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Performance Studies 101

By Peter Dickinson

August 10, 2015

Although I was trained as a literary critic, the bulk of my research and teaching falls into the interdisciplinary academic field known as Performance Studies. To this end, with colleagues in Contemporary Arts (where I am cross-appointed), Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, and Sociology and Anthropology, I have recently helped to establish a new Certificate in Performance Studies, which is overseen by the English Department. The Certificate is open to all registered students at SFU and is designed to be an attractive additional credential for students enrolled in degree programs in any of its core contributing fields. But what, you may be asking, is Performance Studies exactly, and what relevance might it have to an English major? Let me attempt to answer those questions by telling you a bit more about what I do.

Whenever I tell people I am a Performance Studies scholar, the first response is usually: “Oh, so you mean you study theatre.” And, indeed, as some of you who may have taken ENGL 103W or ENGL 468W with me know, theatre studies (both on the page and on the stage) is an important part of what I do. In addition, I have researched and written about dance, multi-media performance, film and video installation, and just generally the entire spectrum of what is often referred to as live art. However, I have also researched and published on the performative politics of same-sex marriage; civic memorials and urban planning; mega-sporting events like the Olympics; even the spectacle of extreme weather as a result of global climate change. So my actual preferred answer when people ask me what I do is to say that I study the time- and place-based relationships between audience and event. Such a description covers discrete performances of dance and theatre that appear for a limited run on city stages and that are seen by a select group of people before disappearing; but it also applies to performance-based phenomena with longer event horizons and multiple, often dispersed, and differently invested audiences—like the Olympics.

To get a sense of just how ubiquitous and varied are practices of performance in our society, consider the following montage of descriptive scenes. In the first, an actor playing a weary and recently chastened patriarch moves downstage to deliver a monologue summing up a lifetime of regret and the pain he has unfairly inflicted on his steadfast wife, or his embittered son, or his dead daughter (take your pick of plays from the Western canon). In the second scene, a politician has called a press conference to apologize for his latest indiscretion, admitting that he has let voters down and swearing that it will never happen again. The third scene is set on a beach; it’s a glorious summer’s day and two men dressed identically in casual chinos and white linen shirts are reciting before an assembled group of family and friends the vows they have written for each other as a smiling Marriage Commissioner waits to pronounce them husband and husband. In the fourth scene a supercilious sommelier at an upscale restaurant presents an expensive bottle of Italian red wine to the male half of an opposite-sex couple having a business dinner; the man corrects the sommelier, indicating that it is the woman who should be tasting the wine, and as she does so the sommelier babbles on about the notes of leather and cherry in the wine. The woman interrupts him with a curt nod and asks him to decant the bottle. 

These scenes can all be read as performances. By that I mean that each is composed of human behavior that has been learned and rehearsed, and that is now being repeated as part of a specific ritual event that has been framed in time, and that plays out in front of an audience—an audience, moreover, whose belief in the performance is sustained in no small measure through the performer’s own belief (whether fictional or real) in the part he or she is playing. And in terms of this idea of performing something well, think about how an apparently benign term like “performance review” has come to structure and in effect instrumentalize virtually all professional and social relationships in our culture: from how well we do in the workplace to how we (ahem!) stack up in the bedroom. (On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the highest and 1 being the lowest, indicate whether or not you were highly satisfied with the candidate’s performance, moderately satisfied, satisfied, poorly satisfied, or unsatisfied. They don’t call it Survey Monkey for nothing!) As performance studies scholar Jon McKenzie has compellingly argued in his book Perform or Else, both high-tech and global financial markets operate within a performance paradigm as well, one expressly structured around efficiency and payoff.

In other words, performance as I have so far been using the term is not just a metaphor. It has material effects and, moreover, requires an analytical framework that is able to account for the meaningfulness of those effects. Performance Studies is that framework: one that takes into account both the materiality of performance—the objects that comprise it, the labour that goes into it, the physical sites that give shape to it—and its consequentiality: in short, what performance does. This focus on doing means that performance studies understands all human action—from how we talk to our friends to deciding what to wear to school—to be eventful and inherently performative. Concomitantly, Performance Studies considers any social or ceremonial ritual—from sharing a meal with family to genuflecting before a religious or royal figure—to be worthy of analysis as a performance. The point of comparison for each of these performances is not their vastly different content, but rather the shared aspects of their structure: how they are composed, prepared and presented, and, most importantly, what this might tell us about the individual, group or culture that enacts them.

Drawing from the disciplines of Contemporary Arts, English, Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, and Sociology and Anthropology, SFU’s Performance Studies Certificate offers students enrolled in these and related fields the opportunity to discover how the shared structure of different aesthetic, literary and linguistic, social, and gendered performances, among others, helps us make sense of the multiple and varied audiences we play to in our lives. So, for example, just think about how a discussion of twenty-first century literary celebrity in one of your English classes might be productively enhanced by the application of any of the additional performance paradigms: the theatricality of the contemporary book tour, whose various “production values” (from venues and props and lighting effects to musical accompaniment) are increasingly embellished and stage-managed; the perceived success or failure of such an event by the press in relation to the gender of the author; the ethnographic study of fans’ in-person and on-line reactions. If such intersecting analytical frameworks are appealing, then the Certificate in Performance Studies may be just the ticket for you.

For more information on the Certificate’s requirements, click here, or feel free to email me at peter_dickinson@sfu.ca. And for more information on Performance Studies-related research and activities at SFU, visit the homepage of the new Institute for Performance Studies.

Peter Dickinson holds a joint appointment in the Department of English and the School for the Contemporary Arts. He is also Director of the Institute for Performance Studies and an Associate Member of the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies. His most recent books include World Stages, Local Audiences: Essays on Performance, Place and Politics (Manchester University Press, 2010) and, as co-editor, Women and Comedy: History, Theory, Practice (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014).  Peter blogs regularly about Vancouver performance at performanceplacepolitics.blogspot.ca.