Semiotic Profile

Gay McAuley: A leading figure in Australian Performance Studies

By Andrew Filmer

Gay McAuley is an Honorary Professor in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney. She is editor of About Performance, the department’s journal, and convenor of the interdisciplinary Place and Performance Seminar. McAuley has been a leading figure in the development of Performance Studies in Australia through her innovative approaches to the study of live performance. She has played a major role in introducing theatre semiotics to Australia, using it to develop the theory and practice of performance analysis. McAuley has also made significant contributions in the interlinked areas of performance analysis, rehearsal studies, the documentation of performance and reception studies. Her recognition of the importance of space and spatial function in theatrical meaning making processes has been especially influential, and this work forms the content of her major publication Space in Performance: Making Meaning in the Theatre. Her current research concerns the relationship between place, performance and collective memory.

McAuley’s initial years of teaching and research were conducted within the field of French Studies where she specialised in theatre history, film analysis and semiotic theory. Her grounding in French provided her with a valuable knowledge of French performance theory and developments in semiotics. McAuley gained a Bachelor of Arts in Drama, French and German from the University of Bristol in 1966, and a PhD in French, also from Bristol, in 1969. Immigrating to Australia from the UK in 1968, she initially taught in the French Department of Macquarie University before moving to the French Department of the University of Sydney in 1972. While teaching at the University of Sydney McAuley conducted undergraduate classes and research in collaboration with the University’s Theatre Workshop (later re-named the Theatre Studies Service Unit), a unit established to provide technical and artistic support to academics and students with an interest in theatre. With the pending demise of TSSU in 1988 McAuley was involved in the creation of an interdisciplinary Centre for Performance Studies, of which she was appointed inaugural director. She was subsequently appointed Chair when it was afforded departmental status in 1999. While McAuley retired from teaching in 2002, she maintains an active role as a researcher and supervisor of postgraduate research.

The need for a critical methodology

In her initial years teaching French drama to undergraduate students McAuley became concerned with the degree to which drama was taught as a branch of literature, largely ignoring physical performance. She also viewed much traditional dramatic criticism as overly impressionistic; the central problem, as she perceived it, was “the lack of an accepted critical methodology” (1978:56). Approaching her teaching from the premise that theatre is constituted in an act of performance, McAuley conducted ‘theatrical readings’ with students, attempting to imaginatively create ‘complete physical events’ through rehearsed readings, improvised performances and planning exercises (56). With these strategies McAuley sought to alert students to the subtleties of dramatic texts, particularly encouraging them to be aware of elements like juxtaposition and simultaneity. Based on these teaching experiences McAuley saw great promise in semiology, especially in the early work of Anne Ubersfeld at the Institut d’Etudes Théâtrales at Paris III.

‘Page to Stage’

McAuley’s development of a semiotic methodology for the analysis of performance, and her investigations into the relationship between text and performance, benefited immensely from a period of collaboration with the University of Sydney’s Theatre Workshop. During the late 1970s and early 1980s McAuley conducted a number of ‘Page to Stage’ teaching and research programmes as well as smaller scale ‘mini-projects’. The aim of these was to introduce students to the creative processes through which dramatic texts are transformed into theatrical performances and to thereby provide students with new ways of reading dramatic texts. Importantly, through the work of Theatre Workshop and the University’s artist in residence scheme, McAuley and her students were able to observe professional theatre practitioners at work. Each of the projects centred on a well-known French dramatic text: Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique in 1978; Racine’s Britannicus, 1980; Genet’s The Maids, 1982; and Racine’s Phédre, 1983. Different teaching and research emphases were addressed in each. Following an initial pilot project, L’Illusion Comique (see 1987a), Britannicus focussed on the processes of textual translation, as did the later Phédre (which involved a comparison of three different extant translations) (see 1989a). The Maids employed two casts and utilised two separate stage sets, with the aim of exploring the difference between casting men or women to play the characters of Claire and Solange and assessing the impact of different physical settings on the actors’ use of space (see 1986). During each of these projects McAuley also experimented with different documentation techniques.

McAuley’s experiences working on these projects have been central to the direction of her subsequent work. They provided her with valuable opportunities to investigate the interface between text and performance and, through her collaboration with practitioners (particularly theatre director Rex Cramphorn), to experience the interface between theory and practice. From her experience of the latter McAuley became convinced that both academics and practitioners could benefit from close collaboration. The impact of observing professional performers at work also convinced McAuley of the value of this approach as opposed to the British and American approach of mounting student productions as a learning strategy. During this period McAuley formulated what she felt should be the focus of academic work on theatre; academics should focus on those areas that practitioners do not: “the documentation and analysis of the creative process, of the resulting works of art, and of audience reception” (1985:11).

