Performance Studies

Performance Studies is a new academic discipline, developed largely out of university departments of drama or of theatre studies, and driven mostly in USA, especially by Richard Schechner (b. 1934). Schechner was something of a polymath: theatre director with his own Performance Group in New York, editor of the influential Drama Review, professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, writer and theorist. But his energetic championing of this new way of looking at a traditional area of the academic curriculum was also fuelled by a dissatisfaction with the practice of theatre in the West, at a time when other cultures seemed to many Western practitioners to offer new and greater potential for the performing arts. In the 1970s and 1980s, many began to see the theatre as a privileged space for privileged people: ‘performance’ seemed to offer something more democratic, more egalitarian. Traditional models of theatre seemed to regard the spectator merely as a customer, the traditional arrangement of the space for theatre seemed incorrigibly hierarchic, and above all it seemed to exclude local communities, black people, the avant-garde, and indeed virtually anyone who might make it exciting.


Richard Schechner

Performance was – or seemed to be – opposed to traditional textbased drama. It offered ways to mediate between performance practice and performance theory. It focused on process, suggesting that the conclusion was perhaps less important than the creative process. Moreover, it expanded beyond the walls of the traditional theatre and concerned itself with anything that was or could be framed or presented or highlighted or displayed. These categories were Schechner’s touchstones for defining performance. Following Erwin Goffman (1922–82) and others, he also saw performance as a way of understanding behaviour. He argued that the new discipline should therefore cover performance in its broadest sense, and should be potentially a tool of cultural intervention. He also believed that it was a crucial site for the collision of cultures, able to broaden academic and aesthetic concerns from the stultifying white, Western tradition. Least important for Schechner was the investigation of theatrical performance. Others saw performance studies as a way of foregrounding theories of the performative so that they would acquire a central place in the ongoing movement of theory. At the same time it was acknowledged that performativity was (and is) an elusive, unstable and fragmented concept.

University departments, especially in the USA, changed their names to include performance studies, and broadened their curricula into some of the areas mentioned above. Performance studies now often includes at least some of the elements of sociology, fine art, psychology, anthropology and more. Where it will go from here is a matter of speculation.

Appearance and Reality

Erwin Goffman was a Canadian social anthropologist who examined how we present ourselves in everyday life. He theorised that essentially each person’s social life was a series of performances.

Goffman argued that in each social situation we present an appropriate ‘front’, a ‘mask’ or ‘persona’. We perform this during the encounter. And we expect the other person to be similarly presenting a ‘front’. We – or they – think: ‘That’s how doctors/businessmen/ window-cleaners or twenty-five-year-olds/pensioners or people on holiday or people short of money or whatever behave’, and so we – or they – behave accordingly during the encounter. And during the encounter, each participant ‘reads’ the other’s performance and responds as appropriately as they can. It is a little like a drama improvisation.

The encounter is further encoded in its ‘frame’, that is, effectively, the context of the encounter, or performance. This will include the setting – the time, the place, and so on – and the way we present ourself – what we wear, our demeanour and so on. Thus, one might meet one’s tutor in the sauna in the evening, but the encounter would be fraught and difficult for both participants. More likely would be a meeting in the seminar room, when the frame would help to make the encounter fruitful.

Goffman’s conclusion from this was that there is effectively no difference between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’. The ‘performance’ we give in any encounter is, in one sense, simply skin-deep, an ‘appearance’. But it is also the reality of how we behave. The performance, in other words, is the reality. This is a highly resonant conception, and has a direct bearing on how we perceive performance.


All The World’s A Stage

Contemporary ideas about performance, performatives and performativity have complicated our approach to specifically theatrical performance. As John Cage (1912–92), a controversial American performance artist remarked, ‘Theatre is in the mind of the beholder.’ And, as suggested, it can be helpful to see social interactions as performances.

One significant means of bridging the gap between performance and reality, or perhaps of pointing it up, which was developed in the second half of the twentieth century, was ‘performance art’, or ‘live art’, that is, art in which the artist (or her surrogate(s)) ‘perform’, not a play, but the artwork itself. Sometimes known as ‘happenings’, these works may take place in a pub, on a street corner, in a gallery, or anywhere where the artist may attract attention, or an audience. In live art there is no story line, and no ‘character’ in the traditional theatrical sense. Rather, something  ‘real’ is performed. Live art banishes pretence, in order to perform. Live artists may appear naked, or dressed in newspapers, or other fantastic or outlandish garbs, they may roll through troughs of paint, cut themselves, insult the audience. They may respond to noise, music or silence. There are as many variations of live art, performance art, as there are performers. Their existence challenges our attitudes to life and to theatre, and particularly to the place of performance within these.

Live art certainly reinvigorated theatre in the 1970s and 1980s. It forced theatre specialists to consider their specialism in new ways. Ideas about performance per se, its meaning and its significance, gradually moved to the forefront of debates about theatre, and these were conducted in a new kind of language – at least for discussions about theatre – a language which could be called ‘postmodernist’.

