Monday, 24 April 2017

Sites and Spectacles

Richard Schechner's 1992 speech in Atlanta is one of those melodramatic moments in theatre history, when a professor delivered a speech intended to change the path of theatre studies. It's the birth of 'performance theory', a rhetorical plea for the expansion of the subject, an advertisement for Schechner's department disguised as a polemic against conservatism and Eurocentrism. 

Despite its optimism - theatre studies could be the way to address the problems of multi-culturalism - and ahead-of-its-time interest in intersectionality, the Atlanta Speech extends the colonial reach of the academy into minority, non-Western and popular performances. The assumption that both 'healing' and 'ritual' are performance forms is unsupported and suspect: the enthusiasm for the plethora of popular performances lumps religion and wrestling into a shared category, and the weakness of existing (USA) drama programmes justifies Schechner's call for radical rather than qualitative change. 

Schechner does makes a series of trenchant points: he observes that multiculturalism in the arts disguises the focus of political power in a monocultural elite; he recognises the exclusion of rich philosophies from outside the Western tradition; he worries about the emphasis given to vocational training within the academy, and the easy elision of art and science training. 

Yet these points only disguise the colonial land-grab Schechter achieves. Not only does his NYU faculty set itself up as the moral and intellectual arbiter of theatre studies, it incorporates all manner of 'performances' into some vague championing of 'intercultural' inspiration. He invites experts from their fields to come teach and learn with him, but suggests parity between 'hot gospel' and kabuki warrior codes without having any apparent knowledge in depth. 

The intention and the consequences were revolutionary.  

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