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Social Performance Studies: Discipline vs. Freedom
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Social performance studies is a new brand of performance studies that was developed in China in 1999. Unlike the three better-known types of performance studies in the West — theatre performance studies (mostly in the UK), human performance studies (derived from Richard Schechner’s work in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU), and oral communication performance studies (Northwestern University) — social performance studies is uniquely Chinese. What we call “social performances” are actions performed outside of the theatre that have a definite impact on a particular audience. Our development of this branch of performance studies began when the two of us returned to China after 15 years of studying and teaching in North America. Sun was a doctoral student at NYU, with Schechner as his advisor, and became a TDR Contributing Editor in 1988. Since obtaining his doctorate in performance studies in 1990, Sun had been teaching theatre most of the time and occasionally a couple of courses on performance studies. Fei received her doctorate in theatre studies from the CUNY Graduate Center in 1991. While also teaching theatre, she edited and translated the first Western-language (English) anthology of Chinese theories of theatre and performance, prefaced by Schechner (Fei 1999).


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Figures 1 & 2. 

Sales shows with their live infomercials, such as these 2012 auto shows in Beijing, are now common in China. The hired presenters require training to perform “sincerity.” (Photos by Miao Jing)

When we returned to our hometown of Shanghai in 1999, we found a changed city. While theatre performances were so scarce that some evenings there was not a single production to be found, quasi-theatrical activities were rampant. The traditionally reserved and modest Chinese people we had known for decades now appeared to be a lot more outspoken and showy. Many makeshift stages were set up in and outside of shopping malls where salespeople and/or hired performers put on endless live infomercials to promote various products. These shows-to-sell displays ranged from sincere to highly exaggerated to utterly fake. Also new: government officials had begun to address the press and the public directly, delivering stiff and awkward speeches that were carefully scripted.

Mass media played an extremely important role in the rise of various social performances. Xin Zhoukan (New Weekly), a popular news magazine, carried a cover-story section entitled “I Show, Therefore I Am,” taking up a quarter of the issue. Included were such articles as “Demonizing Show Making,” “Costs of Show Making,” “Show Making from an Economist’s Perspective,” “33 Cases of Show Making,” “12 Major Shows in Chinese Cities” (2000:12–37). Television was full of a variety of very lively, vaudeville-type entertainments, game shows, and talk shows in which performers appeared as themselves and not as characters, often to interact with the audience.

Responding to these startling changes, Sun published “Performance Matters: An Introduction to Social Performance Studies” in the fall 1999 issue of Xiju Yishu (Theatre Arts), one of China’s leading academic journals. Sun also began teaching “Social Performance Studies” at the Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA).

The STA had started a new four-year program called Television Anchoring, training students to work primarily as hosts of TV entertainment shows, before Sun’s return. STA professors were engaged in a serious debate with their counterparts at the Beijing Academy of Broadcasting, which had been training radio and television news announcers for decades. According to the doctrine of the Beijing school — evolved from the Communists’ guerrilla war–era radio broadcasting — no acting was allowed in broadcast anchoring.

The new Shanghai school argued forcefully that television anchoring is acting, in addition to reporting. When some Shanghai colleagues at STA read or heard about Sun’s introduction to performance studies, they were delighted to learn about a new perspective that considers acting/ performance — which can be translated into only one and the same Chinese word, biaoyan— in relation to many professions, not exclusively to show business and theatre arts. Schechner had a similar insight in 1988. In his breakthrough TDR Comment “The Broad Spectrum Approach,” Schechner asserted that:

Performing arts curricula need to be broadened to include courses in performance studies. What needs to be added...



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