All the world really is a stage

Performance Studies
August 29, 2003

A central London sofa shop recently became the focus of a bizarre new branch of performance art, when a group of more than 200 people entered at once and stood around looking at the furniture on display. They then pulled out mobile phones, called up a friend and related the experience to them without using the letter O.

Only a few weeks earlier, a group of "flash mobsters" gathered in a toy shop in New York City, where they stared at a giant dinosaur. When the animated toy began to roar, the group fell to their knees and started to cower in fear.

Inspired and spread by the internet, the flash-mob phenomenon has been described by the people behind it as a new form of protest against globalisation or the political status quo. Or as a way for people who feel disconnected from society to get in on a huge shared joke.

Like the flash-mob trend, the concept of performance studies that emerged during the last third of the 20th century was part of a reaction against the predominance of western traditions in drama or theatre studies.

Convinced that boundaries needed to be expanded and explored, a group of practitioners began to develop a wider approach that used performance as a tool to study historical, social and cultural issues. In 1980, New York University's department of drama changed its name to the department of performance studies, signalling the first definite break from tradition.

As a founder and key thinker in the performance studies field, Richard Schechner, professor of performance studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, is a most appropriate author for Performance Studies.

But if the field is as "unsettled, open, diverse and multiple in its themes, subjects, arts and persons" as he suggests it is, then writing a definitive, reader-friendly textbook will be no easy task.

Schechner gets round the problem neatly by declaring at the outset that in fact there can be no definitive guide to the subject and that his book will probably be just one of many introductory textbooks. "That suits me just fine," he states simply. "The one overriding and underlying assumption of performance studies is that the field is wide open. There is no finality to performance studies, either theoretically or operationally."

To illustrate how the approach is different, Schechner imagines a painting on a wall. Rather than trying to "read" a painting, a performance studies scholar focuses on the "behaviour" of the painting, for example how it interacts with its viewers, the reactions and meanings it can evoke, and how its meaning changes over time and in different contexts.

As Schechner goes on to explain, this approach can be applied to any event or material object, not just dramatic texts. Performance studies takes everyday life as its stage and every form of human activity can come under its spotlight. From performance art to political rallies, to the law courts, religious ceremonies and sporting events, to simply dressing up for a night out on the town, the reach of performance studies is potentially limitless and can appear baffling or even a little daunting to the first-time student.

But this scope is nothing to be afraid of, says Schechner, who claims that academics working in the field resist creating a singular body of knowledge or a unitary system. "This is because performance studies has a huge appetite for encountering, even inventing, new kinds of performing while insisting that cultural knowledge can never be complete," he says. "If performance studies were an art, it would be avant garde. Projects within performance studies often act on or act against strictly ordered or settled hierarchies of ideas, organisations or people. Therefore, it is hard to imagine performance studies getting its act together or ever wanting to."

With this dislike for organisation or divisions in mind, one admires Schechner's skill in linking concepts together, explaining theoretical issues and providing a backdrop to the subject without sounding prescriptive.

While diverse examples of the thinking and theories underpinning the subject are provided, it is clear that the textbook represents Schechner's experience of performance studies and students are encouraged to explore the subject for themselves.

Preferring not to use any direct quotations, Schechner instead presents a vast range of "ideas, opinions and interruptions" that he hopes students will treat as hyperlinks that can be followed if and when more information is required.

Performance Studies is well written and lively and has been put together in the true spirit of this exciting and emerging discipline.

Jennifer Farrar is a freelance journalist.

Performance Studies: An Introduction

Author - Richard Schechner
ISBN - 0 415 14620 8 and 14621 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
Pages - 288

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