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A Multimodal Approach to Teaching A Streetcar Named Desire

by on August 3rd, 2017

I teach a unit on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire that makes use of a variety of adaptations and modalities of the play, and that challenges students’ assumptions about the text with each successive lesson. Key learning objectives include identifying key themes within the play, analyzing characters across different portrayals, and comparing the textual with the visual. The brief descriptions below could be adapted into a variety of classroom activities, including pair-and-share, small group discussions, mind-mapping, student presentations, and so forth. I have incorporated several approaches with these topics.

I assign the play as part of a unit on Modernism, and the students first approach the written text within the context of course themes. For the purpose of this post, I will discuss how I teach the play within a course organized around “borders and margins.” For example, we discuss the way Blanche is marginalized by those around her as a result of her worsening mental illness and, ultimately, her trauma from being raped. We discuss the “borders” of gender and sexuality that are, by turns, both rigidly enforced and blurred.

After our analysis of the play text, we turn to the 1951 film, starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. These discussions afford students the opportunity to see how the film incorporates elements of both Expressionism and Realism while illuminating the themes of marginalization. Additionally, I direct students to observe any differences between the play and the film, which typically sparks a robust conversation about the film’s radically different conclusion between Stanley and Stella.

The third text brought to bear on this unit is the episode “A Streetcar Named Marge” from The Simpsons. This episode centers on a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire (“Oh! Streetcar!”) which the town of Springfield’s community theater puts on, and in which Marge Simpsons stars. The episode finds emotional resonance in the parallels between Homer Simpson and Stanley Kowalski, and from Marge’s increasing marginalization in her own home. The episode also finds great humor in the adaptation of the play, with memorable songs and jokes about bowling. After a screening of this episode, I ask the students why they were laughing—what’s funny about this episode? I realize this seems to be an obvious question, and one that might engender flip responses ranging from “I don’t know” to “I actually didn’t think it was funny.” However, this question usually results in deep analysis on the part of the students to understand both the play itself and the nature of humor and parody.

Finally, after the students have unpacked these various versions of the play, I present them with one final text: a painting by Thomas Hart Benton called Poker Night. Benton saw the original Broadway production of Streetcar and painted Poker Night as a tribute to the cast and production. It centers Blanche, as portrayed by Jessica Tandy, as she admires herself in a hand held mirror. Stella is seen in shadow behind Blanche, and the poker playing men are at the kitchen table. Mitch is staring, captivated by Blanche, while Stanley looks incredulously at Mitch.

I like to have the students first perform a basic visual analysis of the painting: what do you see? how is it lit? where is your eye drawn? etc. They discuss whether this painting seems to match the emotion of the poker night sequence, and if the characters are portrayed in way that matches up with previous analyses.

After discussing the painting on its own merits, I provide them with further context for the painting, which comes from letters exchanged between Williams and Tandy. Williams loved it so much that he wanted to recreate it as a photograph, to which the cast members agreed, except for Tandy. She refused because she disliked what she saw as Benton’s one-sided portrayal of Blanche. Williams assured Tandy she wouldn’t have to be photographed in such a sheer gown, but Tandy said that missed the point. She felt the painting portrayed Blanche as a victim—as solely the object of Stanley’s focus, and in her view, Blanche was too complex to be reduced to an object. (She also worried such a photo would lead playgoers to think the play was only about sex.) To his credit, Williams accepted Tandy’s reasoning, and canceled plans for the photo.

Students find this story interesting, because it offers them new ways to consider Blanche and how she relates to the rest of the characters. Students often point out that the one “error” the painting makes is that it puts Blanche squarely in the light, something the character takes great pains to avoid. Students also debate the portrayal of Stella in the painting; while she is at times overwhelmed by Blanche’s presence, should she really be seen as a cowering figure, behind her sister?

Bringing all these versions of A Streetcar Named Desire together affords students multiple opportunities to see how a dramatic text can be adapted, revised, reinvisioned, and even parodied. The benefit of a multimodal approach is that students who may be potentially disinterested in the play text itself will have several other chances to engage with the text in a way that might seem more interesting to them.

In closing, allow me to leave you with the advice of Blanche du Bois in “Oh! Streetcar!”: “A stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met!”


“A Streetcar Named Marge.” The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season, written by Jeff Martin, directed by Rich Moore, Fox, 1992.

