Performance and Adventure Learning


Performance as an idea and as an experience, particularly as understood through the lens of Performance Studies, connects many seemingly disparate areas together. It connects amongst other things, sporting achievement, adventure, artistic practice, personal and social behaviour, cultural and religious ritual and learning through experience as a child and as an adult, an an individual and as a group.

As a practice and academic discipline performance studies is very useful in settings in which phenomena and behaviour’s are emergent and changing at the personal and interpersonal level. This is a consistent theme with the arts as a mode of research or investigation.

After training as a Dramatherapist, Richard Schechner’s book ‘Performance Studies – An Introduction’  and Performance Studies generally, was very useful to help me understand how the ideas of the arts therapies and dramatherapy could be applied in a variety of non-clinical settings, including in outdoor and experiential learning.

Performance Studies can interpret any behaviour as performance and Schechner says this can be very valuable in some ways but in other ways, this approach can become too disparate. Its broad scope means that we could examine climbing Everest, doing a ‘Go Ape’ ropes course, performing Shakespeare, making art and experiencing religious rituals from within one discipline. Thus familiar experiences and phenomena including experiential and adventure learning can be interpreted using some quite unfamiliar and interesting models. It also means as Schechner points out, that some interpretations can be polemical, for example, the suggestion that 911 attack was performance. Also if we can interpret anything and everything ‘as’ performance it can feel a bit like snake oil, a magical but ultimately meaningless descriptor of everything.

A YouTube introduction to his performance studies and book, by Schechner himself, is included on this site a sub page of ‘Performance’. Or you can find it here. This introduces major themes in his book. This has 23 episodes. 

In his book, Schechner talks about Performance Studies (PS) having four main elements. These are…

  1. Behaviour as an object of study
  2. Artistic practice both for performers and for audiences
  3. Participant observation as a mode of research of self and others
  4. Social practices as a form of performance

It is worth looking at these general elements before delving into the aspects of his work which is of most use to people wishing to work with the outdoors as art and art as research.

Behaviour as an object of study

Performance Studies looks at what people do. It does attach a number of theories to behaviour, but the theories largely evade psychological or internal explanations. Most are to do with how the person behaves in context. This places the place where behaviour happens centrally. The place where behaviour happens is relevant to outdoor and experiential learning.

We evade internal motivations in favour of observable phenomena. This puts performance studies into the frame of phenomenological approaches. We look at what happens before we look at theories of why things happen. Performance is behaviour which is witnessed, by the self and others. We also see behaviour in relation to another thing, person or situation. Many theorists in performance studies emanate from or are influential in the arts. This links to the second aspect.

Artistic practice both for performers and for audiences

Art is a relational thing. We witness our own creations and this witnessing guides its formation. Art is also designed to be witnessed by other people. Art, like performance, is a thing that happens between things. Being witness to our own actions are central to ideas about experiential learning and creativity. Some thing happens and we witness it and this influences what we do next. The outcome is in relation to what is happening. Which is what happens with adventure. It is a journey we take, but it’s the outcome is uncertain because what happens next is always in relation to what is happening now. The storm comes. We change our course. We interact with other people, and our behaviour responds to or takes account of this. This links to the third aspect.

Participant observation as a mode of research of self and others

Our mode of research interacts with the situation, the people around us and with ourselves. Our exploration, our research is our experience. This is central to art as research, where the art making is the research as is the art made. We cannot separate ourselves, and our research, from the experience of the setting. We are performers. We perform a turn on our ski’s, we make a mark on a canvas, we perform a combat roll in white water, we perform a song, we make a mark on a page and it becomes word then more words and it becomes a poem. We perform ourselves, by being aware of our actions and modifying them according to the setting. Schechner talks about twice behaved behaviours. An experiential educator talks about the learning cycle. This brings us to the fourth aspect.

Social practices as a form of performance

We could understand all social practices from the point of view of experiential learning. And as such, we can see all behaviour as performance. It’s the same thing in a different skin. The models, the theorists and the practitioners of experiential learning differ from those of performance studies but in effect describe similar phenomena. Later I refer to what performance studies call ‘dark play’ which includes climbing and risk-taking behaviour. We can see social performance as including outdoor activities, research, teams in sport and on team-building workshops, the desire on the part of Henry David Thoreau for solitude at Walden Pond and art-making as a theatrical performance or as a solitary poet. This and the other aspect of performance studies can expose activity and explanation familiar to experiential and outdoor educators to new scrutiny and explanation.

