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A Raisin in the Classroom

by on December 10th, 2017

Why is Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play, A Raisin in the Sun, not found in the major drama anthologies many universities use for survey classes? Its absence is problematic, given its important place in drama history and literature, which is why we must make an extra effort to get the play into our students’ hands and into classroom learning.

There are so many ways to teach Raisin on the college level. Clearly, the approach you take depends on the learning goals for the department, the class, and the students you are teaching. Are they theatre majors or non-majors? Did they read Raisin in high school and is this, therefore, an opportunity to go deeper into content and context? Is this a US drama survey class and/or a class focusing on race? Is this a script analysis or a theatre history class?

I’ve taught A Raisin in the Sun in two different contexts. In my intro class focusing on staging race and racism, the students had not read Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog (1938) or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). Therefore, our class discussion focused on the repeated tropes we had identified throughout the semester: across genres and historical periods, playwrights emphasize language and the body to mark racial specificity. In addition, Ta-Nehisi Cotes’s “The Case for Reparations” had recently been published, and therefore the topic of systemic racism and economic justice was particularly topical.

In my Modern US Drama class, students brought much more background about US history and performance context to Hansberry’s text. They had read about the Negro Little Theatre movement, the Federal Theatre Project, and were assigned Big White Fogand Death of a Salesman. Therefore, our discussion of Raisin focused on real estate, the nuclear family, masculinity, the agency of female characters, and commercial versus non-commercial theatre.

I’ve listed several assignment ideas/prompts for teaching Raisin.

  1. Analyze the ways in which Hansberry’s drama does or does not fit W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1926 call for “a real Negro theatre” to be “about us,” “by us,” “for us,” and “near us.” Would you categorize Raisin as a “propaganda play” in Du Bois’s definition or a “folk play” in Alain Locke’s definition?
  2. Compare and contrast with Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog (1938).
    1. What do these continuities and differences tell us about pre-WWII and post-WWII racial politics in the United States?
    2. How do Ward and Hansberry use time as a dramatic tool for staging changes in Black American domestic life?
    3. What is the significance of Chicago as a geographical location in both plays?
    4. How is the Great Migration staged through geography and character?
    5. Why include the third generation? What is at stake having children on stage?
    6. How is Africa taken up in each play and how does that impact the dramatic action? How does it connect to international postcolonial movements? Assign p.903 of “To Be(come) Young, Gay, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry’s Existentialist Routes to Anticolonialism” by Cheryl Higashida and discuss why the FBI would file a report focusing on Asagai’s character.
    7. How did the different performance contexts of the Chicago Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Unit and, two decades later, a commercial production on Broadway, impact reception?
  3. If you have taught Harlem Renaissance drama and the works of Langston Hughes, start with his poem “Harlem.”
  4. Compare and contrast with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), emphasizing staging the domestic space and heterosexual marriage. This can be done, for instance, by comparing Miller and Hansberry’s very precise stage directions. I also like comparing the famous “eggs” exchange between Ruth and Walter in Act I, scene 1 of Raisin with Linda and Willy’s breakfast discussion at the top of Act II.
  5. Assign the original New York Times review of A Raisin in the Sun  (raisin-original-review-full-page) for an analysis of content and the impact of visual culture (the review is literally marginalized in a thin column on the edge of the page). The theatre section’s lead story is “Four Examples of The Orient’s Inscrutable Influence on Broadway,” which offers the opportunity to discuss how racism manifests in a variety of ways in theatre.
  6. Trace Raisin‘s production history by using the Internet Broadway Database. This teaches students the production history and how to use an important research tool. It also provides the opportunity to discuss the lineage of performers who have played Lena, Ruth, and Walter Lee Younger. What has Raisin meant to the career opportunities of major African American performers?
  7. Explain restrictive covenant and provide the details of the historic court case Hansberry v. Lee. Have students research an article on a historic or contemporary example of housing discrimination and bring the printed article into class. Accumulate the data presented (location, type of discrimination, who the victims were) on the board or in a Google Doc. How far has the United States come or not come from what Hansberry depicted in 1959?
  8. Discuss Hansberry’s queer politics regarding her membership in the Daughters of Bilitis and writing in Ladder. Assign “Lorraine Hansberry’s Gay Politics” by Kai Wright and adapt this high school lesson plan “Lorraine Hansberry: LGBT Politics and Civil Rights” to your class learning goals. The lesson plan identifies this essential question for students: “What is the relationship between the civil rights movement, women’s rights, and gay rights activism?”
  9. Listen to Hansberry’s June 15, 1964 speech “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” given at a town hall meeting in New York City. What does Hansberry say about the limits of the existing legal structures for combatting injustice? How can we relate this observation to #BlackLivesMatter and current social justice activism?
  10. Screen excerpts from the PBS Learning Media page, “A Raisin in the Sun Revisited.” The brief Mike Wallace interview provides a clear example of the racism and sexism Hansberry faced and seems to impact students and spur productive discussion.

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

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Announcing The Open Theatre: An Introduction to Theatre

by and on December 7th, 2017

The Open Theatre: An Introduction to Theatre was first conceived as Drs. Knowles and Devlin were both prepping summer Introduction to Theatre courses. We were struggling to find a textbook that accomplished everything we needed, was accessible and affordable, and offered dynamic educational resources. As we talked we realized we had wildly different opinions about what an Introduction to Theatre class should accomplish, highlighting the need for something more mutable than a traditional textbook.

Simultaneously, both of our institutions were encouraging the exploration of adopting Open Educational Resources in the classroom. In our estimation, we believe Open Educational Resources are the next great disruptive practice in higher education, and we see an ethical obligation to our students to keep the cost of textbooks low.

Out of these discussions came the idea of creating an open-source (free and accessible), completely customizable Introduction to Theatre book, The Open Theatre. Open became an operative and thematic word for us and keyed into all the needs that we were dealing with: Open Educational Resource (OER), open to change based on instructor design, and open to different kinds and types of content that could/should be included. We envisioned a book that, of course, includes standardized academic materials on basic topics of theatre but might also include scripts, interviews (video or text), organizational charts, manifestos, dramaturgy notes, reviews, historical essays, production case studies, and more. We conceived of a text that actively and creatively resisted dominant narratives offered in an introductory level text: what does an open concept of theatre mean?

As conversations continued, our philosophical investment in the ideas of Open Educational Resources became more clear. Neither of us wanted to write a book to make money, nor did we really think that was possible. Creating a living book and offering it free of charge to anyone interested was highly desirable. It offered the chance to take at least some of the cost out of a theatre course and provide an opportunity to the next generation. The opportunities afforded by cutting costs in higher education are attractive, but we both believe the idea of a living book is more exciting, and the product will ultimately be more responsive and timely. Open, in this case, also means taking the content we are putting together and reworking it in anyway you choose (so long as you remain under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.) It’s about sharing and disseminating knowledge with very few strings attached.

We are committed to creating an open, inclusive, democratic, dynamic, and diverse set of resources for students and educators alike.

Call for Proposals

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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!”

Resources

“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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