Theories of Performance in Theatre

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Critical theory, with it’s origins in cultural theory is, “the attempt to understand in a systematic way the nature of human cultural forms such as language and art” (Fortier, 2002. P2). The subject is not new and began at least as far back as ancient Greece. In the ninteeth and twentieth centuries with the rise of philosophical and psycological analysis and its application in literary criticism has lead to a diverse, and sometimes divided, debate on languge, text, art and meaning. Here I will outline some of the major theories that relate to practitioners working in the field of theatre, drama and performance and how theories like structuralism, phenomonology, deconstruction and semiotics are informing the way we look at and discuss theatre in the twenty-first century.

Mark Fortier defines semiotics, or semiology, as:
The study of signs – those objects by which humans communicate meaning: words, images, behaviour, arrangements of many kinds, in which a meaning or an idea is relayed by a corresponding manifestation we can perceive. (2002, p.19)

The idea of ‘signs’ in drama or text that can be read and understood, or de-coded is not a new concept and was written about by Aristotle around 335 BC (1965, p. 31-75). How these signs or codes are transmitted and received (de-coded) has played an important part in twentieth-century cultural theory and applying the study of semiotics in theatre. Text and language are now seen by some theorists as only a part of the sign system in a Theatre performance, with lighting, set, sound, staging, costume, gestures and facial expressions also playing an important part in the performance’s sign system and ultimately how an audience makes sense of these signs.

With its roots in German philosophy, phenomonology is less concerned with the world as it is in an analytical or scientific sense, but how it appears to be and how we react to that perception as an individual. In a sense it is the flipside to semiotics and...
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