an afternoon with Richard Schechner

THE SIXTIES, THE WORD PERFORMANCE AND THE BIRTH OF PERFORMANCE STUDIES

by Ana Bigotte Vieira and Ricardo Seiça Salgado[i] (2009)

richard-schechner_home

© Ricardo Seiça Salgado

During the fall of 2009, while we were Visiting Scholars in the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of New York University, we were students in Richard Schechner’s seminar “US Experimental Performance: the 60s to the 80s.” Over the course of the class meeting, we were able to get to know some of the performance works from this era (mostly theater, but also dance and music). We screened videos of the performances, but also leafed through programs and advertisements for the shows, read essays and books that contextualized the pieces, and, many times, spoke with the artists themselves who Richard had invited to class. We were able to pose question to these “mythic” artists, making our understanding of their work more nuanced and also less couched in legend. We feel it to bring this approach to Performance Studies to Portuguese readers and though an interview with Richard Schechner would be a good starting point.

We were finally able to meet one afternoon in late December, a few days before Christmas. Richard invited us to his apartment, which is in the same neighborhood which was home to much of the cultural activity we had studied throughout the semester. So, we sat down with tea and began a conversation about the Sixties, the artistic productions of that time and the reasons for revisiting them today. We spent a good deal of time situating the creative period in its social, political and larger cultural context, knowing that these things are not independent of the histories that surround them. From there, we moved onto the birth of Performance Studies as a scholarly discipline and as an epistemological form of looking at the world and at art. It was in this way that, curiously, what had started as an interview transformed more and more into a conversation between professor and students, becoming a matter of passing experience onto another generation.

1. THE SIXTIES

ANA – Let’s start with the very definition of the Sixties that you’re using…

RICHARD – Well, the Sixties are a concept, rather than just a date. So, the Sixties actually begin, probably, somewhere in the middle Fifties, when John Cage’s experiments became a little bit better known; Allan Kaprow did his “Six happenings in 18 Parts”, in 1959. I think that there were probably some other events that were occurring back then. And the Sixties run on through to the Seventies, probably around the Eighties. In another words, a period marked by a certain kind of utopianism, a feeling that things could really change and be better; marked by an explosion of youth culture. World War II and its aftermath, and even the Korean War and later the Vietnam War, were wars that were run by older people. Then, in the late Fifties and Sixties, youth, college-aged people, people from the ages of 16 or 17 to the ages of 30, came to forward. In fact, there was a maxim: “Never trust anybody over 30”.

So, that was that sense of youth culture, and the optimism associated with that. There was also the direct confrontation with authority. That authority could be the government, or the military. Or racists in the general population – people who believed blacks are inferior, that segregation is right. So many people joined together in opposition to a racist society, to unjust wars (as if there could be just wars). Youth of all colors came together with older African Americans rallying behind Martin Luther King and others. Our enemies were racism, war-mongering, colonial oppression, the poverty imposed by the unequal distribution of wealth. We were against the many unjust laws of the State. There was a correlated revolution in the arts, the opposition to aesthetic canons, to Aristotle, to the laws of drama, that you had to stage plays written by playwrights, that theater had to take place on stages, that music was only what was played by instruments. Basically, we were vehemently opposed to all kinds of authority. We weren’t quite anarchists – we leaned more toward democratic socialism. But there was an anarchist side to it all, that characterizes the Sixties, that radical burst of activity from around the mid Fifties to around the early-Eighties.

ANA – And why do you think things changed course in the early 80s?

RICHARD – Well, it didn’t end all at once. But what happened first of all: this youth grew up, and the next generation of youth didn’t really feel the same. You know, there was a big recession in USA in 1972/3. This next generation felt they wanted to get jobs and be more secure. The Vietnam War was winding down; it was not such a big issue by the mid-1970s. North Vietnam won. The Americans and South Korean dictatorship had lost. Also, the freedom movement, the rights of blacks and minorities, although they had not really been fully accomplished, a lot had been done, the series of Civil Rights Acts passed by Congress, the Supreme Court decisions, and so on.

In the 1980s, gender and identity issues were coming forward: feminism, gay and lesbian rights, transsexuals… and many more, a long list of particular agendas and communities. These were very active. But they were not the concerns of the majority of people. It’s still a question today, for example, whether the majority of people support gay marriage. What happened from the 1980s on forward is that particular groups of people could be mobilized, but there were no overall mass movements comparable to the Black Freedom Movement or the Movement Against the Vietnam War. Nothing was active across the whole wide demographic of the American population.