A Streetcar Named Desire. Directed by Elia Kazan, performances by Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, Warner Brothers, 1951.

Benton, Thomas Hart. Poker Night, 1948, tempera and oil on linen, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City. http://collection.whitney.org/object/4174

Devlin, Albert and Nancy Tischler, Editors. Selected Letters: Volume II, 1945-1957. New Directions, 2007.

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Real Time Research: The Hairy Ape

by on July 18th, 2017

Louis Wolheim as Robert Smith, “Yank.” Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL

This is an account of one lesson plan’s pivot from slide presentation to real time research.

I wanted to make a slide show of production stills from the 1922 production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. I imagined the students being brought into the creative decisions made by the Provincetown Players as we looked at the New York Public Library’s digital collection of slides together. We would analyze set design and lighting choices, as well as the gesture and physicality of the actors. It would be a great way to show students what the NYPL’s massive digitization project has made available.

Louis Wolheim as Robert Smith, “Yank.” Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL.

Then I stopped myself. If I showed students the production stills in an assembled slide show, it would continue to obscure the process of using digital tools to find archival materials. Wouldn’t it be better if students located the images themselves?

They already had their laptops in class since we read the freely available script from eOneill.com. We spent a good portion of class discussing the episodic structure, the specificity of O’Neill’s stage directions, his use of language to mark ethnicity and class, and the staging of white working-class masculinity in contrast to Mildred’s white-dress wealth.

Then we discussed production options and the dilemma of the gorilla. How would they stage Scene VIII at the zoo? Is the gorilla meant to be a mirror or a contrast to Yank? Therefore, should the two figures be close in size or quite different? What are the aesthetic and political risks in staging the gorilla? Students identified a variety of problems with using a gorilla suit, including it becoming humorous and disrupting the pathos of Yank’s existential alienation. “Too literal / realistic” was another problem.

Finally, I asked students to get in pairs and google “NYPL Digital Collections.” They quickly chose the most obvious search phrase, the title of the play, and were amazed to see 21 actual production stills, like precious messages from the Provincetown Players from 94 years ago. In pairs, students clicked through the images, selected their favorite, and then did a low-stakes  freewrite about the image: what they saw, what they liked about it, and what it told them about the original production. We then discussed several teams’ responses while looking at their chosen image projected on the screen at the front of the classroom.

Louis Wolheim as Yank. Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL.

This exercise brought the material to life, energized the classroom with visual culture and production discussions, and fostered community building among students who collaborated to analyze the production stills. Crucial to my learning goals, it introduced the process of digital research to students in a low-stakes atmosphere.

This post was originally published on https://catherineyoung.net/

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New Arthur Miller Dissertation Database

by on July 10th, 2017

As a means of encouraging those interested in Arthur Miller studies, the Arthur Miller Society decided to provide a database of all the dissertations that have been written on Miller’s work since the very first in 1949 through to the current day (mostly taken from WorldCat, with some additions from other bibliographic sources). The plan is to update this each year to keep it current. This includes BA Honors, MA and PhD. both in English and other languages. Browsing through the list offers an excellent sense of what has been well-covered, suggests interesting directions only minimally considered that might be worth further pursuit, and provides a useful springboard to new ideas informed by what has already been tried or accomplished. As you will see, these dissertations cover a lot more territory than existing print critical publications on Miller.  This database can be found on the society website: http://arthurmillersociety.net/dissertations/

Our hope is to generate more conference papers and publications on the playwright to ensure that this seminal American playwright is fully considered in terms of what he offered the public through his varied writings, which go far beyond just Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, great though those two works might be. Aside from more than two-dozen other plays, many of them excellent and covering a diversity of styles, he published a fair amount of fiction and non-fiction, too. The society has its own journal, published through Penn State–Arthur Miller Journal—that publishes critical essays, notes, book and production reviews and welcomes submissions from scholars at all levels (including undergraduates if worthwhile), and submits panels to a variety of conferences on a regular basis. Details about the Journal, CFP, other Miller events, teaching guides, links, as well as a wealth of other Miller related material is all available for free on the Miller Society website, which is regularly updated and maintained. http://arthurmillersociety.net/home-page/. We also recently set up a Miller Society Facebook page to be able to get out the word about calls for papers, upcoming productions and recent Miller related publications at: https://www.facebook.com/arthurmillersociety/

