You are here

Theories of Performance

Theories of Performance

February 2008 | 320 pages | SAGE Publications, Inc

Theories of Performance invites students to explore the possibilities of performance for creating, knowing, and staking claims to the world. Each chapter surveys, explains, and illustrates classic, modern, and postmodern theories that answer the questions, "What is performance?" "Why do people perform?" and "How does performance constitute our social and political worlds?" The chapters feature performance as the entry point for understanding texts, drama, culture, social roles, identity, resistance, and technologies.

Written specifically for the undergraduate classroom, performance theories are explained in ways accessible to students, relevant to their lives, and richly illustrated with examples that encourage students to think more, to think harder, and to think differently about performances around them. The text incorporates a variety of pedagogical strategies to encourage students to demonstrate, apply, extend, and share their discoveries about theory. Each chapter provides student-centered exercises, activities, and prompts.

From Aristotelian tragedy to on-line avatars, Dramatism to performativity, cultural performance to public protest, canon wars to virtual reality, Theories of Performance brings classic, modern, and postmodern theories to life in the classroom.

"Elizabeth Bell has done a prodigious, expert, and original synthesis of the new work in performance studies here, by grounding performance in communication theory and practice. Students reading this book will more readily see how and why performance is a way of communicating, empowering them to critically participate in producing and consuming the myriad texts and performances in which we are immersed. The 'Act Out' and other boxes present effective and innovative learning activities; they move performance from a display of competence to participation in bodily knowing. In short, Theories of Performance is an exceptional accomplishment. "

– Kristin M. Langellier, University of Maine

"Theories of Performance is the BEST synthesis of performance studies issues, concepts, and methodologies that yet exists. This textbook is invaluable and will make performance studies classrooms 'smarter' and more sophisticated both in terms of content and in practice. What a treat it will be to offer students a text that takes the best thoughts, practices, and examples and presents it to them in an engaging, surprising, and provocative format!"

– Keith Pounds, Hofstra University

Companion Web site:

Chapter 1: Introducing Theories of Performance
Theory in Perspective: Can You See the Forest for the Trees?

What Is Theory?

Theory Questions: What? Why? How?

Kinds of Theory Questions

Assumptions about How Language Operates in Theory

Two Models of Communication

Performance as a Communicative Form

Assumptions about Performance: Mimesis, Poiesis, and Kinesis

Performance as a Key Term

Definitions of Performance

Claims about Performance: Constitutive, Epistemic, and Critical

Rethinking Theory and Performance

Chapter 2: Constituting Performance
Theory in Perspective: What Makes a Performance?

The "Nature" of Performance

Constituting Performance through Framing

Constituting the Performance Frame through Keying

Constituting Performance through the Performer

Constituting Performance through Audience

Rethinking Performance

Chapter 3: Performing Texts
Theory in Perspective: What Is a Text?

Humans and Symbol Use: Text Me Later. OK?

From Orality to the Page to the Screen

Interpreting the World as "Text"

When Text Meets Performance

Drama, Script, Theater, and Performance

Assumptions about Texts: Canon, Textuality, and Materiality

Interpreting Texts

Text Versus Performance

Rethinking Texts

Chapter 4: Performing Drama
Theory in Perspective: How Is the World a Stage?

The Drama of a Roller Coaster Ride

Reigning Metaphor: Life as Drama

What Is Aristotelian Drama?

Audience and Dramatic Form

Kenneth Burke's Dramatism: Life Is Drama

Performing Tragic and Comic Attitudes

From Dramatism to Social Drama

Analyzing Social Dramas

Social Drama: Raw Material for Performances

Rethinking Drama

Chapter 5: Performing Culture
Theory in Perspective: How Do Cultures Perform?

What Is Culture?

