The Views of Schechner and Barba

Both Schechner and Barba have made irrefutably great impacts upon theatre and specifically the field of theatre anthropology. They also wrote letters of correspondence frequently to one another and there is no doubt that neither’s career would be as colourful or celebrated were it not for the other’s. While these two great masters wrote vast portions of

the accepted text on modern and post-modern performance, they did not come into competition nor disagreement as they worked to their own beliefs and agreed upon a great deal of theory. The approach they operated by in their lives was not identical however, and so this essay endeavours to find both the common ground and the differences in the attitudes they held and that shaped so many of their followers’ paths.

The difference between performing myself – acting out a dream […] and more formal “presentations of self”(see Goffman 1959)-is a difference of degree, not kind. (Schechner, 1995; p37)

This statement is bold and while it may seem obvious that the distinction between theatrical performance of a past or other’s experience differs from one’s own immediate expression, this work will examine the differing views on the matter.

One example of a basic notion at which the two were at odds was the very definition of performance. Schechner demonstrated that, in an airtight definition, the word ‘performance’ would have to be broad enough to cover almost anything intentionally communicated from one individual to another. Not only this, but the idea of being in a performance role was central to discovering how daily life could be seen as a conscious or unconscious expression. Schechner describes everyday life as a series of performative modes that determine our behaviour in different situations; we switch between these modes fluidly and with some overlapping.

Any event, action or behaviour may be examined “as” performance […] More and more people experience their lives as a connected series of performances that often overlap: dressing up for a party, interviewing for a job,[…] playing a life role such as mother or son, or a professional role such as doctor or teacher. (Schechner 2006: p49)

Schechner says this to describe the positions in life that we all adopt; perhaps unconsciously when putting on a uniform and feeling more assertive or wearing a team’s colours and identifying to greater extent when they are portrayed as winners or losers, when entering a classroom as a lecturer rather than a student, when at a funeral behaving more solemnly; these are all masks we adopt to behave as we are expected to. Not only this, but the idea that in today’s world we have to switch between these roles at a faster rate implies certain attitudes towards modern technology on Schechner’s part.

Certainly Schechner supports the view of respected anthropologist/sociologist, Erving Goffman in the broader definition of performance and he cites him regularly. Here is an excerpt from a psychology textbook demonstrating that Goffman is seen to have a theatrical perspective on this matter:

Selves are constructed, modified and played out in interaction with other people. Since the self that one projects has consequences for how others react, people try to control the self that they present. Goffman (1959) likens this process of impression management to theatre, where people take on different roles for different audiences. (Hogg & Vaughan, 2002: 138)

The detailed psychological texts go so far as to wonder to what degree different situations affect behaviour. ‘Researchers have coined the term strong situation to refer to situations in which nearly all people react in similar ways.’ (Larsen & Buss 2002: 302)

Eugenio Barba however, describes performers as those who specifically elaborate movement into ‘extra-daily techniques’. He argues, in terms that are not entirely contradictory, that those who perform for our pleasure in the arena of Theatre Anthropology, perform something abstract and extrapolated from normal, functional movement.

The way we use our bodies in daily life is substantially different from the way we use them in performance. We are not conscious of our daily techniques: we move, we sit, we carry things, […] the body’s daily techniques can be replaced by extra-daily techniques […] Performers use these extra-daily techniques. (Barba & Savarese, 2006: 7)
Barba makes a distinction between these techniques when he acknowledges the qualities of either technique in relation to everyday activities. He specifically points out that there is a distinction between what a performer does and what a normal uninitiated person does for the purpose of expression – Schechner’s view is somewhat counter to that; no real barriers lie between the performative and behavioural, it is just a matter of categorisation. Barba explains the virtues of such elaborate display as a commitment to the performance:
Daily body techniques generally follow the principle of minimum effort,[…] Extra-daily techniques are based, on the contrary, on the wasting of energy […]the expression which spectators used to thank performers at the end of a performance : otsukaresama. The meaning of this expression […] is: ‘You have tired yourself out for me’. (Barba, 1995; p15-16)

That a person would exaggerate a movement in any direction is obviously a departure from the practical and now takes the action into the realm of the more aesthetic. The purpose of over-performing of an action could be to make a caricature of the action as a mime would embellish his movements to combat the fact that his object is not there. Alternatively, and, as is far more often the case in Theatre Anthropology, the elaborated movements are no longer even recognisable as purposeful movements and might not even have been adapted from a daily technique but instead are rich expressions in their own right.

