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  • Special Issue:Performing Resistance
  • Caroline Weist (bio) and S. E. Jackson (bio)

The history of performance studies starts with the history of theater studies, and that history starts with resistance. "The fight for scholarly recognition by a new, young area of research" wrote theater scholar Hans Knudsen, "is mostly a fight for the method, the particular way of working."1 When Knudsen wrote those words in 1927, theater studies (Theaterwissenschaft) was, in fact, a nascent field of academic research, only about a decade into the process of resisting the constraints of theater history (Theatergeschichte) and of literary studies (Literaturwissenschaft). Neither purely historical nor purely textual, the method that theater studies fought for combined both of those perspectives with a wide range of approaches, including phenomenology, anthropology, reception theory, and visual analysis (Fischer-Lichte, Routledge Introduction 12–13).

Theater studies' institutional trouble was not restricted to its hybrid method. Anticipating the disciplinary resistance that performance studies would face decades later, Theaterwissenschaft had to fight to pair that method with its research object. On the one hand, the Western academy's long love affair with dramatic texts ensured that the general object of theater studies, the drama, was not in question. On the other hand, the field's emphasis on analyzing the paratextual elements of theater—costumes, set design, blocking, audience, and so forth—in a way that went beyond simply chronicling them flagged theater studies as problematic within the established disciplinary fields. That coupling of theory with praxis led to resistance from another institution. In addition to the academy's more traditional philologists and historians, who questioned theater studies' rigor, theater practitioners expressed concern that Theaterwissenschaft programs would produce untalented, underqualified dilettantes who would try to join the artistic ranks after graduation (Knudsen 77). In other [End Page 1] words, theater studies was both too practical and too theoretical to be accommodated by existing fields. So it resisted, and in 1923 the Theater Studies Institute (Theaterwissenschaftliches Institut), the first of its kind in the world, was formed at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin (Riedler 196).2

Just as theater studies broke from literary studies in order to analyze dramatic texts in a wider, embodied context, performance studies also distanced itself from theater studies in order to investigate widespread theatrical structures beyond the confines of the stage. This shift was centered not in Berlin but in New York, driven in large part by theater scholar Richard Schechner's interest in and eventual collaboration with anthropologist Victor Turner in the 1970s and 1980s (Fischer-Lichte, Routledge Introduction 14–15). Schechner's work, which focused on the structural overlap between traditional theater and all sorts of staged events (such as sports, religion, social life, and ceremonies), contributed to the renaming of New York University's Graduate Drama Department as the Department of Performance Studies in 1980 (Harding and Rosenthal 6). Beyond NYU, Schechner's work became formative for the academy at large in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he began advocating for a "broad spectrum approach" to performance studies that treats "performative behavior, not just performing arts, as a subject for serious scholarly study" ("Performance Studies" 8).

Building on that idea, Schechner's remarks at the 1992 Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference irrevocably shaped subsequent discussions of performance in the academy. Published as a commentary in TDR: The Drama Review, Schechner's address asserts: "The fact is that theatre as we have known and practiced it—the staging of written dramas—will be the string quartet of the 21st century: a beloved but extremely limited genre, a subdivision of performance" ("A New Paradigm" 8). Based on this assumption, Schechner proceeds to make a now infamous call for the gradual but ultimately complete transformation of traditional theater departments into "performance departments" (9). Although Schechner's vision of a future populated by performance studies departments generated much conversation at the time of the address, a more balanced picture subsequently emerged, with many influential counter-perspectives coming from the First Annual Performance Studies Conference in 1995. In his remarks on the conference, Philip Auslander opposed what he saw as Schechner's belief that "performance studies can be born only from the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2578-5192
Print ISSN
2578-5206
Pages
pp. 1-14
Launched on MUSE
2021-06-30
Open Access
No
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