Approaches to Studying Culture

From Studying "Man" to Theorizing Movement and Play

Rites of Passage: Moving through Culture

Homo Ludens/Playing Man

Characteristics of Ritual

Rituals Are Performed

From Great Tradition to Cultural Performance

The "Performance Turn" in Study of Culture

Performing History

Performing Others

Rethinking Culture

Chapter 6: Performing Social Roles
Theory in Perspective: Who Am I?

Don't Play Games with Me!

"What's Wrong?"

"What's Right?"

Teams: Performing Together

Regions: Performing Spaces

When Good Performances Go Bad

Impression Management


Role Distance and Discrepant Roles

Stigmas and "Spoiled" Identities

Passing Genders and Races

Performing Disability

Rethinking Social Roles

Chapter 7: Performing Identity
Theory in Perspective: How Am I a Subject?

Do Social Roles Assume a Foundational Self?

Performativity's Rejections and Projects

Performativity Project 1: Identity Constitution as Material and Historical

Performativity Project 2: A Strategy for Identity Critique

From Philosophy to Speech Act to Laws

Performativity Project 3: A Political Practice of Identity

Rethinking Identity

Chapter 8: Performing Resistance
Chapter 8: Performing Resistance
Theory in Perspective: How Can Performance Change the World?

From Aristotle to Postmodernism

Bertolt Brecht on Performing Resistance

Alienation Effects of Epic Theater

Brechtian Techniques as Critical Lenses

From Brecht to Boal

Why Do People Take to the Streets? Models of Protest

Public Events through an Aristotelian Lens

Carnival and Protest

From Traditional to Radical Dramaturgy

Analyzing Protest Events as Performances

The Body Politic: How Do Bodies Intervene?

Resistance in Everyday Life: Foucault's Productive Power

Resistance in Everyday Life: de Certeau's Strategies and Tactics

Rethinking Resistance

Chapter 9: Performing Technologies
Chapter 9: Performing Technology
Theory in Perspective: What Exists?

Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware of Old and New

What Is Technology? Extending Human Bodies and Powers

From Deus ex Machina to Flash Mobs: Extending, Enabling, and Accessing Performance

Performance Presence: An Ontology

Six Types of Theatrical Presence

Losing the Aura of Presence

Simulacra: There Is No Original

Cyborg Bodies: Human and Machine

Performing Cyborgs

Musical Performance: Is it Live or Is It Memorex?

Interactivity: From "Poke and See," Cyberpoetry, to Computer Art Environments

Reach Out and Perform Someone: Five Kinds of Mediated Presence

Rethinking Technologies



Beautifully designed for an undergraduate audience in both content and layout.

Caren Neile
Florida Atlantic University

Fantastic resource for teaching performance. However this is beyond A-Level students.

Mr Daniel James Brown
Eary Years Education, St Vincent College
October 25, 2016

Excellent, accessible text that covered a range of theories comprehensively.

Mrs Ruth Marie Steyert
Functional Skills, Grimsby Institute of HE & FE
July 29, 2016

There was not an angle to incorporate social work and performativity

Donna Jones
Social Work (Egham), Royal Holloway, University of London
February 24, 2015

The book provides excellent textual bases and is very current in terms of content and examples.
The overall structure of the book is excellent and its length well-suited for student use. However, the constant encouragement of in-class performance is not practical nor feasible for my class. Furthermore, a number of the study questions remain too vague. They would profit from employing concrete examples for discussion, instead of asking students to look for examples themselves.

Mr Daniel Schulze
English Literature , University of Wurtzburg
December 12, 2013

This is an essential text for undergraduate students in their debate and analysis of performance in its many facets. The text offers suggestions for debate across practices and offers clear contextual briefing to surround the nature of the debate and further discussion.

Mr Darren Carr
Centre for Sport and Dance Studies, Liverpool John Moores University
September 4, 2012

This feedback is based on my discipline of fine art, and how it incorporates live/performance based practice and theory. To that end it would be supplemental reading for fine art students, but I will use the text for discussions on the relevance of text and theory. The publication's meaty analysis of this area will be of great use, as it of regular debate in taught sessions.

