Performance Studies

Short Entry

Over the course of the last thirty years, performance has come to be acknowledged as a major category through which a great deal of social and cultural activity can be explored, described and theorised. In disciplines as disparate as philosophy, linguistics, gender studies, sociology and psychology, theorists have used performance as an illuminating heuristic device enabling them to account more fully for the dynamic interactions between socially and culturally located agents that constitute the experiences they are attempting to analyse. At the same time, scholars in disciplines such as anthropology and history have been placing new emphasis on the role of a wide range of performance activity within the cultures they are studying. As a result of these developments, academics concerned specifically with the performing arts have found themselves in the midst of a vastly expanded theoretical and conceptual field. Philip Auslander’s herculean attempt in 2003 to map this field extends to four substantial volumes (Auslander 2003), and coursebooks, such as the excellent one produced by Colin Counsell and Laurie Wolf, suggest that even at an introductory level the analysis of performance requires a working knowledge of semiotics, reception studies and theories of ideology, gender, corporeality, space and ethnicity in addition to experience of the art form in question (Counsell & Wolf 2001).

The term ‘performance’ has also come to designate a multiplicity of new practices and genres within both the visual and performing arts over this same period. In the visual arts, ‘performance art’ functions to subvert and critique the reification and commodification of artists’ work by incorporating elements characteristic of theatre such as live presence, embodiment and real time while nevertheless proclaiming itself to be something other than theatre. In the performing arts, the cluster of genres Elinor Fuchs has called ‘performance theatre’ joins other terms such as experimental, alternative and physical theatre to describe a wide variety of creative work that exists alongside, and often in opposition to, mainstream theatre practice (Fuchs 1996, Carlson 1996, Goldberg 1988 and 2001). Dramatic or spoken word theatre, once the dominant form amongst the performing arts and the privileged focus of academic study, is now increasingly seen to account for only a part of the broad category of artistic enterprise known as theatre.

Both as a theoretical category, exploited in different ways in a number of humanities and social science disciplines, and also as a cluster of artistic practices, performance is a complex term and the complexity is rendered more acute by the fact that the theoretical category derives less from these artistic practices than from the theatrical traditions that ‘performance’ practitioners see themselves as resisting. Within university departments that engage with the field now called performance studies, the ambiguities are compounded. Some departments, such as the one at New York University, take performance to be an extremely broad category and, while paying little attention to traditional theatre practice, include a wide variety of aesthetic performance genres as well as ritual, popular entertainment and a great deal of other expressive behaviour and social activity. Others, such as my own department at the University of Sydney, adopt a similar approach to the NYU department but, importantly, also maintain a strong focus on traditional theatre practice, arguing with Philip Auslander that it is not possible

within Western culture, to think ‘performance’ without thinking ‘theatre’, so deeply engrained is the idea of theatre in both performance and discourse about performance. (Auslander 1997: 4)

Still others, notably those departments of drama, theatre and dance that have in recent years added performance studies to their existing title, have done so to indicate that their interests now extend to a wider range of postmodern performance practice but their focus is still predominantly aesthetic performance rather than the whole broad spectrum famously proposed by Richard Schechner, the founder of the NYU department. (Schechner 1988: 4-6)

Some proponents of performance studies claim it is an interdisciplinary field, or to use Joseph Roach’s term, an ‘interdiscipline’ (Roach 1992: 10), or even a ‘post discipline’ (Roach 1995: 46) rather than a discipline, and Richard Schechner has frequently asserted that it is necessarily and inherently unstable:

Performance studies resists or rejects definition. As a discipline PS cannot be mapped effectively because it transgresses boundaries, it goes where it is not expected to be. It is inherently ‘in between’ and therefore cannot be pinned down or located exactly. (Schechner 1998: 360)

Against this, it can be argued that once a field of study has entered the academy, gained acceptance and begun to offer undergraduate training and research degrees, it has become a discipline, however transgressive and unstable, and its proponents must take responsibility for defining it. Focusing on the range of aesthetic performance genres to be included or excluded from its purview is not the most productive means of advancing the process (although in some parts of the world it has been an important part of the way departments have positioned themselves in relation to the emerging field). More productive is an emphasis on the common features shared by the multiplicity of activities and events that can be called performance, and on the analytical approaches and theoretical frameworks that are best able to elucidate them. The questions to be asked, therefore, are what is performance and what are the features of a performance studies approach that distinguish it from other disciplinary approaches to related phenomena.

