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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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New at Modern Drama Advance Online

by on March 17th, 2014

The Haunted Stage of Summer and Smoke: Tennessee Williams’s Forgotten Silent Film Sequences 
Sophie Maruéjouls-Koch

Recent re-evaluation of Tennessee Williams’s late plays has brought to light another side of the playwright, an avant-garde impulse ignored by his contemporaries because it did not match his image as a poetic realist. Read more… 

Mac Wellman’s Antigone: The Hegelian Theme
Michael Shaw

Mac Wellman, the contemporary American playwright, has said that there is a lot of George Steiner’s Antigones (where Steiner discusses the influence of Sophocles’s play on later writers and philosophers) in his Antigone of 2000. Read more… 

The Philippine Komedya and the Recuperation of the Cosmopolitan: From Colonial Legacy to Cross-Cultural Encounter
Sir Anril P. Tiatco

This article critiques the komedya vis-à-vis its institutionalization as national theatre form and proposes a cosmopolitan alternative in the critique. Read more… 

From Laundries to Labour Camps: Staging Ireland’s “Rule of Silence” in Anu Production’s Laundry
Miriam Haughton

Anu Productions premiered their site-specific devised performance Laundry in the former Magdalene Laundry building on Lower Seán McDermott Street, as part of their four-part artistic investigation of this historical city centre district at the 2011 Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. Read more… 

Tragedy and Theatricality in The Island
Christian Dahl

The article discusses the theoretical and generic problems of defining classical and modern tragedy vis à vis contemporary re-adaptations of Greek tragedy. Read more… 

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University of Toronto Press Journals Advance Online…  
Early access to the latest research

Articles published online ahead of print issue publication have become a staple in many fields where new research is being published at a fast rate. To meet the challenges of the current academic publishing world, articles accepted for publication can now be copy-edited, typeset, and posted online immediately through UTP Journals Advance Online. With this new initiative, advance versions of articles will be available online within weeks rather than months of final manuscript submission. We are excited to offer this service to our contributors and readers of Modern Drama.

Complete Modern Drama Online archive now available!
Modern Drama‘s complete archive of regular and special themed issues – including over 3000 articles and reviews, from 1958 to present – is now available online.

This comprehensive electronic resource of dramatic literature is now available at: Project MUSE  and  Modern Drama Online

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Towards a Mentoring Manifesto: Graduate Students and a Call to Mentor

by on February 11th, 2014

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. No, wait. Actually, stop me if you’ve lived this before. A student takes a theatre class his freshman year. It starts as a means to an end: fulfilling a GE, but with an interesting subject. The professor is amazing—funny, engaging, articulate, brilliant. She changes the student’s life, altering his life path away from law school aspirations and towards ambitions in academia. The student later works with the professor as a TA, absorbing the content and style of her teaching. And she advises him as he attends conferences, meets scholars, applies to PhD programs, and finishes his thesis. The professor guides and instructs in a way that introduces the student into a world where they are colleagues. In short, she mentored.

So yes, perhaps, the details are a bit individuated to my personal experience, though I trust the tale remains familiar enough amongst this crowd—whether you have played the part of the student or the professor. One coda I might add, however, is the joy that comes with seeing the former mentor at conferences. We were actually enjoying one such reunion at a dinner one evening in Nashville during ASTR’s 2012 conference; but I had to excuse myself so I could attend the membership meeting for the Graduate Student Caucus (GSC). That evening, the incoming president of ASTR, Dr. Heather Nathans, addressed the graduate students present. She invited us to—among other things—rethink how most of us might approach mentoring … to reconsider the model of mentorship known so well in stories like I shared above. She asked us not only to pursue relationships where we receive mentorship “from above,” but rather also to explore and create opportunities where graduate students themselves do the mentoring.

I struggled with this call to action. Not that I disagreed with its intent or philosophy. I simply lacked vision of what it would look like in execution. For my short time in this field, an apprenticeship model—like the one between my former professor and myself—was all I knew. So, I did what we do in academia: I asked a question. I asked what this might look like. President Nathans explained that the New Paradigms committee in ASTR suggested one example: an instance where concerns and initiatives of graduate students resulted in an ad hoc committee that eventually became instituted as a standing committee; one that has had a significant impact on the institutional organization of ASTR, its conference, and conversations in the field(s) of theatre and performance studies. So, what other ways might graduates students actively serve as mentors? in ASTR specifically or our field of study more generally?