While reproducing each variation, each dynamic of the hand in life, the positions of the hand are dictated by economy, each superfluous detail having been removed. The codification of Japanese performers’ hands does not express words but rather precise meaning […] This is the result of a process whose purpose is to retain only what is essential and can be considered as an example par excellence of the transition from daily technique to extra-daily technique. (Barba & Savarese 2006: 160)
Exactly what it was that was being represented by some cultures’ gestures and expressions was a matter for debate and historical analysis and even the idea of representation was not a consensus view in academic circles. Schechner was not in full agreement with Barba when it came to the purpose of representation and its use in performative situations. ‘[…]what people in northern Hindi-speaking India see acted out in Ramlila, tells them how to act in their daily lives; and how they act in their daily lives affects the staging of the Ramlila. (Schechner, 1995; p37)’ This is that same examination of the anthropology of one culture set to the task, as western theatre has been, of representing reality – art imitates life, imitates art. This is a well-accepted view of theatre.

The ‘precise meaning’ described above is culture-specific of course but with Barba, all is fair game for appropriation or examination. This ideology of bartering and exchange with every culture that Barba encounters is one main way in which the two practitioners differ; Schechner does not seek out whatever is called theatre in other cultures but applies a wide definition of performance to any new culture and its practices as they are encountered.
Schechner also was a staunch advocate of theatre as release and exercise for the performer.

[…]Schechner refused the idea that the performer has to represent the role and, in this sense, to embody it. ‘Rather, there is a role and the person of the performer; both role and performer are plainly perceivable by the spectator. The feelings are those of the performer as stimulated by the actions of the role at the moment of performance’ (Schechner 1973: 166) (Erika Fischer-Lichte 2005: 224)

This seems to blur the lines of reality and representation and maybe contradict what Schechner advocates originally as a sociologist’s expertise, because when Turner and Fauconnier describe the idea of ‘doubleness’, on the same page is a claim that Goffman agrees with them that a performer is (at least traditionally) feigning another’s person’s actions. In the way that Schechner directs, perhaps the actors are better integrated into the role but we can see two separate models of true theatre arising here:

Given cognitive blending, it is clear that all plays onstage involve spectator recognition of theatrical framing. As Erving Goffman understood, such frames implicitly separate everyday realities from realities that are meant to be understood as distinctive kinds of practices and events. (Phillips 2005: 11)

Barba is adamant to state to one of the actors with whom he works, that unless your mind is committed to the representation, then the performance will fail. This half-heartedness is not necessarily a mechanical thing and the wincing expression on a performer’s face can be likened to this failure to embrace the art. One point upon which the two agree is the concept that there is some degree of commitment necessitated for the actor’s life and the performative moment to be compatible if only for that in one instance in which there are observers.
I don’t believe what you are doing. Your body clearly says: ‘I have been told to do this’. Your nerves, your brain, your spine are not totally engaged […] How then can you expect the spectator to be gripped by your action? (Barba 1999: 34)
There is agreement between the two practitioners on the notion of an all-embracing theatre, where the performers commit their lives to their performance. There is little distinction to be made between life and theatre when one’s life is forever directed towards theatrical expertise like the lives of Kathakali performers.

