What is Performance?

Denver Mudman performance, Greg and me, Central Park, NYC

Me (R) with another Urban Mudman. Taken in Central Park: one of several NYC/Bronx/Brooklyn Urban Mudmen performances in the late ’80s.

Performance scholar Marvin Carlson (1996) says that “performance” is a term that’s so often encountered in such a variety of contexts that not much common ground exists. It’s hard to provide a good definition. For example, one sense of “performance” implies the public demonstration of particular skills. Another definition involves the general success of an activity in light of some standard of achievement that may not be precisely articulated—like a student’s performance in school, or an athlete’s performance in the heat of the game.

Erving Goffman (1959) sees performance as ritual interaction that strengthens social bonds. Goffman says, “To the degree that a performance highlights the common official values of the society in which it occurs, we may look upon it as a ceremony— an expressive rejuvenation and reaffirmation of the moral values of the community.”

Recognizing that our lives are structured according to repeated and socially sanctioned modes of behavior raises the possibility that all human activity, at least all activity that’s done with a consciousness of itself, could be considered “performance.

The difference between doing and performing, according to this way of thinking, doesn’t lie in the frame of “theatre-versus-real life” but in an attitude: we may do actions unthinkingly, but when we think about them, this introduces a consciousness that gives them the quality of performance.  (Carlson, 1996, p. 4).

But, if every human act is (or might legitimately be considered) “performance”… then, of what use is the term “performance?”

An ethnographer of human communication, Dell Hymes, has attempted to sort out an answer—because he believes that “performance” is a useful conceptual lens— by contrasting performance with behavior and conductHe says, “Behavior is anything and everything that happens.”

“Conduct” is behavior under the aegis of social constraints and rules of interpretation. “Performance,” a subset of behavior (and probably of conduct) is “conduct in which an actor assumes a responsibility to an audience and to tradition.”

But, that mandate of “responsibility to an audience” is the topic of a lot of debate among social theorists. What does it mean, exactly—“responsibility to an audience?”

And, “responsibility to tradition” is equally problematic. But—maybe not so much. Plenty of theorists and scholars agree that performance is based on some preexisting script or pattern of action, which we could call “tradition.”  For instance, Richard Schechner, one of the principal voices in the study of performance, says calls performance “restored behavior.”

Others have likewise claimed there is no per-formance without pre-formance. That suggests that performance is all behavior that’s replicated and which is responsive to or grounded in social roles and structures—or to put it another way, whatever in the human repertoire has a precedent that it reproduces, thereby becomes performance. SO, performance is how society replicates itself. It’s how norms are established and set: through repetition and reinforcement: Ta da! There we have tradition.

In my performance studies class, I pose a question on the first day: “What does a good person do?” Whatever we do—emphasis on DO—when we’re trying to feel good about ourselves (this obviously excludes sneezing, which might feel good, but it’s not something we do in order to feel “good about our selves”) is based on some preexisting script or pattern of action that was, in the past, somehow rewarding.

When we see someone doing what we understand to be good, we see someone who, most probably, is doing something that resonates with our preexisting ideas of goodness: whatever words we give it.

I don’t mean goody-goodness; I mean what everyone likes to feel: good, not bad. What’s the nature of THAT good?

We use the terms good and bad all the time. Only, we may think of them as states of being (which is, in performance, an error). We might wonder, for example, “What is a good mom?” or “What is a good teacher?”

Let’s ask, instead, “What does a good mother do? What does a bad teacher do? What does a good sister do?” This leads us to performance thinking (and to complexity, because a good mother might step on a bug, or kick the dog, or curse, or even kill someone and still perform good mother competently).

Obviously, we need more context in which to answer a question like, “What does a good mother do?” “What does a good sister do?” (social roles)…”What does a good grocer do?” “What does a good President do?” (professional roles). If the context is simply our society, one might still come up with some answers that most people will agree with: “A good mother makes her child feel loved and safe and important.” “A good sister refrains from criticizing her brother, implicitly or explicitly.” “A good grocer makes sure his store is well-stocked and open convenient hours; she keeps the store clean, the prices as low as possible and the food on the shelves fresh.” “A good President represents the majority and the minority of the people, puts country before self-interest, seeks to unite and strengthen, speaks to inspire, follows and upholds the law, acts as a role model for children…” (etc.)

Why is that? Why would so many of us agree with those statements? It’s because good describes the way people ought to (are expected or morally beholden) behave in relationship to others, to their roles, and to their society. How people should perform.