At the same time, there was a change in politics. Conservatives were elected – it was a backlash by the majority of Americans who were – and are – quite conservative. There’s a lot of the USA out there between San Francisco and New York. Nixon was elected twice but in his second term he was disgraced by Watergate and its consequences. Nixon had to resign from office. Gerry Ford finished out Nixon’s term. Then in 1976 the democrat, Jimmy Carter, was elected. Carter was a very good person, he’s still alive, and he’s still good, but he was not a very effective political leader. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected, and in 1984 Reagan was re-elected by a landslide, a huge majority. Reagan was extremely conservative. He favored increased defense expending, the cold war against the Soviet Union (what he called “the evil empire.” Reagan favored big business, the rich, and so on… And this was the feeling of the majority of the country. I don’t think the majority of the country ever supported the youth movement as such – the “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll” part, but the majority was, to some degree, behind the civil rights. And slowly the majority turned against the Vietnam War. The majority weren’t going to oppose their own children on that score. Also, America was losing the war, and Americans hate to lose. We’d rather quit than lose. But then, after the Vietnam War, the whole culture began to change. Even the kids, when they reached their 40s, got more conservative.

2. NOWADAYS: REVISITING THE SIXTIES

ANA – Why do you think people are so interested in revisiting the Sixties? Was this renewed interest part of what made you decide to teach the course “USA experimental performance: The 60s to the 80s”? What else contributed to your own interest in revisiting this cultural moment?

RICHARD – Well, I’ve decided to do the course because people seems to be revisiting the Sixties, and also because I felt that if I did the course, more people would be interested in revisiting the Sixties. I look at myself both as an effect and as a cause. I affect things but also, because people listen to me, what I do also causes things. And I was active in the Sixties. I could teach from what I lived.

I do think that the world doesn’t repeat itself but goes around and around in a gyre. A gyre is a spiral, or a cone, where something circles back on itself but not exactly. I can draw it easier than I can describe it in words. There is the expression “what goes around comes around,” and a gyre is like that. Also the poet William Butler Yeats wrote about history’s repetitions as a “widening gyre” in his poem “The Second Coming.” That’s where I learned the word, way back in college in the 1950s. To bring this all up to date: the Sixties are here, again, the same but different. The Sixties went around and now they are coming around. Maybe it already happened once in the 1990s. But surely it is happening now, from the late 2000s to today. There are certain kinds of parallels that fascinate people. I think people are fascinated now because the Sixties are far enough in the past. Today’s students weren’t alive then. If you were born in 1970, you’d be more than 40 today; in 1980, you’d be more than 30 years old now. If you were born in 1960, you’ll be 50 years old – and even then you’d have missed the Sixties. To really have lived the 60s you’d have to have been born in the early 50s or sooner. The people today who want to learn about this period, are reaching back over the horizon of their lives. They don’t have real memories of it. But they heard about it. Maybe their parents were active, maybe even their grandparents. Yes, it’s that long ago. Today’s students heard about the Sixties not only from their parents, but from popular culture. The echoes of Woodstock are still being replayed, are still reverberating. The phrase “the Sixties” is heard. So today’s youth are e curious about this period that their parents lived through, and that they’ve heard so much about.

And also, I think they heard about it in a sense of: it was a time of great hope, a time of intense activity, and a time of utopian dreams. And I think most students now don’t think today is a period of great hope, or utopian dreams, or a period where the world is going to change much for the better. They don’t believe in a revolution that will result a perfect world. Revolution is no longer thinkable. Everything is “step-by-step.” The corporations are in charge; the system is deeply entrenched. So today’s young people – especially in the West – are fascinated by a generation, and a period where people actually felt that the world could be transformed, would be transformed. When people felt they were engaged in a meaningful struggle. Not the struggle for individual survival – how am I going to get a job, who will fund my art, where should I go to live? And not Reagan’s master narrative, the struggle between what he called the – “axis of evil” and the West; between the communism and capitalism. But the utopian struggle between unjust authority and liberation. A time when people believed in this kind of idealistic struggle fascinates people today. And because media is what it is, people today can relive that earlier struggle as a “re-enactment,” a “re-performance.” They can go there without going there, really; without inventing their own revolution. Which, really, very few people think is even imaginable, no less possible.

Also I think, as I’ve found out on the course, the art works of the Sixties were really very good. They hold up in time. There are many people still interested in these works, They don’t look dated. So, some of this work became, let us call it, “canonical”, “classical”, almost. Dionysus in 69[ii] is still running this week, down in Texas. It’s an exact replication of Brian DePalma’s movie of The Performance Group’s 1968 production which I directed. Lots of people in Austin want to see it. And it’s not just nostalgic, they enjoy it! The work has some vitality.

In earlier times, people would take different texts, whether would they were texts of plays, or they would take scores of music, and reinterpret them. A “new” production of a Shakespeare or a Greek tragedy. But today what’s happening is different. The Sixties were very much on video and later digitized. So, people today can really look at those performances and actually reenact them, the performances themselves, not just the texts, the words. We have digitized just fragments of Meyerhold, fragments of Stanislavsky. A little more Brecht. Brecht had his modelbuchs, but even these are not the same as full performance videos. But now everything from the Sixties on out is on video, on DVD. We have the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, Zeroes, and on out. And we have had a lot of re-performances. Of Kaprow’s Six Happenings in 18 Parts, Anna Halprin’s Parades and Changes, the 2010 MoMA show of some of Marina Abramovic’s signature performance art works, the Whitney Museum’s redoing of Trisha Brown’s dances … and so on, more than I can list. These are not new interpretations but reenactments. Of course, the re-enactments cannot duplicate the first time because audiences change, social circumstances change – everything changes but the “work itself.” But even these change because individual bodies and mentalities are different. No matter, the reperformed works open a window onto an imagined past that appears very vital.

