Discuss ways in which Richard Schechner’s ‘Performance Theory’ may be of use to contemporary practitioners. Illustrate your answer with reference to at least one dance or theatre performance which you have seen ‘live’. The influence of Richard Schechner (b. 1934) on both theatre production and academic theory has been profound and, in some ways, revolutionary. Schechner has consistently challenged traditional practices and perspectives of theatre, performance and ritual for almost half a century. His principal contention is that drama is not merely a province of the stage, but of everyday life, and is a cross-cultural phenomenon. ‘It is important to develop and articulate theories concerning how performances a regenerated, transmitted, received and evaluated in pursuit of these goals, performance studies is insistently intercultural, inter-generic and inter-disciplinary’. (Schechner, 1995) As with all academic studies, performance theory is founded on certain key principles, which include such terms as ‘presentation of self’, ‘restored behaviour’ and ‘expressive culture’, and incorporates social drama and ritual. His concept of performance, which contrasts sharply with previous, principally modernist, approaches to the arts, asserts the importance of different ‘systems of transformations’, which vary enormously from culture to culture, and throughout historical periods and movements. The radical nature of performance theory is demonstrated by its all-encompassing, even holistic, approach to theatre and performance, with popular culture, folklore, and ethnic diversity incorporated into the cross-disciplinary mix. In examining the ways in which the theory can be useful to theatre practitioners, it is important to examine in more detail the main strategies it deploys, including the concept of ‘performativity’. The word ‘performative’ was originated by J.L Austin, a linguistic philosopher, who coined the term for the first time during lectures at Harvard University in 1955. Expressions such as ‘I take this man to be my lawfully wedded husband’ are an example of an action in itself, rather than simply the description of an action. As Austin put it, ‘to say something is to do something’. (Austin, 1962) ‘Performativity’ as a concept is closely related to postmodernism. The postmodern view does not see the idea of ‘performance’ as intrinsically artistic or theatrical, but as something that pervades the fabric of the social, political and material world. It is an inalienable part of what constitutes power and knowledge. Teaching and lecturing, political speech-making and religious sermonising illustrates this characteristic of performativity. The postmodern view of things posits a standpoint that culture has become a commodity in itself, rather than a critique of commodity. It is inseparable from the context of post-World War II Western society, where new goods and technology, and corresponding cultural developments, emerged from the rubble of post-war austerity. This shift from modernist to postmodernist thinking in the arts can be located in the 1950s, with movements such as abstract expressionism, modernist poetry and existentialism in literature and philosophy representing a high flowering of the modernist impulse. The postmodern world, originating in the 1960s, represented a blurring of distinction between high art and popular, mass-communicated mediums, formerly derided as ‘low art’.
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