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.” Its character was forged by the avant garde performance movement of the ’60s, and it retains to this day some of its original spirit of experiment and play. Scholars at NYU freely borrow analytical tools from many disciplines–anthropology, feminist theory, semiotics, movement analysis, psychology–and use them to examine performances of all kinds.
The differences between these two flagship programs are evidenced by their past and present course lists. Northwestern’s lists lean toward the literary–“Performing Modern and Contemporary Poetry,” “Shakespeare: Performance and Criticism,” “Non-fiction studies”–while NYU’s smack of lusty, dusty anthropology–“Commodity Fetishism,” “Fieldwork of Performance,” “Sexuality on Stage.” (For years, the joke went around NYU’s halls that the sexier the course title, the dryer and more theoretical the actual class.)
The dissertations produced at Northwestern and NYU also give some clues to the programs’ differences. At Northwestern, you’ll see titles like “A Structural Analysis of Arthur Miller’s Major Plays,” while at NYU, you get “Rock Music and the Microchip” and “Performers, Play and Agency: Yoruba Ritual Process.”
Whatever their differences, “eclectic” is the operative word in both performance studies departments. To begin with, they’re staffed with faculty from all walks of academia. Northwestern houses specialists in everything from urban anthropology (Conquergood) to real live theatre (Frank Galati and Paul Edwards). NYU has Schechner, a ground-breaking theatre practitioner and theoretician; popular culture historian Brooks McNamara; dance scholars Marcia B. Siegel and Deborah Jowitt; folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett; and feminist theorist Peggy Phelan.
This range of instructors attracts students with similarly eclectic backgrounds. Take NYU doctoral candidate Edward David Miller. He started out as a French literary theorist, moved into poetry and performance, and now works on the editorial staff of TDR to help offset his tuition and living expenses. The typical performance studies student is either, like Miller, a comparative literature or anthropology scholar with an artistic bent, or a former MFA student who’s looking for intellectual challenge.
Ensconced in an aggressively multidisciplinary department, inquiring minds like Miller’s are free to run wild. In preparation for his dissertation, Miller is investigating “alien abductions,” and how they’ve been represented in movies and in radio and stage plays. He explains: “I’m interested in people–primarily men–who believe they’ve been taken over by alien beings. My focus is not so much on whether it’s true or not, nor whether these men are pathologically crazy, but what in fact the stories are that they’re telling, and how they’re telling them. And how that relates to an anxiety about masculinity, an anxiety about nationalism, and an anxiety about ‘foreignness.'”
So what do you do when you’ve graduated from a program that few people have ever heard of, clutching an impeccably documented dissertation on alien abductions? “I’ll have no choice but to stay in academia,” Miller admits. Conquergood claims there’s no shortage of academic jobs for qualified performance studies graduates: “We’ve got people teaching at Ithaca College, University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University. They usually end up being performance studies specialists within a larger department, such as speech or speech communications, or sometimes humanities or English.” Other performance studies students find jobs as archivists, dramaturgs, or arts or cultural critics. Their training is so “rich and broad,” in Roach’s words, that most graduates have no trouble finding–or inventing–their niche in the professional world.
And before long, there may be more performance studies programs to employ some of the graduates that NYU and Northwestern are turning out. Cal Arts, for instance, has just hired two performance studies post-doctoral scholars (one from each school). Northwestern alumna Della Pollock is teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and NYU’s Ann Daly teaches in an inter-disciplinary (theatre, dance and anthropology) program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Conquergood is convinced that there’s no better time to be engaged in performance studies. “There’s never been a moment when the diverging intellectual currents have been more inviting,” he says, “because of the rise of cultural studies and the more positive aspects of the deconstructivist movement. English departments and other departments that used to be absolutely scriptocentric are now very, very open to performance. The PMLA even commissioned a special issue on performance. When I was a graduate student, that would have been unthinkable.”