Long Entry

Performance: some definitions

There is a performativity inherent in most activities engaged in by animate beings (and even some inanimate ones) but the exhilarating scope opened by this observation brings with it a need for caution. Ian Maxwell has described the moment in undergraduate performance studies courses in which students grasp that ‘everything is performative’:

Suddenly, everything is up for (performance) analysis: the dance party on the weekend; this tutorial; breakfast with your flatmates/family/lover and so on. It is an exciting moment, but also a dangerous one. The problem lies with the possibility of the application of an analytical paradigm, itself predicated upon theatre spectatorship, ‘theatricalising’ other kinds of events; seeing everyone as actors, spaces and places as stages, objects as props, and reading dramaturgical coherencies into an event’s patterns and shapes. (Maxwell 1998: 78)

In the 1970s, the terms ‘text’ and ‘reading’ were applied to an extensive range of objects, phenomena and even events, many of which might now be thought of in terms of performance, and the lesson to be learnt from that rather fleeting critical vogue is twofold: firstly, that the revelatory power of a new analytical paradigm can be quickly dissipated if it is applied too broadly and secondly, that critics need to be aware, as Ian Maxwell warns here, of the cultural baggage that the new metaphor may be slipping in under the radar, as it were.

According to the OED, the word ‘performance’ came into the English language via the Old French ‘parfournir’ (to accomplish completely), but it has since become peculiarly English and no longer exists in French except as a relatively recent reimportation from English. The earliest meaning is ‘the accomplishment of an action’ but from the 17th century onwards the English word is associated with a range of theatrical practices: an actor’s performance in a role but also the whole show as presented on a given occasion. Most European languages do not use performance or any derivative from the word to designate the theatrical meanings that cluster around the word in English and where, as in French, the word exists as a reimportation from English it is usually with the meaning of an exceptional achievement, often in the sporting arena, or the functioning of a machine. It is probably true to say that the relative slowness with which performance studies has been taken up in European universities is due, at least in part, to the lack of a widely understood translation of the key term. While in English the verb means ‘to do’ as well as ‘to act’, the association with theatre has brought additional connotations of insincerity or artificiality that complicate the first usage. English speakers would, thus, find it perfectly normal to refer to a surgeon performing an operation but to call the operation itself a performance would probably indicate they thought there was something wrong or at least unusual about it. Referring to someone’s behaviour or an event as a performance is to suggest that they are in some way excessive, or that they are consciously constructed or even inauthentic. The connotation of inauthenticity is an interesting reversal of the original meaning according to which performance was a real action as opposed to the unreality of a promise: “promises are not binding where the performance is unlawful” is the example given by the OED and Cassell’s English-German dictionary uses the phrase “promises without performance” to get at a similar shade of meaning (Shorter OED 1970: 1472; Cassell 1970: 361). These definitions and popular usages feed into the way performance is thought about by scholars and theorists and are part of the baggage that needs to be unpacked when the term is used as a critical metaphor.

Performance, as conceptualised within performance studies, can range from the most highly elaborated artistic activity to minimalist examples of expressive behaviour, from organised social events such as a sporting contest or war veterans’ parade to the informal gathering of young people hanging out on a street corner, from ceremonial occasions to daily interactions. From the simplest to the most complex, however, certain basic factors must be present if performance is to remain a useful theoretical and analytical category. Extrapolating from the burgeoning literature in English that utilises the term, it can be posited that performance requires people (or animals or even things) who perform, and people who witness the performance. Performance is always for someone even if the roles shift and witness becomes performer or vice versa. The question then arises as to whether performer and witness need to be present to each other, that is, whether performance is necessarily live. Assenting to this proposition would not exclude multimedia events, where live and mediatised elements coexist, but it renders problematic the case of film and television.[1]

Insisting on the live presence of both performer and spectator necessarily entails a third term, the space in which both can be present to each other and it has consequences for the kinds of analysis that are undertaken, the kinds of question that are asked. For example, liveness brings to the fore the creative agency of the performer rather than that of the absent author (writer, composer, director, editor) or event organiser; furthermore, it requires that the spectator be seen as an active participant in whatever is happening and thus necessitates attempting to deal with the whole complex interplay between performer and witness, and within the audience or group of witnesses. This raises the further crucial element that semioticians have referred to as the performance contract: for an activity to be seen as a performance there needs to be a certain intention on the part of the performer and a corresponding awareness on the part of the spectator/witness, or vice versa. While there are multiple ways in which this intentionality may be manifested and played with, it is important always to consider what contract is implied or formally offered and how it is actually experienced. Performer, witness, event or action, contract, occasion, location are the minimal conditions that constitute the phenomenon of performance which has thereby become a potentially vast and confusing field of study.