And finally I think it’s a kind of unique that there is a generation of artists in USA – I’m talking mostly in USA – although I know a little bit of what’s happening in Japan, in China, in Europe, in India. But the focus of the course is on USA. There is a generation of people in the USA who were active in the Sixties and who are still active. That’s very unusual. The new avant-garde has not pushed the old avant-garde out of the way. I’ve got a performance that’s running right now[iii]. I’ve got a second one, that’s an older one, running in Texas [the restaging of Dionysus 69]; Lee Breuer is still directing; Richard Foreman has a play at the Public Theater[iv]; JoAnne Akalaitis has a play at the Public Theater this Fall… These artists are still active. And that’s unusual, because usually after you pass a certain age you are forgotten or regarded as out of date. Nobody goes to see your works, nobody cares. But that’s not true with this generation. So, students, I think, are fascinated by these people, their work. They see the work they make now and the work they made 30 or 40 years ago. The artists of the Sixties are respected. Why are these people still active? Why am I still asked to direct works, both new and old? That’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that I think we’re good of what we do; the bad news is that we haven’t been pushed off stage.

3. FOUNDATIONAL ARTISTIC EXPERIENCES

RICARDO – What were the influences of the founders of these experimental groups? What were their artistic backgrounds?

RICHARD – Let’s take a particular kind of thing – what happened in the arts and in the theory of the arts; the relation of world events to the development of certain arts and theories. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, a lot of intellectuals and artists left Germany, Jewish ones, especially. The New School for Social Research was founded fifteen blocks from here, in New York City. In the 1950s and 60s, The New School became very important. The New School was an American version of the Frankfurt School. Adorno, Horkeimer, Marcuse – they all moved here. Walter Benjamin would have ended here too, but he committed suicide. The theories of the Frankfurt/New School were extremely influential in terms of critical thought. I remember reading Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, a liberatory book if there ever was one. So this transplanted European critical theory was one source of the arts explosion of the 1960s.

Then there were artists who also moved. For example, Erwin Piscator who actually coined the phrase “epic theater” (Brecht took it from him) taught at the New School where he was Judith Malina’s teacher. She, along with Julian Beck, founded The Living Theatre in the late 1940s. From Piscator, Judith learned about political theater, about epic theater, and so on. Earlier, in the 1920s, after the Russian Revolution, the Moscow Art Theater came here to perform. As the Revolution began to attack its own – as Stalin took power – some members of the MAT took shelter in the USA. Richard Boleslavsky (Ryszard Boles!awski) began to teach at the Bennington College. His Acting, the First Six Lessons was a very influential book. Boleslavsky worked with people who formed the Group Theater, that was in the 1930s, but he also helped to form the Actor’s Studio with Lee Strasberg and those people. Michael Chekhov emigrated to Hollywood where he taught acting and influenced how movies were performed. Basically, Stanislavsky was imported to America with profound results. By the Sixties, what was avantgarde in the 1930s we thought of as old hat. We worked against the former radicals of the Thirties. The wheel had turned.

Or, back up a little bit still further: Duchamp came here, and the surrealists, the Dadaists. Even Brecht was here for a time. Europe, in a certain sense, got rid of its most adventurous minds, and why? Because of the Nazis and Stalinism and the war. Ironically, if Hitler had not been a Jew-hater, he may have got the atom bomb and won the war. And if Hitler and Stalin had not existed, the arts explosion in America in the 1950s-60s might not have happened. All those immigrants stimulated what went on here. Just as the USA was becoming the world’s most powerful military and economic force – a force not often enough used for good – the USA also became enormously intellectually powerful. What made the USA powerful was a combination of homegrown and immigrant artists and theorists. America thrived on high-level immigrant minds in the years around WW2. From Einstein in the sciences, through to the faculty at Black Mountain College, which is a continuation of the Bauhaus, to the New School-Frankfurt School, and so on. Even the soldiers who went to war in Europe and Asia and returned to North America brought with them a whole lot of new “foreign” ideas that soon were thriving in the USA. From new foods to yoga and zen, foreign cultures educated us, I mean, my generation. People were able to accomplish here what they couldn’t accomplish in Europe. Europe just after WW2 was devastated. So what happened here is a continuation of the European avant-garde – and a big change in that avantgarde, too. It became Americanized. Because just as the Europeans – and to some degree, the Asians too – changed us, we changed their thinking, we Americanized it. What emerged in the Sixties was not Europe-in-America or Asia-in-America so much as a powerful fusion of Europe-America-Asia. It was both very new and very American, because America has been built on imported and then transformed ideas and people. Yes, the Native Americans have suffered horribly. Paradoxically they who were here first have been the most left out of all Americans.

