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The term performance, and the many related terms (perform, performing, performer) have multiple meanings in English, not all related to drama, theatre or the performing arts.

General meaning of performance in English

One of the most common is the use of it as an indication of efficiency or achievement (e.g in engineering, sport, business, etc) by people, animals and/or inanimate objects, machines, etc.

In the case of people it can mean to do an action or activity that usually requires training or skill, and is also used of inanimate objects, machines etc. (E.g. the performance of a computer or a motor car).

Among the possibilities for perform listed in Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary[1] are:

1. to fulfill: to adhere to the terms of a n order, contract, etc

2. to carry out, do: to do in a formal manner or according to prescribed steps or regulations

3. to act, function: to carry out an action or pattern of behavior

4. to present and to play: to give a rendition of or performance of a song, dance, play, theatrical act, etc

Meaning of the terms perform, performer and performance in the performing arts and media

In the case of theatre the term has a traditional and widely accepted use to refer to conventional (Western) notions of entertaining an audience by singing, dancing, acting, playing a musical instrument, etc. But it has also acquired a number of other more specialized uses over time, particularly since the 1950s.

As a general term

In traditional and general theatre parlance a performance generally comprises an event in which a performer or group of performers entertain an audience by performing - i.e. representing a character and/or enacting roles in a drama or play, singing, , dancing, tumbling, miming, as part of a vaudeville, music hall, or circus act, etc., etc.

In this sense the term is related to and an inherent part of what has traditionally been termed Theatre, Drama, the Performing Arts, and is today used in a range of specific ways, as we see below.

See also Drama, Play, Theatre, Theatrical event, Theatrical system.

Specific theatrical uses of the term

Its use is varied in South Africa (and hence in this encyclopaedia), and not all the uses are related to theatre. One of the most common is the use of it as an indication of efficiency or achievement (e.g in engineering, sport, business, etc).

Below we list three uses specifically related to theatre.

An act of performing

The original basic and familiar theatrical use of the term perform and performing – and the sense in which it is employed in this work therefore - is a reference to the activity of performing as a performer (or actor) on stage, in a performance space or venue. E.g. "He gave a good performance as Hamlet", he performed a Zulu dance.

A particular production

A second, equally conventional use of the term refers to a particular presentation of a work of theatre before a particular audience. (E.g. “We went to see a performance of Hamlet.”) This would be a reference to one specific production of a play or show by a given set of performers, at a given time, place and in a given venue. (A series of such performances by the same group of performances would be referred to as a production of the play – see below).

A performance as a theatrical event

A third meaning, which has become prominent during the second half of this century, derives from Victor Turner and Richard Schechner’s important and influential writings about what they term performance theory. They use the term to refer to something much larger and more encompassing than the second meaning of "performance" described above. It points to the entire event taking place - i.e. the sum of all the processes involved in performing before an audience (including social, political, contextual, performative, ritual and ceremonial acts leading to and shaping the actual performance on stage, as well as its reception during and after the event.

A similar view of theatre and performance is also referred to as a theatrical event by some researchers, in an effort to avoid what they see as some of the more controversial aspects of performance theory. A leading exponent of this approach is Wilmar Sauter and the members of the Theatrical Event Working Group of the International Federation for Theatre Research[].

This would naturally also include many performance forms that may seem unconventional in European thinking about theatre forms.

Academic terminology and theories

Performance analysis

Performance culture

A general term utilized by Loren Kruger (1999) (et al ***???) to refer to all forms of performance, beyond the narrower defintions of theatre (or even the entertainment industry and showbusiness), within a given society. More specifically it is often used to refer to non-literary performances and performance forms, not linked to (published/written) texts.

Performance spaces

This is a broader concept than theatres, stages, closer to Venues perhaps.

Performance Theory and Performance Studies

This refers to a theory of theatrical perfromance developed by Richard Schechner and Victor Turner, which expanded the idea of theatre beyond the formal stage. It is a theory embedded in what has coem to be called Performance Studies. The term perforrmance studies became current in the USA in the 1970s, and reached South Africa in the early 1980s with the writings of individuals such as Peter Larlham and David Coplan. By the end of the 1980s it had become quite a common term, and was widely adopted by writers, academics, research centres and departments of drama and performance studies.

See also Theatre Studies

Performance Studies in South Africa


Performance (theatrical), Wikipedia[2]

"Perform", Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary[3]

"Performance", Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary[4]

"Performance Studies", Wikipedia[5]

Performance Studies International (

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