Academic journal article About Performance

Introduction

Academic journal article About Performance

Introduction

Article excerpt

This issue of About Performance is concerned with performance analysis, which I see as one of the major critical tasks required by the developing discipline of Performance Studies. It must be acknowledged at the outset that the analysis of live performance is a complex and problematical undertaking and that there is no consensus amongst academics and performance practitioners about methodology or even about the rationale for doing it. The articles published here are intended as a contribution to discussion about both the how and the why.

Spectators in the theatre face a challenging task: the practitioners involved in the production have spent many weeks constructing the performance, carefully knitting together a myriad of tiny details, creating the multi-layered semiotic density characteristic of live theatre, and the spectator is expected to take in as much of this complexity as possible at a single viewing/hearing. Spectators do, of course, handle the challenge very competently, at least to their own satisfaction, or theatre would not have remained a popular art form for hundreds of years. The performance analyst, however, has to go beyond the personal, sometimes idiosyncratic, "sampling1' of the performance signs that constitutes the one-time spectator's experience of the production, and the difficulty of this task is exacerbated by the fact that performance is, in the strict sense of the words, unrepeatable and unrecordable. Furthermore, no system of notation exists whereby the performance as a whole can be notated and, while systems exist for some of the contributory sign systems (e.g. language), this simply compounds the problem as the sign systems that can be notated then tend to acquire undue emphasis in the analysis.

Performance analysis is an attempt to come to terms with the semiotic density of the performance event, to describe it carefully, to explore the meanings that are being created and communicated, and to gam insight into the means whereby this is occurring. It does not, in my opinion, involve passing judgement on the production which is the domain of the newspaper review. The important point is that performance analysis must include both notation/description and interpretation. The careful description of performance signs is a necessary starting point, but however thorough (and it has to be acknowledged that description is always only a "sampling", and equally that it is always the result of prior interpretation which impacts upon the selection of signs deemed operative), description alone does not constitute analysis. The analytical project requires of the view er/analyst a further level of active engagement with the material in order to interpret it and construct meanings with it. It is only through some form of analytical process that the performance event can become an object of knowledge for the spectator but, equally, it is only through meticulous attention to the material sigmfiers of the performance that discussions of meaning can go beyond the immediate response of the one-time spectator.

Many people, including some theatre practitioners, would dispute my claim about the value of performance analysis and, indeed, it is only in recent years that it has become a matter of concern to scholars in theatre studies. Some people claim that the fascination of theatre is precisely its ephemerality: the spectator experiences something that cannot be repeated or recorded, only those people present on the night can share the memory. These critics seem to find that there is something transgressive in the analytical enterprise which they see as an attempt to fix and categorise and thereby to subvert the ephemerality. Even Patnce Pavis, who has devoted a whole book to performance analysis, seems to have a somewhat ambivalent attitude to it when he uses the word "cheating" to describe analysts who go back to the theatre to view the performance on multiple occasions.1 The implication is that the performance analyst must catch the myriad details of the performance on the wing and that resorting to any recording or even to multiple exposures to the experience is a betrayal of its essential ephemerality. …

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