This article argues that late 1960s debates about the role of the citizen and the role of the audience were not only connected but also mutually constitutive. As President Richard Nixon praised the silent majority, and as the New Left group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) argued for participatory democracy, an experimental theater troupe called The Performance Group (TPG) developed a theatrical style that blurred the lines between audience and performer. These three developments were interrelated. All three, moreover, were connected to the continuation and escalation of the Vietnam War. The crucial question centered around the proper role of the audience, or citizenry: Should members sit quietly and watch the drama unfold, confident in the decisions of those elected to perform certain roles? Or should they raise their voices and demand to be a part of the action, as in the New Left vision of participatory democracy? These arguments develop through an exploration of the relationship between TPG, founded in 1967 by performance studies architect Richard Schechner and others, and SDS. The members of SDS believed that the heightened emotional sensitivity and expressivity of performing artists could break through the powerlessness many Americans felt in the face of the Vietnam War. They explicitly understood their goal of participatory democracy in terms of turning audience members into performers. In turn, Schechner drew on both the performative nature of antiwar protests and the theory of participatory democracy to develop an aesthetic that blurred the lines between performer and audience. Ultimately this relationship between New Left thought and experimental theater contributed to the emergence of performance studies as an academic discipline. This article thus helps us understand its development as a field fundamentally shaped by 1960s debates about citizenship and democracy.
“Participatory Drama”: The New Left, the Vietnam War, and the Emergence of Performance Studies
Christina Larocco received her PhD from the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. Earlier, she earned her BFA in drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She applies an interdisciplinary perspective to her research, which examines the culture and thought of twentieth-century American social movements.