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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Sue-Ellen Case

Interview with Sue-Ellen Case (2010)
Sue-Ellen Case is Distinguished Professor in the School of Theater, Film, and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles and director of the Center for Performance Studies. A past editor of Theatre Journal, Professor Sue-Ellen Case has published widely in the fields of German theater, feminism and theater, performance theory, and lesbian critical theory. She has published over 35 articles in journals such as Theatre Journal, Modern Drama, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, and Theatre Research International, as well as in many anthologies of critical works. Her books include Feminism and Theatre (Palgrave Macmillan 2008), The Domain-Matrix: Performing Lesbian at the End of Print Culture (Indiana University Press 1997), Performing Science and the Virtual (Routledge 2006), and Feminist and Queer Performance: Critical Strategies (Palgrave Macmillan 2009). She has edited several anthologies of critical works and play texts, including The Divided Home/Land: Contemporary German Women's Plays (University of Michigan Press 1992) and Split Britches: Lesbian Practice/Feminist Performance (Routledge 1996). Her works have been translated into several languages, including Korean, Turkish, German, Arabic, and Polish. Professor Case has been awarded the highest award in her field from the two leading associations: the career achievement award from the American Society for Theatre Research and the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. She has served as a Fulbright Scholar at the National University of Singapore, the Lang Professor of Social Change at Swarthmore College, and visiting professor at University of Warwick and Stockholm University.X

Diana Taylor: So, basically, what you’re proposing is a different genealogy of performance, for example, than, say, what we might imagine coming from Performance Studies at NYU.

Sue-Ellen Case
: Yes. I think, you know, performance art is one of the places where it began—and according to some people, that was a West Coast phenomenon that was totally tied to feminism, and Judy Chicago’s early work, and things like that. So Chris Burden and those early people were... so there was a kind of West Coast phenomenon of performance that moved out of the galleries slowly into the documentation notions. [Alan] Kaprow was working on the West Coast. So the sort of happenings, environments, and all of that kind of thing, I think, gave us a different feeling of origins and of contexts for performance than people who might have been thinking that it came off of the Schechner book
Schechner, Richard. 1977. Essays on Performance Theory, 1970-1976. New York: Drama Book Specialists.X
. Or the kind of exploration of going into other cultures and discovering that in order to do that you had to look more broadly than the paradigm of theatre would allow you to do, in order to consider them. This really came out, I think, of our own sort of historical performance environments and explorations that started in the 60s, with the activism, on the one hand that I was talking about with feminism, and in the 80s with ACT UP, and so forth. That’s one kind of line, and another line is the performance art line, which was tied to feminism and tied to other kinds of social things, but not necessarily. So that there was this kind of gallery thing. And then there was all the kind of San Francisco silliness around cross-dressing. And that was, at least in my historical experience, having gone to Berkeley and so forth, part of how I had to also consider if I were going to look at queer and gay performance, I had to look at this kind of cross-dressing, fun, silly, explorations in the streets, and wherever one cross-dressed; or maybe it was a serious cross-dressing, or something like that.

So these are the things that at least prompted me—and, I think, prompted an environment of critics and authors—to look more broadly at something called “performance.” And performance studies helped us, the notion helps us to move out of that paradigm of playwright, play, blah-blah-blah, that was driving theatre studies and what they call “drama” that was so... enduring in some approaches. And this is why we added performance studies to our theater PhD [at UCLA]: to move out beyond that notion of playwrights and drama and all of that kind of thing, being able to train our students to look more broadly at these things.

And I think, as I said in my last book
Case, Sue-Ellen. 2006. Performing Science and the Virtual. London: Routledge.X
, the… what I call “cultural dentistry” of pulling apart music, dance, theater, blah-blah-blah, was a form of sort of cultural European dentistry, that we’re like trying now sort of theoretically and inter-disciplinarily to put it back together. And, of course, we’ve had to work—we haven’t had to work, we’ve been able to work—closely with dance, and that has challenged a lot of our assumptions about performance. Because even the examples I just gave, of feminism and performance art and so forth, didn’t necessarily link to the kinds of experiments that were going on with dance. And, because we have Susan Foster also at UCLA, and she’s quite an influence on me and others—and she’s active in the Center for Performance Studies—we’ve had to consider the [Merce] Cunningham, [John] Cage, Trisha Brown genealogy of experimentation with what we might call performance as well—although she would not like us, probably, to drop the term “dance.” But our students—and because we teach across disciplines, and her students, and our students—have forced us, in a way, to move more broadly into these considerations between dance and textual or even… yeah, well things that rely on text to some degree to inform.

So, I think that. And then the music people came in and... I mean, one of the things that happened to me with the musicologists is we were looking at a play by Split Britches that I knew very well, and maybe I had even written about, and they sing all of the time. And I had never written anything about the music—I mean, taken into a serious account how the music composed the performance. So these are the ways that the inter-disciplinarity has worked, I think, for us; that’s very different from imagining these things within an ethnographic model that... that takes you back, which I don’t think is unimportant. I simply don’t feel that it’s the guiding principle.

