What is performance?

What is performance?

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about performance with help from scholars Dan Ben-Amos, Roger D. Abrahams, Richard Bauman, and others, author and playwright William Shakespeare, and the McGahan Lees Irish Dance Academy. I'm also exploring possible uses of performance in storytelling. This is the most theoretically chewy of the newsletters I've published in the last two years, but I've endeavoured to make it tasty as well, so grab a glass of water and dig in. =)

How Folklorists Understand Performance

Folklorists use the term "performance" in several contexts. The most obvious of these are staged performances of folk music, folk song, folk dance, folk theatre, and the like, and we'll be looking at an example of folk dance below. We also understand performance as a nuanced expression of intangible cultural heritage and a phenomenon that arises out of everyday life.

A Nuanced Expression of Intangible Cultural Heritage: Pretend you're holding The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm1 in your hands. You turn to page 86 and find the story "Cinderella" there. The book is a solid weight in your hands, and the story is printed in black ink on yellowing paper. It might be tempting to think of the the story as a folkloric thing, but Dan Ben-Amos argues that folklore is not an "aggregate of things" but rather a "communicative process."2 As you think on his argument, remember any adaptations of "Cinderella" you might have seen in film and theatre; how different they are from one another and how the story collected by the Brothers Grimm has changed in the hands of each teller. Sometimes those changes reflect our modern sensibilities about the societal values expressed in the story, and indeed Roger Abrahams argues that storytellers can choose to ally themselves with the values reinforced by the expressive culture they communicate or choose to transgress them.3 His argument reminds me of a scene in Ever After where Danielle picks the prince up in a fireman's carry and hauls him away to save his life. That isn't in the original tale of the good and pious Cinderella, and it certainly appeals to modern feminist sensibilities.4

This appeal to modern sensibilities also brings to mind Richard Bauman's argument that both storytellers and their audiences are important to our folkloristic understanding of stories like "Cinderella." Storytellers assume responsibility for a degree of communicative competence in their adaptations (i.e. they make a tacit promise to be good at what they do by showing up to do it in the first place).5 Audiences are in a position to influence and evaluate those adaptations, and because audiences change over time, their evaluations also change.6 These arguments and others have prompted many folklorists to conclude there is no version of "Cinderella" that might be put forward as a folkloric thing, not even in the book you're pretending to hold, especially since that tale was gathered from an oral tradition in which there were probably many versions. Instead, "Cinderella" exists as part of a communicative process involving storytellers who choose what to reinforce or change in the story and audiences that guide these choices with their reception and evaluation of each adaptation. The same sort of analytical process applies when we undertake scholarship of folk music, folk song, folk dance, folk theatre, and other expressions of intangible cultural heritage.

A Phenomenon that Arises Out of Everyday Life: The scholars I've cited above are important contributors to performance theory of folklore, and they've helped the discipline bring greater mobility and nuance to its work. But performance theory is useful beyond the study of narrative, music, song, dance, and theatre. Regular newsletter readers have already been introduced to J.L. Austin's argument for a grammatical performative case,7 in which making a statement constitutes taking an action. Richard Schechner argues that human behaviour in general, both individual and social, is performative,8 and Giovanna Del Negro discusses performances of culture in her work on the passeggiata, an Italian practice in which the residents of a small town interact with one another by promenading down the main thoroughfare in groups if they are women and gathering at outdoor pubs for conversation if they are men.9 These are only a few examples of scholarship under a broad performance theory umbrella, but I hope they've helped to illustrate the idea that when folklorists talk about performance, it's more than just a discussion of narrative, music, song, dance, and theatre. We're talking about language, human behaviour, and culture as well.

A Folk Dance, Analyzed

As I've done in a few previous editions of the newsletter, I'm skipping the fiction analysis for something a bit more topical. In this case, I'm introducing you to an Irish dance flash mob10 and using a few tools from the performance theory kit to analyze it. However, I should mention first that I'm not a dancer or a scholar of dance, so my analysis will not be technical. Instead, I'll be looking at things like staging, performers, and audience. Here it is:

I see three stages in this piece, two sets of performers, and three audiences:

The first stage is the Essex shopping centre, while the first set of performers and the first audience are the same; shoppers, shopkeepers, security guards, and the like. Remember that human behaviour itself is a performance, and that behaviour changes depending upon the audience. For example, I don't expect my cats to discuss folkloristics with me, and I don't drape my colleagues across my neck and shoulders to pet their bellies, which means my performance of self changes with my audience and the context of our interaction. In the present case, we might expect a fashionista to perform a glamorous self at a shopping centre or a store clerk to perform a customer service self, but we don't expect a flash mob. That's why they're so effective.

