Erving Goffman once remarked that “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.” Therein lies much of the promise as well as the problematic character of performance theory: where are its boundaries—analytical or ethnographic? Sixty years later, the field of performance studies remains broad, but we can at least say it has encouraged us to look at the world in a different way, and to pose some fundamental questions: How do the dramatic arts of “everyday life” relate to those of self-conscious “art-forms”? How are we to compare the blueprints for much of what we do—plans, scripts, liturgies—with our actual abilities to carry out our intentions?
For both analysts and interlocutors, reflecting on performance often indexes not only what humans achieve, but also what they fail to do, or sometimes carry out inadvertently. Studying performance thus becomes less about plans and more about process, about the indeterminacies and contingencies of life, ranging from the most casual conversation to the most formal ritual. In the context of the study of religion, which is the area we both work in, it asks what might be meant by “lived religion,” which exists not only in the realm of the everyday, but also in the gap that always exists between aspiration and accomplishment.
A theme running through all of these concerns, and which scholars in religious studies, anthropology, and performance studies have considered in different ways, is that of repetition: as theoretical problem, methodological challenge, but also ethnographic ambiguity. From one perspective, all performances are unique. Yet, as performance theorist Richard Schechner states: “Performance means: never for the first time. It means: for the second to the nthtime. Performance is ‘twice-behaved behavior.’” One way of mediating between these positions, and also between performance as “life” and performance as “art,” is to think broadly in terms of Judith Butler’s discussions of iterability, which take in both the politics of observing and imitating others, and the sense that bodily identity is never truly fixed. Performance studies scholar Paige McGinley asks similar questions within the context of civil rights era activism in America, investigating the role that reenacting or rehearsing real-life political situations might play in shifting perceived boundaries of belonging. In the ethnographic example that follows, we highlight how the concept of repetition opens up lines of inquiry within the contexts of performance and religion.
Evangelical Christianity exists for much of the time on the cusp between positive and negative evaluations of recurring performance. On the one hand, “mere” repetition, “mere” ritual, are to be avoided: they evoke old worries about the theatrical, the routinized, the rote. On the other, the performative implies the visible and accumulative creation of difference through concerted action. One of us, Saliha, explores these themes in her examination of the performances of young Texan Pentecostals as both part of everyday life in the church and as marked aesthetic action in the context of staged performances put on for others. We emphasize two interrelated dimensions of this analysis, which we believe can be generative for other fields. The first is that the addressee of the performance is as much the Self as it is any assumed Other. The second is that the final “show” is significant, but so is the painstaking, repetitive, constantly “failing” yet striving experiences of rehearsal. Both of these dimensions make iterability a positive virtue of the evangelical life; and, in doing so, they form the evangelical subject in ways far more consequential, if much less spectacular, than conventional understandings of becoming “born again.”
In Saliha’s research, young Pentecostal youth at an Assemblies of God church in Texas participate in a now thirty-year tradition of running “Hell House” during the Halloween season. Each year, a team of pastors, church members, and youth volunteer to craft theatrical depictions of sin and punishment in order to offer audience members a way out: salvation in Christ. The sins performed in Hell House aren’t the likes of gluttony or pride, but are timely sociopolitical issues meant to resonate with young American audiences. In the years of Saliha’s fieldwork (2016-2018), these sins ranged from abortion to substance abuse, gang violence, sexual deviance (homosexuality, premarital sex, rape), drug trafficking, family violence, and spousal abuse. Since over ten thousand people attend this Hell House each year, youth actors repeat their weekend performances every seven minutes or so for audiences of ten to twenty people at a time.
Anthropologist Susan Harding famously argued that the repeated utterance of words—in her case, a reverend’s own conversion narrative—does a kind of disciplining work on the listener, who is constituted anew through the speaker’s performance. In the context of Saliha’s young interlocutors, we use repetition to turn the anthropologist’s gaze toward the performer or speaker themselves. In performance contexts such as Hell House, where youth create and negotiate the representation of a sociopolitical “sin” in rehearsal spaces and hundreds of live performances per week, how might youth actors themselves become disciplined as religious and political subjects? What kinds of knowledge are produced in these rapidly repeated performance spaces? And how do youth conceptualizations of their own identities as political subjects influence—or become influenced—by their participation in taxing, emotional, and at times highly personal performances?
A common assumption about Hell House on the part of lay observers and media outlets is that youth participants must be exceedingly devoted to activism (especially on the subject of pro-life/pro-choice debates in America) to enact such scenes hundreds of times each October. However, Saliha’s research finds a more complicated story, wherein notions of belonging and trust unfold in these highly controversial and politicized rehearsal and performance spaces. Saliha’s interlocutors repeatedly explained that while their involvement in events like Hell House was certainly motivated by their desire to walk in their God-given talents and the expectations of ministry, it was their wish to be with friends, significant others, and the broader youth community that kept them coming back each year. When asked why his yearly participation in Hell House was important to him, a sixteen-year-old replied: “If I don’t participate, I won’t see my friends for months, because they’ll all be here.” A twenty-three-year-old whose motivations were similar in her youth reflected that although religiopolitical activism wasn’t on her mind at all when she was a Hell House actress, her frequent participation is what she now credits as the reason she’s in favor of the criminalization of abortion today. While Saliha’s interlocutors are working to render certain sociopolitical and eschatological beliefs legible and plausible through the medium of performance, they’re not always attentively doing so at each stage in their participation.
What we are describing here is not an inevitable process of subject- or identity-formation: it can always “fail,” or be diverted in unexpected ways. However, repetition’s potential disciplining power, combined with the medium of performance, can be central to questions of commitment: not just religious, but also civic and political, in realms that include but also go beyond the boundaries of church life.