Performance Analysis

McAuley’s involvement in the projects with Theatre Workshop provided an important direction in her use and development of semiotic theory. Working from the careful observation of performance practice McAuley was alert to the social nature of theatrical communication and became convinced that spatial function was critical in the production and communication of meaning. Furthermore this spatial function was in large measure focussed on the use of space by actors. McAuley saw actors as defining stage space, as working in conjunction with other sign systems to give meaning to the stage space, and as segmenting the performance at a macro level. Her major addition to this typology was the observation that actors, through their movement, also segment the performance at a micro level (see 1986). McAuley’s questioning of the object of her analyses also led to her recognition that “theatre does not really produce an object” (1999:15) but that it is an unstable event. McAuley’s socially and spatially oriented use of semiotic theory helped her to avoid being restricted by a literal use of a linguistic semiotic analogy. Rather than seek to break down the performance continuum and find a minimal signifying unit, McAuley focussed her research on the dynamic processes of theatrical communication. She has therefore been able to utilise the descriptive power of semiotics without reifying given performances as objects (1999:16).

In the essay Performance Analysis: Theory and Practice (1998b) McAuley has summarised her work on performance analysis and situated herself in relation to the work of other theatre semioticians, particularly Tadeuz Kowzan, Anne Ubersfeld and Patrice Pavis. Surveying various approaches to analysis, and drawing on her teaching experience, McAuley has posited performance analysis as a key skill to be learnt. Importantly, she has also drawn attention to what she sees as the key differences between normal spectatorial practice and the task of a performance analyst. Drawing on Anne Ubserfeld’s work, McAuley argues that the task of the analyst (and indeed, a semiotics of theatre in general) is to create ‘signifying ensembles’ rather than amass tabulated detail. This task requires a systematic methodology, which McAuley subsequently describes. While stipulating, “there is no single way to do performance analysis” (1998b:8), and commenting that the nature of a performance necessarily impacts upon the process of analysis, McAuley outlines her own structured model. This model emphasises the process by which a thorough analysis can be carried out, beginning with the notation of various categories of material signifier, and followed by the consideration of ‘narrative content’ and ‘performance segmentation’ and the relation between the two. The third step is for the analyst to consider the synchronic and diachronic axes of the performance, and to note the system that underpins the various artistic choices that have been made. From this the analyst can formulate what McAuley refers to as ‘performance paradigms’, ‘meaningful clusters’ that can aid in the construction of a statement of meaning. McAuley argues that such a structured model has value as it can aid an analyst’s recall of detail, encourage a more systematic consideration of a range of sign systems and, importantly, make clear the steps by which an analyst has formulated their conclusions.

Performance Documentation

An appreciation of the immense ‘semiotic density’ of performance, together with its ephemerality, has led McAuley to consider various methods of performance documentation. Augmenting techniques of written notation McAuley has experimented with still photography, film, video and digital technologies, and with different video formats (including the use of multiple cameras and split-screen recording). Despite the apparent simplicity of recording performance McAuley has demonstrated the complexities involved in both creating and using performance documentation. She has questioned “the aesthetics and semiotics of performance, the pragmatics of screen and stage reception, and artists’ legal rights in respect of their work” (1994b:183). McAuley has argued that the documentation of performance necessarily involves interpretation and so those wishing to reconstruct a performance through the use of documentation must do so with caution. In a 1994 article in New Theatre Quarterly, “The Video Documentation of Theatrical Performance,” McAuley used the analogy of reading an x-ray to emphasise the skills required to reconstruct a performance from photographic or video documentation: “We all acknowledge that specialist knowledge and skills are required in order to read an x-ray” (1994b:184). McAuley has therefore been keen to place the interpretive onus on the users of documentation. She has also warned those involved in documenting performance to avoid the creation of ‘beautiful’ photographic images or video that adheres to a standard televisual grammar. The aim of documentation, as she sees it, is to create effective (albeit partial) documents that can contribute to the memory and legacy of artists for the theatre makers and scholars who will come after them. While the Department of Performance Studies now possesses an extensive archival collection of rehearsal and performance documentation, McAuley has also advocated the creation of a national archive of video documentation.