These questions became a central conversation in the monthly meetings of the GSC’s leadership between the conferences in Nashville and Dallas. At the time, I served as one of the two Vice-Presidents, with Kellyn Johnson as President, Eero Laine as the other Vice-President, Michelle Mensah as Secretary, and Michael Morris as the Representative to the New Paradigms Committee. Soon after the conference, we discussed this call issued on mentorship and the topic more broadly. At the time, we were also revising a variety of mentoring-focused programs that take place at ASTR, including efforts to arrange opportunities for graduate students to meet both with faculty mentors at other institutions and graduate student mentors.

Early in our conversations we discussed having a larger deliberation of what exactly mentoring is, particularly in relation to our field and in ASTR. Great work has been done in years past by our counterparts in ATHE’s subcommittee for graduate students; resulting in a wonderful publication on the topic by Jill Dolan in the March 2013 issue of Theatre Topics. There are also plenty of other academic organizations which have produced great resources on mentoring; the Southern Association for Women Historians (http://thesawh.org/mentoring-toolkit/) is one great example. We hoped that one way that the GSC could, in fact, heed President Nathans’ call for graduate students to take an active role in mentoring would be to organize a panel on mentoring that would eventually result in an ASTR Mentoring Manifesto—a document that could define and describe what mentoring looks like in our field of study and in ASTR specifically; a document that would serve not only graduate students entering the field, but also scholars across all stages in career. We also intended this Manifesto to become a document that would add to the other resources housed on ASTR’s new website.

Throughout the year, ideas for the panel developed. We explored whether to pursue a working session model or submit the idea as a career session. Ultimately, we went with the latter for a number of reasons, one being because it had already been decided that the 2013 conference would allocate two time slots for career sessions. Since we hoped the resulting document would appeal to various members of the organization, we decided to assemble a panel of participants at various stages of their careers: scholars, people working outside the academy, and graduate students. Eventually, we invited Stacy Wolf, Scott Magelssen, Heather Barfield, and David Calder to share their thoughts on mentoring. Rather than generating a single set of questions for all participants, the GSC leadership generated three to four questions for each specific participant. We then encouraged our panelists to choose which questions they would like to address for a few minutes.

Some of the questions we included:

  • What are different models of mentoring?
  • Why pursue someone as a mentor rather than as a colleague?
  • In mentoring within the humanities, there are often topics, which might be part of a mentoring toolkit in any discipline. This might include advice on teaching, conferencing, seeking funding, working on publications, completing the dissertation, balancing time between work and life, and considering professional development both inside and outside of the academy. What might be other topics of mentorship?
  • Are there topics related specifically to the fields of theatre and performance studies?
  • How do members of ASTR build mentoring relationships with individuals beyond the academy?
  • How can ASTR shape or contribute to such relationships?
  • What is helpful for graduate students or junior faculty to know while seeking a mentor?
  • Jill Dolan expresses the traits of a mentor should include someone who can be brutally honest while communicating willingly and in a timely fashion. What traits might you add?
  • What traits should a mentee have?

The career session was held on the Saturday morning of the conference. And as I am sure was the case for the other sessions, attendance was low. However, the GSC leadership is very grateful for the thoughts shared by the panelists and the open discussion we were able to have afterwards. Though I cannot share everything that was shared here, hopefully the sentiments will soon be available in our forthcoming manifesto. For now, here are some highlights taken from my own notes and those of Michelle Mensah.

  • Stacy Wolf discussed the importance of thinking of mentoring basically as when someone who knows something imparts that knowledge to someone who does not yet have that information, knowledge or skill. And that they tend to occur at transitional moment. She also addressed that mentoring relationships can exist in different temporalities—some can last over a several year arc and others can occur while working on a single project or even just for the span of a conference. Mentoring relationships can have import even when they take after these briefer models. She suggests that a mentee needs to be brave and ask for specific advice; but also mentors need to be clear about what they can and what they cannot take on at certain times.
  • Scott Magelssen spoke towards the distinction between the organic and institutional models of mentoring that we tend to have. He also addressed the vulnerability inherent to mentoring relationships and which is a bit different than other professional relationships we form. Suggesting the need for the field to foster an environment of support, he acknowledged an equal need to avoid building an illusion that mentors are superheroes that can rescue. Rather than a single mentor model, he suggested building a family of mentors, one filled with relationships that wax and wane. I cannot recall if it was during his comments or later during the discussion, but he also addressed the reality that this will mean sometimes receiving advice from different mentors that is completely contradictory and the need to learn how to navigate that.
  • Heather Barfield addressed that one avenue the organization could pursue is mentoring artists. Her work specifically addresses that in guiding artists through the processes and realities of applying for grants. But she suggested that this could be a sentiment that ASTR explored as an organization—finding ways the organization could mentor artists. She also addressed the aspect of self-mentoring; that in looking for work outside the academy, one might need to train oneself in order to do certain jobs. The training of a PhD puts you in a position to do that, but then you need to be able and willing to put in the effort to do that.
  • David Calder spoke to the variety of mentors as well: institutional academic advisor, scholarly mentors, and professional development guides. He addressed the significance of a mentor’s capacity to invite the mentee to become the better version of him- or herself. A mentor continues to help the mentee believe their best work is just around the corner. One piece of advice he suggested was that mentees recognize and respect the other mentees their mentor has.

