Life Under the Spotlight: Finding Meaning on Stage

By Glenn JeffersFebruary 17, 2017

To most, theater is a room. There are seats for the audience and a stage for the actors. There are sets and lights. A stage manager to handle logistics. A director to oversee it all.

And when opening night arrives, the lights go down, the curtain comes up, and the performers enact a tale meant to entertain and maybe even inform.

But, as some guy named Bill once said, the play’s the thing.

More broadly, it’s about the material behind that script or composition, as well as the process enabling it. That process can include journeys into underserved communities and into the very idea of performance itself: how actors see and hear, perceive and interpret, produce meaning and insight.

This dramatic excursion is the purpose of performance studies, says Ramón Rivera-Servera, chair of that department at Northwestern and director of graduate studies for the School of Communication.

“It develops and encompasses practices like theater and concert dance and other such activities,” says Rivera-Servera, “but it expands the framework for understanding all kinds of embodied communicative practices.”

The pursuit goes even deeper at Northwestern. Here, performance is used as a vehicle for scholarly work and research to study the humanities, especially in terms of philosophy, culture, and society. Even the law is subject to analysis as performance, an approach taken by assistant professor Joshua Chambers-Letson in his book A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America, winner of the Outstanding Book Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. The research aspect involves using “ethnographic methodologies to understand a phenomenon in a particular context,” says Rivera-Servera, whose award-winning ethnographic work addresses the role of movement, gesture, and dance as communication.

Using these methods, and working across disciplines with other Northwestern departments and programs, students and faculty examine race, gender, sexuality, and identity. “In performance studies, we’re interested in how those categories are sustained in practices of communication that involve creative engagement with embodiment and self-presentation,” says Rivera-Servera. Such scholarship has led the department to research that provides key insights and new perspectives on many topics, including:

  • Kamran Afary’s 2007 exploration of performance in activism during the 1992 Los Angeles riots
  • Mark West’s 2009 look into the intersection of law and performance in advocating for the rights of Dalit (untouchable) castes in rural South Asia    
  • Victoria Fortuna’s 2013 examination of the role of dance in confronting state violence in Buenos Aires

Performance also influences research, says E. Patrick Johnson, the Carlos Montezuma Professor of African American Studies and Performance Studies, chair of African American studies, and founder of the Black Arts Initiative. Performance offers researchers the chance to reach a larger audience — one outside academia —and to share their findings with a less informed public.

Johnson’s 2008 book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South documents the oral histories of more than 70 men. While writing the book, Johnson found the written word — from word-count restrictions to editorial predilections — somewhat limiting. “In the South, there’s a lot of colorful, musical language,” he says. “You lose some of that on the page.”

A year after the book’s publication, Johnson — a renowned performance artist — developed Sweet Tea into a one-man show, embodying more than a dozen of his subjects. “What performance does is enliven the musicality of the narrators’ speech, as well as their vocal tics,” says Johnson. “It creates a different kind of register.”

Collaboration and Cocreation

Students entering the department’s graduate program examine both research and performance from the moment they enter the newly refurbished Annie May Swift Hall along the Evanston lakefront. In fact, doctoral students spend their first year focusing on those two topics.

In required courses on fieldwork research methods, students learn how to enter a community and establish “a collaborative dialogue,” says Rivera-Servera. Developed in part by the late Dwight Conquergood, a renowned ethnographer and Northwestern performance studies professor who died in 2004, this “coperformance witnessing” favors partnering with communities — sometimes to the point of immersion — to conduct ethnographic research. His approaches were further codified into a methodology by professor D. Soyini Madison, a former student of Conquergood’s, whose Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance has become the best-selling textbook for this approach to research.

“Performance ethnography is an immersive process,” says Shayna Silverstein, performance studies. “Engaging with embodied practices is like learning a language, and the way one learns the nuances and subtleties of a new language is by going to the place where it’s spoken.”