Help in mapping pathways through this field has come from performance theorists who have proposed a number of categories of activity which, although somewhat differently conceptualised by different scholars, do at least make it possible to begin to negotiate the sudden dizzying expansion of the concept of performance. The principal categories are aesthetic, cultural and social performance and direct theatre.

Aesthetic performance, already mentioned several times in the preceding paragraphs, can be distinguished from the other categories in that it involves performances mounted with a view to being witnessed and experienced as such by both performers and spectators[2] and it includes traditional theatre, performance theatre, and all the other performing arts and the blurred genres emerging from the interfaces between them all. The notion of cultural performance has emerged from the very fruitful interactions that have been going on with anthropology and sociology. Cultural performances include parades, carnivals, official celebrations, commemorative rituals, public occasions, and national and international sporting contests. They are, as Elin Diamond has put it, occasions wherein “culture complexly enunciates itself” (Diamond 1996: 6). There is a significant difference between the large scale events of this type and the performativity that has come to dominate the discourse of gender studies and identity politics, whereby gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity are understood as social constructions, transgressively displayed or normatively imposed (Butler 1993). Social performance is the term that is increasingly being used to refer to the performative behaviours that mark every aspect of our social interactions and even the manifestation of self in everyday life. Aspects of the judicial and parliamentary process, while not organised as cultural events, are nevertheless highly performative and can be seen as institutionalised forms of social performance.

Direct theatre is a term coined by Richard Schechner and it covers some of the terrain occupied by cultural performance (carnivals, festivals and parades, which may be sanctioned by those in power or may subvert officialdom in some way, and sometimes both at once), but it also includes more overtly subversive activities such as demonstrations and “politically radical symbolic public actions” (an example he gives is the dismantling of the Berlin Wall by the people in 1989), and the guerilla theatre of the 1960s. The actions of Greenpeace and the protests that have marked meetings of the World Economic Forum in recent years show that this kind of theatricalised political activity is not purely a 60s phenomenon. The word theatre rather than performance in Schechner’s phrase is appropriate because it suggests that there is a degree of organisation, dramaturgical shaping and structuring of the event with a view to its impact on spectators, and Schechner points out that

direct theatre is raw material for the universally displayed second theatre, TV news, which includes often improvised responses to the first theatre. (Schechner 1992: 104)

Performance theorists have not yet reached consensus about this terminology and the terms ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ are sometimes used as synonyms, as are ‘cultural’ and ‘aesthetic’. The categories do, however, provide a useful starting point for analysis even though (and perhaps because ) in any performance event, there may well be elements that derive from more than one category.

Analytical methods and approaches

Turning now to the distinctive features of a performance studies approach to the performance phenomenon, the preliminary observation can be made that in most of the disciplines that have recently adopted performance as a significant theoretical or analytical category, performance is a means through which something else can be explored. In such disciplines, it is the ‘something else’ that is the primary focus of the discipline in question and it can be argued that this has been the case even in theatre studies, at least in what Willmar Sauter has called ‘the positivist phase’ of that discipline (Sauter 2000: 23), where theatre history was the goal and performance reconstruction the means. In performance studies, by contrast, it is performance itself, both as a set of artistic practices and as a social phenomenon, that is being explored. Approaching any social behaviour or event as performance has involved, to an extent, seeing them through a conceptual filter derived from ideas of theatre, and this has proved illuminating even though the idea of theatre that seems to haunt the imaginary of social science scholars is one derived from early 20th century rather than contemporary artistic practice. Notwithstanding the importance of this current of work in a variety of disciplines, it can be argued that the impact of the new emphasis on performance has been even more profound in disciplines devoted to aesthetic performance. When the focus of scholarly attention shifts to performance rather than history and the study of great works from the past, new skills are required and new areas of research and enquiry are opened.

