Performance Plagiarism

By Adam Jacobi (adapted from Rostrum magazine, National Speech & Debate Association, 84:7, March 2010).

We normally associate plagiarism with words or ideas copied without attributing the original source. Does a concept of academic honesty extend to qualities of performance? With videos of other contest performances (not to mention films), familiarity with particular performances has become more widespread than just those who witnessed them live. What’s more, students can study finer details of such performances in-depth and repetitively. Hence, performances have arisen that mimic several aspects of physical action and vocal technique, as well as duplicating the exact cuttings of scripts, almost verbatim.

When the International Baccalaureate revised its Theatre curriculum in 2007, advice within its professional development workshop materials included a paper by Nick Connolly, then director of studies at Worth School in England and a former IB deputy chief examiner. Connolly cites three words as central to exploring academic honesty in performance: imitation, influence, and inspiration (Connolly 4). These three descriptors provide a basis by which to understand where students derive ideas and the extent to which that affects their ultimate performance.

So where does one draw the line between these three concepts, and how can mimicry be proven? In the greater scheme of forensics—and academia—there is an understanding that work must be original, or there are consequences. The answers lie, perhaps, in investigating each component.

Guidelines for literary interpretation categories often speak to the fidelity of cutting, ensuring adaptations are made for the purposes of continuity, and that authorial intent is upheld. So, is there an intellectual protection of the cutting itself? The creative process that goes into cutting certainly would seem to justify that mindset. Each reader brings different experiences and perspectives to the literature they encounter, so one person’s attempt at cutting may hone in on different plot moments, character, etc., than another person’s.

While adjudicators are offered some general guidance in terms of expected standards, much of style and substance is left to subjectivity, particularly in interpretive events. Of course, there are unwritten norms and expectations that pervade the forensic community, including that performance must have some degree of original interpretation to it (hence the use of the term in the title of such forensic categories/events). That is why students today may avoid popular stage plays or screenplays as well as classic works too well known within the canon of literary studies. They tire of reading comments from adjudicators asserting their performance is too similar to a famous actor or does not explore the character in the way the adjudicator imagined it when reading that work. Within Connolly’s framework, adjudicators are hesitant toward influence and inspiration that might inform the student’s interpretation, and will rate those contestants accordingly.

Then there’s the whole notion of mimicking performance by other forensic contestants. Several adjudicators may not have seen videos of performances that have been mimicked, so it is difficult for them to weigh that in their rank decision. Therefore, contestants imitating others’ cuttings, blocking, and other mannerisms may go an entire tournament and earn success by standing on the shoulders of other students’ creative efforts. Assuming most coaches would agree this is unethical and a brand of academic dishonesty, it begs the question of what penalty should befall a student who mimic’s another’s forensic performance.

Some proactive discussion among coaches regarding performance plagiarism may help raise awareness of this problem and encourage students and adjudicators alike to be cognizant of mimicry and avoid it in developing original interpretations.


Connolly, N. (2007). “Theatre and Academic Honesty.” International Baccalaureate/International Schools Theatre Association Training Materials.

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Updated on 01/02/2024
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