performing theorist," she has collaborated with artists in museums in London, Portugal, Frankfurt, and elsewhere. Her first book engaged with feminist artists who use their own bodies as the stage for their performances, situating them within theater and art historical traditions of the "avant-garde" and reading their work relative to feminist and race critical theory. Her second book took up art in nonlinear time under the rubric "reenactment." Her third book, geared to acting and performance based art students, takes up the question "Why study theater history?". She is currently working on a project on interinanimacies and theatrical labor titled "Acting in Ruins."X

Diana Taylor: So, Rebecca, thank you so much for coming to talk to us about what is performance studies.

Rebecca Schneider
: My pleasure.

: Could you just tell me a little bit about yourself?

Rebecca: I am a professor at Brown University, where I’m the Chair of the Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance, which we’re in the process of actually changing to Theatre and Performance Studies. So these are questions that we’re really engaged in at the moment at Brown. And we have a graduate program in Theatre and Performance Studies, which I’m very involved with there, as well. So, that’s who I am.

: So how would you all define performance studies? Or what are the characteristics that you think about when you’re thinking about it as a field, or a post-field or...?

: Right. Well, I think one of the, for me, continually fabulous things about performance studies is that it resists a definitive delimitation. So, we are all thinking about it as a field of debate, where we in the Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance all come at it with different pre-conceptions about what it is, and those differences are what make performance studies. So I would hate to tie a fence around it, I’m one of the proponents for it not really ever congealing into a rigid discipline. I’ve always thought of performance studies as an invitation to think about our borders around disciplines, as well as to resist them or rub them against each other. So for me performance studies is really, fundamentally interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary. And, you know, maybe not counterdisciplinary, as it’s not against disciplines at all, where clearly we want to retain a sense of histories of our ways of knowing, and we want to have a rigorous... we want to train students with a rigorous body of knowledge behind them about disciplines and about things that occur within disciplines. But performance studies as a methodology, I think allows us to move across disciplines and also to think about interdisciplinarity.

Diana: So, what would be those methodologies, when you think about performance studies’ methodologies?

: Right. Well, there’s the wonderful way in which performance itself can mean so many different things. So, one of our... I say “wonderful,” other people would say "horrifying." I try to always sort of tilt on the side of the optimistic side of that. Performance, in our department—because we are Theatre and Performance Studies—performance studies exists with this ampersand relationship to something that historically has been more definable: the theater. So most of the questions we ask within our collective group kind of have to do with that: the relationship of performance and theatricality. But, of course, “performance in the broad spectrum,” which is Richard Schechner’s phrase for it, can mean performance in everyday life, ritual, play aspects, all of those things. We want to study all of those things, but we study them also relative to this category of the theater and theatricality. And I'm very interested personally in—and this isn’t really getting to your methodology question—but I’m very interested personally in what we take to be the difference or the distinction between performance of an act and a theatrical performance of an act, or a performance which doesn’t quite pass as the act itself—what [J.L.] Austin would can an “infelicitous performance.” And that relationship to the performance taken as the real, or the performative, where it says, “I’m performing this gesture, and this gesture is...” pronounces something, in relation to the gesture that’s mimed or that doesn’t quite pass as effective. There’s a really slippery area in there that’s very, very, very interesting to me because, of course, a lot of sociality, a lot of political issues slip and slide in and out of that space between something that passes and doesn’t quite pass. A lot gets decided. So, that doesn’t answer your methodology question. [Laughs].

I think of performance studies as... I was thinking about how, what I would say... And it’s a very broad statement to say that performance studies is an invitation to put ideas into play. And what I... I then asked myself what I meant: why did I make up that sentence, and what does that mean? And I thought putting ideas into play is on the one hand putting ideas into this thing called play. What are we doing when we’re playing, when we play out, when we’re performing in some way? So we’re thinking about playing, and the very real reality effects that playing has. But it’s also the other sense, putting ideas into play, letting ideas, any kind of critical ideas, out there in the public space and watching them rub against other ideas, and form debates, and make collectives out of people disagreeing or rubbing ideas against each other: putting ideas into play. For me, of course, that could be any intellectual engagement, but I think performance studies, to the degree that it looks at the playing of it, is particularly conducive to that.

“Performance in the broad spectrum... can mean performance in everyday life, ritual, play aspects, all of those things. We want to study all of those things, but we study them also relative to this category of the theater and theatricality.”

Diana: So how does this inform your own work? I mean, how does your own work deal with some of the issues that you put out there?

: Well, I mean right now I’m thinking a lot about photography, which is about the way cameras, for instance, create images that are supposedly not “live” after the event of their capture. But I’m very interested in the future witness, the idea of whether this event is really only delimited to this time now and is not live after this event. But isn’t there a liveness, a duration in the institution, or the instantiation, or the substantiation, or whatever the witness is, that we speak to, but is cast into our future—that we somehow hail without knowing who that person will be, or what that engagement will be. It will be myself, for instance, when I go look, hopefully not horrifically, at my own image later. But that’s a temporal relationship that I’m very, very interested in, because I’m interested in troubling liveness or live engagement as only being delimited to a kind of “now.” I think you can have cross-temporal liveness.

: What does performance tell us about the past? Or can it tell us about the past if we're talking about this temporal arc?

: Right. Well, I think that if we don’t make liveness only mean “now,” then we have... I mean a lot of things come undone with that. I mean, it can become very slippery that, well... can you... well, I don’t know if I want to sit here and talk about time-travel. [Laughs]. But I mean that if we allow time to be porous, if we can touch historical moments porously through engagements of the live with the no-longer-live, where we don’t delimit it all to just death—“that’s dead and this is live”—but let ourselves have cross-temporal conversations with things, so that we now talk to a future, we bring a past. You know these things are knitted, and they’re not just a linear line of progress, but they’re very cross-constituted. And so I’m interested in thinking about the slipperiness of performance, which is mimetic, right? Any words are already referencing a past use of the word. They already... I mean the use of words is multitemporal, because it asks us to remember what that word has meant and all of that. So I think that performance studies is a wonderful arena for thinking about cross-temporal engagements like that. That was maybe vague, but...

: Thank you.

: You’re welcome.

: Thank you very much.

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