Whilst Schechner’s work on performance studies offer new ways of seeing ideas familiar to outdoor and experiential practitioners, not all of the 23 themes explored are useful. Things like Brechtian theatre or the performance quadrilogue, are not directly relevant. But some offer very interesting interpretations of phenomena familiar to experiential and adventure learning and as such could evoke new or diverse perspectives on familiar ideas.

For outdoor, experiential and adventure practitoners the following performance studies themes are of use.

  1. Performance Studies as a mode of researching and understanding the world.
  2. Performance as experiential learning.
  3. Liminal Space and Ritual.
  4. Play including Maya-lila and Deep Play.
  5. Performativity and the making of meaning.
  6. Global and intercultural performance including tourism and globalisation.

Below are the relevant Schechner videos with discussion or information relevant to experiential outdoor educators or adventure practitoners.

1. Performance Studies as a Mode of Researching and Understanding the World.

What is Performance Studies ?

Schechner’s Performance Studies comes out of theatrical performance but views performance in everyday life as being on a continuum with theatre. Performance Studies (PS) as a discipline is the means by which he does this. The reason he says PS developed was because seeing things ‘as’ performance evolved as a way of better understanding the dynamics of action, doing and witnessing in the world. These are core elements of experiential learning. Also in the age of the internet, the relationship between performance as action showing behaviour and performance as just doing that action, unseen is highly relevant. Showing action requires a witness. In experiential learning, as with art and performance, the witness can be the self or the audience. I think this makes PS as a mode of inquiry relevant to experiential learning.

2. Performance as Experiential Learning.

Victor Turners Social Drama

The ideas of Victor Turner are central to seeing experiential learning as performance. Turner was interested in the role of witnessing and crisis in drama and how being aware of crisis and thus being able to resolve it is played out through drama, literature. In experiential learning, the individual is witness to their own drama, and through action, resolves it (or not). This links to ideas of performativity explored below. Turner is also interested in liminal spaces in which transitions and crisis can be resolved or stability restored. Drama enacts and resolves social dramas. This resolution is played out in groups experiencing challenge or novelty requiring new ways of being. It is part of experiential learning.

What is Performance ?

Performance from a PS point of view is not only about studying aesthetic performances, on stage or through film, but also about social performances. Erving Goffman is important to PS and says ‘A “performance” may be defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants’ Thus a painting in a gallery can be seen as performance. Schechner says that art whilst has traditionally understood as mimesis or model of reality, arts also creates it’s own reality and interacts with social life. By using PS we can see experiential learning as performance, and as such it makes outdoor and adventure learning available for different approaches and interpretations. For me, the endpoint is to make something that can be witnessed by participants and other people as art. I think this more options available for learners and facilitators. It also lends itself conscious expression of experience as having an aesthetic quality. Thus the best way to research the aesthetics of outdoor learning could be through art.

Restored Behaviour

The idea of restored behaviour is that everything we do has within it elements which we have done or rehearsed before. But there is in this the scope to try a new configuration or improvisation and be or do something which you are not. Grotowski called this the Via Negativa because it is about being not what you were. Lao Tzu said ‘When I stop being what I am I become what I might be’. Experiential outdoor and adventure learning use ‘the novel situation’ as a central mode of working. PS suggests this is inherently performative.

Is/As Performance

This suggests that we can see what happens in experiential learning ‘as’ performance. So the Goffman quote about performance as an action in which any ‘given participant… influence(s) in any way any of the other participants’ could be used to support the role of facilitator, or the venue or any participant in a venture. A painting can be a participant as much as an actor. Something that ‘is’ performance is behaviour which shows doing, and is a useful way of processing experience. Working with art and performance invites the doing of showing of doing as both a form of processing, sharing and an expression of the aesthetic. My suggestion is that aesthetic experiences are more impactful and meaningful for participants.

