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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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W. B. Worthen

Interview with W. B. Worthen (2007)
W. B. Worthen is Alice Brady Pels Professor in the Arts and Professor and Chair of the Department of Theatre at Barnard College, Columbia University; he also serves as Co-Chair of the PhD Program in Theatre at Columbia and is Professor in the Theatre Division of the School of the Arts and in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. He is the author of several books, including The Idea of the Actor (Princeton University Press 1984), Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater (University of California Press 1993), Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance (Cambridge University Press 2002), Print and the Poetics of Modern Drama (Cambridge University Press 2006), Drama: Between Poetry and Performance (Wiley-Blackwell 2010), and most recently, Shakespeare Performance Studies (Cambridge University Press 2014). He is also the author of widely used textbooks on dramatic literature, most recently the Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (Wadsworth 2010), and of the award-winning Modern Drama: Plays, Criticism, Theory (Harcourt 1997). He is the former editor of the professional journals Modern Drama and Theatre Journal, and his articles have appeared in PMLA, Shakespeare Quarterly, TDR, Modern Drama, and Performance Research, among other publications. Worthen received his BA in English at the University of Massachusetts and his PhD in English Literature at Princeton University. He has taught at the University of Texas at Austin, Northwestern University, the University of California at Davis, the University of California at Berkeley, and at the University of Michigan. He has also been a founding faculty member of the International Centre for Advanced Theatre Studies, sponsored by the University of Helsinki, Finland. He has held grants from a number of foundations, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation. Most recently, he has been a Fellow of the "Interweaving Performance Cultures" International Research Center, Institute for Theater Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. He teaches a wide range of courses in drama, theater, and performance theory. Worthen is currently completing a book on technicities of performance.X

Diana Taylor: Bill, thank you so much for coming to talk to us about performance studies. Could you just tell us a little bit about yourself?

W. B. Worthen: Sure. Well, I’m now teaching at the University of Michigan, and I’m in an English and a Theatre Department. And I’ve been in English and theater departments for a long time, although my background was originally in literary studies, in English. I’ve written a number of books, some of which are on Shakespeare
- Worthen, William B. 1997. Shakespeare and the authority of performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- _____. 2003. Shakespearean and the force of modern performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.X
; which raises for me the question of whether the phrase “Shakespeare performance studies” points to something or points to a kind of absence or oxymoron or something. And then I’ve written some other things on modern and contemporary performance. So, I guess my connection with performance studies has mainly to do with that intersection between a kind of critical and theoretical and political practice and mostly talking about the performance of scripted drama theater, although I’ve done some other things about unwritten, live, living history kinds of performance too.

: So how would you characterize performance studies? Or what would be some of its features if you don’t want to define it necessarily?

Bill: Boy, you know I thought about that and, you know, to me, it’s—I don’t mean this to sound coy or evasive—but despite the fact, I think, that performance studies now has a very significant institutional sort of position and presence, not only in specific departments, but also within humanities and the arts, people doing performance studies in a variety of different departments, it seems to me that performance studies, when I think about it, is still a kind of metaphorical thing, or that my approach to it is kind of metaphorical. That I think about performance studies as a kind of landscape in which there is a kind of terrain of problems that different people are trying to address or engage in different ways. You know, Dwight Conquergood called it a “caravan” a long time ago, and I think that still is a very important way of thinking about a field: a group of people who are brought together, sometimes not forever, but for a period time to work on something or to go somewhere that they’re interested in going and doing. I guess for me performance studies is sometimes a library: you know, your book and other people’s books that are on my shelf and that for me are kind of a horizon of thinking for a particular time.

And I guess I was trying to think about whether I thought performance studies was a field. And sometimes I think not, and I think that’s a good thing and a bad thing, in the sense that one of performance studies’ really animating and rich energies has been its kind of lack of the boundary around the field—you’re gonna plow so far and then stop. And so its ability to draw from different fields, to be present in fields where performance studies would seem, or had seemed—you know, before the 60s and 70s—to be just not an issue, an unthought, or kind of something you couldn’t do, that is all great. I think sometimes the one liability, particularly for younger scholars working in the field of performance studies, is that all of that leverage that you get from working in a traditional discipline—so here’s the trajectory that you should follow, here’s what successful people have done— you know, in a lot of departments that second interview question: “So what about your next book?” I think sometimes that the interdisciplinary volatility of performance studies as an area of research poses a kind of second level of difficulty for people. So, now that I’ve worked on this problem, how does it relate to other problems in the field? And that’s why sometimes I think that that notion of a single, stabilizing kind of disciplinary structure sometimes doesn’t work very well as a description of performance studies, which can be, can work both ways.

“I’ve always written about performance when writing about drama and theater, but it’s also clear that the kind of critical and theoretical leverage around performance as a practice outside of scripted theater brought a whole complex of political interpretive issues to bear that I think I wouldn’t have seen.”

Diana: No, I totally agree. I often think of it more as a post-discipline. It requires disciplines in order to be active, in order to be able to make the kinds of interventions that people want to make. I totally agree with you. What about your own work? How has your own work been either animated or complicated or somehow... with using performance studies as a lens? Or where does that not work, where is it not helpful?

: Yeah ,you know, I was, it’s funny, when I was in graduate school and writing my first book in the late 70s and early 80s, I thought I was doing performance studies in that I was writing about performance aspects of drama and literature. And I think when you throw yourself back to that period of time, you know, there was a famous Shakespeare book called The Shakespeare Revolution
Styan, J. L. 1977. The Shakespeare Revolution: Criticism and Performance in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.X
, and it was revolutionary because it implied that performance had a kind of critical leverage on literature. And you think, how could you possibly not have understood that all along? But that’s really where the disciplinary map prevented certain kinds of work from happening. I think for me actually performance studies has been a hugely enriching thing, both in terms of my work and also personally, I think. I’ve always written about performance when writing about drama and theater, but it’s also clear that the kind of critical and theoretical leverage around performance as a practice outside of scripted theater brought a whole complex of political interpretive issues to bear that I think I wouldn’t have seen or have seen as quickly, or maybe have seen as urgently and as in need of confrontation. And so for me, in a way, the discussion of writing in performance, textuality, your [Diana Taylor’s] work on the archive
Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.X
, Dwight Conquergood’s work, has suggested a whole line of dialogue and debate that has led me to think much more about not only manuscript, orality, print culture, and how that relates to the projection of performance through writing and with writing, but also about digital performance, information culture, since of course digital performance also relies on a kind of writing. It’s just that it’s not a writing that we can read directly, but our machines are reading it. And so is there a way in which what used to be called “multimedia performance,” but now is doing something quite different—I just saw The Wooster Group’s Hamlet the other night, and of course that’s doing terrific, and I think much more invasive and productive, work than any of the reviews of it have so far have really implied—for me that kind of interface has been really rich. And it has brought me into contact with people doing kinds of work that I think I wouldn’t have run into had I, you know, kept my feet sort of in the bounds of drama study.

: Right, right. No, I think that that’s really true is that it does bring... it widens the conversation, as you said in your first image of it as a landscape. It brings different people into the arena. Well, thank you very much for talking to us.

: You’re welcome. Thank you, thank you.

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