In the relatively short time that performance studies has been formalising itself as a discipline, significant methodological work has been achieved in three major areas and, although much work remains to be done in all three, they can already be seen to constitute an effective epistemological foundation. There is, firstly, the complex and problematical undertaking known as performance analysis and this is the area in which semiotics has been most influential. European scholars like Anne Ubersfeld, Patrice Pavis, Keir Elam, Erika Fischer-Lichte and Marco de Marinis, writing in the 1970s and 80s, applied semiotic theory to theatre and developed analytical procedures to account for the particular ways in which theatrical performances function to create and communicate meaning. While this work met with a great deal of criticism and resistance from theatre studies specialists, particularly in the English-speaking world, it is now being acknowledged that semiotics made possible the shift from text to performance as privileged site of analysis and investigation, countering the undescribability that had hitherto made the necessarily ephemeral performance such a problematic category in the eyes of the academy.

The second area is becoming known as rehearsal studies and it reflects a growing awareness of the importance of the production process that precedes performance for a fuller appreciation of the performance itself. The emphasis on process, however, goes beyond a desire for deeper insights into the performance, conceptualised as work of art, and opens the way to a greater understanding of the ways in which performances both reflect the society within which they occur and contribute to that society’s idea of itself (Threadgold 1997: 118-133). Researchers at the University of Sydney, where such work has been pioneered, have drawn on anthropology and ethnography for key conceptual and methodological approaches and have found that observation and analysis of the production process not only enhance awareness of the complexity of creative agency in the production of collaborative work, but also provide the ground for exploration of the social function of performance.

The third area concerns the role of the spectator or witness and the dynamics of the relations that occur during performance between the performers and those engaged in witnessing what is being done. Less concerned to theorise spectatorship than their colleagues in film studies, theatre scholars have traditionally regarded spectators as something of an unmarked term, their presence taken for granted but not examined in any detail. The exception to this is the group of researchers based in northern Europe, notably Scandinavia and the Netherlands, who have been working over the last 20 years to develop methods of practical analysis to deal with theatrical spectatorship (Sauter 1988, Schoenmakers 1992). As with the study of rehearsal process, attempts to account for the experience and practice of the spectator engage of necessity with the inscription of performance within the social and are leading to the formulation of new theories of performance as event (Cremona et al 2004, Knowles 2004).

Performance analysis

Performance analysis has been developed most intensively in relation to theatrical performance genres, where theorists have proposed a number of models and schemas in 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 gain insight into the means whereby this is occurring. (Kowzan 1970, Ubersfeld 1977 and 1981, Fischer-Lichte 1992, Pavis 1996, Helbo et al 1991, Martin & Sauter 1995) While most of these models build on the normal viewing practice of spectators in the art form in question, the analytical project involves going far more deeply into the performance than the typical spectator who sees the performance only once. Analysis requires notation and description but it also involves a further level of active engagement with the material in order to interpret it and construct meanings with it and/or account for its emotional affect. Postmodern works and those with a high degree of abstraction may resist this process but it is nevertheless only through some form of analytical process that the performance event can become an object of knowledge for the participants, whether they be performers or viewers and, equally, it is only through meticulous attention to the material signifiers of the performance that discussions of meaning or affect can go beyond the immediate impressionistic responses of the one-time spectator.

The schema that I proposed in 1998 (McAuley 1998a) emerged from a good deal of practical experimentation with groups of students over a number of years and my colleagues in the Department of Performance Studies have since then continued to use it to initiate students into the skill which all agree is critical to the contribution that performance studies can make to understanding and elucidating performative phenomena. Interested readers can find the schema and a more detailed commentary on it at but the task involved in the four-step process can be summarised briefly. Step one is to establish in as much detail as possible the material signifiers involved in the performance, and here the performance itself will guide the analyst as to the nature and range of elements that seem to be operative. Step two is to note the diachronic structure of the event whether this is enacting a narrative (or fragments of different narratives as in much postmodern performance), performing a ritual, playing a game or undertaking some other structured and purposeful activity. The point here is to examine how the physical segmentation of the event constructs, orders and shapes the content, whether this is overtly narrative or not. Step three is to extrapolate from the mass of detail that has been noted the dominant recurring paradigms or signifying ensembles, to use Anne Ubersfeld’s term (Ubersfeld 1981), and step four is to consider the meanings that the analyst believes emerge from the relations that have been perceived between these performance paradigms and the narrative(s), actions or events presented.