Make Believe/ Make Belief

This is a central idea that crosses over from PS to experiential, outdoor and adventure learning. In ‘make believe’ we experience one thing as another. It happens in play, art, theatre, politics. We see Macbeth and experience three actresses as if they were witches. We do a step across on a ropes course and experience it ‘as if’ we might fall. But by doing the step across we ‘make belief’ in the person that they can overcome fear. They make believe they may fall but know they cannot, and in doing so we make their beliefs about themselves change. This is related to ‘performative’ covered lower down. This is a big idea that needs to be expanded on elsewhere on the site. But with extreme sports, or in a war zone, or on a motorbike, no amount of performance, no amount of ‘make believe’ can hide the very accurate belief, that this could kill you. Schechner talks later about ‘Deep play and dark play’ as forms of performance where risks are real. But what is of interest to adventure learning however how you manage the shift between ‘make believe’ and ‘make belief’. I will write more about this elsewhere. But here Jeb Corliss goes of Table Mountain in a wingsuit. ‘Make believe’ and ‘Make belief’ are not clear states but they influence each other. Corliss is, at first, quite rightly afraid. It is a sign of danger. I suspect his is in ‘make believe’ at first. He does this deadly thing ‘as if’ it were not deadly. He couldn’t do it otherwise. Then the experience puts him into ‘make belief’, it makes him believe he does not need to be afraid anymore. So he crashes. Make believe and make belief are not discrete states. But their relationship can be seen in mental illness, firewalking, gaslighting, child-rearing, education, on and on. This aspect of PS is a very interesting and powerful idea.

3. Liminal Space and Ritual

Liminal and Liminoid

I came across this in Hurricane Island Outward Bound. Community leaders and people like Robert Bly were talking about the loss of rights of passage and lack of initiation into adulthood. I was reading ‘King, Warrior, Magician, Lover’ by Moore and Gillette. I had a series of conversations with manager called John Howard about the Outward Bound course as an initiation ritual or right of passage. We were hoping to move young people from being offenders to non-offenders. We looked at the classic three expeditions of a long course as elements of initiation as described by Arnold Van Gennep. We agreed that the middle expedition was where most work was done in terms of transitioning from child to adult. This is Van Genneps liminal phase. Victor Turner talked about lininoid experiences as being big important experiences where old ideas were challenged and new ones explored. The act of going to a residential or on a DofE expedition, or skipping school and attending a Youth Strike 4 Climate demo are liminoid experiences. PS ideas can help inform this as an idea into work with groups and individual.

Transformation and Transportation

Schechner talks more about the ritual and the liminal space here. He says that the person undergoing the ritual, experiences transformation, but the person facilitating the ritual, provides transportation. The former exits the ritual changed, but the latter person exits the ritual unchanged. But in the middle liminal phase, described as ‘betwixt and between’ both the transformed and the transformer adopt a liminal state. To me this is interesting because as facilitators we do go through the same experiences as the facilitated but in a different way. As a drama therapist I was taught to enter the therapeutic forum with one foot, but keep the other foot out of the forum. On expedition, I know at all times where I am, but sometimes participants may get lost. Part of my role is to ensure safe passage but encourage participants to work out for themselves where they are and put themselves back on route, Thus they find their own way rather than being told where to go. There is an ego shift from child to adult. This suggests to me the scope to better use experiences of residentials and outdoor and adventure activities as rites of passage.

4. Play, Maya-lila and Deep Play

Introducing Play

PS sees play as having four elements as defined by Roger Caillois. Competitive play, chance, imaginative play and ilinx or dizziness. All of these are present in experiential, outdoor and adventure learning. As such play contrasts with ritual, with ritual being serious and play being, well more playful. Play is how we learn as children, but the capacity to play can be lost to adults. Victor Turner said play was creative but untrustworthy. Play drives performance and ritual directs it. Work in experiential learning should be playful and creative but containing and directive. In outdoor and adventure learning and in experiential learning there is scope for all participants to have some control over how ritual exerts control. Ideas from PS offer may be able to offer a thread of discourse in which creativity, the arts, and performance can add novel elements to experience, but elements that have, over time been shown to be powerful and productive.


Maya-lila describes the Indian philosophy that life is an illusion and the universe, which controls our lives, likes to be playful and unpredictable. The healthy way, spiritually and bodily, to deal with this is to be playful with the boundary between chance and destiny. In formal education, this playfulness is effectively eradicated. In experiential learning, it is embraced. In Greek, this interplay was expressed through Apollo and Dionysus. In theatre, this is role and performer. In outdoor learning, this is place and experience. In art this is form and content. In Tao it is Yin and Yang.

