The Performance Culture of Burning Man

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Theatre in the United States for the last twenty years has been evolving in scope by way of a cultural phenomenon known as Burning Man. In 2006, this festival attracted over forty thousand participants to the Black Rock Desert in Northwestern Nevada to a flat dusty Playa surrounded by mountain ranges. While the natural environment there is hostile, the creative atmosphere is welcoming and invites a broad scope of performative behaviors and genres to be exhibited there, the entire week the festival takes place. Make-shift stages and theme camps, as well as large-scale interactive art pieces play host to participants who dress up in fanciful costumes to perform in all manner of imagining.

This dissertation maps out the cultural terrain of Burning Man in order to explain how performing there is form of identity-making and cultural commodity. As one of a handful of North American festivals which expressly discourage commercialism and commodification, theatricality takes the place of significance for entertainment and communication. Performance forms of all kinds historically are represented at Burning Man and this dissertation will investigate and theorize how a new performance culture has emerged from the festival itself and by its presence as a theatrical event, has exposed and expanded performance and theatre forms.

This dissertation offers a critical framework through which to consider performance and performers within the Burning Man community as applied to Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of Carnival and the Schema for Theatrical Eventness proposed by the International Federation for Theatre Research Theatrical Events Working Group. The theories of Victor Turner, Baz Kershaw, and Michel Foucault are also presented in this dissertation to consider how performance occurs at Burning Man. Whether informal and spontaneous, interactive performing or rehearsed, staged formal performance, Burning Man provides an exciting lens through which to consider how new performance genres are emerging in a large-scale outdoor festival setting at the beginning of the twenty-first century in North America.