While the whole process is dependant on the perception, memory and sensitivities of the individual undertaking the analysis, the emphasis shifts significantly at steps three and four from the performance as something ‘out there’, to focus on the analyst and the interpretive response that he/she contributes to the performance. What one experiences during the performance, the way this experience lives in one’s memory, and the meanings one constructs in reflecting on the performance are not the only possible experiences or meanings, and may or may not accord with what the performance makers thought they were making possible. What is being elucidated is not the meaning of a particular piece of performance, but rather the culturally and socially situated ways in which meanings come into being. The analytical process enables the semiotic density of performance in a variety of aesthetic genres to be given the attention it deserves (and has rarely received in the academy), and it also ensures that the responsibility of the spectator/witness in the meaning making rendered possible by the performance event comes into sharper focus, and that there is, therefore, the basis for more considered discussion of the impact of performance within the community. Furthermore, although these schemas were devised with aesthetic performance genres in mind, they can certainly be adapted for use with other kinds of social and cultural performance although, as pointed out above, it is always necessary to be alert to the ways in which any analytical schema can potentially distort or colour the performances and expressive behaviours it is being used to elucidate.

Rehearsal studies

It is perhaps surprising that, for all the time and energy devoted to performance making in theatre studies departments, relatively little scholarly attention has been paid to the creative process involved in the production of performance in the theatre or in other genres of aesthetic performance. There is no body of work that sets out to reconstruct the rehearsal process pertaining in theatres of the past to complement the work of theatre historians concerned with the reconstruction of performance or performance venue,[3] and the practical engagement with theatre making has not to date inspired a great deal of analysis or theoretical reflection on rehearsal and production process.

Things are changing, however, as theatre artists themselves begin to publish diaries, logbooks and other descriptive accounts of rehearsal processes in which they have been involved or commission others to do so on their behalf (Hiley 1981, Selbourne 1982, Sher 1985, Stafford Clark 1989, Wesker 1997, Hare 1999, Bly 1996 and 2001) and as the increasing dominance of the director over the course of the 20th century attracts critical attention to rehearsal as the phase of the overall production-performance-reception cycle in which this artist’s input is most strongly evident. The popular view of the director’s role as principle author of the production involves as much distortion as earlier assumptions about the playwright that permitted written texts to be the privileged focus of scholarly interest for so long. It has, however, brought with it some awareness of the importance of studying the long, collaborative work process required for the making of any performance. Of course, it is no coincidence that this nascent concern with rehearsal should occur at a time when, under the influence of postmodern theory, scholarly interest in other fields too has shifted from the work of art as reified object to the dynamic processes involved in its production and reception.

Teaching and research in performance studies at the University of Sydney has been concerned from the beginning to develop methods for the observation and analysis of rehearsal. In the early days, our interest was substantially in the way the complex strands of the subsequent performance came together, how the dominant signifiers came to be selected, what role was played by the written text in this process, and how the same text is able to tell such different stories and convey such different meanings in the theatre. Taking note of the discussions in the rehearsal room that surrounded the selection and elaboration of major elements in the performance, noting the options tried and discarded as well as those retained, it became clear that every theatrical signifier observed in performance was like the tip of a semiotic iceberg, with depths of meaning beneath the observed surface. It also became clear that the normal one-time spectator sees only a small part of what is there and that our society, while lavishing attention on written texts, has institutionalised a very shallow mode of reception for performance that does not do justice to the weeks of work and creative invention involved. As time went on, I became more and more fascinated by rehearsal, seeing it as a period of extraordinary creativity and intense interpersonal relations that needed to be studied on its own terms and not simply as a means to a deeper appreciation of the end product. Neither the semiotic framework being evolved for performance analysis nor traditional theatre scholarship proved adequate to the task and, almost by accident, I began to draw on ethnography for methodological approaches and analytical concepts that would enable me to begin to deal with the multiplicity of culturally embedded practices that constitute rehearsal process. (McAuley 1998b, 2006 and 2008 forthcoming)

