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On TAP is a new podcast dedicated to theatre and performance studies. Practically, it’s a downloadable audio chat show hosted by three professors, Sarah Bay-Cheng, Pannill Camp, and Harvey Young. Each episode looks at a variety of topics of field-wide interest, new ideas in research, trends in the profession, pedagogy, artist/scholar dynamics and recent events. In some ways this enterprise is very conventional in 2015. There are tens of thousands of podcasts, and after the success of programs like Serial, about half of Americans know what a podcast is.

In other ways, though, On TAP feels like a fun experiment. How will this non-traditional medium fit with the established modes of communication that permeate our field? Can we translate the pleasure of the conference hotel bar chat into a form that someone would want to listen to? Simply, if we build it, will they come?

Part of the initial impulse for creating this podcast was, unsurprisingly, the pleasure of podcasts themselves, which are steadily reaching more people. Pannill has been an avid podcast listener since 2007, when a handful of downloadable audio programs helped him pass a lonely year of dissertation research in Paris (very sad, we know!). About two years ago he began to imagine the possibility of adapting the Slate.com format (three co-hosts discuss three topics in a casual, hour-long chat) for the field of theatre and performance studies. Last summer he made his pitch to Sarah and Harvey, and was thrilled that they were willing to dedicate their time and energy to the project.

But more than just for fun, the podcast seems well-suited to our field; a dynamic, collaborative, social medium is a good match for theatre geeks of all types. It’s a little bit rebellious, too. Like those of many academic disciplines, most of our interactions are orchestrated within established institutions: universities and colleges, publishers of books and journals, and associations that organize conferences. These organizations create and disseminate high quality research, facilitate communication among people with overlapping interests, and advocate for the professional well-being of scholars, teachers, and artists. They work well, and Theatre and Performance Studies is a growing, dynamic field that is holding up relatively well against the economic and cultural forces that are decimating other disciplines in the humanities.

However! There are two patterns that can slow down and even stifle field-wide communication. First, it can be challenging for scholars to keep up with ideas that are circulating outside of our particular areas of interest. A great wealth of research is published year-round, but the pressures of specialization, and the mounting administrative, mentoring, and teaching duties typical of work in today’s academy make it hard to keep up with what is being written.

Second, the rhythms of field-wide communication are slow. We inherit our cycles of contact from the creeping pace of peer-reviewed journal and book publishing, from the quarter, semester, and year periodization of teaching, and from the yearly cycle of conference planning. Compared to the accelerated rhythm of mass communication in the digital age, this pace of work is positively glacial.

We thus offer On TAP as complement and corrective to the traditional ways we theater/performance academics interact and share ideas. Working on a comparatively short cycle (roughly monthly releases during the academic year; one or two days from recording to release) and with a broad field-wide perspective, we hope to offer a new mode of communication that is both immediate and more inclusive. We also aim to incorporate the best parts of theatre and performance into our work: dialogue instead of lecture; improvisation instead of carefully planned remarks; and the pleasure of a good joke or bad pun. We hope listeners will come to think of On TAP as a unique and sometimes irreverent way to gain both a bird’s-eye view of the field, and a sense of what is on people’s (or at least our) minds at the moment. We hope you’ll join us soon.

The next round’s on us!

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Hipolita and Luis changingHipolita and Luis changing, The Force of Habit,
University of Puget Sound, 2015

If, as a theatre historian and director, you teach in a program where part of the department goals are to present a variety of shows that allow students and the community to experience theatre of diverse style, content, and form from a variety of historical periods (love that bulletin copy), there comes a time to plan to do a classical show. Inspired by a translation evaluation assignment I had been doing at University of Puget Sound with my first year seminars where we evaluated multiple English-language versions of a play from the Spanish Golden Age, I decided to direct a Spanish comedia in the fall of 2015.

This blog entry tells the tale of several pieces of scholarship that deeply impacted our show, in the spirit of demonstrating the richness theatre history and historiography incorporate into a show process. In our rehearsal, theatre scholarship was deeply influential not because we were aiming for a reconstruction of period practices, but because historical and literary critical scholarship gave us the vocabulary and imagery to name and develop many of our impulses and turn them into production decisions. I want to describe how those pieces of research shaped our blocking, character interpretation, and revision of the play’s ending

But first, I must admit that I don’t read or speak Spanish. My research language is French. Like the theatre generalist I am in my program, I primarily use Fuente Ovejuna and Life is a Dream when teaching literature from the Spanish Golden Age. I knew if I wanted to direct a Spanish play, however, I would need someone with the language to be my right hand collaborator. And, when I had a student in class emerging as a dramaturg who had the Spanish and excelled at doing that very translation evaluation assignment, I realized: this is my chance! Hannah Ferguson became my dramaturg and collaborator.