Silverstein’s most recent research explores the politics and aesthetics of sound and movement in the contemporary Middle East, focusing on Syrian popular culture. To conduct this work, Silverstein traveled to Syria in 2004, living there for extended periods while she integrated herself into local music and dance scenes and built relationships with interlocutors — “a formal term for all the many, many relationships one establishes in the field,” she explains. These include colleagues, collaborators, and acquaintances.

This pattern continued until relations between the United States and Syria soured and Silverstein was denied reentry into the country. She says that the outbreak of civil war in 2011 “made it impossible to continue to do fieldwork in situ in Syria.”

Through Skype, social media, and other methods, Silverstein maintained relationships with her Syrian colleagues and collaborators. Her fieldwork, both in and out of Syria, has led to several published papers and the forthcoming book, Performing Dabke: Popular Culture and Identity in Contemporary Syria.

Archival research also plays a substantial role in information gathering, providing the context and broader scope needed to inform the researcher’s understanding. For third-year doctoral student Didier Morelli this kind of research has become pivotal to his dissertation on the intersection of performance art and architecture in Los Angeles and New York between 1970 and 1985. During that period, says Morrelli, performance artists left the relative comfort and safety of galleries and studio spaces for public structures to produce “acts of kinesthetic protest.”

“When I came into the program, I was interested in more abstract theoretical and art-historical understandings of these protests,” says Morelli. With the guidance of his adviser and peers, he has delved into archival records and other documentation.

“I am now looking at urban histories, political economies, and the ways in which cities were developing at the time, including the basic economics of urban infrastructure and how these have shaped artistic practices,” says Morelli. “The project is always evolving and moving towards new narratives.”

Finding 'Elusive' Meaning

Along with teaching students how to conduct research, the program enables first-year graduate students to engage deeply with performance, from its history and development to its theory and composition. Performance is not merely about telling a tale; it involves harnessing all the supporting parts and presenting the powerful whole to an audience.

“That’s a lot harder than you might think,” says Mary Zimmerman, the Jaharis Family Foundation Chair in Performance Studies and an artistic associate at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. “You must look at a work of art and all the signs and symbols in it, both literally and figuratively, and say what you saw.”

The academic approach allows students to dissect performances, from studying various genres and methods to evaluating each other in a classroom setting. That kind of intense, peer-based analysis teaches students how to think about performance as moments, gestures, elements, and dialogue, with each part building and informing the others.

Through that process, students uncover perhaps the most elusive result in creative work: meaning. “How is meaning being produced in this performance? How would it have been different if the creators had done this or that differently? What different meaning is produced by the relationship between all the elements of the performance?” asks Zimmerman. “That, to me, is endlessly fascinating.”

This work folds into Zimmerman’s own high-profile theatrical pursuits. An acclaimed adaptor and director, she won a Tony Award for her Metamorphoses as well as a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” A number of Zimmerman’s stage works are, in fact, adaptations of literary works, situated “exactly at that intersection of literature and performance” that Zimmerman says she prefers.

When working on an adaptation, she uses a hybrid process — writing out scenes the night before, then rehearsing with actors, letting their performances inspire her. The approach developed during her days as a graduate student in Northwestern’s performance studies department, working with faculty members such as the late Jungian psychoanalyst Leland Roloff, two-time Tony Award winner and professor emeritus Frank Galati, and three-time Jeff Award winner and associate professor Paul Edwards. Roloff, who taught Performance Art — a class Zimmerman now teaches — challenged students to use image and symbolism to interpret literature.

“He had us stage things like a myth in one image using only light,” she recalls. 

Meanwhile, Galati and Edwards focused on faithful adaption, keeping performances as close to the source material as possible. “In a lot of my work, the narrative voice is present, but there’s also this theatrical element that’s purely visual,” she says. “None of them did exactly what I do, but the array of them led me to what I do.”

Embodying 'Complex, Contradictory Voices'

Once mandatory requirements are completed, first-year graduate students develop a capstone project: a 20-minute solo show that melds the research methodologies they’ve learned with their performance work to announce their doctoral research question.

