Academic Drama Studies

Are there any differences between academic studies of performance, theatre and drama?

What is the ‘Academy’

The word academy means an institution or society for the advancement of literature, art or science or a school or institution for training in a particular skill, knowledge or profession. The word stems from an Ancient Greek word akadēmeia which was the name given to the grove or garden where the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato taught his students philosophy and mathematics. While Plato’s establishment for teaching was called the Academy because he taught in this place, the grove was originally named after a legendary hero called Akadēmos who fought in the Trojan Wars. Because of the tradition of intellectual brilliance that has often been associated with Plato’s establishment, many institutions have chosen the word Academy to represent their educational institutions. However, the term academy is also used to refer collectively to the society of scholars, scientists and artists and to fields of higher learning and university education that are dedicated to the advancement of knowledge.

What is Theatre Studies?

Theatre Studies is a relatively new academic discipline now offered in many universities around the world. This discipline supports the study and research of all subjects relating to theatre, including drama and performance. There are many different subjects and methods of study associated with this discipline and universities offering Theatre Studies can offer a range of courses. In the USA, Theatre Studies programs often provide courses focused on developing knowledge and practical skills required for professions in the theatre industry (eg. vocal training, acting, dance, directing, stage design). In Europe, Theatre Studies programs are often less focused on training for a profession in the theatre industry and more focused on the study and analysis of non-literary components of theatre (eg. audience reception, spatiality, visual and auditory designs). While it may seem like there are few differences between the fields of Drama Studies and Theatre Studies, Theatre Studies can be distinguished from traditional courses in Drama Studies in universities since this discipline emphasises the study of dramatic and theatrical performances as something distinct from the study of dramatic texts.

The historical relationship between Drama Studies and Theatre Studies

Before the early twentieth century, many academic institutions based on classical western models offered courses that focused on the study of dramatic literary texts. Drama was therefore studied primarily as part of the discipline of Literature in courses focused on the study of particular literary dramatic forms and the texts that were studied in such courses often reinforced the view that only some texts were worth studying (see western canon of literature). Following Aristotle’s classical definition of dramas as forms of “poetry” that are “acted”, written texts were considered valuable resources for studies of drama because they offered objects that could be permanently and repeatedly referenced. However, written dramatic texts were widely viewed as ‘blueprints’ for dramas while dramatic performances of texts in theatres were regarded as imperfect and ephemeral expressions of those blueprints.

Since dramas were essentially viewed as texts that may be performed, textual forms were privileged in the analysis of dramas. Playwrights and plays were identified as primary sources of knowledge since they created and described actions that actors may be incapable of performing. While drama students may experiment with the performance of texts, they were expected to organise or participate in extra-curricular theatrical productions of texts rather than being awarded grades for their work. However, productions of dramas in theatres required the development of skills that were different to textual analysis so classroom studies of drama at some stage began to include instruction in skills and knowledge required for theatrical productions.

Trends in American Universities

Distinctions between dramatic literature and performance grew markedly as a result of major social and theoretical developments in the early part of the twentieth century. During this time, American universities began to focus more strongly on producing ‘professional’ graduates and literary scholars were increasingly expected to explain how the knowledge they taught related to specific professions. Many literary scholars argued that the ‘object’ of literary study was the study of literary texts and that the professions associated with this area of study included positions that were devoted to teaching these texts. However, some literary scholars in the USA also wanted to retain and develop teaching related to the performance of dramas in theatres. As a result, a schism began forming between those advocating the study of dramatic performances and those advocating the study of dramatic literary texts. This schism led to the development of a few separate schools of drama dedicated to teaching the knowledge and skills needed for professions associated with the theatre industry. These schools eventually came to be viewed as effective models for the establishment of Theatre Studies as a separate discipline from Literature in other American universities.

Trends in Germany and Europe

A different but related discipline of Theatre Studies also began developing around the 1920s in Germany based on major theoretical distinctions scholars were making between the study of literary dramas and the study of theatre. University scholars agreed that ‘dramas’ could be identified as pieces of literature produced by individual writers. However, they argued that ‘theatre’ should be identified as a separate work that produced quite unique features to study. Components of theatre not included in the study of written texts included spatiality, audience responses, specific histories, expressions and designs of performances. Since all these components could also be analysed and discussed without reference to literary texts, scholars began to recognise that the study of theatre introduced quite different objects of study. European scholars advocating Theatre Studies therefore began producing scholarly analyses of the many different components of theatre that could be identified and studied.

The growing interest in International Theatre Studies

Organizations like the International Federation for Theatre Research (established 1957) encouraged and reinforced analyses of theatrical performances and established a journal that enabled the broad distribution and evaluation of studies developed in the emerging discipline. Since then, the discipline of Theatre Studies has been increasingly adopted in universities in Europe and around the world and the objects studied and analysed within this field have also expanded. Departments and Schools of Theatre Studies flourished and aligned themselves with Schools of Drama Studies in the 1960s in Australia, the USA and Europe and increasingly studied material from all disciplines relating to the development of dramas, theatres and performances.