Two recurring ideas were a need to think of mentorship in more flexible terms (particular in terms of longevity) and the power of thinking of mentoring as something that you do, not something you are. Mentoring takes place in actions. Looking over a specific document; asking a particular question; encouraging and critiquing in certain ways.

I personally found in David’s remarks something that resonated with a question I had going into the session and that I would like to see articulated in our forthcoming Manifesto: how does the specificity of theatre and performance studies shape what mentoring looks like in ASTR? And there’s something about what David said about a mentor helping a mentee envision a better self—it just reminded me of Victor Turner’s work on performance’s capacity to create a “subjunctive mood.” Are there other vocabularies or methodologies of our field that might inform how we think about the shape or execution of mentorship?

Towards the end of the session, Dr. Robin Bernstein explained that in the current state of the field, with more graduate students wanting to find out how to get work outside of the academy, she is being asked to mentor students in something that she does not currently know how to do. I do not know how to answer that concern. And I do not know that my colleagues in the leadership of the GSC have a response for it yet either. However, we are hoping to explore the possibility of putting together another panel that might address something like that. We might not be able to tell faculty what to tell us in regards to new paradigms; however, graduate students might be able to provide the effort to organize something that might in turn provide training for beleaguered mentors. As we work towards framing our Manifesto, the leadership of the GSC is also invested in the practical exploration of how we can provide mentorship as well as receive it.

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Medievalisms: The Theme Park

by on January 31st, 2014

This past fall I taught an undergraduate seminar entitled “Medievalisms: Past and Present.” In previous years I’ve taught a first-year Writing seminar using this theme. But, after three attempts, I decided it was too complicated for that course. Ultimately I felt like some students weren’t ever able to master the medievalisms concept completely (or, at least, to the degree I’d hoped) and, consequently, it proved an obstacle to their writing efforts.

Instead, I developed this 300-level General Education seminar, thinking this was the better venue for students to explore the topic. The course could fulfill the upper-level “Cultural Perspectives” requirement, which meant it needed to investigate “the practices that allow for the production and reproduction of the systems of meaning (e.g., art, ritual, and beliefs) through which groups and individuals define and express themselves.” Arguably, no historical period has been produced and reproduced in culture in as many different ways as the Middle Ages, and therefore I was excited to use the theme to explore historiography—that ongoing production and reproduction of the system of meaning we call “history.”

Notably, I was asked to design the course as an Honors section. I’m not sure if this made a difference with respect to student interest, but I was very lucky to have students who were ready to grapple with a challenging topic. Most students not only don’t know anything about medievalism, but they also know very little about the Middle Ages, and what they do know tends to be a medievalism. Consequently, part of my work was to disabuse them of their medievalisms as I taught them about that very topic. I felt fortunate to have fourteen students ready to wrestle with that mental mobius strip and, since the course cap is lower for Honors sections, a bit more time to work individually with students who initially struggled.

The students and I examined the construction of the Middle Ages from a number of perspectives during the term (click here to see abbreviated syllabus). At the end, students wrote a major research paper and many chose challenging topics; one student wrote about how the media deploys the term “medieval” in discussions about the use of torture by the U.S. and presented extensive research on the actual use of torture in the Middle Ages as part of the argument. But the final assignment in the course was a collaborative project with the following context and objective:

A group of wealthy investors is planning to develop an edu-taining theme park about medievalism. This will be an immersive venue designed to entertain adults and children, while also educating them about medievalisms (past and present). By interactively engaging with examples of medievalisms—both obvious examples and some more unexpected—theme park visitors will learn how repurposing the Middle Ages has always been a way for post-medieval societies to reflect upon & discuss their own cultural, social, political, environmental, religious, and scientific issues. The theme park obviously cannot effectively cover all examples of medievalism. Instead, those who design the park will need to think strategically about what inclusions will best serve and successfully fulfill the investors’ goals.