In our year-long arc of development, rehearsal, and performance, the four scholarly sources that most galvanized us were:

  • “Marriage and Subversion in Comedia Endings: Problems in Art and Society” by Catherine Connor (Swietlicki) from Gender, Identity, and Representation in Spain’s Golden Age, edited by Anita K. Stoll and Dawn L. Smith (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2000).
  • “The Power of Transformation in Guillén de Castro’s El caballero bobo (1595-1605) and La fuerza de la costumbre (1610-15): Translation and Performance” by Kathleen Jeffs from The Reinvention of Theatre in Sixteenth Century Europe, edited by T.F. Earle and Catharine Fouto (London: Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing, Legenda, 2015).
  • “Gender Politics in Guillén de Castro’s La Fuerza de la Costumbre” by Kathleen Jeffs from On Wolves and Sheep: Exploring the Expression of Political Thought in Golden Age Spain, edited by Aaron M. Kahn (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011).
  • “Lición de llevar chapines: Drag, Footwear, and Gender Performance in Guillén de Castro’s La fuerza de la costumbre” by Harry Vélez Quiñones, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 14:2 (2013): 186-200.

Already this list reveals that we chose to stage a relatively lesser-known play, The Force of Habit by Guillén de Castro, rather than one of the plays I had been working with in my seminars and theatre history classes. We didn’t start with Force of Habit. Hannah and I had begun by digging in to Life is a Dream. That seemed like where we were going to go, though we wondered where our mutual interest in gender was going to find its best match: in Lope de Vega’s wronged Laurencia from Fuente Ovejuna, or in Calderon’s disguised, honor-protecting Rosaura?

Then we met Kathleen Jeffs.

Kathleen is a dramaturg, scholar, translator, and director who teaches at Gonzaga University. She persuaded us of the queer potentials of the vastly underappreciated storehouse of Golden Age comedias and shared her translation of Force of Habit with us. Moreover, she encouraged us to take her workshop adaptation of the script apart, and gave us permission to cut it or rearrange it as suited our needs. Kathleen and Hannah and I agreed that we wanted to do a production alive to our struggles about gender and identity and that that might mean reworking the play.

Going outside the canon of well-known and frequently translated plays from the Golden Age meant that the scholarship we read was even more pointedly exciting: we didn’t have any baselines with this play. We had so much to discover. Kathleen shared with me that her perspective is deeply shaped by this source:

  • Role-Play and the World as Stage in the Comedia by Jonathan Thacker (Liverpool, Liverpool UP, 2002).

Thacker introduced Kathleen to the play during her graduate work, and encouraged her to make her translation. His chapters titled “Patriarchy in Action: Guillèn de Catro’s La fuerza de la costumbre and the Distribution of Roles” and “Patriarchal Excess and the Emergence of the Desiring Self” represent the most authoritative scholarship we encountered in terms of detailing the way this play represents the gender politics of its period.

Overall, we found a spectrum of scholarship about Force of Habit, especially on the topic of the playful possibilities the play might allow in performing gender. Thacker represents one polarity that sees little evocation of liberation in the representation. Kathleen’s own scholarship rests in the middle point, suggesting that stage business makes this play much more complex in terms of gendered behavior. The work of my colleague Harry Veléz Quiñones, who is a Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Puget Sound, sits at the other end of the continuum, explicitly queering the play in its analysis. I can’t adjudicate these different approaches as a scholar of the period, but as a director, it was very fertile to engage with the perspectives.

Force of Habit predates Castro’s best-known work, Las mocedades del Cid, the play that Corneille later adapted and which caused a furor at the French Academy. It follows the typical three-act comedia structure and smartly employs the character types typical to the form. It directly embodies the gender anxieties and pieties of its day, presenting a story about a brother and sister separated from each other in their infancy whose parents choose to raise the children dressed in the gender opposite to the sex each child was designated at birth. So, father Pedro, exiled from their hometown with baby Hipolita, raises her as a boy and transforms her into a solider so she might live with him more safely during his twenty years fighting battles in the Netherlands. Constanza, meanwhile, shut up in her father’s house, dresses baby Felix in women’s clothing and keeps him indoors like a woman to protect him from sword-fighting and honor culture duels, the things that killed her brother and caused her to be separated from Pedro.

