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Constructingthe Spectator: Reception, Context, and Address in Lesbian Performance Kate Davy In the spring of 1985 a headline appeared on the cover of The New York Native-a gay newspaper-that proclaimed "Peggy Shaw: Master of Lesbian Theatre." Shaw is a member of Split Britches, a company that grew out of the WOW Cafe (Women's One World), a lesbian performance venue on New York's Lower East Side. That summer Shaw predicted that the 1985-1986 season would be remembered as the year of the lesbian. She was right. Compared to a dearth of lesbian performance only a couple of years ago, lesbians and lesbian experience have been visible in a range of performance contexts from small theatres like WOW, and clubs in the East Village like the Chandalier, to Jane Wagner's and Lily Tomlin's hit show on Broadway. An understanding of how the lesbian performer represents herself onstage is useful not to separate and valorize her forms of expression as unique from those of everyone else, but to understand how some lesbian performance has begun to push at the boundaries of representation itself. The many kinds of lesbian theatre can be distinguished from each other not only in terms of form, content, and style but in terms of the ways in which lesbian performers position themselves in relationship to spectators. How the spectator is constructed through the performance context and by the performer 's design, suggests a distinction between the lesbian as performer and the lesbian as renegade performer. Reader response or reception theory posits that there is a reader or spec43 tator implicit in every text or performance piece. It rejects the notion of an a priori text. Instead, the text exists as a result of the activity of reading. While reader response theory does not assume that a text is an objective entity that exists totally separate from our reading of it, it also does not imply that the text is merely a subjective invention generated by the reader's imagination. During the process of reading, the reader's imagination fills in what is not there, but that which is not there is nonetheless directed by the text's intention. Intention is immanent in the text. The reader both fills in and fulfills what is already implicit in the text, including the presumed gender and sexual orientation of the reader. While performance concretizes physically-visually and aurally-what a text merely suggests, it is no less dependent on a reading of it than its words would be in scripted form. If a script demands more effort-requires more on the part of the reader's imagination-a performance is infinitely more complex in the demands of its reading patterns and codes. In the dimension of time alone, a performance does not allow the reader to stop and reread a passage-the spectator must keep pace with the performance , moment-to-moment deciphering its codes while responding intellectually and emotionally to them. Jonathan Culler suggests that the success of any reading effort, that is, the ability to make meaning of a text, or in this case, performance, is dependent on the spectator having previously assimilated certain conventions. This assimilation process creates a degree of reader/spectator competence, or the ability to read a performance at all. To be competent then, requires that the reader digest a system of conventions that leads her to relate or equate certain moments and pieces of a performance with corresponding dominant culture notions of what constitutes a proper interpretation and response. For Culler, the ostensibly private activity of reading is in fact the result of publicly sanctioned conventions or rules that the reader has internalized in the process of learning how to read. In an essay on response criticism in Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism , Jane P. Tompkins recognizes and foregrounds the implications of this when she points out that Culler "locates the organizing principle of textual interpretation not in the reader but in the institutions that teach readers to read." The project for feminists, then, is not only to resist dominant culture readings, but to somehow cause a rupture in the organizing principle of reading itself...


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