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Major in Performance Studies

Course Requirements

The Department of Performance Studies explores performance in all its forms, extending and deepening the understanding of performance as central to the human condition. Students majoring in performance studies engage performance both as an object of study—something to be documented and analyzed—and as a method of study—something to be experienced and enacted. From the adaptation and staging of texts, to the exploration of rituals and festivals, to the study of performance in everyday life, students in the department enter the world of performance and performance theory as an important and emerging field of study.

Specific courses in the Department of Performance Studies focus on the study of literature through solo performance; the ensemble adaptation and staging of poetic, narrative, and nonfictional texts; intercultural performance; cultural studies and performance ethnography; performance theory and criticism; and performance art. Outside the classroom, additional performance opportunities enable students to develop further their performance work and bring it to a wider audience.

The History of the Department

The Department of Performance Studies began as the Department of Interpretation with a focus on literature and on the art of interpretation as a means of understanding literature and bringing it to life through oral reading. The department’s name was changed in 1984 to reflect a widening of the department’s focus beyond (though still inclusive of) literary texts, and recognizing performance as a means for exploring a wide range of experiences and events.

Students as Scholars and Artists

Performance Studies majors are creative, smart, inquisitive, independent. In their coursework and performances they are required to ask difficult questions, to examine closely and critically, to look for new ways of understanding and performing. This is true whether they are working with literary texts or with real-world events, writing papers or performing, working in traditional venues or using experimental media. Performance studies majors are performers, directors, writers, visual artists, musicians. They are scholars and artists.

Studying and Performing

Students majoring in Performance Studies take classes in the department, in Theatre (though typically not the sequence of acting classes), and across the university, in such areas as English, anthropology, history, gender studies, African-American studies, Latin-American Studies, and radio-television-film.

Outside the classroom, students have the opportunity to participate in a wide range of performance projects, including those sponsored by the Performances Studies Department as well as those sponsored by the Theatre Department and by different student groups on campus.

Each year the department sponsors a public performance series consisting of one or two major productions; three or four “performance hours” featuring faculty- or student-directed work; and three “performance hours” developed by students in the freshman-level introductory course.

Career Paths

Performance Studies alumni pursue a wide range of careers. Several have been instrumental in founding innovative theatre companies (including Lookingglass, Redmoon, Lifeline, and Roadworks companies). Many elect to pursue graduate study in performance studies as well as other disciplines. Other recent majors have begun successful careers as theater and film artists, as actors, directors, producers. Others now employ their critical and creative thinking skills in their careers as teachers, psychologists, lawyers, and urban planners.

Opportunities to Create/Direct

Each year the department invites its undergraduate and graduate students to create and direct performance events for the subsequent year’s Performance Hour series. Students submit applications outlining their proposed projects, and the faculty selects the projects to be produced. 

Performance Opportunities

In addition to a season of Performance Hours, the department also mounts mainstage productions, directed by faculty or PhD students in the department. Performance Studies majors are eligible to audition for these productions and have often been featured prominently in them. Majors are of course also eligible to audition for any of the productions produced by the Department of Theatre or by any of the many many student theatre groups on campus.

Study Abroad

The cross-cultural and international component of the Performance Studies Department makes study abroad an appealing and logical pursuit for a number of students in the program. Working with Northwestern’s Study Abroad Office, students have pursued summer and semester abroad programs.

Departmental Honors

Performance Studies majors may apply in their junior year to participate in the Departmental Honors Program. The Honors Program is intended to provide highly qualified students an opportunity to complete a substantial research investigation; to introduce students to graduate-level, faculty-mentored research; and to provide formal honorary recognition to students who have excelled in course work and in an independent research activity.

Students pursuing the honors program begin by proposing a thesis topic and enlisting a faculty member to serve as advisor. Students then:

  1. Complete a literature review.
  2. Implement the proposed research plan.
  3. Attend quarterly review meetings with the faculty advisor.
  4. Write a thesis (at least 30 double-spaced pages in length) based on the completed project.
  5. Defend the thesis during an oral examination, before a committee consisting of the faculty advisor, a secondary faculty reader, and at least one other faculty member.

Frank Galati Prize

The Frank Galati Prize recognizes excellence in undergraduate essays by Performance Studies majors. All Performance Studies undergraduate majors are eligible to submit an essay to this annual competition. Appropriate essay topics include the full range of issues explored in Performance Studies courses: the adaptation and staging of literary texts; performance art and dance theatre; performance theory and criticism; cultural studies and ethnography; and the practice of everyday life. Essays first developed for courses in other departments are also appropriate for submission.

The prize celebrates the significant contributions to Northwestern’s Performance Studies Department of Professor Galati, who retired in 2006 after over three decades of teaching. Honored internationally for his creative work as director, actor, playwright, and screenwriter, Professor Galati adapted and directed the Tony-Award-winning Broadway production of The Grapes of Wrath and directed the Tony-Award-winning Ragtime. He has received numerous Joseph Jefferson Awards for his work in Chicago theatre, where he is an ensemble member of Steppenwolf Theatre and an Associate Director of the Goodman Theatre.