ANA – In your course, we looked at artists you spoke of as foundational: Allan Kaprow’s happenings, Jonh Cage, Jack Smith, Anna Halprin, The Living Theater, The Performance Group, the Wooster Group, the Judson Church groups, The Bread and Puppet Theater, The Teatro Campesino, feminist theaters, Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman…. Why do you consider these the foundational artists of the Sixties?

RICHARD – Why are they foundational? In what way are they foundational? The Living Theater is foundational in several senses. One, the Living, insisted that theater be actively political. Brecht insisted that theater was actively political but as a representation, as dramaturgy and staged performance. The Living took the theater into the streets, the Living insisted that theater should be political as direct action. This was both noble and naive. Often the Living seemed to be out of control. The youth they stirred up didn’t know what to do after the immediate street action with the Living was over. And, in my opinion at least, the Living was too stoned too often. Being high and getting things done politically don’t go together. Maybe it was because the Living was truly anarchic – they lived what they preached. They waved the black flag of anarchy and lived by its principles. But also the Living were a function of what was happening in US. The Living incorporated the African American freedom movement, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) anti-establishment energy, Artaudian “signaling through the flames.” Julian Beck and Judith Malina made a great team: his ethereal Jewish Buddhism, quiet voice, almost other worldly transparency – you could see his blue-green veins right through his pale skin. He seemed almost an alien from another world. Judith on the other hand was salt of the earth, direct, forceful, pedagogical, intellectual, no-nonsense. Together they made theatre and politics inseparable. Direct action was becoming increasingly the weapon of choice. Youth and sometimes older people went into the streets, demonstrating, walking the walk. All that – which we call “the Sixties” actually began in the middle Fifties, after the US Supreme Court in 1954 declared racial segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. There was a straight line from the courtroom to the street.

The Living Theater was also foundational in the sense of constructing performance texts, rather then staging dramatic texts. Of course, the Living also staged dramatic texts. But especially after 1964, when they lost their theatre on 14th Street and went into exile[v] in Europe, the Living developed extremely powerful performance works: Paradise Now, Mysteries, and Frankenstein. In 1968, they brought these back home to the USA. These performances electrified audiences – outraging some and enormously pleasing others. These pieces were theatrical and political simultaneously. And they were not the staging of already existing plays but something else, closer to Happenings. But unlike many happenings which were small-scale and apolitical, the Living’s works were enormous – Beck was a visionary designer in the mold of Meyerhold-Popov constructivism.

My own work at about the same time, both in New Orleans in the mid-sixties and later in New York where I moved to in 1967, both followed and diverged from the Living. I was insistent on staging “works”, “events”, and “environmental theatre” – not plays. I thought about it thoroughly and published “Six Axioms for Environmental Theatre” in 1968. But what I summarized and theorized there had been developing in me for several years previously. I was influenced by the Freedom Movement – which I participated in; by the Free Southern Theater, or which I was a producing director, by Artaud, by Happenings, and – after 1963 – by Grotowski. What environmental theatre did was challenge the notion that a theatrical production was the “staging of a play”, “realizing” or “interpreting” a text. I, and those who thought like me, didn’t really care what the author intended, or even if there were an author. We shifted the center of theatre to the performance, to direct action, to stage language, to what I later called the “performance text” which completely superseded the dramatic text, the play. We didn’t care what Shakespeare might have intended. How was anyone to know that, anyway? I didn’t think that the director existed to serve the playwright. We threw all that out. We said: “I don’t care what Shakespeare might have wanted, or what Euripides might have wanted. It is what my group wants? What is relevant now?”

This approach was political on several levels. First, it restored power to the people present making the work: the director, the actors, the designers. The playwright, if not in the rehearsal room, was regarded as an absentee landlord. We seized his property, we used it for the benefit of the people who were there present to each other; and for the benefit of the audience who was also asked to participate. I wanted to take Brecht on step further. I followed Brecht’s maxim: “You want to build a building, use the bricks that are there”, the people that are actually doing the work should control the work. So, the playwright was like an absentee landlord, it was like farming someone else’s land. We rejected the idea that the “man who owns the land” should say what to do with it. It’s “the people who work the land” who say what you should do with it. That was very important, that political feeling. We asked a kind of Marxist question: “Who owns the means of production?” We the workers in the theatre deserved to own the means of theatrical production. I liked the fact that in English the word “production” means a theatre piece. Later on, I retreated a little from such a radical and total rejection. I was able to stage plays environmentally – to be “true” to a text such as Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children or Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters – and yet to very radically change how these plays looked, how they were experienced. I won’t go into details about that here. There is plenty written on my productions.

RICARDO – You mean, working collectively?

