“Performance studies: An introduction” – Richard Schechner


Schechner, R. (2002). Performance studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge. pp. 28-51

What is “to perform”? “showing doing”: pointing to, underlining

In the 21st century, people as never before live by means of performance.

“Doing” and “showing doing” are always in flux, always changing – theory of impermanence and change (Heraclitus)

Performances – of art, rituals, or ordinary life – are “restored behaviours”, “twice-behaved behaviors”, performed actions that people train for and rehearse.

“Performances are marked, framed, or heightened behavior separated out from just “living life”.

The activities of public life are collective performances.

Explaining “showing doing” is performance studies.

Erving Goodman’s definition of performance: A “performance”may be defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other partticipants.

“Actions apparently “once-behaved”: the overall event may appear to be new or original, but its constitutents parts are restored behaviors.”

Performances are made of bits of restored behavior, but every performance is different from every other.

“All behavior consists of recombining bits of previously behaved behaviors.”

No event can exactly copy another event. The uniqueness of an event does not depend only on its materiality but also on its interactivity. And the interactivity is always in flux.

“A performance takes place as action, interaction and relation.” “Performance isn’t “in”anything, but “between”.

“To treat any object, work, or product “as”performance – a painting, a novel, a shoe, or anything at all – means to investigate what the object does, how it interacts with other objects or beings, and how it relates to other objects or beings. Performances exist only as actions, interactions, and relationships.

“Any behavior, event, action, or thing can be studied “as” performance.” – “as” = “from the perspective of”

Eight kinds of Performance – performances occur in eight sometimes separate, sometimes overlapping situations:

  • in everyday life – cooking, socializing, etc.
  • in the arts
  • in sports and other popular entertainments
  • in business
  • in technology
  • in sex
  • in ritual – sacred and secular
  • in play

“What is designated “art”, if anything at all, varies historically and culturally.” Even if a performance has a strong aesthetic dimension, it is not necessarily art. “Deciding what art is depends on context, historical circumstance, use, and local conventions.”

Separating “art” from “ritual” is particularly difficult. (performances in churches, sacred objects from one culture are in museums from another culture, etc.). Composers, visual artists, and performers have long made works of fine art for use in rituals. In many cultures, participatory performing is the core of ritual practices.

“The difference is based on function, the circumstances of the event within society, the venue, and the behavior expected of the players and spectators. There is even a big difference between various genres of the performing arts.”

Restoration of behavior – restored behavior is the key process of every kind of performing. It is separate from “me”, “me behaving as if I were someone else”, “as I am told to do” or “as I have learned”.

Restored behavior can be :

  • actions marked off by aesthetic convention, such as in theatre, dance, and music”
  • rules of the game
  • étiquette
  • diplomatic “protocol
  • any known-beforehand actions of life

“Because it is marked, framed and separate, restored behavior can be worked on, stored and recalled, olayed with; made into something else, transmitted and transformed.

“Even the “latest”, “original”, “shocking”, or avant-garde”is mostly either a new combination of known behaviors or the displacement of a behavior from a known to an unexpected context or occasion“.

Restored behavior is symbolic and reflexive. Its meanings need to be decoded by those in the know.”

“Performances can be generalized at the theoretical level of restoration of behavior, but as embodied practices each and every performance is specific and different from every other. “

“Something “is” a performance when historical and social context, convention, usage, and traditions say it is.” “There is nothing inherent in an action in itself that makes it a performance or disqualifies it from being a performance.”

Gay McAuley’s definition: “for an activity to be regarded as a performance, it must involve the live presence of the performers and those witnessing it, that there must be some intentionality on the part of the performer or witness or both, and that these conditions in turn necessitate analysis of the place and temporality which enable both parties to be present to each other, as well as what can be described as the performance contract between them, whether explicit or implicit.”

Allan Kaprow: Happenings, distinction between “artlike art” and “lifelike art”

artlike art: serious; part of the mainstream Western art-historical tradition; dualisms (separation of body/mind, life/art etc), continuity of the traditionlly separate genres of visual art, dance, theatre, music…

lifelike art: quite humorous; mixing things up (no binary thinking), mixing up the traditional genres or avoiding them entirely. The makers main dialogue is not with art but with everything else.

The term “performance art” was coined in the 1970s as an umbrella for works that resisted categorization.

The performances of everyday life “make-belief”: create the very social realities they enact. In “make-believe” performances, the distinction between what is real and what’s pretended is kept clear. This distinction was first challenged by the avant-garde and later further eroded by the media and the internet.

The functions of performance: (compiling from various sources not listed in order of importance)

  • to entertain
  • to create beauty
  • to mark or change identity
  • to make or foster community
  • to heal
  • to teach or persuade
  • to deal with the sacred or the demonic

“Hierarchy changes according to who you are and what you want to get done. Few if any performances accomplish all these functions, but many performances emphasize more than one.”

In the 21st century clear distinctions between “as”performance and “is” performance are vanishing. General trend toward the dissolution of boundaries.

The performance genres, performative behaviors and performance activities blend into one another; their boundaries are indistinct. They interact with each other:

games-sports-pop entertainments-performing arts-daily life-identity constr.

play and ritual

Playing and ritualizing are closely related. They underlie all the rest as a foundation.