Performance Theory

(Mentions of face swapping have been highlighted for skim-reading)

In 1959. an American Sociologist, Erving Goffman, published a book titled The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In this book he uses imagery of theatre to portray the importance of human and social action and interaction. He refers to it as ‘the dramaturgical model of social life’. The model relates social interactions to a theatre, and the people you interact with in everyday life as actors on stage who each play a varying role. The audience is other people who observe the roleplaying and in turn react to the performance.

Goffman uses the term ‘performance’ to describe all of the activities of an individual in front of an audience or set of observers. It is through this performance that the individual can give social meaning to themselves, to others, and their context. The audience is not always aware of the performance but they are constantly attributing meaning to it and the actor themselves. This idea can be related to one I mentioned in a previous post about how our behaviour changes when we are being watched. The audience is always affecting the performance whether the actor is aware of it or not. It is also important for the actor to stay ‘in character’. The performance has to conform to the correct set of signals and behaviours, and anything outside of this detracts from the performance and could mislead the audience. All of our actions form part of our identity, who we, and other people think we are. Our behaviour needs to conform our previous patterns of behaviour (our character) or it seems out-of-place and weird. 

The appearance of the actor or individual functions to portray social statuses and people’s roles in society. These can include gender, class, status, age, occupation etc. Appearance includes clothes, body language, hair style etc. The way we chose to present ourselves plays a big part in the way others view us. My face swapping idea plays with the idea of appearance as the onscreen representation is altered, disrupting the interactors sense of appearance and self. The persons face (which is usually unique to a person) is then associated with a different sartorial discourse, age and possibly gender, creating tension between the performance and the actor’s front.

The actor’s front’, as defined by Goffman, is the part of the performance which defines the situation for the audience. It is the image or impression they are trying to give off with their appearance and performance. The front can be seen as a standardised mask for the performer to control the way in which they’re perceived by the audience. Goffman likens a front to a script for the actor containing stereotyped expectations of how they should behave. A personal front contains all the items needed to perform and is usually identifiable by the audience as a representation of the specific actor. Face swapping could be seen as a way of altering these personal fronts by interchanging pieces between actors. When the appearance is disrupted, the script is also disrupted as there is a contrast between the head and the new body it’s imposed upon. As the actors watch an altered version of themselves, they have to try and manage two separate discourses of the self rather than just one. Certain situations and scenarios have social scripts that define how the actor should behave in the given situation. When the actor is put into a new situation they or establishes a new role, they usually construct a new front or script from a combination of past fronts, rarely creating something completely new. The actor has to use their past experience to try to react to the environment to find/ create a front which best suits it.

In a staged performance there are three main locations for interactions; front-stage, back-stage and off-stage. Front-stage is where the audience is watching. The actor needs to conform to their performance, appearance and front, following social conventions which have meaning to the audience. The actor is often aware they’re being watched and therefore acts accordingly. Back stage the actor  may be able to act a little differently and is able to step out of character. It is a place where no members of the general audience can see. It is usually where the actor can be representative of their true self and get rid of roles they have to play in public. The backstage area can occur at home with a close group of friends for example, where people can be more informal and act completely differently to what is usually expected. It has been argued that there is no true back stage as there will always be members of the back-stage audience who aren’t as trusted and stand on the fringes of the group. Finally off-stage is when the actor isn’t involved with the performance, when they can interact with members of the audience directly and independently of their performance on stage. This is where a specific performance can be given as the audience is selected and segmented. For me, an example of this could be when interacting with the employee at the till in a shop. When you go to the till to buy a product, you briefly step out of your usual performance and front and put on a new one specifically for interactions with the person at the till. The new front is usually more polite and courteous than the usual self and is put on specifically for the interaction with a certain person in the audience.

Face swapping playfully alters front stage performances, creating two stages with different audiences – one in the foyer space and one on-screen. As people become engrossed with their altered performance on-screen, hopefully they forget about their performance in the actual space as they adapt their performance to fit the face swapped reality. The aim is to change the way people behave, trying to deviate from the social norms people often try and follow when out in public. For people who are in the space but can’t see the screen, the behaviour of the interactors of the piece would appear to sit outside of the norms, creating an inconsistency and contractions with everyone else on the stage. It would be interesting to see if this does actually happen or if people aren’t interested in their face-swapped performance and ignore it and carry on walking.


Goffman, E. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.





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