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Dreaming of Theatre History: Pedagogy in the Trenches

by and on August 18th, 2014

Participants at the Theatre History and Theatre as a Liberal Art Focus Group Preconference “Dreaming of Theatre History: Pedagogy in the Trenches” met at the ATHE conference in Scottsdale in July 2014 to address the challenges faced in teaching theatre history in higher education through papers and roundtable discussions. Preconference Co-Organizers James Brandon and Jeanne Wilcoxon report.

Representing large research universities, two-year community colleges and small liberal arts institutions, participants clearly faced different challenges based on institutional support and departmental mission (e.g., a small department that only has the resources to offer one hybrid course of theatre history, literature and theory confronts different curricular questions than a department that can offer a dedicated theatre history sequence of four courses) but shared concerns about the state of theatre history and pedagogy in higher education.  While several of these shared concerns are familiar from past discussions on this subject (e.g., is a topical or chronological approach more effective in teaching theatre history?), the challenge of teaching underprepared and unengaged students, working with technology in the classroom and surviving in the current neoliberal landscape of higher education, are recent and vital concerns that animated discussion throughout the preconference.

Advocating “embodied practices” and project-based work in the classroom as being both a solution to the problem of student disengagement and as particularly appropriate to the discipline of theatre, panelists presented assignments designed to energize the classroom as a space of creative inquiry.  Their assignments, which taught students to think critically about the process of making history and actively analyze historical event and text through creative performances and productions (v. more traditional reading and research assignments), provoked discussion on how far we should focus on sparking student engagement.  Are we, in our efforts to engage, diminishing the rich and difficult labor of learning, a process that does and should challenge comfort levels?  Given that our participants ranged from tenured professors to adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants, a very real concern voiced was the impact of the student course evaluation on the career of the instructor:  a poor evaluation from a disgruntled “consumer” could potentially lead to the instructor’s dismissal. In the current corporate climate of higher education, how can we resist the conceptualization of the student as consumer who is satisfied only when sufficiently amused (the professor as entertainer)?  Yet, as was a theme throughout the larger ATHE conference, how can we still reach out to engage students in a process of learning v. simply reiterate classroom practices that, by failing to engage students, fail to teach?

Several papers asked us to rethink how we teach theatre history.  Challenging both topical and chronological approaches, Rick Jones from Stephen F. Austin State University proposed “teaching theatre history backwards,” leading students to discover the connections to the past that animate the present through a genealogical organization of the theatre history course.  Two papers addressed how we can use the web as a communal learning space for students (e.g., group dramaturgical projects on the web as a way to share student work) and as an online archival resource for our courses.  At the same time, there was discussion on the potential costs of using that technology: increased institutional spending to hire IT staff and purchase up-to-date technology, as well as the time required inside and outside the classroom for students and faculty members to learn constantly evolving technology.

At the heart of this preconference was the question of what must be, and can only be, taught to our students through the teaching of theatre history. Why is learning theatre history necessary for the theatre major and for the general education of the non-major? While discussion often centered on the designated theatre history course, the process of historicization, which is political in its insistent revelation of change and the possibility of change, can be and, for several participants, is taught in a wide range of theatre or performance courses.  However, some participants, still facing the challenge of convincing colleagues that the discipline of theatre can be an integrated study of both practice and theory, are fighting to even keep a course on theatre history in the curriculum for the theatre major. James Brandon (Hillsdale College) and Mark E. Lococo (Loyola University) offered strategies and rationales for placing theatre history at the core of the theatre major in their institutions.

Perhaps because the theatre history course itself is in danger of elimination, or perhaps because the topical approach to teaching theatre history has allowed for a cracking of the previously pervasive Eurocentric canon, the provincialism that Marvin Carlson and Steve Tillis have criticized in the American teaching of theatre history, and the cultural elitism in theatre studies cited by, among others, David Savran and Stacy Wolf, did not figure largely in the discussions[1]. While textbooks and anthologies, usual suspects of discussion, dropped out of the conversation, there was debate about the centrality of plays to the theatre history course.  Could a course be taught without plays, focusing instead on primary documents that would teach students the history through examining the material practice of making theatre? This returned us to the question of institutional support and resources.  For several participants, due to budgetary cuts, the theatre history course is also the dramatic literature course (or, in one case, the film and media studies course).   Interestingly, Marvin Carlson’s plea two decades ago to give up the battle for disciplinary “turf” is being answered today through the forced revamping of curriculum and the reorganization of fine arts departments into interdisciplinary units.[2] However, participants echoed Carlson’s attendant warning in that same essay: if we aren’t able to “clearly say what distinguishes theatre history” from other histories, we are in danger of having administrators make that definition and, potentially, erase that practice from the ever-more-arid landscape of higher education.

Co-organizers:

James Brandon (Hillsdale College) and Jeanne Willcoxon (St. Olaf College)

Note: a more extensive version of this report can be found at the Theatre History Focus Group blog on the ATHE website.


