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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Richard Schechner

Interview with Richard Schechner (2001)
Richard Schechner is a theater director, author, teacher, and editor. He is University Professor and Professor of Performance Studies at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. He was one of the founders of the NYU Performance Studies Department. Schechner's performance theories are based on fieldwork, artistic practice, and archival research. He is editor of TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies. His books include Public Domain (Bobbs-Merrill 1968), Environmental Theater (Hawthorn Books 1973), Between Theater & Anthropology (University of Pennsylvania Press 1985), The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance (Routledge 1993), Performance Theory, revised and expanded edition (Routledge 2002), Over, Under, and Around (Seagull Books 2004), Performance Studies: An Introduction, revised media edition (Routledge 2013) and Performed Imaginaries (Routledge 2015). His edited books include The Free Southern Theatre, with Gilbert Moses and Tom Dent (Bobbs Merrill 1969), By Means of Performance, with Willa Appel (Cambridge University Press 1990), and The Grotowski Sourcebook, with Lisa Wolford (Routledge 1997).  Schechner's books have been translated into many languages. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Smithsonian Institution, Fulbright, Guggenheim Foundation, SSRC, AIIS, Leverhulme Trust, Asian Cultural Council, Erasmus Mundus, Princeton and Cornell Universities, and Dartmouth College. His awards include the Jay Dorff Lifetime Achievement Award of PSi (2002), the Career Achievement Award from ATHE (2008), and the Thalia Prize (2010), among others. He founded The Performance Group and East Coast Artists and was co-the artistic director of The Free Southern Theater and the New Orleans Group. He has directed plays, lectured, and conducted performance workshops in Asia, South Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Australia, and Europe. He is an honorary professor of the Shanghai Theatre Academy, where the Richard Schechner Center for Performance Studies is located and where TDR/China (in Chinese) is edited. Schechner's more than 50 years of wide-ranging work have helped transform the study and practice of performance.X

Diana Taylor: Richard, could you tell us how performance studies as an interdisciplinary or post-disciplinary field came about?

Richard Schechner
: Well, performance studies, I’d like to think, has always been in existence. The question is what precipitated the particular relationships that we now call performance studies. By performance studies always being in existence, there has... Deep in Asian traditions, deep in African traditions, deep in even European traditions, is the notion that performance extends far beyond what goes on in the stage. We all know Shakespeare’s famous “All the world’s a stage,” but there’s also in the Indian tradition the notion of Maya or Leela: that the whole existence is a kind of game or performance that is going on at the present moment, et cetera.

So the question is that at a certain point, perhaps 25, 30 years ago, there was a particular confluence of ideas from anthropology, from structural linguistics, from psychology, from sociology, and from aesthetics that all seemed to intersect at roughly the same place—not exactly the same place, but roughly the same place. This place could be identified in several directions. One, there was a dissatisfaction with the analyses that were then going on and with the aesthetics that were then going on as part of the general challenge in the United States, in Western Europe, in Latin America, and elsewhere, with whatever powers there be. It was sometimes called the Youth Movement; it was sometimes called the Participatory Democracy Movement; the wave of radicalism that followed colonialism; liberation theology. All of these things can be looked at as a kind of strong rebellion against established authority, whether that authority was governmental, epistemological, intellectual, or artistic.

So at the same time there was, within the academy, the move into the academy of a group of younger, radical thinkers. If the radicals of the 1930s had more or less worked outside of the academy,with the exception of the Frankfurt School, the radicals of the 60s, a large number of us, became tenured radicals, to use a famous phrase. And so that the question then was how to constitute this. There was a good deal of help from the French post-structuralists, but even before them from the structuralists, from Lévi-Strauss and structural linguistics, and then from the rebellion against that which actually absorbed some of that program. So that performance studies at that point began to first perceive of our own paradigm of enacted events, embodied knowledge. And this is part and parcel with certain of the political notions and social notions of putting your body in the street, of taking action, of Gandhi’s non-violent revolution or rebellion against the British, of Martin Luther King. All of these things were to say that the body in action was not simply an instrument of something else, but was itself an epistemological and political and aesthetic active intelligence, let’s put it that way, rather than a thing as it might be in traditional painting.

So, these were some of the formations, and my own contribution at that point was to see—in the social sciences particularly, and in structural anthropology particularly—useful ways of looking at reality. That is, the use of fieldwork and observation; the notion that ritual or enacted behavior always had an aesthetic quality to it and that aesthetic behavior always had a ritual quality to it. That is, aesthetic behavior had as part of its intention to transform human beings, and ritual behavior has as part of its enactment and intention the making of pleasure or beauty. So, in anthropological fieldwork I found some of the convergences. At the same time that other people elsewhere—the French post-structuralists, as I noted, and people like Irving Goffman, Victor Turner in the United States—were seeing the performative qualities of everyday life. At that point at least I was not aware of Austin’s notion of the performative... but more conscious of Goffman’s work, Turner’s work and things of that sort.

