Performance art persists beyond the stage. (Image credit: Alan Cleaver/Flickr)

Performance art persists beyond the stage. (Image credit: Alan Cleaver/Flickr)

Performance art persists beyond the stage. (Image credit: Alan Cleaver/Flickr)

After a month filled with theatre, British Council USA director Paul Smith notices the performances around him every day, at the US presidential inauguration and even in the office.

It struck me last night, as I rallied once more unto the breach with a terrific Harry in the Folger Theatre ’s  Henry V here in Washington, that I’ve been immersed in the world of performance in recent days. It also struck me how much this glibly used word – ‘performance’ – commands so much of our lives.

Earlier this year hundreds of international specialists of the subject crowded into Times Square venues in New York for the annual conventions of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the International Society for the Performing Arts. We debated every aspect of how performance affects society, individuality, security, prosperity, global issues, world peace, millennium goals, whatever. And in the evenings we enjoyed one of the great alternative performance arts festivals in New York’s Under the Radar. My particular inspiration was an Iranian performer who retold Hamlet with toys, dollies and teacups.

And I expect there are more office workers than not in today’s world whose every effort is subject to the scrutiny of a ‘performance management system’. As Erving Goffman’s famous Presentation of Self in Everyday Life told us long ago, social interaction makes nonstop performers of us all. But our personnel systems now also demand performance of us and as performers are we measured, evaluated, promoted or dismissed.

Harry of England, of course, knew that he had to master dramatic rhetoric and the theatrical diatribe to inspire his troops for battle at Harfleur and Agincourt. Without the King’s calculatedly staged performances those battles might well have been lost. And so to another great political performance that I enjoyed just days ago. Standing before the great stage erected at the US Capitol on 21 January, we watched trumpeters, poets and choirs perform, we watched Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé perform, but, above all, we watched the 44th president of the United States of America perform the ritual of inauguration and then give a performance of towering, studied rhetoric required of such an occasion.

And now, here in the US, those other American ritual happenings are in flow – from the Golden Globes, through the Screen Actors Guild Awards, to Uncle Oscar – measuring and celebrating the most witnessed performances in the world.

We’re all performers now as the dramaturgy of a new year starts to unfold.

Read more about our work in the arts.

Find out what the British Council is doing in the USA

Subscribe to British Council Voices by email