And, performance is also a way that individuals and societies break things up, or shake things up. Janet Jackson exposes her nipple in front of millions of people, and somehow her performance galvanizes the media and consumes the nation’s discourse for a day or two— and results in all kinds of changes about what can and cannot be done by performers in certain regulated, mediated contexts.

Martin Luther King performs a speech at the nation’s capital and changes history. Al Quaida crashes airplanes into an American city and that performance changes the way the world works.

According to Victor Turner, these disruptions, or tears, or ruptures can ultimately serve to tighten and reinforce social norms…that is, if they don’t instead end up permanently dividing factions into intractable sides, which an outcome of social drama that he would call a permanent schism. That’s a whole other lecture. What I’m saying is that even as performance maintains and strengthens, it also disrupts and upsets, and sometimes, by doing both, helps to transform.

Performance scholars agree that one important characteristic of performance is that it involves a consciousness of doubleness in which the actual execution of an action is compared mentally with a potential, an ideal, or a remembered original model of that action.

The essence of this is the sense of an action carried out for someone: for a present audience, an invisible watcher, an imagined internal parent, for God, or for some observing part of ourselves that evaluates the action to be good, or beneficial, or rewarding (or not).

Doubleness, or awareness, can be seamless in performances that are sincere—that is, we believe our own performance—or can divide us into performer and observer, as in what Goffman calls “cynical” performance. Please: take a look at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance of Truman Capote, and especially pay attention to Capote’s performance for others at the dinner table in the scene Charming the Deweys.

Furthering the idea of doubleness and bringing it into the realm of how we learn and change, Jane Gallop (1995) draws attention to the dramatic or performative taking-on of others’ voices, or as she puts it, im-personation (hyphen included, presumably to draw attention to the “personation” part). The power of im-personation, for Gallop, is its doubleness: it must be taken playfully and seriously by both the performer and the audience.  She writes about impersonating a teacher when she was just learning to teach, for example, and the doubleness of that experience that eventually taught her to teach.

I once auditioned for a college chorus. The conductor asked me to sing the part of the soprano; I insisted that I could not. I had always associated soprano singing with girly-girls and weakness and showing off, and because that was not how I saw myself, I was convinced that I was, in no way, a soprano but firmly a first alto. The conductor looked disappointed and asked me to give it a try. Embarrassed, I said, “Okay, I can fake a soprano voice! I can sound just like a soprano–but it won’t be real.” As she played piano, I proceded to hit every note above high C powerfully and rotundly, as if I were Maria Grazia-Schiavo, surprising both of us. “But, that’s not really singing soprano,” I insisted. “Because, I can’t.”

Like Erving Goffman, Gallop sees the personal as a mask. She argues that when the personal appears, it is always as a result of a process of im-personation. Personhood is always a process of performing the personal for a public. Im-personation, whether it means appearing as a female, or appearing as a male, or appearing as a cool, disaffected athlete, or appearing as a quiet Christian man or an energetic and loving friend… it simply means “appearing as a person.”  Im-personation: the taking on of the mask of personhood.

The notion of this sort of performance, which has been written about extensively by Judith But­ler and other postmodern theorists, has been consistently misunderstood as meaning that we can be whatever we want.  That is obviously not the case. We can’t be whatever we want. But, we can play at be­ing whatever or whoever, or however we desire.

And, through play, we learn something. We can learn, deeply, in our bodies, in our movements, in our bones, something of what it might be to be different than we now are, to perform something or someone else. If we are used to describing ourselves as shy, and habitually play out shyness when we are with others, rehearsing it every time we do it—and even if we are totally convinced that we ARE shy (a stable characteristic of an unchanging self—whatever that might be!) performance, especially impersonation, lets us play at being bold. And then we learn, “Oh, if I can play at being bold, I can be bold.” What’s the difference, if it’s all performance?

As Butler (1988) points out, “to say that I ‘play’ at being one is not to say that I am not one ‘really,’ but rather, how and where I play at being one is the way in which that ‘being’ gets established, insti­tuted, circulated, and confirmed. This is not a performance from which I take radical distance, for this is deep-seated play, psychically entrenched play.”

In many of the above notions (ritual social interplay… doing with a sense of being noted or observed; pretending to be other than what/who/where one thinks of real… or half-seriously and half-passing as another) we can find a common sense in the notion of performance: that of play (or “a play”) of a deep nature, capable of recreating, sustaining, making visible, challenging, and recreating participants’ experience of self, of social sameness/difference, and of possibility.

Thus, in the idea of performance, there are deep implications for us, in terms of our ability to learn, change, and grow and to become different from what—or how—we “are” in the ways we want to be different.