In an interview with Schechner, when asked what Kazou Ohno does to relax after giving a performance, Ohno expresses his view that there is no difference now between his day-to-day life and being on stage; this is where the title of the article Kazou Ohno Doesn’t Commute comes from. (Schechner, R. & Ohno, K., 1986: p169) There is no distance that Ohno must metaphorically travel in order to arrive in the state of mind in which he works; he is always there. Similarly the actors on Schechner’s Dionysus 69 are very much engaged with the emotions and treat the performance as more than a representation; ‘[…] Dionysus is not a play to me. I do not act in Dionysus. Dionysus is my ritual. (Schechner 1970) (Erika Fischer-Lichte 2005: 224)’ Barba continues this thought, explaining how an actor’s mind has practised routines within it and can accept the ‘doubleness’ or ‘suspension of disbelief’ in order to enter a world which is more abstracted and open to non-realistic interpretations of the world and action within it.

Exercises are small labyrinths that the actors’ body-minds can trace and retrace in order to incorporate a paradoxical way of thinking, thereby distancing themselves from their own daily behaviour and entering the domain of the stage’s extra-daily behaviour. (Barba 1997: 128)

In conclusion, two of the largest names in Performance are different enough that they do not enter into direct competition but are respectful enough that they need not disagree upon the vast amount of work accrued and accredited by one another. The comparison is further complicated by the different areas in which the two hold authority; Barba deals almost exclusively in Theatre Anthropology and Schechner has a far broader experience and expertise, concerning himself with a far more general field perhaps best, and most vaguely, described as Performance. It is Schechner’s prerogative to be concerned with something so all-entailing as his position at The Drama Review would require and so he makes a good case for his own particular outlook.

In a number of open letters to Schechner, Barba would hint at their difference in taste, for instance, here is an excerpt from a letter in 1991:
You would have enjoyed being here in Holstebro during these days because you like to move in that no man’s land between daily life and the organised performance situation, between performance and ritual. (Barba 1999: 148)

Perhaps this quote betrays something of resentment for Schechner’s view of performance but perhaps the expression ‘no man’s land’ could be better interpreted as a recognition of bravery in uncertain territory.


Barba, E. (1997) An Amulet of Memory: The Significance of Exercises in the Actor’s Dramaturgy TDR Vol. 41, no. 4 (Winter 1997) pp127-132

Barba, E. (1999) Theatre: Solitude Craft Revolt. Suffolk, Black Mountain Press

Barba, E. & Savarese, N. (2006) A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of The Performer 2nd ed. New York, Routledge

Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. New York, Doubleday Anchor

Hogg, M. A. &Vaughan, G. M. (2002) Social Psychology 3rd ed. Gosport, Pearson Prentice Hall

Christoffersen, Erik Exe.

The actor’s way / Erik Exe Christoffersen ; translated [from the Danish] by Richard Fowler.
Published by Skuespillerens vandring. English
Publisher London : Routledge, 1993.

Towards a poor theatre / Jerzy Grotowski ; edited by Eugenio Barba ; with a preface by Peter Brook.
London : Eyre Methuen, [1976]

The paper canoe : a guide to theatre anthropology / Eugenio Barba ; translated by Richard Fowler. Canoa di carta. English London : Routledge, 1995

Larsen, R. J. & Buss, D. M. (2002) Personality Psychology: Domains Of Knowledge About Human Nature. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Phillips, M. S. (2005) Theatre, War and Propaganda 1930-2005: Theatre Symposium Volume 14. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press

Title Fifty key theatre directors / edited by Shomit Mitter and Maria Shevtsova.
London : Routledge, 2005
Author Schechner, Richard.

Between theater & anthropology / Richard Schechner ; foreword by Victor Turner.
Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

The future of ritual : writings on culture and performance / Richard Schechner.
London : Routledge, 1993.
Performance theory / Richard Schechner. Edition Rev. and expanded ed.
New York ; London : Routledge, 1988.

Performance studies : an introduction / Richard Schechner.
2nd ed. New York ; London : Routledge, 2006.

Land of ashes and diamonds : my apprenticeship in Poland / Eugenio Barba. followed by 26 letters from Jerzy Grotowski to Eugenio Barba.
European contemporary classics theatre Aberystwyth : Black Mountain Press, c1999.

Schechner, R. & Ohno, K. (1986) Kazou Ohno Doesn’t Commute: An Interview TDR Vol 30, no. 2 (Winter 1986) pp163-169