RICHARD – It was collective but it wasn’t entirely without leaders. Certainly I was a leader, Beck and Malina were leaders. But the work in the rehearsal room was a lot more collaborative, if not collective, than the capitalist “I hire you”, “you work for me,” and “I fire you”. We took authority – the right of being author – away from the playwright and gave it to the actors, the directors, the designers, the people that were there. Even the audience.

At the same time, because the Freedom Movement and another political actions and art installations – remember these were the days when Happenings were becoming more common – this kind of event was not yet called “performance art,” but we were on our way toward that nomenclature. Things were happening in storefronts, lofts, and many found spaces. Visual artists were inviting people into their lofts, to see their work. Artists didn’t need to rely on galleries; they didn’t want gallery owners controlling them. In today’s world, the Internet functions in roughly the same way in relation to writing and visual arts, film and video. YouTube and Facebook, blogs, and self-postings – these are ways of getting around the restrictions of authorities, operating without money, or with less money. Of course, the authorities are also smart. They re-occupy the liberated spaces; they re-infect them with money, and so Facebook becomes not only or even mostly a social network as a moneymaking machine. Or maybe it’s both, the collapse today of making money and making society. Too bad that Marxism exists only as nostalgia or an academic theory. Will it comeback? Maybe someday, though I don’t envision how. But back to the sixties. Artists showed works in their own lofts. Performances were staged in lofts, and in non-theater spaces. The Performing Garage was the first non-theatre theatre in what became known as SoHo (South of Houston Street). These spaces were modeled on what artists were doing in galleries where performances replaced or accompanied the display of paintings.

RICARDO – This new sense of artistic lifestyle, people living and working in the same neighborhood, it created a sense of community? A kind of “ethos”?

RICHARD – Right. I wrote about that in my book Public Domain: Essays on the Theater (1968). Lofts, galleries, storefronts, streets: performances were taking place everywhere.

4. PERFORMANCE AS A CONCEPT

RICARDO – How do you connect this cultural, social, artistic development with the birth of performance studies? With the need to theorize these creative practices?

RICHARD – Well, you know, I’ve always done theory along with practice. I think of myself as “scientific” rather than “artistic.” The theatre rehearsal space is a laboratory. And to conduct effective laboratory research you have to integrate theory and practice. The theory feeds the practice the practice feeds the theory. I am not strictly speaking a scientist. I do not test theories; I do not do mathematics. But I am to some degree a “social scientist” and I work in two arenas: by participant observation in several cultures; by means of artistic creativity through the training and rehearsal processes.

This combined interest in, and practice of, theory and art has been part of my life since my college student days – and maybe before. As a little boy, I build sand structures, literally, and observed the weather and waves and wondered about the relationship between large-scale natural systems and human cultural behavior. Maybe I was not able to articulate this in such a sophisticated way when I was a boy. But this kind of thinking has been part of me for as far back as I can recall… I like to generalize based on observations. I like to develop systems, patterns, theorems. I like to read scientific literature, that’s what fascinates me, more than other kinds of literature. One of the few magazines I pay for is Science, the official weekly publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Some of the articles are too technical for me to understand fully. But I deeply enjoy, and learn from, reading Science. I am curious about human behavior; about archeology; about neurology; about ethology and biology; about cosmology – everything from the origins of human culture in animal behavior to string theory and the notion of multiple universes – from Newton to Einstein to Hawkings.

ANA – And why the word “performance”?

RICHARD – Oh! Hmmmmmm… Now when did I first use the word “performance”

[laughs]. (Richard gets up and grabs some books. We stop recording.)

Oh! Here. Look at this in TDR from 1966, volume 10, number 4. Here! See in this essay “Approaches to Theory/Criticism” I made a chart, which I titled the “performance activities of men”. Yes, I wrote “men” instead of “human beings.” I wasn’t yet very sensitive to gender language. So, this chart is the first time I used the word “performance” in the sense we are talking about it. Erving Goffman used the word before me in his Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which was published in 1959. He has a chapter called “Performances” – and this book, that chapter, was very influential on me – and on the whole field. Now here is something from my TDR essay as it was republished in my first book, Public Domain (1968):

“While performance in its larger sense may characterize the mode of any activity, performance in the smaller sense is part of the form of many kinds of play, games, sports, theatre, and ritual. I recognize that some activities legitimately called play, games, sports, and rituals would not be included in my smaller definition of performance. My definition is further complicated by the fact that game theory applies to performance and non-performance activities equally. However, in trying to manage the relationship between a general theory and its possible applications to an art form, I thought it best to center my definition of performance around certain acknowledged qualities of theatre, the most staple being the audience.”

In Schechner, Richard, 1966, “Approaches to Theory/Criticism”. The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Summer), p. 27.

So there it is – right in front of you.

performance-chart_schechner

In Schechner, Richard, 1966, “Approaches to Theory/Criticism”, The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Summer), p. 35.

RICARDO – Was it your curiosity about science that led you to begin working with Victor Turner?

