Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What's Performance? Part II

Before starting my Master's Degree in Performance Studies at NYU (2000-2001), I must confess I used to think that everything in the world was performance. But here's what I came across reading Richard Schechner's text What's Performance? What are Performance Studies? In his text, he quotes, "All the world is not, of course, a stage," Erving Goffman wrote, adding: "but the crucial ways in which it isn't are not easy to specify" (1959:72). I was once again definitely in the dark.
During the time I was at Tisch School of the Arts, in NYC, I went to see -- among many others -- two different "performances": one at La MaMa, The Theatre of the Ears, a radiophonic play performed by an electronic puppet, with a collage of texts by French writer Valere Novarina and translated by Allan Weiss. The other performance had the world famous actor Ralph Fiennes as the leading character in Shakespeare's Richard II at BAM. The British play was phenomenally well mounted and as I was coming out of the theater, I could hear a few theatergoers around me saying, "What a performance!" It seemed to me that what they had just seen could easily cause them call it a "real performance." Would that be because that specific performance was rehearsed, practiced and had definitely required training? My answer to that questions was inevitably fast: "Yes."
On the other hand, as I was in the darkness of the audience watching The Theatre of the Ears, I was surely flabbergasted by the work itself. However, a question kept ringing in my own ears: "Is this performance?"
(Ralph Fiennes as Richard II in a 2000 production at Brooklyn Academy of Music)

And here's why I was terribly puzzled by it: the 40-minute piece consisted basically of an electronic puppet and three mini wheeled-carts moving about the tiny stage. Each mini robot-cart had a loudspeaker placed on top of it. For a moment, I thought I was watching three robots but nothing else. Was that 'performance'? By the end of the show, a vivid thought crossed my mind: "Yes, this is a performance indeed. This could never be labeled an 'everyday behavior'." Schechner's words, from the same text aforementioned, once again fit like a glove: "It is necessary to add that every genre of performance, even every particular instance of a genre, is concrete, specific, and different from every other." There! Two completely different theatrical works but nonetheless two performances.
As I was reading Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's text Performance Studies, my understanding about what performance is seemed to take shape: "The repudiation of mainstream theater led performance artists seek out, resurrect, and adopt forms of theatrical performance overshadowed or forgotten as parts of our theatrical heritage because of the dominance of the well-made play (and here's Richard II would be the utmost bet example). Since the sixties, experimentation in performance art (and here The Theatre of the Ears would easily be a fine example) has embraced revival of circus, nightclub acts, ritual, story-telling, masques, mime, puppetry, stand-up comedy, television game shows, and talk shows."
When I first started my investigation about performance, I truly believed that a sales person trying to sell his/her merchandise to an undecided customer, the traffic officer directing the traffic at a crossroads, the setting up of a Farmer's market on a square or street, a teacher showing his/her students how to solve an Algebra problem, the employee at a Laundromat rolling up his/her customers' socks, the pizza man throwing his round and soft pizza dough up in the air, the homeless begging for money on a subway car full of sleepy passengers, a young man or woman waking a few dogs down the street to make a living, and a squeegee man washing the windshield of a car at a traffic light were examples of "performances." I was wrong. These activities, which would be called "slices of life," are not performance per se. These are definitely everyday behaviors, for they were not "scripted, authored by someone." (Schechner)
Therefore, my original idea about what performance is has certainly changed throughout the years: Everything can be seen as performance, but not everything is performance. Could that be called an "epiphany"?

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