- In Search of PS North: Performance Studies in Canada
It’s Fall 2005. I have just started working as an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre at York University. Though I’m a native Ontarian, I’m getting my bearings again in Canada, learning to navigate a new institutional and disciplinary environment after spending the last five years completing a PhD in performance studies in the US. I am thrilled to hear that my department is starting a grad program and I eagerly offer to serve on its executive committee. In the planning documents, “theory and performative studies” is listed as one of our specializations. I ask what “performative studies” is, as I’m unfamiliar with the phrase. I am told that this communicates to applicants that we are interested in the study of “performativity”—prospective students seem to be looking for this buzzword—but that, as a program with a historical investment in Canadian theatre studies, we want to distance ourselves from the model of performance studies practised by Richard Schechner at NYU. We are (emphatically) not a performance studies program. We do something else.
In the course of the ensuing discussions, the official name of the specialization is eventually changed to “performance studies.” The neologism and the rationale behind it were abandoned to reflect the expertise of recent additions to the faculty and the strong focus on performance studies in a number of our courses. A few years later the term “performative studies” accidentally resurfaces in a flyer for the program, an uncanny reminder of an earlier almost-meaning, an earlier near-identity, an earlier struggle.
This was one of my first encounters with Performance Studies in Canada, and it has stayed with me because it encapsulates some of the issues that I have encountered as a performance studies theorist working in a Canadian context. It led me then and still leads me to ask: How does performance studies signify in Canada? If it is not, as my colleague assured me, the same type of performance scholarship that has been hitherto associated with the US, what accounts for our special position? What texts and theorists can we consult to parse this otherness? The incident also raises other thorny questions: How does the term “performance studies” function as a kind of intellectual capital? To what extent does performance studies (and related p-words like performance [as opposed to theatre], performativity, etc.) serve as a branding strategy for institutions seeking to align themselves with academic trends in the broader international field? Further, we can see the complex institutional and scholarly investments at play in the uptake of performance studies in, for example, recent steps toward “performative”—a term aligned with J. L. Austin and the linguistic-philosophical genealogy of the field—and away from the “performance” associated with Schechner’s anthropological approach. Do these moments of institutional avowal and disavowal hint at persistent frictions between theatre studies and performance studies—that is, teaching performativity in a theatre department is kosher, but teaching performance studies is not? Or should we chalk this all up to a preservationist Canadian nationalism, a well-rehearsed anxiety about the cultural and intellectual dominance of the US?
These questions are at the heart of “The Canadian Performance Studies Project: Mapping the Field” (CPSP), a SSHRC-funded study that I have undertaken, which aims to explore how the field of performance studies has developed in Canada over the past few decades. In recent years, performance studies has become influential in various Canadian contexts. It seems that every year brings a steady increase in the number of papers presented at national and international conferences that incorporate the term, and graduate programs are routinely drawing upon its theories and methods within their core curricula. At present, however, there have been no systematic attempts to consider how this methodology is being taught, applied, and rethought in Canada. Understanding this emergence is also a challenge because of the failure of the international performance studies field to engage with Canadian work. While performance studies as a discipline claims to be invested in its many manifestations around the [End Page 74] globe (hence the title of its most prominent...