RICHARD – By the middle 1970’s I had found Turner’s Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure which was published in 1969, and I’ve been using some of that work and… I think some of his essays that were gathered in Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: symbolic action in human society, were published in the early 1970’s [1974], and I was using that work – Turner’s ideas about social drama, liminality, ritual, and communitas. Those ideas are still important and alive for me. Later – in the mid 70s – Turner and I met.

One day he phoned me. He was in New York to introduce a talk by Clifford Geertz – another very important anthropologist. Victor introduced himself over the phone but, of course, I knew who he was. I went up to Columbia to listen to Geertz and meet Turner. I don’t remember Geertz’s talk, but I do remember that afterwards Victor and I went to some seedy bar near the University and talked for hours. We really hit it off. And over the years – until his death in 1983 – Victor and I worked together very intensely. Turner invited me to participate in a 10 day conference of ritual and theatre that was going to be held in Austria in the fall of 77[vi]. He asked me to suggest some people who could be invited to it, because we had similar interests. So I suggested Jerome Rothenberg, who was writing about oral poetry and shamanism, and Grotowski, people Turner didn’t know. I went to the conference at the Burg Wartenstein sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. I showed the movie of Dionysus in 69. This beautiful intense conference opened the door between theatre and anthropology. Grotowski didn’t go to the conference – but I brought some of his ideas there. It was at that conference that Turner and I began to explore theories and practices of ethnopoetics, the relationship between shamanism and performance, and ritual and performance. I actually didn’t stay for the whole conference. I left three days early because my wife (at the time) Joan MacIntosh was going into labor. On September 6, 1977 my son Sam was born in New York. I was there.

5. THE BIRTH OF PERFORMANCE STUDIES

ANA – And how did this work lead you to Performance Studies?

RICHARD – Well the work that led to performance studies began years before I met Turner. I already told you about the 1966 TDR article. But that article was the result of a lot of thinking and work that I did in New Orleans and even before that. Work in the African American Freedom Movement; work with the New Orleans Group – in collaboration with painter Franklin Adams and composer Paul Epstein. And then, in the late spring of 1967, I left Tulane and came to New York University (NYU).

RICARDO – As a theater professor?

RICHARD – Yes, as a full professor. I got my PhD from Tulane in 1962 and was hired to be an assistant professor. A few years later, I was promoted to Associate Professor. When I moved to NYU I was offered the rank of full professor. I was offered the NYU job by my former teacher, Robert Corrigan. Corrigan was the founding editor of TDR. It was first the Carlton Drama Review – when Corrigan was teaching at Carlton College in Minnesota. When he came to Tulane he brought the journal with him and renamed it the Tulane Drama Review. When Corrigan left Tulane in 1962, I took his place – teaching courses that he had taught and editing TDR. Then when I came NYU, I brought TDR with me. Corrigan had become the first dean of NYU’s new School of the Arts – now, the Tisch School of the Arts. Corrigan was only four years older than me. In some ways, I followed in his footsteps. The big difference between us is that Corrigan was not a theatre director and I am not a university administrator.

RICARDO – You came to the Theater Department at New York University?

RICHARD – No. Actually it was the Department of Drama and Cinema. Later, Cinema split off and Drama broke into two parts, Graduate Drama and Undergraduate Drama. At present, we have the Drama Department, which is undergraduate only, and the Performance Studies and Cinema Studies department. Of course, very importantly shortly after moving to New York I started The Performance Group. Oh yeah, that word “performance” again. And I taught courses mainly about the avant-garde theater (similar to what I am doing now). I took what later was called a performance studies approach, but at that time, in the mid-60s, it was not called Performance Studies. The department didn’t officially change its name to performance studies until 1980. During my first 10 years in New York I concentrated on directing plays. I even gave up editing TDR in 1969. I put most of my energies into The Performance Group. I kept teaching – I love teaching – and I kept writing, I have to write – but my heart was at the Performing Garage where I directed plays in the style of environmental theatre (the title of my second book). Because I was the full-time director of The Performance Group and that took me a lot at that time I was working very closely with Grotowski. I read everything he wrote. I met him face-to-face first in Canada in 1966. In 1967 he and Ryszard Cieslak came to NYU to do a performance actor training workshop. I took part in that workshop and directly brought some of the exercises – and the underlying approach – over to the work I was doing with a few people – and these people became The Performance Group. Again, the intersection between practice and theory. At that time I was very much taken by anthropology, especially Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology. Those were the years before I met Turner.

ANA – Which artists were you teaching in your courses at that time?

