Interdisciplinary performance studies grow

For the members of the Interdisciplinary Performance Studies at Yale (IPSY) initiative, all the world’s a stage.

Funded by a 2010 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, IPSY makes possible postdoctoral fellowships, workshops and events with visiting artists. The initiative continues the mission of the Performance Studies Working Group, which was established through a separate Mellon grant in 2003, said professor Joseph Roach, who spearheaded the program. IPSY furthers Yale’s presence in the field of performance studies in the absence of a formal department in the area, he explained. While the University offers a range of specific courses about performance studies and related topics — some taught by the IPSY fellows — Yale does not offer a single, integrated performance studies program analogous to those at schools such as Brown University and New York University.

“I like to joke that [IPSY] is like a department intellectually — only you don’t have to go to faculty meetings,” Roach said.

Performance studies encompasses a larger range of forms of human performance than theater programs or departments usually do, said IPSY postdoctoral fellow Elise Morrison, who has a Ph.D. in theatre and performance studies from Brown University. Some of the daily performances the discipline considers do not directly involve the stage, such as those of athletics and folk rituals, as well as the performance of gender, she added.

“It’s a lens through which you can critique or analyze a lot of different kinds of behaviors,” Morrison said. “It bleeds into the idea of the performance of everyday life.”

The Performance Studies Working Group holds weekly discussions, which Roach said are largely attended by graduate students from a variety of schools and disciplines seeking to expand the scope of their research through exposure to other perspectives.

American studies student Joey Plaster GRD ’17 said in an email that the Working Group has both introduced him to the methods of the performance studies field and proven extremely useful for his own academic research. He added that expanding research methods to include performance is particularly useful for studying marginalized subjects who may not have left a written trace.

“Performance studies allows us to rethink the transmission of cultural history from a place other than the written word,” Plaster said. “Approaching things as performance means regarding them not as things but as networks of relations, and this approach can be applied to theatrical productions as much as religious ritual and representational politics.”

As the program enters its second academic year, Morrison is joining Dominika Laster as an IPSY postdoctoral fellow. Both Laster and Morrison have  backgrounds in performance studies, and their undergraduate teaching positions this year are made possible by the 2010 Mellon grant. Laster’s yearlong course, which centers on the experimental theater of Polish artist Jerzy Grotowsky, encourages students to conduct original research drawing on fields ranging from anthropology and ethnomusicology to science and religious studies.

“We pose a certain question and use any disciplines that can help us answer it,” Laster said. “[The students] basically develop a new methodology.”

Postdoctoral Associate in the Integrated Humanities at Yale Lynda Paul MUS ’12 and Mellon Fellow in the History of Art Department John Cooper are also affiliated with IPSY, though their positions are funded through different awards.

Annemarie McDaniel ’16, a student in Paul’s ENGL 114 class “Fantasy, History, and Ideology in Popular Culture: Disney and Society,” said Yale should explore even more opportunities for interdisciplinary study.

“We live in an interdisciplinary world,” McDaniel said. “I think teaching that [to undergraduates] is really crucial to help us become problem solvers.”

While Cooper said Yale could be seen as conservative in not creating an independent performance studies department like those at other universities, he said he believes the University is making the correct decision in allowing “gesturing towards that space.” Even without a department to call home, Roach said Yale’s postdoctoral fellows are going on to publish “cutting-edge, discipline-changing” research in the field.

“Performance studies blows up disciplinary distinctions,” Cooper said. “This is our little institution within an institution — a place to explore the future of that.”

The IPSY initiative will run through 2015.

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