With the arrival of the first dancer, the stage splits in two and so do both the performers and the audiences. Now, in addition to the everyday scene mentioned above, we also have a theatrical stage where an artistic performance is underway while a respectful audience looks on. The space behind the elevator is a different place now, and there is a clear separation between the dancers and the people looking on. I would add that because the dancers have changed the place with their performance, they have assumed a responsibility for communicative competence (i.e. they've made a tacit promise to put on a good show), and the audience evaluates the success or failure of their efforts throughout.

Then the music changes, the steps change, the costumes change, and the theatrical stage becomes the set of a live commercial for Aer Lingus. The two sets of performers remain the same; regular shopping centre occupants and dancers. However, because the purpose of commercials is to persuade, the audience splits again into people who are not potential customers of the airline and people who are. Ultimately, the goal of the flash mob is to persuade these people to fly with the airline, but it does this by shifting the stage from a place of everyday activity to a place of entertainment first to capture an audience before revealing its underlying purpose. Clever, eh?

How Performance Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

You might be wondering why I've taken you down the performance theory rabbit hole, and I promise there's a better explanation than "This is my jam." (Although it's totally my jam.) First, I know that many writers adapt traditional folktales for modern audiences, and I've participated in several professional writing panels about strategies for doing this successfully. Each time, I've tried to introduce the idea that while traditional versions of these folktales are necessary baselines for adaptation, it's important to critique the values represented in them with a modern audience in mind. That way, you can make conscious decisions about reinforcing or transgressing those values. Here are a few guiding questions for doing just that:

  • What ethical or moral codes does the folktale reinforce/condemn?
  • What gender roles are reinforced/condemned in the folktale?
  • What social or class roles are reinforced/condemned in the folktale?
  • How do you react as a modern person to the above?
  • Who is your audience, and how do you think those people might react to the above?
  • How can you use this deeper understanding of the traditional folktale and your modern audience to create an engaging adaptation?

When you adapt folktales in this way, you go beyond replacing the traditional Cinderella with the badass Danielle. Your work engages with some of the most important functions of traditional folktales; to offer moral and ethical instruction and to show people how to navigate issues of gender and class.

The other reason we went to visit the rabbits was so I could bring performance theory principles to your scene-crafting and characterization. By analyzing the flash mob above, I hope to have illustrated how one space (a shopping centre) can become many places (an everyday public location, a theatrical stage, and the set of a commercial) depending upon the ways people interact with it. These places can co-exist peaceably or come into conflict, which makes for interesting scene-crafting. I also hope to have illustrated that people can perform many roles depending upon the performance context. A woman might be a lover to her partner, a traditional singer among members of her cultural community, and an elected politician for her district. These performances of self and art can also co-exist peaceably in the woman or come into conflict, which makes for interesting characterization.

At this point, I usually offer an exercise in adapting folkloristic principles for writing, but I'm skipping it this time. The material is chewy, and I want to read a bit of literature on creating effective exercises before I turn performance theory principles into practices for improving your craft. Look for this in the book I'll be writing from these newsletters.

Farewell to Genre and Category

This is the last of my folklore genre and category newsletters, since I'll be moving more deeply into folk narrative in January. In the two years I've been writing for you, I've come to realize that a solid grounding in folklore can be of help to artists of all kinds and not just writers. I, myself, have spent part of our shared COVID-19 experience working on a new version of Child Ballad #10, "The Twa Sisters," which I hope to record next year. I'm also preparing to write a short podcast radio play for the Odyssey Theatre's Wondrous Tales Podcast, which will offer me the opportunity to work with an experienced theatre director and professional actors. So I'm reaching out to you now, as creative people yourselves, in the hope you'll tell me what you need from this newsletter. If you have any thoughts on the topic, please write to me at folkloreandfiction [at] csmaccath [dot] com.

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with the winter solstice newsletter, which is devoted to folkloric elements in my own work.

"All the world's a stage" 

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.11

- William Shakespeare


  • 1. Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Translated by Jack Zipes. First Edition. New York and Toronto: Bantam Books, 1987: 86.
  • 2. Ben-Amos, Dan. “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context.” In Towards New Perspectives in Folklore. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972: 9.
  • 3. Abrahams, Roger D. “Personal Power and Social Restraint.” In Towards New Perspectives in Folklore. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972: 29.
  • 4. Tennant, Andy. Ever After. Twentieth Century Fox, 1998.
  • 5. Bauman, Richard. Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986: 3.
  • 6. Bauman, Richard. Verbal Art as Performance. Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc., 1984: 9-10.
  • 7. Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.
  • 8. Schechner, Richard. “News, Sex, and Performance Theory.” In Between Theater and Anthropology, 295–324. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1985.
  • 9. Del Negro, Giovanna P. Passeggiata and Popular Culture in an Italian Town: Folklore and the Performance of Modernity. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004.
  • 10. Irish Dancing Flashmob in Essex by Aer Lingus Regional and London Southend Airport, 2012. Accessed October 30, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKCHgwzMjhw.
  • 11. Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Dover Publications, 2012: 32.