For Clifford Geertz, anthropology is concerned above all with cultural understanding and that means making sense of the whole bewildering array of detail that has been observed during periods of fieldwork; what he calls ‘thick description’ (Geertz 1973) is crucial both to the perception of the sort of things that need to be observed and noted and to the subsequent analysis and explanation of this material. Participant observation and thick description are key elements in the ethnographically informed method of rehearsal study that has been developed at the University of Sydney and the task of the rehearsal analyst, like that of the ethnographer in the field, involves careful observation of the minutiae that constitute the work processes of the group being studied, an attempt to understand what the details observed mean to the people involved, and their relevance to the broader cultural context. The analysis of rehearsal requires one to focus on the specific but at the same time to be alert to the larger context that both influences, and is influenced by, the specific work process being observed. The nub of the problem for rehearsal studies, as for ethnography, is how to move the analysis from micro to macro, to see the ways in which descriptive detail leads to a bigger picture. Too much detail and the reader cannot see the wood for the trees, too little and the whole enterprise becomes, at best, journalistic reportage. What Clifford Geertz says of his own discipline applies equally profoundly to the analysis of rehearsal:

If anthropological interpretation is constructing a reading of what happens, then to divorce it from what happens – from what, in this time or that place, specific people say, what they do, what is done to them, from the whole vast business of the world – is to divorce it from its applications and render it vacant. (18)

This group of artists, working in this draughty warehouse, to produce this performance to be performed in this particular venue are indeed part of the ‘whole vast business of the world’ and the complex web of connections that make it so are a major part of what the rehearsal analyst is attempting to tease out.

Spectator studies/event theory

The increasing interest in rehearsal and the creative process more generally can be seen as one of the consequences of the paradigm shift that has located performance itself at the centre of scholarly attention. Moving upstream, as it were, from the performance to observe, document and analyse the creative process through which it was produced, has been an innovation with respect to the methodologies developed within theatre studies, but it does not constitute a radical break from the academy’s traditional concern with works of art, even though it has meant that the creative contributions of different groups of artists begin receive the attention they deserve. Potentially more radical is the attempt to explore the way spectators experience the performance and to examine what happens downstream of performance, i.e. how spectators remember this experience, what meanings they construct with it, and how the performance, now conceptualised as event, becomes part of the social life of the community.

Recent work on spectatorship in live performance ranges from highly empirical studies of particular audiences to theoretical modelling that attempts to encapsulate the essential structures of theatrical spectatorship. Not all of this work draws overtly on semiotic terminology and some, indeed, is critical of the shortcomings of semiotics in relation to spectatorship (Sauter 2000). It can nevertheless be argued that it was the questions posed by theatre semioticians in the 1970s that created much of the original impetus for scholars to devote more time to the reception end of the production/reception continuum. Semiotics also provided much of the analytical method that made it possible to go beyond the historical studies and demographic surveys, which had been, until then, virtually the only kinds of academic writing to deal with spectatorship in live performance. Asking who is attending various types of live performance and why they do so provides useful information, particularly for theatre managers and funding bodies, but it reveals very little about how spectators attend, what they do when they are there, what they make of the experiences they have, what they remember of what they have experienced and, thus, how the performances become enmeshed within the wider culture. These are all questions that are opened up when performance is considered as a mode of communication, involving senders and receivers in a complex relationship with each other, and necessarily embedded within the social event constituted by the coming together at a given time and place of both parties. Scholarly studies of spectatorship have involved experimentation with some intriguing methods of collecting information, the most promising of which are, in my view, Willmar Sauter’s system of ‘theatre talks’ and Tim Fitzpatrick’s experiments with the ‘eyemark’ recorder (Sauter 2000; Fitzpatrick 1990 and 1991).

Performance analysis and event analysis revolve of necessity around the spectator but this then raises the question of what it is that is being analysed: the performance, the event or the spectator’s experience of performance and/or event. In the theoretical models that have been proposed for performance analysis, there has always been a certain slippage between these different aspects of the complex phenomenon that is live performance (McAuley 1998a) and the same can be said of works that are ostensibly concerned with the spectator but focus instead on the performance as a set of phenomena that need to be observed and interpreted (Ubersfeld 1981). Theatre poses in an acute form the question as to whether performance analysis and spectatorial practice can in fact be separated, given that the performance only has meaning when it is viewed by someone and that the analytical process constructs the viewing subject as much as the performance, or rather it indicates the extent to which the two co-construct each other. If the task is conceptualised as analysing the spectator’s experience, then another raft of questions and problems emerge concerning the spectator whose experience is to be foregrounded: is this a real spectator, an experience extrapolated from a number of accounts by real spectators, the analyst him/herself posing as generalised spectator, or an ‘ideal spectator’ similar to the ideal reader posited by reader response theory? While the latter enabled literary critics to avoid the whole difficult business of actual readers and their actual responses, performance scholars must work to find ways to deal with spectatorial practices that are of necessity located in the contingent realities of actual performances. Here again, there are lessons to be learned from ethnographic practice, notably in how to avoid objectifying what can only be subjectively experienced without succumbing to the temptation of placing oneself at the centre of the analysis, and how to move intelligently between the contingent details of observed reality and interpretive comment.

