Foundations of a performance pedagogy

Destinee arms openWhat does using performance–with intentionality and proficiency–in the college classroom have to do with “reaching new audiences?”

Let us take, as a starting point, Goffman’s observations of human behavior that demonstrate its performativity. From the masks of personhood that we (co)create…to the lines we all take in social contexts… to the fronts we present… the face we cooperatively manage… the ritual moves by which we effect and are accorded status—or lose it— or manage slips, gaffes, embarrassment and shame (and which we enact to repair damaged relationships and reputations) we are, in our social creaturehood, natural performers.

To say that we “cannot not communicate” might be revised to the more accurate, “in the presence of meaning-making others, we cannot not communicate.” While we can “not perform”—at least, physically—in the presence of others (examples might be the very sick, the exhausted or sleeping, the severely cognitively-impaired) –performance is the primary way through which we manifest our place, manage identity and experience self in a social world. Ritual performances (religious and secular, political, judicial), social performances and cultural performances constitute civilization.

Performance can also be usefully understood as a mode of inquiry and a way of knowing. Reproducing or modeling behavior (words, acts) we explore, understand, adopt or reject, experience expressive constraints or affordances and meanings. Repeating behavior, we revise, refine and learn. Performing the unexpected, we discover possibility and change.

Performances are both self-serving and reinforcing of the social order. They also effect resistance, disturbances and ruptures when hierarchies and institutions become stagnant or rigid, fixed and oppressive: performances are how transformation of systems is possible. Performance may function both to mystify (obscure, hide) and to make visible norms and values, rules, roles and relationships.

As a theoretical or conceptual lens (as well as a conscious, purposeful approach to transformative communication) performance offers powerful ways for people to come together to illuminate, articulate and respond to shared concerns, problems, issues and conflicts. We can make use of processes and practices (derived from the study of performance and performances) to help foster more robust communities (and communities of practice, as in students taking a class) in which mutual stakes have been recognized and acknowledged—and where structural, systemic or other changes are both needed and collectively desired.

Making the essential move from the traditional “spectator” to Boal’s “spect-actor” (and drawing, further, from conceptualizations of audience-as-participant, audience-as-citizen, audience-as-collaborator in the theatrical event)– we need not stretch in order to understand active, engaged learners as “audiences” for their own work, nor to view the teacher as an audience to the students’ performances. This flips on its head the structural commonplace of the student/learner-as-audience for the professor’s professing, and in fact does create “new audiences” for classroom “ensemble-based” learning. Finally: if and when student work is explicitly and publicly performative (in the sense of having a presentation at the end) new audiences are created in the spaces of public sharing of learning and interrogative, interpretive, expressive work.

This site contains reference and descriptions (including links, photos, syllabi, assignments and exercises) of three different courses and one charter school project in which performance and pedagogy come together in learning environments to enliven embodied, immediate inquiry for multiple “new audiences.” RCC400 is a team-taught Integrative Core course at Regis University, an Ignatian institution. The focus of this acting/oral interpretation course is diversity, specifically differences that matter, including stigma and marginalization. COM 413 is a dialogue course in the Communication major that uses various in-class exercises from performance and builds dialogue into performance events on campus that foreground injustice. COM 419 is a Theatre and Social Justice course offered in collaboration with Fine Arts and Peace and Justice, using a devised performance approach to exploring family histories and immigration. Denver Venture Academy was a Denver charter school at which I offered a summer course in using performance strategies to build a sense of identity and community.

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