"Performance studies, I'd like to think, has always been in existence.... For me, performance studies must refer to, come from, and come back to embodied behavior."

Diana: Richard, what do you think are the basic tenets of performance studies? What does performance studies as a methodology or as a field allow us to do?

Richard: Well, first of all, and this is by no means universally agreed upon, but for me performance studies must refer to, come from, and come back to embodied behavior. So this puts me at odds, to some degree, with some of my colleagues, who would say that writing is performance, writing can be as performance, or the act of writing can be performance, like the act of painting. That Jackson Pollock in the act of painting is performing, but his paintings are not performing. However, the paintings can participate in a performance when they are interacting with people receiving or watching or looking at those paintings. But then the analysis has to be not of the Pollock painting or any painting, but of the placement in the gallery or the museum, the reaction of a particular set of spectators to it. So, the first quality is embodied action.

The second quality is a methodological... I wouldn’t exactly call it “quality,” but assertion that there is no finality: that things, knowledge, and academic disciplines, what have you, cannot be canonically defined. The irony is here I am being recorded, and to a certain degree it’ll be archived, and it’ll become, in your terms, part of the archive. But I strongly emphasize, again in your terms, the repertoire over the archive. The archive is there, but for me the repertoire is much, much, much more preponderant and important because it is through the repertoire, through the enacted behavior that the process continues to generate continual change. So that the first fundamental of performance studies in a certain way, methodologically, is that there is no fundamental; that the way this works out practically... it seems to me that any “reading list” or any list of established texts or performances must constantly be revised and changed. And probably, personally, this is a result of my own background in that kind of earlier radical movement, and the distrust of authority, even an authority that I myself helped bring into existence.

Diana: What do you think is the contribution of performance studies to a study of expressive culture in an international context?

Richard: Well, first of all, I like to think of the context as intercultural rather than international. For example, the so-called War against Terrorism that the United States is now involved in. To what degree is this a national war? To what degree is it kind of a cultural war? To what degree does it transcend national boundaries? And to what degree is it in response to another movement that transcends national boundaries? So that these national boundaries are used conveniently when they serve the purpose of whoever. But the actual conflicts that are going on, the actual changes are intercultural.

Now, “intercultural” to me has two aspects: it has the integrative aspect: that is, not cultural universals, but let’s say cultural similarities, either through diffusion—which is much more widespread than I think some of the people in performance studies would follow through—and also through similar reactions to similar environmental, that is, social, political, ecological situations, which generate similar kinds of conclusions. So these tend not towards cultural universals, but towards large spread similarities that we have to pay attention to. And, secondly, through the differences which are minute particulars and even more interesting. And intercultural studies, in terms of intercultural performance studies, attempts to see not where the communication is seamless—I think that is a desire that many people try to put on us—but where the communication is inadequate.

One great example of it, from my point of view, is the performance art piece of Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña The Couple in the Cagebecause here they were exploring and exploiting the seamlessness of a museum display and an art display that would project a certain kind of reality about “primitives,” undiscovered Americans, the kind of desire of certain people to still have the "wild," the undiscovered; and at the same time exposing this and making fun of it, being parodic in it. Parody and irony function mainly in relationship to miscommunications. That’s what dramatic irony means: the audience understands one thing and the characters something else, or one character something and something else. And performance studies seems to me to trade, even intellectually, in parody, irony, misunderstanding. And that’s the intercultural thing that is quite interesting.

So, when you begin a Hemispheric Institute, I am interested in not only what relates these various cultures, but what separates them. Where do words or gestures that apparently say the same thing across cultures really are saying different things? Where do we misunderstand each other? And this is probably, in my case, related to my theatrical background. Theater becomes dramatic in terms of conflict, in terms of misunderstanding, you know. How does Othello not understand Desdemona? How does Iago play on this misunderstanding? Well, this is also true culture to culture, as well as individual to individual. So, that although some people emphasize the multi-cultural, in other words the kind of quilt of cultures that kind of exist in harmony with each other, I would like to think of the intercultural as exploring and exploiting the misunderstandings. And that place where these things pull apart or smash together is where new knowledge, new outlooks can occur. Not in a belief that finally we will settle the world’s problems then arrive at utopia; we never will. But one set of problems leads to another, and if life is exciting and worth living, it’s not because we get to heaven or utopia or the perfect society, but because we're constantly able, no matter at what age, to reenact and reengage the difficulties and differences and maintain a kind of dynamic relationship to knowledge, to society, to our own individual development.

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