A key problem yet to be solved by performance studies specialists is the vexed question of terminology in reference to those present at a performance and what they are doing. The words made available by most European languages come heavily burdened with connotations that lead to distortion and misunderstanding. Spectator/spectateur/Zuschauer all suggest the primacy of the visual as well as conveying the idea of a certain separation or distance between the doers and the watchers. The sender/receiver or emitter/receptor couplings proposed by semiotic theory are no improvement, suggesting a one way direction for the communication as well as a certain passivity at the reception end. Being present at a live event involves being part of a crowd and here, too, the common terminology is problematical: audience (normally spoken of as consisting, not of auditors unless the context is a concert, but of spectators) again seems to stress one sensory channel and thus downplay all the rest; German has ‘das Publikum’, which seems to be a step in the right direction and French goes one better with ‘l’assistance’ (‘those present’ and, if the secondary meaning of the word is also included, then even ‘helping’ by their presence). The positive connotations of both these collective nouns are unfortunately belied by the singular nouns used to refer to their component parts: those who make up the ‘assistance’ are not referred to as ‘assistants’ but ‘spectateurs’, while the German ‘Publikum’ is made up of individual ‘Zuschaueren’, so the emphasis is once again on looking. As Alan Read has pointed out so cogently, however:

seeing, watching and looking at theatre do not begin to explain what happens between an audience and a performer (Read 1993: 58)

but the common terminology encourages just such a reductionist view. Stuart Grant, in his doctoral thesis proposing a phenomenological approach to the “transcendental intersubjective Audience”, makes frequent use of the words ‘witness’ and ‘witnessing’ (Grant 2007), which brings to the fore another essential dimension of what is going on. Following this lead, I now use hyphenated terms, such as spectator/witness or spectator/participant as a means of drawing attention to the dynamic role played by the watchers in any performance event.

Beyond aesthetic performance

Locating performance at the centre of scholarly enquiry has entailed developing methods of approach that make possible a serious engagement with the pragmatics of expressive and communicative phenomena that are unrecordable, unrepeatable and necessarily ephemeral. The methodological approaches described above that make it possible to analyse performance, observe and describe the production process, and explore the role of the spectator/witness in the performance event, have emerged to a large extent from concern with aesthetic performance practices. If they do indeed form the epistemological foundation for the emerging discipline of performance studies, as is claimed here, then they must also be applicable to the much broader range of cultural and social performance and the performative behaviours that now constitute the disciplinary field. Fundamental to understanding any kind of performance or performative behaviour is the ability to describe it and establish what it consists of and I suggest that, regardless of the nature of the performances, some version of the four-step process involved in my performance analysis schema is necessary if analysts are to explore in a systematic way the communicative content of any performance or performative event. It should be stressed that all four steps are necessary if the analysis is to go beyond description and approach the vexed questions of interpretation and meaning making with some degree of rigour.

A performance centred approach to any performance event, whether this be a theatrical production, a football match, a political demonstration or a court hearing, can be summed up as the attempt to answer as completely as possible what grammarians call the “wh” questions: who is doing it, who is it being done for, what is being done and how, where and when is it being done and why. These deceptively simple questions need to be complemented by two additions: ‘who is paying?’ and ‘who benefits?’. The additions function in a similar way to the sender/receiver categories in an actantial analysis to oblige the analyst to consider the wider social and cultural context within which the performance is occurring, the functions it is serving in this wider context and its relation to dominant structures of power and authority. The questions may seem simple but, if performance analysis and rehearsal studies can be seen as attempts to answer ‘what’ and ‘how’, then it is evident that answering them is complex and difficult, requiring the input of numerous disciplinary approaches, borrowed from semiotics, ethnography, sociology and linguistics, to name only the most obvious.

