Performance Art vs Theatre

Jamal Gerald
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Everyone has their own taste when choosing to watch a performance. Some just want to be entertained by going to see a West End show such as Billy Elliot,  others would much rather be challenged by something of a more complex nature where the concept isn’t predictable – performance art. Is there a clear rivalry between the two? Do these two genres contradict one another? Or do they just not acknowledge each other’s existence?

To put it simply, it’s acting vs action. Theatre is scripted, which we all know and one of its main purposes is to entertain. This doesn’t make live theatre a bad or basic thing, as theatre appeals to a lot of people and generates a lot of money for the industry (mainstream theatre especially). Theatre, like performance art, comes in many forms e.g. dance, opera, musicals etc.

But with performance art you don’t know what is going to happen next (well most of the time). The main term for this is live art, and the purpose is to make you think. You can do anything in performance art just as long as you have a concept. What is this performer trying to convey? Is a question you find yourself asking.

Performance Art can be anything from the most random thought to something that is well planned out such as a scripted piece of text. This art form also originates from visual art e.g. sculpture and paintings. The artist makes themselves the art. In theatre there are artists but it’s always someone else performing their art. Actors are told what to do while the artists do as they want.  Would you want to see an actor performing an artist’s work or would you want to see an artist performing their own creation? That is something to thing about when you next book your ticket to go see a show or walk into a gallery to see what’s going on. Especially, since we’re in a time now where even Jay Z is rapping in an art gallery. Times have changed.

Someone told me once that they think performance art is too self-indulgent and it isn’t fair to have an audience come in and interpret your work. They were afraid that they would get the interpretation wrong. This is never a bad thing, however, as the whole point is about how you perceive a piece, so therefore individual, subjective perspectives can’t be wrong. Regardless, if that wasn’t the artist’s intention in the first place, that is how it came across to you, so therefore you are entitled to take it as you see it.

Then there are some of my lecturers that think musical theatre is lesser and if I go and see a show then I shouldn’t tell them as they won’t be interested. I guess the people who are more into performance art feel that mainstream theatre is only there to make money, while the purpose of performance art is to express yourself, and more importantly to create art. This is true, but is still perhaps quite harsh and unjustifiably elitist.

A normal theatre performance can last for 2 hours + in duration, yet with performance art it could go on for more than half a day, or equally 15 seconds. The longer performances are called durational pieces. Some performances can even go on for years. That is performance art for yah, it’s the real deal, it’s deep.

I for one enjoy and appreciate both. I grew up wanting to be on the West End and still do. I want to have that spotlight cradling my existence. Pirouette after pirouette whilst singing as the male lead with the chorus line (filled with very attractive men) behind me. Aaaaah. What a dreamer I was back then. Now, I’m studying a BA (Hons) in Performance which leans more on the performance art side. I’m in a position where I want to be known as an artist in my own right and not just a product of an agency company.

I think you can enjoy the pros and cons of both genres. However, that isn’t the case for everyone. An example is from the self-proclaimed ‘grandmother of performance art’ Marina Abramovic. She really does prefer her own roots.


She said this whilst promoting her work which eventually took place at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York.

“To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.”- Marina Abramovic (2010)

True words, true passion.

So what do you prefer, Performance Art or Theatre? Or are you like me and appreciate and enjoy both? Leave comments below.

You can also tweet me your thoughts. @JamiBoii

About Jamal Gerald

To some he's a very unusual character. He’s outspoken and loves being in the centre of attention. Jamal just wants his audiences to feel something when reading his work or when they see him perform. Wants them to be fearless when interpreting his art. He wants them to think. @JamiBoii