Here it is worth briefly considering ways in which contemporary ideas about the nature of performance may be applied to what happens in a theatre. It is possible to distinguish several layers of simultaneous performance interactions, or to use Goffman’s word, encounters, in the theatre. First, the characters on the stage interact in a fiction presented as a ‘play’. The characters also interact with the spectators, who follow their fictitious adventures at a highly conscious level of their attention. These interactions are mirrored by the interactions between the actors themselves on the stage, and by those between the actors and the spectators (at a simple level, between a spectator who is in the audience because she wants to ‘see’ a particular actor).

These – and other – interactions are governed by a series of conventions to which this book will pay particular attention. Thus, the audience in the theatre agrees to ‘believe’ in the characters and their world; the actors agree to ‘present’ the characters in that world, their intentions, emotions, reactions and all; but the characters are of course also pawns in the grand narrative conceived by the author, and set on stage by the director. The interrelationships between these various persons – spectator, actor, author, director – provides the site for theatre’s special kind of creativity, and are perhaps what makes theatre uniquely complicated as well as exciting.

What happens during a theatrical performance is therefore highly complex. We can detect the psychological melding with the perceptual, what is abstract becoming concrete, thought directly relating to action. And it is important to note that without an audience – unlike many social performances – the theatrical performance cannot happen. And it is in the audience’s living response, what might be called the audience’s performance, that the theatrical performance is completed.

Performance, therefore, may be seen as a kind of gangplank between life and theatre. It exists in both, and helps us to understand both. We can travel from the theatre to life through our understanding of performance, just as we can go from life to theatre across the same gangplank of performance. In As You Like It, William Shakespeare (1564–1614) expresses something of this idea in a particularly famous speech:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7)


Shakespeare’s Jacques read life as performance in his ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech – or performance as life. We all read performances all the time, and so expertly that we hardly notice we are doing it.

The stage gives the performance a peculiar power, but essentially the semiotics of stage performance are similar to those of life, though the reading may be more self-conscious and therefore probably more sophisticated. We comment on the vicar’s performance as performance; some lecturers are clapped at the end of their hour; and we replay in our memories those romantic moments we wish always to remember. By marking off the performance, we agree to invest each action with a specially-charged meaning, one which may perhaps carry symbolic overtones.

But ‘signs’ (as the structuralists called them) such as these are often ambiguous. For instance, dragging one’s feet may imply dejection, but may be an act of defiance against an authoritarian parent or teacher who has ordered that feet be ‘picked up’. Similarly, what someone is wearing may suggest that person’s socio-economic status (starched shirt front or out-at-elbows jacket), but may also suggest psychological clues to the person’s ambitions, mood or predilections, or may even reflect on their morality. It may do any or all of these simultaneously. Similarly, an actor may signify little more than a prop (a passive sign), as the ‘spear carrier’, whose most important function as he stands at the back of the stage is to indicate the power of the generalissimo he serves; whereas a prop may become an active sign, as when Macbeth’s dagger appears covered in blood. The signs which performance generates are always dynamic and evolving, and constantly produce new possibilities. The way we read signs like this is called ‘semiotics’.

The complexities of theatre semiotics, the interpreting of the signs of performance, are of course increased by the sheer number of them which are generated in a theatre, and which have to be processed and ordered by any spectator. The director tries to foreground what she considers to be significant, but naturally the spectator may misread this. It is, however, possible to classify signs into three types. First, there is what is known as the ‘icon’, a sign which is what it is: that is, a hat is a hat, or the words spoken mean what they say. Second is the type of sign known as an ‘index’, a name deriving from the index finger which points at something else. A simple index sign might be a knock at the door which points to the fact that someone is outside; a motley costume points to the fact that the character is a clown. Finally there is the ‘symbol’, when the sign bears no obvious relationship to what is signified. A good example of a symbol is the word – ‘mountain’ has no logical or obvious relationship to the thrust-up land with heather and rocks. We simply accept the connection. Almost all theatre conventions work symbolically, as a painted flat which becomes the symbol for a castle, though there is no direct relationship, and a stage arrangement with one character on a level higher than another which may symbolise the former’s power.

The theatre performance gives out a multitude of messages of these different types simultaneously. They are further complicated by the fact, already noted, that there are so many different kinds of communication (actor–actor, character–character, character– spectator, etc.) operating in the theatre. The spectator is asked primarily to unravel the dynamics of on-stage relationships in order to be able to understand the messages which are being sent out. Because of this, and despite the fact that plays almost always include a good deal of dialogue, it is the ability to ‘read space’ which is perhaps the spectator’s most valuable skill. A speaker may speak with varying degrees of sincerity, but movement in space usually points towards the truth.