Rehearsal Ethnography

McAuley’s examination of the methodological and ethical issues raised by her experiences of rehearsal observation has led her to examine the usefulness of critical ethnographic theory. In her initial work McAuley regarded rehearsal observation largely as a means to an end: studying rehearsal processes provided greater insight for her, and her students, into the creation of a resulting performance. However, her rehearsal observation convinced her of the benefit of the study of rehearsal processes as a subject in its own right. McAuley has written, “it became clear as I observed the gradual coming together of the material signifiers, taking note of the discussions that surrounded the selection and elaboration of major elements in the performance, noting the options tried and discarded as well as those selected, that every theatrical signifier observed in performance was like the tip of a semiotic iceberg, with depths of meaning beneath the observed surface” (2006c:8). McAuley has described rehearsal rooms as “the site of the most intense reading practices I have witnessed,” which has lead her to consider the extent to which “the western theatre tradition is situated at the interface between the textual and the oral” (1996:144). Her adoption and use of critical ethnographic theory has stemmed from her understanding of theatre as a culturally embedded practice and has aided her in considering the mediated nature of ethnographic knowledge, the various issues of power and presence associated with participant-observation, and the suitability of various forms of reportage. Combining this work with that on performance documentation, McAuley has most recently collaborated with Russell Emerson to document rehearsals of the Sarah Kane play 4:48 Psychosis by the South Australian theatre company Brink Productions. The edited video documentation will be shown to the practitioners and their comments and feedback will be incorporated into a new video document.

Space in Performance

McAuley’s abiding interest in the importance of spatial function in the communicative processes of theatrical performance is presented most clearly in her major publication, Space in Performance: Making Meaning in the Theatre. In Space in Performance McAuley utilises a multifaceted approach (drawing on semiotic, phenomenological, ethnographic and sociological theory) to explore the multiple functions of space as a theatrical signifier. She defends this multifaceted approach as “a response to the complexity of the performance phenomena that are being explored” (1999:17). Recognising the lack of an established vocabulary for describing spatial function McAuley presents her own five-part taxonomy of spatial function (24-35). She begins with the ‘Social Reality,’ in which she delineates the different social spaces inherent in theatrical performance: she divides an overall ‘theatre space’ into ‘practitioner space’ and ‘audience space’, both of which are mediated by what she terms the ‘performance space’. McAuley also includes ‘rehearsal space’ under the general category of ‘practitioner space.’ The second part of her taxonomy is entitled ‘The Physical/Fictional Relationship.’ This encompasses “the interplay between the physical and the fictional, and the meanings that emerge from that interplay” (20). McAuley has described this interplay as “the heartland of theatrical semiosis” (27). She accounts for this using three sub-categories of ‘stage space’, ‘presentational space’ and ‘fictional place’. Part three of the taxonomy accounts for the richness of ‘fictional place’ in terms of the onstage/offstage distinction, the degree to which offstage places are localized in relation to the onstage and whether the audience itself is placed in relation to an offstage fictional place. McAuley’s last two parts are ‘textual space’ (the spatial structures of the play text) and ‘thematic space’, a category in which McAuley brings together the signs and functions of the other categories in order to construct meaning. In Space in Performance McAuley again places actors as central to her understanding of theatrical semiosis, and asserts that kinesis, rather than mimesis is at the heart of performers’ communicative practices. Paying careful attention to entrances, exits, movement, gesture, proxemic relations, orientations and positions McAuley notes that in theatrical performance such spatial elements “interact powerfully” with the verbal elements, with the result that “meanings are created that go far beyond the written text” (279). Space in Performance was awarded the Rob Jordan Prize by the Australasian Association for Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies in 2000.

Place and Performance

As stated at the outset, McAuley’s current research concerns the relationship between place, performance and collective memory, and engages with the political realities associated with the study of place. McAuley’s interest in place is, in many ways, a logical extension of her earlier research, involving a shifting of attention from the theatrical performances that occur within designated theatre buildings to those which are commonly referred to as ‘site-specific’ or ‘site-based’. It is also represents McAuley’s desire to take her highly developed understanding of spatial semiotics into a broader social and political realm, her increased engagement with phenomenological theory and her recognition of the growing importance of place as an analytical category across a variety of academic disciplines. McAuley has explained that her interest in ‘site-specific’ or ‘site-based’ performance is in the way it “brings ideas of place, history, and memory to the fore” and in its “potential to disrupt, disturb, and even to change the way we see the familiar” (2005:603). This, she has noted, is due to its frequent foregrounding of the social reality of a given place in spectators’ experiences, and its reliance on the histories and memories that spectators themselves bring to the performance. As with her interest in more traditional theatrical performance McAuley’s interest in ‘site-specific’ or ‘site-based’ performance has also been sparked through her own experiences as a spectator and as an academic observer. The work of choreographer and dancer Tess de Quincey (in particular her TripleAlice performance laboratories in Australia’s Central Desert, and her earlier Segments from an Inferno, a durational piece in the grounds of Sydney’s historic Hyde Park Barracks), has featured in many of McAuley’s more recent writings (see 2003a, 2003b and 2005), reflecting McAuley’s view that de Quincey’s work “engages with place more intensively and more subtly that any other site-based performer I know” (2003b:604).

McAuley’s recent role as editor of the book Unstable Ground: Performance and the Politics of Place (2006a) has stemmed from her work convening the Place and Performance Seminar, a group comprised of academics from a number of Australian universities together with practitioners engaged in the making of site-based performances. Dealing with a variety of performance practices, the work of this group centres on a profound engagement with issues that are pertinent to Australian experiences of place, particularly the violent history of indigenous displacement and trauma at the hands of European colonists.