Deep Play Dark Play

Deep play is an idea ascribed to Jeremy Bentham and developed by Clifford Geertz and describes play in which the outcomes can be ruinous. Bentham thought it evil, Geertz thought it enriching. In relation to Adventure or Extreme sports Deep Play has been boosted by the visibility a GoPro and a YouTube Channel can bring. This also raises questions about Deep Play as a commodity or a life choice. Mortality rates in the UK are going down over time both as gross numbers and workplace fatalities. This article from the Guardian shows you what people die of these days. Adventure Tourism is rife. Deep Play is a tricky subject. GoApe ropes courses and kilometre zip wires give thrills and no risk. But the idea of this as play and performance certainly fits. Work and life are generally safe. In Hugh Cunninghams ‘The Invention of Childhood’ he tells us that even as recently as the Victorian age, 1 in 4 children survived to make three years. I have no figures but I have to assume that even Deep Play is safer now. I was a great fan of Leo Dickinson who did the first filmed ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in 1970. In his book ‘Filming the Impossible‘ he recounts years of serious adventure. He was a prolific parachutist but ends his book with a story. He recounts how he went to get his car fixed after he did a nine stack night jump with lights. A picture of the jump was in the car. The elderly mechanic took an interest. Dickinson asked if he had ever done a parachute jump. ‘Oh aye.’ the mechanic replied ‘Out of a Lancaster. We had lights too – the fuel tanks exploded and 2000 gallons of petrol caught light.’ Dickinson asked if he had done may jumps. ‘Oh no lad. Just the one’. Sometimes it isn’t play.

5. Performativity

Whilst this is the next to last entry, it is in some ways the most significant for our purposes, but possibly the most elusive and contentious idea. Performative derives from JL Austins idea of the Performative Utterance. A performative utterance would be saying something like ‘I do!’ in a marriage ceremony. The uttering of the words changes the world. By saying it I make something changes. I change from a bachelor to a married man (at least if my bride says the same and nobody pipes up when ask ‘Does anybody know any just impediment…’). Schechner maintains that the the performative came before the word, the utterance, as historically language came out of embodiment. Performance generally has a more fixed aspect in that it is often tied to in the script. A performance of Macbeth will generally be the same each night. Improvised theatre is more of a performative. Queer Theory and Judith Butlers (and Simone de Beauvoirs) ideas relating to gender are examples of performative. One becomes a woman by what one does not what one is. Being queer in public is taboo so being queer in public diminishes the taboo. From the outdoors, the Mass Trespass of Kinder was performative. By acting as if going on the moors was not trespassing it became not trespassing. By being not afraid on a high ropes step-across one becomes unafraid.

6. Global and intercultural performance, tourism and globalisation.

(This last section was written some time after the sections above)

In 2020 the Lake District National Park sought to get more ethnic minority visitors. See here. In working with urban outdoor programmes and working in youth justice programmes in Coventry, UK and Florida, USA, I worked with a lot of black participants in outdoor programmes. The experiences they talked about in going to outdoor places centred on feeling out of place. Ethnic Britons and Americans are mostly living in urban settings. In conversation with black youth workers and professional involved in bringing BAME young people to outdoor spaces, talk often included ideas of adventure being a thing of conquest and empire.

In 1584, Queen Elizabeth granted Walter Raleigh a royal charter authorising him to explore, colonise and rule any “remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian People,” in return for one-fifth of all the gold and silver that might be mined there. Whilst the current Operation Raleigh describes itself as ‘A sustainable development organisation inspiring communities and young people around the world to create lasting change,’ in parts of America Sir Walter Raleigh may not have the same credos as he does in Europe, the same way Sir Francis Drake is reviled in parts of Australia and New Zealand.

Being a Syrian refugee on an inflatable boat in the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe would be adventure. A European on a gap year expedition to Africa would also be an adventure. But the political context of each would be very different.

In the video above Schechner admits to the idea that his ideas of performance may have a colonial ring outside the USA, and adventure and expeditioning has sought to be more post-colonial and susstanable in it’s outlook.

Being aware of a sense of place, in terms of culture and in terms of the performance of place, covered elsewhere on my site, means a performance studies approach can embrace the cultural context of behaviour. Also, the idea of performing an inner adventure, of the outer adventure being a performance space to explore an inner journey could put outdoor experiences in a different, post-colonial context.

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