[1] See:  Tillis, Steve (March 2007).  “Remapping Theatre History.”  Theatre Topics 17 (1): 1-19; Tillis, Steve (November 2012).  “The Case Against World Theatre History.”  New Theatre Quarterly 28 (4): 379-391; Carlson, Marvin (November 2004).  “Become Less Provincial.”  Theatre Survey 45 (2): 177-180; Savran, David (November 2004).  “Towards a Historiography of the Popular.” Theatre Survey 45 (2): 211-217; Wolf, Stacy (March 2007).  “In Defense of Pleasure: Musical Theatre History in the Liberal Arts [A Manifesto].” Theatre Topics 17 (1): 51-60.

[2] Carlson, Marvin (Summer 1995).  “Theatre History, Methodology and Distinctive Features.”  Theatre Research International 20 (2): 90-96.

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Now available on Project MUSE – Canadian Theatre Review 159, Summer 2014 “Digital Performance”

by on August 11th, 2014

Canadian Theatre Review
Volume 159, Summer 2014
http://bit.ly/PMctr159

Also available at CTR Online

Digital Performance

Edited by Peter Kuling and Laura Levin

CTR 159 focuses on the vibrant experimentations with digital technology that are taking place within the performance field. In line with CTR’s interest in covering new directions in theatre, the issue explores how digital technologies are leading performance into new physical and virtual spaces. Plays are now routinely staged online and on social media platforms; site-specific shows use cellphone texting on city streets; and players engage in complex performances of self in the imaginative worlds of video games. CTR 159 stresses the social and political dimensions of theatrical encounters with “new” technologies and interrogates the role digital media plays in providing individuals from historically marginalized communities with DIY forms of self-expression.

Scripts featured in this issue include LANDLINE: From Halifax to Vancouver by Dustin Harvey and Adrienne Wong, a cellphone performance experienced simultaneously by spectators on opposite sides of the country, and How iRan: Three Plays for iPod by Ken Cameron, a shuffleable audio play on imprisoned Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan.

The issue also features excerpts from the theatrical experiments of Praxis Theatre—such as Section 98, an open source play that invites audiences to respond electronically to the show as it develops—and a slideshow surveying the use of digital technologies by theatre companies from across Canada.

For more information about the Canadian Theatre Review, please visit us at www.canadiantheatrereview.com

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New at Modern Drama Online

by on June 19th, 2014

Modern Drama Volume 57, Number 2 /2014
http://bit.ly/572smd

This issue contains:

The Chronotopic Dynamics of Ibsen’s Pillars of Society: The Triumph of Industrialism, or How Drama Becomes History
Erinç Özdemir
http://bit.ly/572amd

Ventriloquist Theatre and the Omniscient Narrator: Gatz and El pasado es un animal grotesco
Barbara Fuchs
http://bit.ly/572bmd

Parody, E.E. Cummings, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
James M. Cherry
http://bit.ly/572cmd

“A Little History Here, a Little Hollywood There”: (Counter-)Identifying with the Spanish Fantasy in Carlos Morton‘s Rancho Hollywood and Theresa Chavez’s L.A. Real
Courtney Elkin Mohler
http://bit.ly/572dmd

“Remove Your Mask”: Character Psychology in Introspective Musical Theatre – Sondheim’s Follies, LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, and Stew’s Passing Strange
Alisa Roost
http://bit.ly/572emd

Rethinking Sarah Kane’s Characters: A Human(ist) Form and Politics
Louise LePage
http://bit.ly/572fmd

Reviews
http://bit.ly/572gmd

Sean Carney, The Politics and Poetics of Contemporary English Tragedy, reviewed by Lily Cui

Leslie Atkins Durham, Women’s Voices on American Stages in the Early Twenty-First Century: Sarah Ruhl and Her Contemporaries, reviewed by Miriam Chirico

Siyuan Liu, Performing Hybridity in Colonial-Modern China, reviewed by Jen-Hao Hsu

Carol Martin, Theatre of the Real, reviewed by Liz Tomlin

Vassiliki Rapti, Ludics in Surrealist Theatre and Beyond, reviewed by Johanna Malt

Liz Tomlin, Acts and Apparitions: Discourses on the Real in Performance Practice and Theory, 1990-2010, reviewed by Miriam Felton-Dansky

Sara Warner, Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure, reviewed by Jessica Del Vecchio

Maurya Wickstrom, Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism: Thinking the Political Anew, reviewed by Jason Fitzgerald

Modern Drama was founded in 1958 and is the most prominent journal in English to focus on dramatic literature. The terms “modern” and “drama” are the subject of continuing and fruitful debate, but the journal has been distinguished by the excellence of its close readings of both canonical and lesser-known dramatic texts from a range of methodological perspectives. The journal features refereed articles written from a variety of geo-political points of view which enhance our understanding, both formal and historical, of the dramatic literature of the past two centuries; there is also an extensive book review section.

Complete Modern Drama Online archive now available! Modern Drama Online is a fully searchable electronic resource, featuring a complete archive of regular and special themed issues. The archive contains over 3000 articles and reviews dating back to 1958.