Diana: I know that you’ve done a lot of work on the virtual. And when we talk about performance, and often also performance studies, we tend to think that we’re focusing on the body as the object of analysis, on embodiment as a kind of a social, political, historical phenomenon. How would you imagine that in the virtual, where we don’t have the physical body online. Can we talk about performance? Or are we talking about something else?

: Well, I think what I was trying to do in that last book—on virtual, on performance, science and performance, and so forth—is to indicate that, even historically—because [in the book] I did a fake march through time—forms of embodiment have always... understanding forms of embodiment, or embodying, or anything, imply a virtual just by saying that. When you say “embody” what’s the “em”? [Laughs] So, the lexicon has been a lexicon of the virtual that has... you could call it the spiritual, on the one hand, or the mystic, or whatever words historically were attached to that: the material and the virtual have always informed one another’s notions. So I think that the virtual as it exists in technology has likewise had to use that lexicon to explain the effects of electronic participation; so the lexicon remains. You know “avatar” is a Hindu term and taken really from early religious practices. So that lexicon and that history remain. And so then we’re simply changing the technology or the techne, if you want to go to Heidegger or something, of how you understand the relationship between those discourses. And that’s what fascinates me, and I think that the theater is the... or the working groups that try to experiment between the body and virtual systems, which are mostly electronic, get into that kind of play. And by that I mean play of.. of raising my voice [laughs] because they’re playing music over there, and we’re going to ignore it.

So, anyway, I think that play has always been there. And if you look at Everyman, you could, you would have to say something about the virtual. And then if you look at The Builders Association, then you’re still having to say something about that, but you’ve changed the technologies. So I think that performance studies can go there—it hasn’t necessarily gone there, because I don’t think the understanding of it would be ethnographic at all. But there are various theoretical models that help, that are different. For example, in my book I went a lot to music—I went a lot to John Cage, to
Pauline Oliveros’s “Deep Listening,”
Oliveros, Pauline. 2005. Deep listening: a Composer's Sound Practice. New York: iUniverse, Inc.X
all of her early work, the play between the analog and the digital—as discursive methodologies and not simply as the nature of an electronic or an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar, but how people understand that difference is crucial. And that’s part of performance studies for me; I have students working in this area, so it allows us to get into all that, I think.

"Performance art is one of the places where it began—and according to some people, that was a West Coast phenomenon that was totally tied to feminism, and Judy Chicago’s early work, and things like that. So Chris Burden and those early people were… so there was a kind of West Coast phenomenon of performance that moved out of the galleries slowly into the documentation notions..”

Diana: Right. I would just argue in defense of the performance studies that we do at NYU, that it’s not all ethnographic by any means. I mean, if you think even of Richard Schechner as one of the people who was, you know, part of that early conversation, he’s also a theatre director, right? He’s also doing a lot of other things. And I think that we rely very much on linguistics, on rhetoric on... on sort of body, live body work, or installations, or the work that came out of the galleries. So I wouldn’t say it’s just ethnographic, but I agree that the way that the history’s been told has very much emphasized that Victor Turner-Richard Schechner moment. Which was, in fact, a part of the origin, if we only look at it in terms of the institutionalization, that I think that you’re very right to say that all of the stuff that was happening, the very much broader critique of disciplines and disciplinary boundaries that kept a lot of the work separate… if you think of all of the happenings, if you think of all of the activism, if you think of all of that, obviously there was a huge, huge movement that just particularly got institutionalized in a particular way in a certain department.

Sue-Ellen: Yeah but I think…

Diana: And that’s…

: …a certain department, and the people who graduated from that department. And it moved on out to Northwestern University and, you know, it took up some of the things that were already at Northwestern. But I think, for myself, so—because I didn’t come out of any of that—I came more out of the kind of thing that happened at University of California, Santa Cruz, called the History of Consciousness, which is where Susan Foster, for example, got her degree, and learned how to think dancing in a different way, with Hayden White. I think History of Consciousness… I took a BA and an MA in something that was called “Integration of the Humanities,” at [University of] San Francisco State, which was a huge experimental program that opened at a certain point… attracted Herbert Blau and people like this. So I think there are other genealogies, and that I read the Schechner work along the way of this path, but it didn’t set me on the path.

: Right, right.

: And so that’s what I think is the difference…

Diana: Absolutely.

: …that there was an environment, at least in the [University of California] system, of exploring something like the History of Consciousness that was trying to be integrative, integrative models. And that’s the kind of model that I come more out of, is a kind of integrative model. So I don’t think… Even when I look at TDR, and I just looked at that one issue, often it looks "ethnographic-y" to me. And it’s not a journal I think of sending my work to, for example, so… it might be that they would be really happy to publish my work, I’m not saying that, but I don’t think of it when I think of publishing, because I somehow think of it that way. Right? So again, when I was making my little bicoastal, you know, argument with you… I do think, having come out of the UC system, that there have been all of these explorations, and that Berkeley has set up its department to be totally interdisciplinary, it’s a center more than a department, and then I have my center... That this is really kind of a different model.

Diana: No, I agree with you…

: Yeah.

: Thank you very much.

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