RICHARD – I don’t remember. I was working close with Michael Kirby, who wrote the book Happenings. Michael was teaching at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. We got to know each other as Mariellen Sandford and I were putting together the special issue of TDR on happenings. Michael and I became very good friends. I told him he should get a PhD. He was writing his book and I said why not use it as his dissertation. He came to NYU – the Graduate Drama Department – and earned his PhD. We immediately hired him as a professor. In 1969, I stopped editing TDR. Immediately after me came Erika Munk. She left after two years and in 1971, Michael Kirby became editor. He edited the journal until 1985 – and then I took it over again. Kirby taught in the department until his death in 1997. In the early years of the department I was teaching “theories of directing” – Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Brecht… and “trends in modern theatre” – a course adapted from what Corrigan taught.

ANA – Were you also drawing from non-western cultures, both theatrical ideas and other concepts and practices?

RICHARD – Yes, definitely. The impact of anthropology on me. Also in 1971 I made my first trip to Asia. I visited India, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Papua-New Guinea, Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. I couldn’t get to Mainland China – it was not open to Americans. I began teaching a series of courses I called “performance theory.” Each year, the basic topic would change. But the underlying idea was to radically expand the range of what was performance. To go far far beyond theatre. Each term, we had a different subject: “Native American Performance”, “Shamanism”, “Play”, “Ritual”… many different topics. For each course, I would invite guests, really great people, from Grotowski to Turner, from Goffman to Rothenberg, from Roberto DaMatta to Barbara Myerhoff. NYU was very generous in giving me a budget to bring in these world-class scholars and artists. They would lecture on Monday night and then meet the graduate students in seminar on Tuesday. These were great courses. They began to give shape to what later became Performance Studies.

ANA – In terms of the non-western influences, what you are speaking of reminds me of Jameson’s text “Periodizing the Sixties” in which he argues that a focus on the “third world” is essential for understanding the counter-culture of the “first world” in the 1960s.

RICHARD – Right. But for me none of this was the “third world” because I had direct friends in various parts of the world. I really didn’t think in “first world” “second world” “third world” terms. As Turner reminded me, “chaps, not maps.” That is, don’t immediately abstract and distance. Work person-to-person. In each place there are a few kindred spirits. Seek them out. Work with them. That’s what I did. Also, after I left The Performance Group at the end of 1979 start of 1980, I began to direct in India and then China and South Africa. The political categories – third world and so on – trouble me because they tend to separate or alienate people because they tend to disallow or dismiss or misinterpret the changes and actions that occur between individuals acting in small groups. I think there is a community of artists and a community of scholars. There are certain people in Shanghai who I am closer to than certain people three blocks from here. The people in Shanghai are part of my community; the people three blocks from here are not. So when I am talking to Sun Huizhu of the Shanghai Theatre Academy, we are not talking third world/ first world. Anyway, what is China? What is Vietnam? And so on. The categories never made a great deal of sense – and they make less sense now.

ANA – And where did the impetus for developing a department of performance studies come from?

RICHARD – It came out of these courses at NYU. And out of the work of my colleagues – especially at the start Brooks McNamara and Michael Kirby. McNamara earned his PhD from Tulane – he was actually a student when I was a professor there, though we were almost the same age. Brooks died in 2009. Brooks pioneered the field of popular entertainment studies. Kirby was the world’s leading scholar of happenings. I was into anthropology and performance. These were the proto-ideas that morphed into Performance Studies. The catalyst was when we hired Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (BKG) to be chair of our department. Before that, we rotated the chair among the senior faculty. Nobody wanted to be chair. It was a burden; something we did because we had to do it. I did it for one year. I was awful at it. But BKG was brilliant. She came in 1980. We changed our name from Graduate Drama to Performance Studies. BKG organized the department, gave it academic standards – not that we were so awful, but we really didn’t think things through in institutional terms. BKG whipped us into shape. We expanded our faculty to include dance studies; we aggressively recruited women, Africans and African Americans – we diversified as a matter of academic principle. Our subject move continents away from “drama” and into “performance” as we still define it. Interdisciplinary, intercultural, inter-genre…

ANA – It was all about new things, both theory and practice…

RICHARD – There wasn’t any practice, it was all theory. Many people in the department – students especially but Kirby and me and to some degree McNamara – also practiced. But our curriculum was strictly “studies.” Kirby made happenings, I directed plays, and Brooks designed theatre. But none of that work took place inside the department. And then in 1979, this is the important date, we decided that we should change the name of the department and become Performance Studies, because we were dealing with performance. And we went out and hired a real Chair, BKG.

RICARDO – And were other departments supporting or advising you? Anthropology? English? Drama?

RICHARD – No. No other departments. We really did it on our own. Of course, we had our friends. I was working with Turner and Barbara Meyerhoff, Kirby was working with Kaprow and all those people, McNamara was working on the Shubert Archives. But we had no overall consistent identity or leadership. I recruited BKG, who was at that time the president of the American Folklore Association and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. BKG was making folklore into what would become performance studies. Her approach to things was very close to mine. What we later would call “performative.” One day I took her to lunch at The Grand Ticino on Thompson Street. . After not so many minutes, I asked her: “What about coming to NYU to become the chair of our department? You’re an anthropologist and that’s the direction I would like our department to go in.” She was kind of amazed, “How can you do this?” She wondered about creating an interdisciplinary department – what resistance would we find at NYU. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “The Dean [David Oppenheim] likes me and he will support the change in name and overall mission.” I don’t think I used the word “mission” – it’s not my kind of word. But that was the sense of what I was discussing with BKG. She came and was chair until 1992. If Performance Studies has a coherent shape as an academic department, you can thank BKG for that.