Divide yourselves into teams of 2-5 people each. Each of your teams will propose its theme park concept to the investors. Each proposal must include a visual display that conveys the concept’s overarching principles, aesthetic, major components, and execution. Every team will have a maximum of fifteen minutes in which to pitch its concept to the investors and to convince the selection committee that its approach will best serve the goals for this theme park. You and your team members will need to determine how best to use these fifteen minutes in order to make your case. The selection committee has encouraged teams to think constructively and creatively about how you would create an immersive, edu-taining visitor experience.

Although I’ve assigned similar collaborative, context-specific projects in my Theatre courses, this one seemed slipperier; ultimately, I was asking students to transform historiography into an edu-taining experience. Is that possible? I truly had no clue what the students would do.

In the end, I was really impressed by the creative and professional presentations they developed, and by how different each was. My college has very large Theatre and Dance departments, so I was lucky to have a relatively diverse mix of majors—one Biology, one Business, one Art History/Theatre Design double major, one English & World Literature, six Theatre Performance (a mix of BA and BFAs), three Dance, and one Liberal Studies. This definitely impacted how each group approached their work; for instance, the group with the Biologist used evidence from a study on nostalgia published in a scientific journal as part of its presentation. All of the students invested fully in the assignment and the presentations became competitive at moments. During our wrap-up discussion afterwards, one student said she’d pretty much forgotten that this was “just an assignment” and was “kind of sad” to remember that their park wasn’t actually going to become a reality.

When reading their brief reflection papers I was gratified to see that the project did indeed help students think further about major themes in the course:

 “This is by far the coolest and one of the most challenging projects I have ever received, though I didn’t understand how challenging until our first group meeting…. During our first rather unsuccessful meeting, we kept falling into the trap of just doing a Middle Ages theme park filled with all the stereotypes and medievalisms. This was a type of place Renèe Trilling warns against in her article ‘Medievalism and its Discontents.’…. By asking us to design this park, you were asking us to take all the brain work we did this semester and apply it to real life.”

“To us, grasping the concept of re-appropriation is one of the most vital steps in understanding medievalisms.”

“[Our] unique and creative idea of making the entire park a medievalism that is ransacked by authentic [medieval] residents who interact with modern people at the park, would have been impossible to come up with without the concepts discussed in class. We picked this idea to emphasize the anachronisms and perceptions that modern society has of the Middle Ages.”

However, I was especially happy that it also encouraged them to think specifically about historiographic concerns:

“How could we pop the medievalism bubble while still making attractions fun and exciting for guests? …Harder still would be the creation of a theme park that debunks medievalisms without indulging in new ones. I soon realized that this was an impossibility…. Throughout history, civilization has constantly borrowed and reappropriated from the past in order to further a personal agenda. In our case, the agenda is to entertain and educate, but in order to do both we must use medievalisms ourselves.”

“This project forced me to seriously consider how we as consumers and makers of products view and treat the Middle Ages. Even in presenting a ‘true’ Middle Ages, our group picked and chose from parts of history that were convenient for us to make our point. We chose pieces of history that we saw as in direct opposition to common preconceptions and made those the focal points of half of our park. I believe our bias is incredibly apparent in this method, yet we all have learned that there is no way to remove from ourselves [sic] in order to present an ‘unbiased truth.’ I found myself carefully examining this, regardless of whether or not it was the intention of this project. Although I do believe our park serves its purpose to educate and entertain the masses, I also believe that this exercise was useful in forcing us to examine our own biases and how we choose to portray things under the justification of education and coming immediately from a semester full of critical analysis.”

There are certainly things I’ll change about this course when I teach it again; however, I don’t imagine changing this final project. Not only did it flip the classroom, but it also allowed the students to construct a space in which the problems and possibilities of historiography were made concrete and relevant—both in their own processes and in the environment of the theme park itself. And, as that final student comment suggests, it effectively illustrated the intimate links between our consumption and construction of history.

There may be ways to use a similar “theme park” assignment to explore theatre historiography, perhaps with different groups assigned to different periods. There was definitely something about the theme park genre that encouraged playfulness, but was familiar enough that students had to make very specific choices about many different experiential features. So, while their parks were specifically about medievalisms, the rides, games, and other elements students designed ultimately allowed for physical experiences with historiography. As we discussed after the presentations, their curation and design work was a form of historical editing. (For the full assignment description, click here.)

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