July 23, 2013
Last month I spent my Wednesday evenings in conversation on the topic of “Performance Activism.” I was co-leading a short course in the East Side Institute’s Revolutionary Conversation series. My partner was Dan Friedman, who is a theatre historian, artistic director of the Castillo Theatre and, with me, a lead organizer of the Performing the World conferences. He and I recently co-authored an invited chapter for the upcoming book Performance Studies in Motion: International Perspectives and Practices in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Atay Citorn, David Zerbib, and Sharon Aronson-Lehavi. We wanted to share and the ideas and history we wrote about and see how people responded.
We asked the participants their relationship to performance and got wonderful stories of the joy of being on stage for the first time and the hundredth time. Their relationship to activism was more conflicted. Some said they were activists, others that they steered away from it. Some associated radicalism with terrorism. Still others said they never considered themselves activists (even though their activity would be seen by others that way).
To Dan and me, performance activism is an emerging global movement for social transformation through the use of play and performance—both in the form of “plays” and in how people live their day-to-day lives. Unlike the activism of the 20th century, which was ideology based and, for the most part, narrowly focused on politics and economics, performance activism is radically relational—a social, collaborative process of discovery and creation of new ideas, new roles, new relationships and new activities.
In the class Dan shared the political and experimental theatre precursors of performance activism and I shared its roots in postmodern and performative psychology. We also showed an excerpt from a talk by NYU professor and founder of the field of Performance Studies Richard Schechner delivered at the 2012 Performing the World conference.
Schechner spoke of the emerging performance activism as “a new third world” of people who relate on a performative and not an ideological basis— and are guided by these principles:
- To perform is to explore, to play, to experiment with new relations
- To perform is to cross borders, not only geographic but emotional, ideological, political and personal
- To perform is to engage in life-long activity study, to grasp every book as a script, as something to be played with, interpreted, reformed and remade
- To perform is to become someone else and yourself at the same time, to empathize, react grow and change.
Beautiful and inspiring. Thank you, Richard.
The conversation continued and we left our class participants with a little more to ponder and embrace:
- The potential for human development, culture change and social transformation lies in two, related directions— liberating performance from the theatre and getting psychology out of people’s lives.