The complexities of performance as a means for interpretation have allowed me to better understand and represent the process of narrative. There are a myriad of conflicting perspectives on what exactly constitutes performance. Below is an explanation as to why the lens of performance is helpful when looking at stories in different mediums, particularly hypermedia.
Stern and Henderson define performance at its most fundamental as an act that is “interactional in nature and involving symbolic forms and live bodies” (3). It can be an act that involves the interactions between a performer and a text, an audience and a performer, and/or two people talking. The symbolism occurs at the “intersection between text and context,” with the text being anything ranging from a script to a social norm for interaction. This intersection is where and how the page is brought to life on the stage through the performed gestures and actions, and where a conversation comes to life through the interaction of the two participants. The context of these occurrences is the “social, political, historical, psychological and aesthetic factors that shape the way we understand the text” (17). Context is the culture in which the audience is influenced. A performance is thus positioned within the cultural discourse of its place and time (Auslander 8 ). So, when and where it occurs influences how and what occurs. The context shapes and limits the possible meanings of a performance that the performers and the audience can interpret. So, whether it is a conversation or a stage play, it occurs within its context of time and space.
The intersection of text and context is a site where scholars begin to expand the parameters of performance, exploring beyond the stage and into the various activities of our lives (like reading) and examining the fact that a performance is an event that exists in the present, in the here and now. It cannot be reproduced; it can be repeated, but then it is a different production (Phelan, Unmarked 146). Each production is a (re)presentation of the event. It is a different conversation, a different play. Each performance varies from the last, each affected by the present time and place. Each is filled with the unique potential of its present. It is happening in the here and now. This immediacy of performance is one of its biggest strengths, but it is a weakness as well, for documentation and reproduction are virtually impossible. It is a presence “imbued in performance” through the knowledge that “it will occur this way only this time” (Vandon Heuvel 12).
Looking more closely at the event of a performance reveals another characteristic. In any performance, more than one type of presence exists. There is the enduring presence of the performative event itself, and there is “the series of presents which constitutes whatever ‘present’ meaning” the audience has of the performance (Sayre, Object 19). In other words, the performance exists and endures along with the current meaning(s) found in the audience’s responses, whether detailed or fleeting, which create and sustain a process of presents and presence. So, every (re)presentation, every new conversation, takes place within the rubric of an experience of past plays and past conversations. The performance of here and now is built on the preceding and continual process of performance(s).
Thinking of the process of performance opens up yet another facet. One can look at a performance as metonymic, an “additive and associative” process that works on “contiguity and displacement” (Phelan 150). To borrow Peggy Phelan’s example, “‘The kettle is boiling‘ is a statement that assumes water is contiguous with the kettle. The point is not that the kettle is like water,” as in a metaphor, “but that the kettle is boiling because the water inside the kettle is” boiling (150). Bert States discusses performance as metaphor, but I prefer to use the term metonymic. A metaphor has a substitutive function, while a metonym is additive. Performance does not simply substitute the text, it metonymically adds to it and to itself at the same time. It is metonymic in the sense that a performance echoes that from which it springs forth and echoes the process of performing itself. It simultaneously represents the text on stage and itself as well. This idea is analogous to Sayre’s example that “the spoken breath is identical with the event that it describes because it is the event” (Object 16). In the process of performing, both text and performance are (re)presented. The embodied orality of the performance opens up its metonymic potential. There is the presence of the text and the presence of the participants in the here and now. Whether they are conversational or theatrical, these performances occur within a dynamic with bodies together in time and space.
To push this trope, several levels of metonymy can be identified that help to highlight the complexity of the spectator-performer dynamic and the context of performance itself. First, metonymy in performance itself exists as described above. Second, metonymy occurs in an audience’s experience, which “involves the active role [of] the audience . . . in creating the emergent meanings” of the event (Stern and Henderson 406). The viewers reinterpret a performance within each experience they have of it. In other words, they themselves are a type of performer, creating meaning in their interpretation of an aside made in a play or a conversation. In his article, “How to Rescue Literature,” Roger Shattuck goes so far as to say that readers should actually become performers. He espouses that a text needs not only to be experienced but experienced aloud. Shattuck strongly believes that for the reader to better bring the text to life, the reader should perform it aloud, letting the words out of the pages through our bodies. Third, the viewers become aware of this present interpretation to the performance, becoming “spectators of their own performances, becoming a kind of performer” (Phelan 161). The audience becomes introspectively aware of their response(s) to a performance. In other words, they know what they believe it means. In this awareness, the performing audience members are engaging their present experience of a performance within their collected experience(s) of it (Sayre, “Performance” 103). The audience members are simultaneously representing a performance in their performative viewing as well as representing their interpretation of it. Or, more simply, the audience/listener is helping to make meaning just as the performer/speaker is. Within this dynamic, the power of meaning becomes the meeting of both parties, together the performer and audience create the meaning that occurs within that time and space. Without one or the other, there would be a lot less to talk about.
The above discussion of the variations of metonymy expands the definition of performance. One can look at any present iteration of any event as a performative moment, a moment that can be represented, but will never be reproduced again. So, ideas of performance do not have to just be relegated to staged productions or conversations. We can look at the performative elements of how a reader reads a text; the meaning of a text comes out when someone performs a reading, one that will only happen this way, this time. It is in the performative moment that the meaning of a text is fully realized, for both parties (author and reader) are now involved together. Sayre sees the potential for acknowledging and adapting the playful energy of performance within the pages we write and read (”Performance,” 103). Vandon Heuvel also focuses a performative lens upon books. Specifically, he looks at the spontaneity of performance in relation to the stability of written texts. In the interstices of these two mediums, new meanings arise for the readers and viewers (23). Auslander looks at how performativity need not be solely on the stage as well. He notes that we live in a mediatized world and that performance has spread across media, infecting the other mediums with performative spontaneity from both performers and audiences (53).
So, the kaleidoscopic lens of performance is an apt one to use in this study. I will be examining and using the structure and process of stories in three different mediums. I will analyze as a scholar, and illustrate as a producer, to I look and see how meaning is created and performed in the relation and experience of these stories. The structure of each medium allows for a different performance and these processes are how the meanings of stories are created and shared.