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  • Parallel EvolutionPerformance Studies at the University of Sydney
  • Ian Maxwell (bio)

Performance studies at the University of Sydney has developed in relative isolation from the "mainstream" of performance studies in both North America and Europe, gathering itself around and in the context of a range of local constraints, concerns, and possibilities, with theatre at its center.

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(previous page) Tess de Quincey in Nerve 9; developed in the Rex Cramphorn Studio at the Department of Performance Studies, University of Sydney, May 2001. Choreographer, Tess de Quincey; visual poem, Amanda Stew art; design and image editing, Russell Emerson. (Photo courtesy of Russell Emerson)

The book you hold in your hand is "an" introduction to performance studies. There will be others, and that suits me fine. The one overriding and underlying assumption of performance studies is that the field is wide open. There is no finality to performance studies, either theoretically or operationally. There are many voices, opinions, methods, and subjects.

(Schechner 2002:1)

In the opening chapter of the first edition of his long-anticipated overview of the field, Performance Studies: An Introduction, Richard Schechner notes:

[A]s of 2001, there were only a handful of full-fledged performance studies departments or programs, including three in the USA, one at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and one at the University of Sydney.


The break-out box at the foot of that same page offers a brief genealogy of this last department, an account gleaned from a posting on that department's website. Throughout the ensuing pages, Schechner's mapping of the field returns, perhaps inevitably, to that with which he is most familiar: the development of the discipline at New York University, drawing on solicited accounts from NYU [End Page 33] colleagues Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (6), Diana Taylor (7-8), and an extract from Peggy Phelan's "Introduction" to her 1998 The Ends of Performance (9).1 The Centre for Performance Research at Aberystwyth is briefly mentioned on page 16, although that account quickly turns to a narrative of Performance Studies International—this narrative arcing toward the 2002 PSi conference "back" at NYU, and the publication of The Ends of Performance, edited by two prominent North American theorists, Phelan and Jill Lane.

Schechner endorses the call by Dwight Conquergood of Northwestern University "for performance studies adherents to 'rethink' five areas of study" for the discipline (17).2 The notion of "performance studies adherents" itself begs the question of diversity, suggesting an already formed constituency within the rubric of which Conquergood's intervention is recognized as a (benign) schism: performance studies at Northwestern is acknowledged as a distinct "brand" and a "paradigm shift" (17), nonetheless reconcilable to the master narrative: "As general principles, these 'rethinkings' are not far from what goes on at NYU. But the two approaches differ considerably when put into practice. They both enact their disciplinary genealogies" (18).

Notwithstanding the pluralist discourse of the opening paragraphs of the book, the message is unambiguous: the field of performance studies may be unbounded, but let us be clear about its origins. The Northwestern project is framed as divergence rather than convergence, or even as a parallel evolution. It is, in Schechner's account, a branching off from the main trunk, presumably recognizable as such by "adherents" to the core of the discipline. Conquergood et al., despite the palpable differences in their approach from the NYU brand, are, presumably, still on message; still with the program.

In the correspondence quoted by Schechner, Taylor alerts us to the geopolitical dimensions of cultural work, and to the kinds of discourses attending to the processes of, perhaps, becoming a discipline: "Domination by culture, by 'definition,' by claims to 'originality' and 'authenticity,' functions in tandem with military and economic supremacy" (in Schechner 2002:8).

At the very least, this alerts us to attempts to define, to claim originality and authenticity. In such discursive moves, Taylor suggests, we can expect to find a mode of domination in lockstep with a certain play of force majeur. This, perhaps, is the very real risk run by an authoritative overview, emanating from a (putative) center; an account of...


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pp. 33-45
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