The spectator therefore has to understand the different kinds of space which can communicate in the theatre, and how they do so. First, there are certain fixed kinds of space, often to do with the architecture of the building. The proscenium arch in traditional theatres is fixed, the audience’s seats are fixed, and so on, so that certain spatial relationships are clearly marked and unchangeable. But second, some spatial features are only partially fixed, such as the on-stage furniture which may be moved occasionally, and may be entirely changed during any interval. Similarly, the lighting may vary, and this also alters the spectator’s relationship with other objects and actors. Third, some spatial relationships are completely unfixed, most notably in the actor–actor relationship, but also in the actor–furniture and actor–spectator relationships. The actor, even when standing still, is in a sense in constant motion

Space may also be categorised as ‘pictorial’, that is, when the theatre is attempting to create the illusion of real life with perspective settings for the spectator to look at from the outside; or ‘three-dimensional’, when the apparently false relationship between the three-dimensional actor and the two-dimensional painted backdrop is done away with. It was Adolphe Appia (1862– 1928) who first attempted to place the actor in architectural and volumetric ‘real’ settings, and he more than anyone is responsible for the gradual demise of that important worthy of the Victorian theatre, the scene-painter.

Finally, as hinted above, the most telling use of space lies in the actor’s physicality. Movements, gestures, poses, facial expressions – all are non-fixed features of spatial communication which the spectator rightly reads more carefully than anything else. Western directors have often in the last hundred or more years sought to codify gesture, to make a grammar of movement, by means of which the audience would not be led astray. But this is impossible to achieve in a fundamentally realistic theatre, which is what the West has. In other cultures this is not necessarily the case: the highly stylised Kathakali theatre of south India, for example, relies on a limited number (eighty or a few more) mudras, which are symbolic hand and finger movements which signify specified objects, emotions or actions. In other words, they really do operate like a sign language. In the West, this cannot be made to work, partly because of the dynamic and changing relationship between movement, gesture, and facial expression on the one hand and what is spoken on the other. In fact it is often in the movement which may contradict the spoken words that intentions, attitudes and relationships are clarified.

The special potency of the theatrical performance lies precisely in the fact that it is watched, or overlooked. In other words, it is designed to be read. This is the reason, by the way, that no matter how ‘naturalistic’ any performance may be it can never be a true replication of life, for life is not designed to be overlooked. But some of the most effective drama exhibits precisely that: characters watching – and reading – other characters’ performances. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the faithless Cressida is wooed by Diomedes, watched by Troilus and Ulysses, and all four are watched in turn by Thersites. As Cressida flirts with Diomedes, Troilus voices his despairing anger at her faithlessness, and Thersites pours scornful mockery on all love, faithful as much as faithless. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), Simon the soldier returns home to find his beloved Grusha with a child. He is certainly not the father. The two are reduced to inarticulate staring at one another, and the anonymous Narrator, who is watching the scene, intervenes between them and the audience: ‘Hear now what the angry girl thought but did not say,’ he says, before telling us the unspoken thoughts of the character.

In The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard (b. 1937), the watching is set up from the beginning as two critics, Birdboot and Moon, discuss the play we are about to see. The characters in the ‘real’ play are little more than stereotypes – Mrs Drudge, the charlady, and Simon, the errant lover, for instance, and their roles are dissected by Birdboot and Moon, the watchers. Finally the telephone rings when the stage is empty, and Birdboot is constrained to get up and answer it: speaking at the other end is his ‘real’ wife. The watching becomes acting, and the acting is mere performance. An actress ‘performs’ Mrs Drudge, Mrs Drudge ‘performs’ the charlady. An actor performs Birdboot, who performs a spectator who ‘performs’ his fantasy of leaving his wife for one of the characters on the stage – or is it the actress playing that part? The play reverberates beyond asking merely, What is performance and what is reality? and, How do we read performance? And engages with the very essence of individual and communal identity. What has watching, and watching performance, to do with these?


  • Playing as children do is (a) a kind of performing, and (b) a way of exploring situations and emotions without serious consequences.
  • It is possible to see adult social behaviour as a series of performances. This seems to confound distinctions between pretence and reality.
  • Performance may be understood by analogy with language. Language is ‘citational’: it makes meanings by citing earlier usages.
  • A ‘performative’ is a pronouncement which enacts something, as ‘I do’ enacts marriage.
  • ‘Performativity’ refers to anything which is potentially a performative.
  • Erwin Goffman explored how social encounters involve people adopting roles. The consequent role-playing conflates appearance and reality.
  • Performance art, also known as live art, involves artists performing ‘real’ actions in front of audiences.
  • Many different forms of encounter take place on stage simultaneously: actor–actor, actor–spectator, character–character, character–spectator, etc.
  • Stage encounters and other visual and aural stimuli are decoded through semiotics, the science of signs.
  • Because performance images the world, it enables us to explore our identities without serious consequences.


  • Peter Brook’s The Empty Space (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972)
  • Richard Schechner’s Performance Studies: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2002).
  • Erwin Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969)
  • The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama by Keir Elam (London: Methuen, 1980)
  • RoseLee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art since the 60s (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998)

Plays which are worth reading in connection with this area of the subject include: Caryl Churchill, Cloud Nine, in Churchill, Plays: 1 (London: Methuen, 1985); and Tom Stoppard, The Real Inspector Hound, in Stoppard, Plays: 1, (London: Faber & Faber, 1996).
Source: Leach, Robert. Theatre Studies. Taylor & Francis, 2013.


Categories: Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Performance Studies, Semiotics, Theatre Studies

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