What Is Performance Studies? NYU and Northwestern Define an Elusive Field

By Jacobson, Lynn | American Theatre, January 1994 | Go to article overview

What Is Performance Studies? NYU and Northwestern Define an Elusive Field


Jacobson, Lynn, American Theatre


Performance studies is the ideal field of study for the intellectually promiscuous. In what other academic program can you research the death rituals of the Yanomamo tribe, compare them to the construction of the self in a Jane Fonda exercise video, and then present your findings in the form of a modern dance piece?

This particular project has yet to be undertaken, but compared to a list of actual performances studies dissertations written by students at Northwestern and New York universities, it doesn't seem that far out: "Playing at Death," "Performance, Play and Pigs in Hawthorne's Social Romances," "The Peasants' Theatre Experiment in Ding Xian County"...

So what is performance studies, anyway? Depends on who you ask. But rest assured, the answer will never be brief. Pressed for a one-sentence definition of the term, Dwight Conquergood, the recently appointed chair of the department of performance studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., ventured, "We begin with the definition of humankind as homo performance, as an essentially performing creature, and pick up where theatre leaves off," and then continued, "We study text through performance, but non-dramatic texts: autobiographies, diaries, prison notebooks, poems, novels, short stories, ethnographies, oral traditions and so forth. And then we move toward nonwestern, non-elite performance practices--celebrations, rituals and ceremonies--moving to the whole performance -perspective on the theatricality of everyday life."

Joe Roach, Conquergood's counterpart at New York University, puts it this way, "Performance studies is organized around what Richard Schechner calls 'restored behavior'--that which can be recreated, reenacted and reinvented. It's poised on the cusp of the arts and the human sciences, embracing anthropology and theatre (and dance and music) and the performance of everyday life. But more than a topic, performance studies is a method--a way of looking at human behavior from a point of view that emphasizes actions that can be recreated."

Confused? Perhaps it's easier to approach the question from an institutional perspective.

Presently, there are two full-fledged performance studies departments in the country. Northwestern University offers graduate and undergraduate degrees in the subject; New York University, graduate degrees only. Both programs evolved somewhat independently, and now are spawning offshoots in institutions as far-flung as California Institute of the Arts and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Northwestern's department of performance studies traces its roots back to the 19th century, to the oldest department in the university's school of speech. It was originally called the department of elocution, then the department of oral interpretation, then the department of interpretation, and finally, in 1984, it took its current name. The department's commitment to the oral interpretation of literature has remained steadfast since the beginning, though the definition of "oral" has been broadened to include other performative modes such as song and movement, and the definition of "literature" has been broadened to include--in Conquergood's words--"any human document." More simply put, in Northwestern's program, performance is both the subject and the method of study. Its students study performance, and then often "perform" their research.

While Northwestern's department was on its second or third name-change, NYU's was still just the seed of an idea, germinating in New Orleans. At the time, Tulane University housed a journal called the Tulane Drama Review (formerly the Carlton Drama Review and now TDR), "the central repository for the ideas of performance studies," according to Roach.

Then, in 1967, several Tulane faculty members--including Richard Schechner--migrated to Greenwich Village to establish the graduate drama department at NYU: more than 10 years later the department was renamed "performance studies. …

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