“Here, performance is both communicating your research question to a community but also demonstrating how performance itself as an embodied practice is a conduit for understanding and beginning to answer that question,” says Rivera-Servera.

For Patricia Nguyen, the recital allowed her to stage some of the fieldwork she had completed in Vietnam on a Fulbright Scholarship. The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen worked in theater and human rights prior to entering the graduate program and used her first year to crystalize her research and experiences into what evolved as her dissertation and her performance practice.

Her research question will connect disparate historical periods in Vietnam’s national narrative from the 1950s to 2010s by spotlighting the oral histories of Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans who have been directly affected by communist state policies of national reunification and development through reeducation camps and forced migration.

“I began to untangle the messiness of fieldwork in a country my father is exiled from and explore how my positionality impacts the kind of access or denial of access to memories and stories I am able to gather from different sides of the war,” says Nguyen, now a fourth-year doctoral student. “The recital allowed me to situate my research question in terms of thinking about the racialized, gendered, and classed dynamics of the politics of return and to understand how to navigate opposing sides of the same war as a researcher whose history is deeply tied to the country of research.”

Once students have developed a research question, they spend the next year answering it, whether through fieldwork or archival research. Consequently, many second-year courses focus on theory, exploring how bodies can process all this incoming data. The coursework provides the skills, contexts, and knowledge students will need to answer their research questions.

Second-year students also dive into pedagogy, examining how the classroom itself is a performance space where they learn to be effective teachers of the materials they’re developing for their dissertations as well as of the performance methodologies they employ.

Whether they go into teaching is up to them, says Rivera-Servera. Some Northwestern alumni have gone on to found major theater companies. Others have found their calling as ethnographers. “Performance studies is not just about writing the book or article,” he says.

But many do go on to teach. After graduating from the doctoral program in 1999, Derek Goldman taught for six years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2005 Goldman joined the faculty at Georgetown University as a professor of theater and performance studies.

Georgetown proved to be a good fit. A mentee of both Conquergood and Galati, Goldman had a deep respect for underrepresented communities and, he says, for “what Wallace Bacon used to call ‘a Sense of the Other.’” With its focus on foreign service and international politics, Georgetown led Goldman to explore global theater.

In 2012 he cofounded Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. Housed in the School of Foreign Service, the lab focuses on cultural diplomacy and exchange, using “the power of performance to create empathy or humanize what are often seen as difficult political situations.”

Case in point: slavery. The lab is currently working on a project centering around Georgetown’s institutional relationship to the practice — the Jesuits who originally ran the school sold 272 slaves in 1838 to keep Georgetown from closing — and resultant reverberations since the project was announced in April.

Northwestern helped prepare Goldman for “situations where performance is a method for embodying complex, often contradictory voices,” he says, “not just imparting a message, but a space that can contain tensions, conflicts, subtleties, competing narratives, and histories, and to do so respectfully in the deepest sense of the word.”

The Digital Stage

Today, researchers are exploring how the digital world — social media, streaming technologies, globally expanding wireless capabilities — plays into research and performance. From hacktivists causing mayhem on government servers to viral communications in social media, the digital realm has become a performance platform as real as any stage.

“Issues of embodiment are at play, even though there are no biological bodies on the screen,” says Marcela A. Fuentes, performance studies. “What I see is how people structure stories, how movements work with different temporalities, what keywords do they use, and what campaigns do they create. That’s purely performance.”

Fuentes, who researches the relationship between performance and digital technology in protest art, believes that as digital technology advances, the range and scope of what is considered performance will expand. Currently in Argentina conducting field research on the online and offline activist tactics used by the collective NiUnaMenos (NotOneLess) against gender violence, Fuentes recently taught a class in Buenos Aires where graduate students experimented with using forms of social media in compositional performance processes. This research will be included in her forthcoming book In the Event of Performance: Networks, Bodies, and Political Action in the Americas, expected in 2017.

“I want to think about creative ways of tinkering with technologies for the stage, but also within themselves,” she says, “exploring different ways of collaborating or creating stories that make us more human.”