ANA – And you like teaching?

RICHARD – I like teaching, but if I didn’t have to teach that would be alright too, I like writing and directing. McNamara liked his archiving and Kirby liked his writing and his making of art. I used to teach more courses, now I teach only two a year and that’s fine with me. I direct dissertations. I am very involved with TDR. I like teaching because I like to have active contact with younger people, people like you.

RICARDO – So you maintain a kind of Sixties spirit…

RICHARD – Well, no. Even in the Sixties professors did professor things. I maintain the spirit of a certain kind of independence from the Academy. I am at NYU but I don’t think I am of NYU. I don’t do a lot of committee work. I would never chair the department. I like to do close in work with students; I like going to faculty meetings. But I don’t enjoy academic committee work or writing committee reports and things like that. Other people do that work and then become Chairs of departments and Deans and Presidents, I’m not interested in that, neither was Kirby, neither was McNamara. But BKG at that point was very interested in organizing the department. She gave it structure, like regular faculty meetings, and visible guidelines for earning our MA and PhD degrees.

ANA – And what was the process of bringing in other professors, those who are on the faculty now? As Performance Studies is a very recent field…

RICHARD – Lots of good people have passed through Performance Studies. The best. We have a strong faculty, but if we had been able to keep the best of those who have been here … wow. Joseph Roach was here for a couple of years – and I wish he had stayed. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was co-appointed with Comparative Literature – later he left NYU for the University of Californa-Irvine. I wish he had stayed. Michael Taussig was here for a few years – and I wish he had stayed too. We hired Pheggy Phelan while she was still writing her dissertation. We recognized something very strong in her. Diana Taylor came later, sometime in the late 90’s. We hired José Muñoz the year he finished his degree. In other words, the more senior people have a good idea for younger scholars. We hired Tavia Nyong’o the year he finished his degree. We hired André Lepecki who was our own PhD. So, when we hire people we don’t usually look for people who are already established but for younger people who are going to get established. Of course, there are exceptions.

RICARDO – So, even though we are new to the American academic system, it seems clear that Performance Studies has been built around bringing together scholars from Anthropology, from the Artistic Community, from Cultural Studies…

RICHARD – Right. But not people from dramatic literature.

ANA – Nor critics. That’s a significant choice!

RICHARD – [laughs] Those dramatic literature people and those critics, they’re like lepers, we don’t want to have anything to do with them…

By this point, nearly dinnertime, the window was dark, and the disordered piles of books and magazines we had looked through had grown considerably. Begun as an interview with defined questions and concrete themes, the conversation, as good conversations do, became more informal and intimate. This interview may lack certain specific information about the artists we had studied in class.

What seemed essential about this conversation with Schechner was the possibility of transmitting a sense of some of the experience of living and creating in this period and what its continued relevance is today. What remains is to thank our brilliant and committed professor Richard Schechner. It was with his guidance that we were able to make this trip though the performance of the Sixites and development of Performance Studies and because of his enthusiasm that we were impelled to share it.


[i] We would like to thank Abigail Levine for help in the English edition.

[ii] Dionysus in 69, created by The Performance Group in 1968, was restaged by the Austin group, Rude Mechanicals.

Shawn Sides, artistic director of Rude Mechanicals, has an MA in Performance Studies from NYU – where she studied

with Schechner.

[iii] Richard refers to the play he directed, Swimming to Spalding, running through December 20 at HERE Arts Center,

New York.

[iv] Idiot Savant, written and directed by Richard Foreman by the Ontological-Histerical Theater.

[v] In October 1963, playing the Kenneth Brown’s The Brig, at the 14 street, New York, the Living Theater is closed by the I.R.S. Curiously, is on the same day Jonas Mekas was shooting a documentary film about the play. The group went to Europe, and then Brazil, and stayed out of the USA during most of the Sixties.

[vi] Burg Wartenstein Symposium no. 76 on “Cultural Frames and Reflections, Ritual, Drama, and Spectacle”, in September 1977 to be held at a castle in Austria owned by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.  “The scholars and artists were alone with each other for 10 days-no public sessions, just seminars, performances, good food, and passionate conversation. The roster of attendees made my mouth water: Jerome Rothenberg, Natalie Zeamon Davis, Barbara Myerhoff, John MacAloon, Ranjini and Ganeth Obeyesekere, Roberta da Matta, Alfonso Ortiz, Victoria Bricker, Smadar Lavie, and Kirin Narayan, and a few others.” (Richard Schechner, draft only: see http://www.nyu.edu/classes/bkg/rs2.dos).

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