While Drama Studies is still likely to refer to dramatic literary texts, Theatre Studies is recognised as a discipline not confined to the study of literary texts. As a result, this area of study often includes a dazzling array of areas, objects and events associated with theatrical performances in traditional theatres and other performance spaces and continues to consider and adapt to theoretical and social developments. Since transformations within academic disciplines will also continue to address theoretical and social developments, Theatre Studies may be located and taught within a variety of fields of study. While this discipline may be found in schools or departments dedicated to Drama Studies, Literary Studies, Performance Studies, Cultural Studies and Media Studies it may also use different theoretical tools of study such as semiotics, critical theory, phenomenology, sociology, theatre history.


Dolan, Jill. “Geographies of Learning: Theatre Studies, Performance, and the ‘Performative’. Theatre Journal. 45:1 (1999) 417-41

Jackson, Shannon. “Profession Performance Disciplinary Genealogies.” TDR: The Drama Review. 45:1 (2001) 84-95.

Kennedy, Dennis, ed. Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

Roach, Joseph. “Reconstructing Theatre/History.” Theatre Topics. 9:1 (Mar, 1999) 3-10

Shepherd, Simon, and Mick Wallis. Drama/Theatre/Performance. New York; London: Routledge, 2004.

What is Performance Studies?

Performance Studies is a relatively new field of scholarship that evolved out of debates and discussions within the fields of drama and theatre studies in the 1960s. Drama scholars identify this area of scholarship as an emerging paradigm of study that encompasses the study of all forms of performance. Since performance studies focuses specifically on the concept of performance rather than drama or theatre, this paradigm includes, but is not limited to, the study of dramatic and theatrical performances.

Performance Studies evolved as a result of observations about performance offered by the director and theatre theorist Richard Schechner. Schechner argued that the concept of performance (the action of performing or some thing that is performed) related drama and theatre to activities beyond the traditional assessment of texts that were performed (see definitions of drama). As a result, he pushed for the development of a new discipline that would account for new views of performance within academic environments and established the first graduate program for Performance Studies at New York University in the early 1980s.

Schechner’s emphasis on performance was strongly influenced by arguments emerging from theorists in the social sciences and this field of study often uses methodologies and objects of enquiry imported from these disciplines. Significant theories that have influenced the development of this field come from sociology, anthropology, linguistics and gender studies. Erving Goffman was a sociologist who argued that dramatic or theatrical metaphors could also be used to describe behaviour and actions performed in ‘everyday life’. Anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner also suggested that human activity performed with the consciousness of an audience could be identified as ‘ritualised’ ‘performed’ and ‘theatrical’ in various ways. The linguist J. L. Austin was influential because he argued that some modes of speech were performative acts but that theatrical speeches were not performative because they were parasitic on real speech. Although Austin confined his analyses to performative ‘speech’ acts his theories have been extended and applied to assessments of performed physical acts by the feminist theorist Judith Butler.

The arguments and perspectives advanced within Performance Studies have been debated and are open to interpretation (see for example Marvin Carlson’s appraisal of Josette Féral’s defence of the unique qualities of theatricality). However, this field continues to defend the view that there are many kinds of actions that exhibit degrees of performativity and that actions of all kinds can be informed, motivated, stimulated and inhibited by the norms, beliefs, values and social structures of cultures in which they are performed. Advocates of Performance Studies argue that the study of dramatic performance requires consideration of much wider issues and discourses than those traditionally associated with the study of literary dramatic texts. Since the application of this concept is extremely broad, performance theorists usually need to be familiar or conversant with a broad range of disciplines, philosophies and discourses. Students adopting this approach to studying dramatic performances are therefore not restricted to studying performing art forms identified as artistic or theatrical. However, they will need to consider the methods of study available in a range of disciplines and why actions are, or are not, performed in particular ways.

Various courses and subjects are now dedicated to the development and study of the field of Performance Studies and, although interdisciplinary projects are often developed using this discipline, it is usually considered a part of drama and theatre departments. UNSW in Sydney offer a course in Performance Studies and there are also a handful of departments dedicated to this field of study in the USA and Britain. There is also an organization called Performance Studies International that has annual conferences in countries around the world.


Carlson, Marvin. Performance: A Critical Introduction. New York; London: Routledge, 1996.

Kennedy, Dennis, ed. Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

McKenzie, Jon. Perform or else: From Discipline to Performance. New York; London: Routledge, 2001

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York; London: Routledge, 2002.

Shepherd, Simon, and Mick Wallis. Drama/Theatre/Performance. New York; London: Routledge, 2004.


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