Dr Angela Bartram
Lincoln School of Art & Design, Lincoln University
April 3, 2012

This is an excellent book even though it's not within the conventionally recognized lineage of Performance Studies. Perhaps this is what makes is a compelling text and one that's excellent for comparative study.

Dr Toni Sant
School of Arts & New Media, Hull University
August 29, 2011

An excellent book that explains and analyses performance theory. A very good teaching resource in theoretical sessions.

Mr Gary Vear
School of Media & Performing Arts, University of Cumbria
July 11, 2011

The book will be an essential instructional material especially the third chapter for my class in Hum 3. This will be helpful in discussing technology and performance as a mediated and communicated social aspect in this very modern age. The book however, needs to adds a chapter that discuss performance as a global and interconnected critical concept that bridges culture and societies. This will help non-American societies to adapt the book and use it to scrutinize cultural and communicative aspects in their own local experience. Overall, the book is an essential guide that students can easily use, with its jargon-free discussion of critical terms (and yet, it maintains an academic voice appropriate for classroom and research discussion). I would like to order several copies for my library.

Mr Reagan Maiquez
Department of Humanities, University of the Philippines at Los Banos
October 9, 2010
Key features
  • Theories of Performance is the answer to the need for an undergraduate textbook that 1) reflects the current diversity of disciplines and approaches to performance, 2) takes performance as the entry point to self, community, and culture, 3) covers a range of performance media available for commentary, critique, analysis, and modeling, and 4) enlarges the scope of performance as studied and practiced in all its atten­dant disciplines.
  • No single work covers this text's range of performance embodi­ments: self is explored through a variety of theories that articulate identity as performed and performative; scenes are explored for the ways performance is a situated practice for social and political agency; and screens are explored for the ways technology drives new performance theories and practices.
  • No textbook offers theoretical approaches to the wide range of performance genres enjoying popular and critical cache, including conceptual art, social protest theater, and mediated performance.
  • Provides example-driven prose, exercises, and examples for explication and analysis to create meaningful opportunities for students to engage questions of identity, community, and culture.
  • Student-centered pedagogy, exercises, and activities reinforce the explanatory value of the theories covered and facilitate student understanding and application.  Examples include:
    • Chapter-opening "Theory in Perspective" boxes that locate the theorists, disciplines, and methods surveyed in the chapter, to assist students in tracking the theoretical shifts in approaches to performance across time and disciplines.
    • Chapter-ending "Pro and Con" sections detail critiques of the theoretical approach presented—especially for the early theories covered that do not account for contemporary conceptions of power and its resistance. These sections help students do the critical work necessary to explore theory for the ways some constructions privilege or mute their subjects.
    • "Go Figure" sidebars–an opportunity to ponder (in writing or out loud) a question, situation, or concept raised by theoretical claims in the chapter. These prompts can be assignments in class or more formal papers.
    • "To Do List"—an invitation to students to make lists of performances, films, roles, rites, Websites, resistant strategies, etc. in their own lives. When students generate their own examples, theoretical applications and extensions are suddenly relevant.
    • "Act Out" sidebars—a prompt for in-class improvisation, making theory come alive in performances (instruc­tors may use these prompts for the development of more polished performances as well).
    • "Read All About It" sidebars—an excerpt from a published work that illustrates theoretical claims. These excerpts are introduced to direct student attention to certain features of the excerpts.
    • Chapter-ending "Check It Out" boxes are a rich resource for student papers, reports, research, and performance by providing 1) bibliographies of works by theo­rists, 2) academic works that utilize the theories, and 3) and popular books that can be fruitfully explored from the chapter's theoretical vantage point(s).

Sage College Publishing

You can purchase this book and request an instructor sample on our US College site:

Go To College Site

This title is also available on SAGE Knowledge, the ultimate social sciences online library. If your library doesn’t have access, ask your librarian to start a trial.