A Brief Guide to the Discipline


A brief guide to differences between Drama Studies, Theatre Studies and Performance Studies

Drama Studies, Theatre Studies and Performance Studies are recognised as different academic disciplines because they introduce the study of different objects. Although these fields of study are all related through various activities, the knowledge produced, reproduced and studied in each of these fields may use different methods of analysis or focus on different elements associated with theatrical activities. ‘Drama Studies’ has traditionally focused on the analysis of texts and has been influenced by the development of a variety of literary theories. ‘Theatre Studies’ focuses on the study of literature and theatrical performances and methods of study include literary theories and methods of analysis imported from disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences such as philosophy, sociology and history. ‘Performance Studies’ focuses on non-literary dramas and theatrical elements in all cultural performances and scholars utilise methods of analysis imported from a range of different disciplines from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences including literary theory, anthropology, sociology and philosophy.

Origins, meanings and applications of words in different disciplines

The following outline may help you understand how a focus on a different aspect of an object or activity can produce quite different studies:


Drama is an Ancient Greek word meaning ‘act’ or ‘deed’.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle used this word to describe particular forms of poetry that were ‘acted’.

Drama Studies:

Theatre Studies:

Performance Studies:

This field of study has traditionally focused on studying the actions that a playwright describes or uses to create a dramatic written text. This field of study is likely to examine choices, conditions and components of particular productions or events enacted in spaces defined as theatrical. This field of study may analyse actions that are ‘performed’ anywhere in any culture. The actions may or may not be identified as theatrical and the objects selected for study are not limited to spaces defined as theatrical.
Eg. The actions of characters, plots, or the choice of language, style of poetry Eg. Acting styles, spaces used for actors and audiences, social and political impact of theatrical events Eg. Religious rituals as performed acts, Sporting events as performed acts



Theatre is a word that derives from an Ancient Greek word ‘theatron’.

Ancient Greeks used this word to refer to a communal space where audiences sat to watch dramas (the theatron).

Drama Studies:

Theatre Studies:

Performance Studies:

In this field of study, the phrase ‘the drama’ was traditionally used to refer collectively to literature written for performances in theatres. In a similar way, the phrase ‘the theatre’ was used as a general term of reference for buildings and activities that were specifically developed for the performance of dramatic texts. This field of study is more directly linked to the ancient meaning of the word theatron since it acknowledges that any space where audiences gather to watch actions that are performed can be regarded as theatrical. The word theatre therefore has a broader application in this field since it considers theatricality a condition that can be recognised in many kinds of events, including dramas. Since this area of enquiry argues that all forms of action and culture can be performed for an audience, scholars in this field do not limit theatrical performances to performances specifically designed for an audience in a particular space.



Performance is a word that comes from a different tradition of language (Anglo-French rather than Greek) The word ‘perform’ means ‘to carry an action through to its completion’ whereas the term ‘performance’ means ‘the action of performing’.

Drama Studies:

Theatre Studies:

Performance Studies:

In this field of study, a drama performance was traditionally an event that could be viewed in theatres outside the academy or an extra-curricula activity that was not assessed. Since the study of texts was valued more than the study of performance, the only actions students had to carry through to completion were thorough analyses of set texts! This field primarily focuses on studying elements and conditions surrounding and influencing performances in events that can be identified as ‘theatrical’ in some way. Such study usually requires the identification of elements and conditions that suggest a performed event is theatrical. While actions are usually consciously constructed and carried out for an audience to be considered ‘theatrical’, actions are not always consciously performed or viewed as theatrical or staged. As a result of this theoretical view, those conducting analyses in Performance Studies may choose to study actions that are consciously or unconsciously performed in events that may or may not be viewed as theatrical.


Test yourself?

1. Dramas have been identified as texts that are acted. Is it possible to describe actions as texts too? Why/why not?

2. If the word ‘performance’ describes the action of performing, do you think the Greeks were performing too? Why/why not?

3. Since a communal space where audiences sit is likely to be filled with actions too, do you think these places can be called dramas? Why/why not?


Kennedy, Dennis, ed. Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York; London: Routledge, 2002.

Shepherd, Simon, and Mick Wallis. Drama/Theatre/Performance. New York; London: Routledge, 2004.


©2005 Australian Catholic University