Today I’d like to share with you some thinking I’ve been doing as I seek to understand performance and its effects. I plan to do that today using—of all possible things as an example—a softball pitch. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t understand or enjoy sports, but stepping away from the performing arts for this one example can make some concepts strikingly clear.

Defining Performance

Performance, in its simplest conception, is behavior (actions) that are done for “show.” We understand that dancing on the stage is a performance. But other, more mundane actions can be performances as well. Let’s take tying one’s shoes. Can tying shoes be a performance? Sure, but the answer depends on the WHY.

If I am by myself and I am tying my shoes for the sole purpose of wearing shoes that day, I would argue that that’s not very performative. However, if I am tying my shows for the purpose of SHOWING a child how one ties shoes, or, if, for some reason, I am tying my shoes to demonstrate to an occupational therapist that I can complete this task, then, yes, that instance of tying my shoes is indeed a performance.

Understanding Performance Effects

So, why do we perform and why do we watch performances? Performance—the act of “showing” behavior—has effects. It has effects on the performer, it has effects on the audience, and it can even have effects on the world. When we perform actions—do them for “show”—we are hoping that our audience is somehow changed as a result. Those changes are the effects of performance. Here’s a simple example: if I tell a joke, I am giving a performance. I’m doing something that requires your attention. Then, if I tell it successfully, you will laugh. That laughter is a performance that indicates to me that my joke had the intended effect—it touched your sense of humor. You enjoyed it. That was the reaction (one of the possible effects of performance) I was hoping to achieve.

I argue that there are three categories of performance effects. Let’s turn to a fictitious softball pitcher to illustrate my thinking on this.

A softball pitch can be a performance, particularly if not within the context of a game. However, pitching during a game also has elements of performance. Let’s imagine that an accomplished and skilled softball player is visiting a youth park for the day to teach kids about softball. Let’s say that those kids and their families want to see her best pitch. “Show us!” they say.

She knows this isn’t in the midst of a game. She knows that there is no batter to strike out. This situation is entirely removed from the context in which it would normally happen. She is going to perform the pitch just for the purpose of “showing.” That’s what makes this moment wholly a performance.

She goes to where she needs to be, she engages in a pre-pitch ritual to prepare and focus. There are still stakes at play here. There might not be a batter at the other end of this pitch and this might not be in a game, but she still wants to do her best. She still wants this to go well. She still has certain effects she wants achieved. She prepares, the performs the pitch, and the ball lands in the glove of the volunteer catching for her. The audience applauds and makes sounds of appreciation and awe.

Here are the categories of effects that we can see here in this situation:

The Instructive

Instructive (or informative—I haven’t decided which word I want to use) effects are the effects of performance that tell us something about the world. If we had never seen a softball game before or had never seen a softball pitch, now we know what it looks like as a result of our pitcher’s performance. We have learned something about the world (even if the world of softball) as a result of this performance.

The Demonstrative

Demonstrative effects are those that tell us about the performer herself. In the example of this softball pitch, we learned that she CAN throw a pitch, we learned how fast and how hard she can throw a pitch, and we also caught a glimpse of her own personal style. Demonstrative effects are those that demonstrate the abilities of the performer to the audience and to the larger world. Not only do we now know what a softball pitch looks like, we know what hers looks like.

The Affective

Affective effects are how the audience was changed (“affected”) by the performance. If, upon hearing the sound of that pitch coming to rest in the glove, a kid voiced their awe by saying “wow,” we know that that kid was affected by the performance and we can categorize that as the experience of awe. Emotional responses belong in the category of affective effects of performance.

Thus, to summarize, our fictitious softball pitcher performed the pitch by doing it for show and, as a result, we now know what a pitch looks like, we know she can do it, and the audience was moved/affected/changed as a result.

These are the elements of the effects of performance!