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Performing Religion — A Special Issue of Performance Matters

by on June 20th, 2017

Religion and theater, religious studies and performance studies–these practices and fields share multiple, sometimes contentious, points of connection. From a content perspective, at least within theater studies, research on the relationship between religion and theater has often focused either on the possibility that plays evolved from liturgical practices or on the phenomenon of antitheatrical sentiment. Methodologically, performance studies inherits to an important degree its impetus to study off-stage role-playing, seeing, and self-representation from the interest in ritual that animated the collaborations between Victor Turner and Richard Schechner. Yet, despite the importance of religion as player in theater history and ritual theory as a resource within performance studies, scholarship on religious performance has occupied a relatively marginal position in the field. As Lance Gharavi argues in his excellent introduction to Religion, Theatre, and Performance: Acts of Faith (2012), the lack of readings and courses related to religion in the standard curriculum offered by graduate programs in theater and performance studies attests to this marginal status (5). The last decade, however, and especially the years between 2012-2014, have witnessed an exciting renewal of scholarly attention to the intersections between religion and performance, with edited collections by Gharavi and by Claire Maria Chambers, Simon W. du Toit, Joshua Edelman (2012), an Ecumenica special issue on “Critical Terms in Religion, Spirituality, and Performance” (2014), and monographs by Edmund Lingan (2014), John Fletcher, (2013) and Jill Stevenson (2013).

The current issue of Performance Matters builds on this momentum by gathering articles, essays, creative works, and field notes on the theme “Performing Religion.” Its contributors to the Articles section offer a medieval theory of religious emotion, a history of the immersive game “Romans and Christians” in Protestant youth camps, an analysis of the liturgical practices of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and a study of Ignatius of Loyola’s influence on early modern French hagiographic drama. The Forum Section gathers reflection pieces on religion and theater as “folk categories,” on Trump’s evangelicals, on Jonathan Goodluck’s piety, and on the recuperation of religion in art history. Finally, the Materials Section features a video and script of Angela Latham’s original autoethnographic play Jesus Camp Queen, along with an artist reflection and reviews, followed by excerpts from Richard Schechner’s field notes on the Ramlila of Ramnagar.

We invite you to take a look!

Performance Matters
Vol 3, No 1 (2017): Special Issue: Performing Religion
Table of Contents

Editorial Notes
Introduction: Performing Religion (1-6)
Joy Palacios

Sacred Feeling: A Dramaturgy of Religious Emotion (7-18)
Donnalee Dox and Amber Dunai

Romans and Christians: Bearing Witness and Performing Persecution in Bible Camp Simulations (19-38)
Scott Magelssen and Ariaga Mucek

“I Name Myself in Power”: The Roman Catholic Womenpriests and the Performance of Relational Authority (39-61)
Claire Maria Chambers

Awakening Imagination: Glimpses of Ignatian Spirituality in Seventeeth-Century French Hagiographic Theatre (62-87)
Ana Fonseca Conboy

Blaspheming Against Ourselves: Folk Categories in Religion and Theatre (88-93)
Lance Gharavi

Deep Stories of the Demonized: Empathy and Trump Evangelicals (94-102)
John Fletcher

Goodluck the Performer (103-111)
Ebenezer Obadare

Recuperating Religion in Art History:  Contemporary Art History, Performance, and Christian Jankowski’s The Holy Artwork (112-115)
Karen Gonzalez Rice

Jesus Camp Queen (116-131)
Angela J Latham

Fundamental Femininity in Performance: An Artist’s Reflection on “Jesus Camp Queen” (132-137)
Angela J Latham

Performing Fugue: Desire, Denial, and Death in Jesus Camp Queen (138-142)
Patrick Santoro

Jesus Camp Queen and the Performance of (Fundamentalist Christian) Gender (143-146)
Julie Ingersoll

Encountering the Ramlila of Ramnagar: From Fieldnotes in 1978 and 2013 (147-156)
Richard Schechner


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Live: The Current Issue of Theatre/Practice

by on April 27th, 2017

Dear colleagues:

The current issue of Theatre/Practice is now live! It features the following:

and a special section of graphic notes:

Take a look and please consider submitting your work for the 2018 issue!



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