The list serves as a basic rule of thumb, reminding the analyst that each of the questions has to be considered. Asking ‘where’, for example, involves consideration not only of the location of the performance venue within the social space of the community, the nature of this space, its historical and political resonance within the community but also, crucially, where the performers are located in relation to those who are witnessing their performance. While this may seem obvious, it is worth pondering the fact that so much of the pictorial record of aesthetic and cultural performance fails to provide any information about the relative location of the performers and spectator/witnesses. A performance specialist always seeks this information but it is rarely provided by the painters, photographers and video makers whose work forms the precious iconographic record of necessarily ephemeral performances. Much writing about performance treats only one or two of these questions, skates over the surface of others, and ignores others altogether. The point to be stressed, however, is that all the questions need to be considered in order to arrive at a deep understanding of the event in question and of its performativity.

The contribution of semiotics

The contribution of semiotics to theatre studies and to the development of performance studies is substantial, as has been indicated several times in this essay. Anne Ubersfeld is perhaps the most original thinker associated with the Paris school of theatre semiotics and the three volumes of her Lire le Théâtre, published between 1977 and 1996, constitute an extremely rich repertoire of analytical techniques and a body of theoretical writing about theatre of great brilliance and insight. Her own considered judgement on the value of the semiotic method for theatre studies at the end of this long trajectory is worth quoting extensively:

A quoi sert l’analyse sémiologique? A faire attention aux signes, à la matérialité du texte avec toutes ses significations possibles. Les procédures sémiologiques doivent être comprises comme des investigations prudentes qui permettent de ne pas sauter sur le premier sens qui apparaît aux yeux…
Bien loin de conduire à un désespoir relativiste, au n’importe quoi d’une lecture impressionniste ou de l’invention anarchique, elles peuvent à la fois montrer tout le champ des possibles et privilégier une lecture qui rende compte du plus grand nombre de ces possibles. (Ubersfeld 1996: 223)

In this comment, she is concerned predominantly with analysis of play texts, but the same can also be said for performance itself and I would suggest that the great contribution of semiotics to theatre and performance studies is the provision of an extremely versatile set of techniques for the careful description and analysis of performance, both in its materiality and as an incitement to meaning construction on the part of the spectator/witness.


[1] Performances necessarily occur in the making of a film but they are then mediated by camera, screen and editing process and are thereby transformed into an art object that exists regardless of whether or not it is being viewed. The screening of a film is a performative event due to the presence and behaviour of the audience, but the film itself, while it contains fragments of performance, is an aesthetic object that is more akin to a painting or piece of sculpture than a performance. Television is more complex still in that there are degrees of liveness, degrees of so-called reality, degrees of editorial interference and shaping and these are constantly being manipulated as programme makers find new ways to attract viewers.

[2] European languages have an impoverished vocabulary to refer to those for whom the performer performs. The conceptual problems this causes are dealt with later in this article.

[3] Mention must, however, be made of the groundbreaking work of Tiffany Stern (2000 and 2004) and her association with the research group convened by Tim Fitzpatrick at the University of Sydney.


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Auslander, Philip. 1997. From Acting to Performance. New York: Routledge.

___________. 2003. Performance: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. 4 volumes.

London: Routledge.

Bly, Mark (Ed). 1996 and 2001. The Production Notebooks: Theatre in Process. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge.

Carlson, Marvin. 1990. Theatre Semiotics: Signs of Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

_________. 1996. Performance: a Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge.

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Elam, Keir. 1980. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. London/New York: Methuen.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. 1992. The Semiotics of Theatre. Translation Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones of

3 volume German published 1983. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Fitzpatrick, Tim. 1990. “Models of Visual and Auditory Interaction in Performance”, Gestos 9: April 1990, pp. 9-22.

________ with Sean Batten. 1991. “Watching the Watchers Watch: Some Implications of Audience Attention Patterns”, Gestos 12: November 1991, pp. 11-31.

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_______. 2004. Making Shakespeare: From Stage to Page. London/New York: Routledge.

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Gay McAuley
Department of Performance Studies
University of Sydney

Gay McAuley is an Honorary Professor in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney. She taught theatre and film in the French Department before establishing Performance Studies as an interdisciplinary centre. Her book Space in Performance (University of Michigan Press, 1999) examines the many functions of space in the theatre experience and she has now extended her exploration of spatial semiotics to site-based performance practices, with particular reference to the relation between place and memory (see Unstable Ground: Performance and the Politics of Place, Peter Lang, 2006). Her current research concerns creative agency in the rehearsal process.