Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Performance Studies is a Lie?

Hands up who knows the difference between Performance and Theatre Studies? The clue's in the question, and say what you see...

It's all about the field of study, but it turned into a turf war at some point during the 1990s. Richard Schechner made an explosive speech in 1992. He gave pelters to Theatre Studies departments for failing to equip students with either vocational or academic skills. He finished off by demanding a curriculum that looked at wider areas of performance, including the study of rock concerts, church services, sports and... anything else he could think up in five minutes.

Unsurprisingly, Theatre Studies professors got annoyed. Bill Worthen pointed out that adding a bunch of things to study was hardly a bold move forward into a greater appreciation of the subject - that would need a few details Schechner missed out, like, say, a binding theoretical conceit. Jill Dolan was a bit more generous, suggesting that the two sets of studies could 'mutually empower each other'. It was probably Schechner's attitude that pissed people off, mind. 

There's also a fine irony in Schechner's advocacy of Performance, too. Let's see how he ended up shouting in Atlanta, 1992.

'A concept of cultural performance was introduced in the 1950s by Milton Singer,' says Willmar Sauter (Theatre or Performance or Untitled Event, Iowa, 2000). 'For Schechner, interculturalism, not universalism became the basis of performance studies, which in his view implies a paradigmatic shift away from performance studies.' (page 39, The Theatrical Event).

In other words, once the idea that performance was part of social behaviour was suggested, Schechner couldn't wait to head off around the world and check out anything that looked a bit like performance. Somewhere in his writing, he talks about hiding in the bushes watching a ritual. That's called stalking in most cultures.

Anyway, he makes a fair point that Theatre Studies tends to be Eurocentric - and privileged a certain historical and geographical context. Instead of the 'universals' that are supposed to be contained in the art of Great White Males, Schechner embraces all cultures. That seems pretty right on.

Only, no. His understanding of theatre studies was exclusively American. Sauter, again, sees Schechner's 'revolutionary' approach as a product of the limited field of study offered in American Universities. Plenty of subjects that come under Theatre Studies in European Universities - including opera, dance, musicals, happenings - were excluded in the USA's curriculum. Schechner's interculturalism didn't extend to thinking about theatre studies beyond his own country.

Schechner's Performance Studies aimed to replace 'theatre' with four areas: entertainment, education, ritual and healing. Apart from the last giving away what a hippy he is, these seem to miss 'art'. He also includes religious ritual under entertainment, suggesting he hadn't been to Mass recently. 

So, Performance Studies does fit nicely with the attempt to expand academia beyond Eurocentric bias. But it kicked off against a very limited notion of theatre, and introduces a bunch of stuff that isn't performance in the same way as theatre. And theatre has a quality that sets it apart from mundane performance, even if I am not getting into that cesspit today. I would argue that Schechner stomped about the world imposing Western norms of performance on all manner of events, and Performance Studies is less an intercultural project than a colonial exercise in subsuming diverse histories and cultures under a single rubric, so Western Academics can convince themselves that they are, actually, universalists. 

I did say a slight irony, mind....

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