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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Tracy Davis

Interview with Tracy Davis (2007)
Tracy C. Davis is a specialist in performance theory, theater historiography, and research methodology. She holds a Doctoral degree in Theatre Studies from the University of Warwick (United Kingdom), and she is currently Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in The Graduate School at Northwestern University. A feminist theater historian, her areas of interest include 19th century British theater history, gender and theater, economics and business history of theater, museum studies, and Cold War studies. 
Professor Davis has published The Broadview Anthology of Nineteenth-Century British Performance (Broadview Press 2012), The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies (Cambridge University Press 2008), Stages of Emergency: Cold War Nuclear Civil Defense (Duke 2007), The Performing Century: Nineteenth-Century Theatre's History, co-edited with Peter Holland (Palgrave 2008), Considering Calamity: Methods for Performance Research, co-edited with Linda Ben-Zvi (Assaph 2007), Actresses as Working Women: Their Society Identity in Victorian Culture (Routledge 1991), George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist Theatre (Praeger 1994), The Economics of the British Stage (Cambridge University Press 2000), Women and Playwriting in Nineteenth-Century Britain, co-edited with Ellen Donkin (Cambridge Univeristy Press 1999), and Theatricality, co-edited with Thomas Postlewait (Cambridge Univeristy Press 2004). Professor Davis edits the book series Cambridge Studies in Theatre and Performance Theory and founded Performance Studies International’s archive, now held at the Fales Library (New York University). Among many honors, she received the American Society for Theatre Research’s Distinguished Scholar Award and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship and was a Mellon post-doctoral fellow at Harvard.X

Diana Taylor: Tracy, thank you so much for talking to us about performance studies. Could you just very, very briefly tell us a little something about yourself?

Tracy Davis: I teach at Northwestern University, and I’ve been there for 16 years. I have a joint appointment in Theater and English, with a courtesy appointment in Performance Studies. So I supervise students in all the different departments. It’s very fluid. Yeah.

: So how would you think of performance studies? How would you sort of characterize its features?

Tracy: I’d say performance studies is not so much a discipline as a conversation. Maybe that’s how disciplines get started. But we’ve been kind of exercised about this question of disciplines at Northwestern, partly because it’s an institution that puts a lot of money behind interdisciplinary work. You can never get money to do just one discipline thing, but if you say, "oh, we’re involving this, that, and the other," then there’s a lot of support for that. So, at the same time performance studies as a department has been articulating its identity and—this is a long story that everybody knows—negotiating between its history with the oral interpretation of performance, coming out of a rhetorical tradition, and ethnography. So figuring out a way to meld them. And in general there’s less anxiety about melding anymore, and much more... a greater comfort level in just saying: "all right, this is what we do, two things, we’ll figure it out as we go along."My position with respect to that is somewhat oblique because I’m a historian. And historians are always a minority population among performance studies scholars. And I think that although there’s a lot of referentiality to historical events and concern with historical antecedents, there isn’t a really strong tradition of saying, "this is the relationship of performance studies to historical inquiry." And that is my particular interest.

Diana: So how would you define that relationship between historical inquiry and performance studies? What can they offer each other?

Tracy: Well, it’s always valuable to know where something comes from. You can’t have a meaningful postcolonial inquiry without understanding a historical span, which may be longer or shorter, but you need to understand what the claims are behind any particular moment and into a more deeply theorized and deeply understood cultural context. So, for me, I think that—although I’m not really a postcolonial scholar—I think that historical study is almost always going to change the questions that we ask about the present. So if I’m doomed to be having... or fated, let’s say, or enriched, by perpetually having conversations with people whose interests are primarily contemporary, or about the preservation of contemporary work, or the archiving of contemporary work, I’m always going to be saying: what’s the deeper archive behind that? How is an archive really a place of deposit and not just a metaphor? How do we think about archives as potentials? How do we think about a combination of work that involves archival study as well as other kinds of interrogative study, or field observation, or what have you.

I think that there are particular methods that performance scholars should learn with respect to historical study. And not just saying, "I want to know a little bit, I want to know just enough about the past in order to make my claims about the present." So, that’s what I’m trying to encourage people to understand, is that there are methods, there are traditions, there are analytical standards of rigor around historical work that we need to take into account in performance scholarship.

“We have a great interest in narrative, for example, as performance scholars, and a skepticism about how narrative is authoritative, and a willingness to say that narrative comes from a set of decisions, and narrative is not predetermined, narrative is not pro forma.”

Diana: What would be a couple of the methods that you would think would be important for performance studies people to understand?

Tracy: Well, some of this is commonsensical. So we have a great interest in narrative, for example, as performance scholars, and a skepticism about how narrative is authoritative, and a willingness to say that narrative comes from a set of decisions, and narrative is not predetermined, narrative is not pro forma. And the same thing is true in historical work, but we think about narrative as a structured relationship between evidence and the telling of the evidence. We think of it as perhaps being more rigorously bounded. We think of it as having a historiographic tradition in conversation with other historical versions that may draw on parts of the same archive or may be quite distinct from it.

Diana: Do you think that performance practice can ever be used as a way of thinking about the past?

Tracy: Definitely. Definitely. Your work is an inspiration to me for that. I’m working now on a project on 19th century British repertoire and went into it thinking about repertoire the way that theater practitioners talk about repertoire—say, the repertoire of a particular company, or the repertoire around genre—and I’m coming to think of it much more as a fluid formation. So, 19th century scholars have been concerned about genre—what is pantomime, what is farce, what is burlesque, what is extravaganza, what is drama, and so on—but those are... in some ways those are marketing categories. They’re not particularly literary categories: they’re categories about how artists and companies self-identify. But audiences didn’t necessarily have these same concerns, and they were needing to negotiate across this vast range of performance. And I’m talking about theater performance, as well as non-scripted performance, I’m talking about popular performance, I’m talking about a non-hierarchical sense about what’s happening on institutionalized stages and what’s happening on other kinds of performative sites. And there, there’s a cultural literacy that comes into play so that you can recognize tropes about race, you can recognize tropes about nationality, you can recognize tropes about gender that have nothing to do with the traditional categories that theater scholars have been interested in. So I’m trying to understand that as a repertoire, and it’s as much a repertoire for performers as it is a repertoire for audiences. And since it’s the mass entertainment, it’s the mass form of its time, I think it’s a really compelling question, a really compelling thing to try to understand.

: Thank you so much. It’s incredibly interesting, what you do.

Tracy: Thank you.

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