For submissions information, please contact the editor at:
Modern Drama Editorial Office
c/o Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies
214 College Street, 3rd Floor (room 326)
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M5T 2Z9
Fax: 416-971-1378
Email: modern.drama@utoronto.ca

For further information, please contact

Modern Drama

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19th Century Acts: Digital Visualizations and Crowdsourcing

by on April 18th, 2014

Theatre history, like the theatre practice, aggregates across disciplinary boundaries. Each theatrical reconstruction involves excavating multiple sources: physical artifacts, spoken text, voices, gestures, designs, and audience response. Some of this cannot be recovered. Nevertheless historians assemble what they find and construct meaning around it. In this process, the computer functions as a tool for identifying and assembling information. Libraries and universities generally use static catalog-style listings to retrieve and display research materials even though post-millennial students, familiar with iPhone and iPad apps, prefer visual and tactile technologies. My hope is to encourage the use of dynamic technologies in theatre history research.

This year I am working with a team of undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Michigan with backgrounds in history, informatics, art and design, and theatre.  Collectively we are developing a prototype web-based, interactive tool called 19thcenturyacts.  The goal is to create an interesting and interactive visualization to track the life, travels, performances, cultural context and repertoire of the nineteenth-century actor Ira Aldridge as a prototype for other nineteenth century biography projects. Aldridge is one of the most documented African American performers who lived prior to the digital age. His global excursions epitomize African American cultural fluency during the nineteenth century.

Playbill from Aldridge’s performance at Covent Garden, 1833

 Playbill from Aldridge’s performance at Covent Garden, 1833 <http://digproj.libraries.uc.edu:8180/luna/servlet/s/s4g1g9>

Performance histories of non-western or working class people tend to be misrepresented within, or absent from mainstream archives.  Paul Conway posits “In the Age of Google non-digital content does not exist, and digital content with no impact is unlikely to survive[i].”  Preservation of digital content depends upon funding sources and some projects, usually works by “great” dramatists (Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov), receive more resources. In this rush to digitize the familiar are non-textual or ethnic pre-twentieth century performances excluded from the archive?

One would hope not. As I reverse my thinking I can see that the Internet and its social networks encourage local communities to develop unique archives of crowd sourced, culturally specific materials. A jarocho music aficionado can, through blogs and user-networks, collect and disseminate digital materials that document performance practices within specialized interest groups. Accessing and redistributing in-group materials digitally merges archiving and distribution needs. Practices of crowdsourcing a performance history for ethnic performance hold possibilities for an ongoing, dynamic archive of non-mainstream theatrics. Such an archive of un-vetted resources, while broad in scope, may also consist of repeated visual motifs only marginally connected to original historical referents.

Recently, in support of a class lecture, I initiated a YouTube search for the nineteenth century dancer Juba thinking I would find documentary or media reconstructions of Master Henry Lane or John Diamond or perhaps the folkloric dance “Juba” attributed to the African American trickster character of Juba. Instead, YouTube provided links to rehearsals of a British tap dancer named Master Juba, a clip from the musical Stormy Weather, harmonic riffs by blues musician Guy Davis, and field footage of a dance festival in the Southern Sudan. These performance snippets document a historical archive of Juba simulacra far removed from a point of historical origin. While the visual documents may indeed belong in a collection of Juba-esque materials, they are quite removed from the original referent. Is there a scholarly collection of performance documents as vividly evocative or universally accessible as the YouTube site? I think not.

My “call” is for universities, museums and libraries to develop dynamic visual tools that make information accessible in interactive ways, and to provide context for crowd sourced digital data about the theatre. A fire hose of digital information inundates us. Without human mediation the overload of data creates a nonsensical cacophony. Are there new possibilities for editing within crowd source systems or within computer generated semantic technologies? Responsible custody of performance history demands that archives respond to widespread digital sources, including media and audio materials. If institutions are able to collect, collate, curate and then display data in dynamic and easily accessible formats then users and preservationist will both benefit.


[i] Conway, P. (2010). “Preservation in the Age of Google: Digitization, Digital Preservation, and Dilemmas.” The Library Quarterly 80 (1): 61-79.

 

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Canadian Theatre Review 158, Spring 2014 “Burlesque” now available

by on April 15th, 2014

cover-mediumBurlesque

Edited by Shelley Scott and Reid Gilbert

CTR#158 offers an extended conversation about burlesque in Canada, from archival photos and historical contextualization to the most current interpretations of what neo-burlesque can be and what it can do. The audacious urban experience of Montreal lives beside the off-the-grid exuberance of Lasqueti Island. The details of costume construction in ancouver are considered alongside legal definitions that dictatecostumes in Calgary.

The issue offers an in-depth exploration of Toronto’s Operation Snatch, formerly The Scandelles, with two articles that chart the company’s trajectory from burlesque to political cabaret, a Scandelles script, and an interview with founder Alexandra Tigchelaar. Also exclusively online, Adriana Disman has curated a dialogue among socially conscious performers using neo-burlesque for social change. Whether conveying the experience of a male burlesque performer or drawing parallels with the community-building appeal of roller derby, the authors in this issue dissect, interrogate, and expand the definitions of burlesque.

Click here to read the editorial and view the full table of contents.

 

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