Selected Bibliography


1999. Space in Performance: Making Meaning in the Theatre, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 310pp. (Fourth reprinting 2006).

Edited Book

2006a. Unstable Ground: Performance and the Politics of Place, Brussels/Berlin/New York, Peter Lang, 315pp. Including major essay “Remembering and Forgetting: Place and Performance in the Memory Process” (149-176) and theoretical introduction (15-24).

Book chapters

2006b. “Translation in the rehearsal room: serious play at the cultural interface,” in Michael Wintle (ed), Image into Identity: Constructing and Assigning Identity in a Culture of Modernity. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 255-569.

2003a. “Body Weather in the Central Desert of Australia,” in C. Hamon-Siréjols and A. Surger (eds), Théâtre: Espace Sonore, Espace Visuel. Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 231-242. [This chapter is an edited version of an earlier conference paper delivered at the International Federation for Theatre Research conference in 2000.]

1994a. "Performance indicators in playtext and performance," in Margaret Sankey et al (eds), Mediations: Sydney Essays in Honour of Ivan Barko,. Queensland: Boombana Publications, 81-116.

1992. “The actor’s work with text in rehearsal and in performance,” in E. Nardocchio (ed), Reader Response to Literature: the Empirical Dimension. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 95-116.

1989a. “Body, Space and Language: The Actor’s Work on/with the Text,” in Tim Fitzpatrick (ed) Performance: from Product to Process. Sydney: Frederick May Foundation for Italian Studies, Theatre Studies Service Unit, University of Sydney, 113-144.

1987a. “Cave and Prison: Corneille’s view of the social function of theatre,” in Kim Spinks (ed), From Page to Stage: L’Illusion Comique. Sydney: Theatre Studies Service Unit, University of Sydney, 72-85.

1986. "Movement Within the Scenic Space and Segmentation of the Performance Continuum," in A. Helbo (ed), Approches de l'opera. Paris: Didier Erudition, 105-120.

Journal articles

2006c. “The emerging field of rehearsal studies.” About Performance, No. 6: 7-13.

2005. “Site-specific performance: Place, Memory and the Creative Agency of the Spectator.” Arts (The Journal of the Sydney University Arts Association), 27: 27-51.

2003b. “Place in the performance experience.” Modern Drama (Special Issue: Space and the Geographies of Theatre), XLVI: 4 (Winter): 598-613.

2001. “Performance Studies: definitions, methodologies, future directions.” Australasian Drama Studies (Special Issue: Performance Studies in Australia), 39 (October): 5-19.

1998a. “Towards an ethnography of rehearsal.” New Theatre Quarterly XIV: 53 (February): 75-85.

1998b. “Performance Analysis: Theory and Practice.” About Performance, Working Papers Vol 4, Centre for Performance Studies, University of Sydney: 1-12.

1996. “Theatre Practice and Critical Theory” Australasian Drama Studies 28 (April):140-145.

1995. “Translation in the Performance Process.” About Performance, Working Papers Vol I, Centre for Performance Studies, University of Sydney: 111-125.

1994b. “The video documentation of theatrical performance for archival purposes.” New Theatre Quarterly, 38 (May): 183-194.

1989b. “Body, space and language: the actor’s work with/on text.” Kodikas/Code: An International Journal of Semiotics XII: 1: 57-80.

1987b. "Paradigmatic Structures in Text and Performance: Movement and Gesture in Four Performances of Les Bonnes." Kodikas/Code 10: 1-2: 3-25.

1987c. “Exploring the Paradoxes: On Comparing Film and Theatre.” Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture 1, no. 2: 45-55.

1985. “Performance Studies: A Personal View,” Australasian Drama Studies, 7 (October): 3-22.

1983. "The spatial dynamics of Britannicus: text and performance," Australian Journal of French Studies XX: 3: 340-360.

1978. “Theatre teaching in a university literature department.” Australian Journal of French Studies XV: 1-2: 56-64.

1975. “The Problem of Identity: Theme, Form, and Theatrical Method in Les Nègres, Kaspar, and Old Times.” Southern Review 8: 51-65.

1974. "Language and theatre in Le Malade Imaginaire." Australian Journal of French Studies, XI: 1: 4-18.

1970. Beaumarchais: Plagiarist and Innovator. Macquarie University Monographs for Teachers of French, III: 1 (July) 37pp.

1969. The Theatrical Approach to the Plays of Moliere. Macquarie University Monographs for Teachers of French, II: 1 (March) 28pp.

1966. “Samuel Beckett’s Come and Go” Educational Theatre Journal XVIII: 4 (December): 439-442.