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The play begins when the family is reunited and Pedro declares that everyone can go back to their proper gender and they can resume life as a normal family. But it is soon clear that there is no going “back” for these young adult children because the reality there is to “resume” is the actuality of their lives as man-woman and woman-man. Felix and Hipolita experience their proper gender as aligning with the social habits and behaviors they were raised to present, not with the information provided by their secondary sex characteristics.

The play mixes comedy and seriousness as it tracks the collisions between Pedro’s demands and the new sense of self most of the characters must develop, but it emphasizes the comic. It is full of physical shtick about the difficulty of learning to use a sword or walk in high heels. It features budding romances. Conveniently, a brother and sister from a prominent family in town find Felix and Hipolita enchanting exactly because of their hybrid gender identities. A gracioso amps up practical jokes and intrigues. There’s also a set of double-crossings and duels that must be fought to preserve Felix and Hipolita’s honor.

It’s a high context premise played out in an over-laden plot, and, most complicated for us as contemporary artists, it seems to resolve in an uncomplicated way. By the final scene, everyone is clearly defined as a man OR a woman and the play ends with a firmly heterosexual marriage for both Felix and Hipolita. Though we were intrigued by the potential in performing this play, our very first challenges were to come to terms with that ending, or to shatter it. And here’s where the scholarship first supported us and freed us.

Pedro and Hipolita in their skirts with Luis, Otavio and Marcelo in their gearPedro and Hipolita in their skirts,
Luis, Octavio, and Marcelo in their gear

The question of genre and the question of the ending dominated our early conversations with Kathleen. One approach would be to reframe the comic business so that it showed and intensified the characters’ suffering with trying to master various technologies of gender, and to emphasize the tragic themes about identity and social oppression running beneath the surface of the play. This would be to focus primarily on showing the “patriarchy in action” as Thacker frames it. Thinking this way, Hannah described the play as a tragedy demonstrating of the awfulness of conversion therapy. That’s not where my heart was, however, and that became completely clear to me when I read Connor’s article on marriage and subversion in the ending of comedias.

Connor’s analysis of the meaning of conventional wedding scenes and her explication of “hard” and “soft” approaches to the narrative closure provided by weddings allowed me to articulate that I wanted to honor the combination of tragedy and comedy typical in comedias and have the final sequence be a marriage that doesn’t foreclose subversion. Connor voices the way that feminist criticism “seems uncomfortable with the presumed defeat of the formerly subversive heroine by the forces of the patriarchal order, tradition, and stability” represented by traditional wedding endings. She advocates accounting for the difference between the past and the present in both literary and material history rather than collapsing our understanding of Golden Age theatre directly into our own signifiers (23). She investigates how a female spectator in the Golden Age might have interpreted wedding endings of comedias and concludes that they would have reacted to them as representing variegated, compelling negotiations of complex social options.

Connor writes: “For the spectators of any culture, weddings are extremely important socio-cultural markers of change, transition, and new foundations in the lives of individuals and their immediate society” (25). Connor helped me name the way I see weddings (on stage and in life, in fact, I would describe my own wedding this way) as “symbolically central” and “essentially ambiguous” social rites of passage (27-29). Working with concepts of law and temporality as well as gender and drawing on documentation about married women’s work in the 17th century, Connor does a masterful job arguing that that weddings provide ending structures that are open even as they are closed. Rather than simply restoring order, Connor suggests wedding endings represent the creation of new orders still open to the indeterminacies in life and in art.

Using the idea of social rite of passage, it became my goal to stage a wedding at the end of Force of Habit that opened identity options even as it closed the narrative. Planning this production across the summer of 2015, as the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision removing federal barriers to same-sex marriage, I went to the costume designer with my developing plan. What if, I said, we ended with a big, queer wedding? What if everyone got to re-dress onstage, and ended up in gender mixed outfits? Felix could wear a skirt and doublet. Hipolita could have a veil and a codpiece and her sword (which she gives up, painfully, in Act I of the play). This wedding, like weddings in contemporary culture, could be about self-fashioning. About making a version of sex-gender-partnership with a beloved that suits that particular union: a narrative closure that is also an opening.

Soon we expanded the range. We aimed to out-As-You-Like-It As You Like It. I wanted the play to end with not just two weddings, but with four. We’d have Hipolita and Luis, Felix and Leonor, but also a marriage between Luis’s two best friends Marcelo and Otavio, and a marriage between Galvan, the clown, played by a woman in our production, and Ines, Leonor’s maid. Everyone would change clothes on stage, fashioning their preferred combination of male and female clothing. Then we pushed it to five couples because it became imperative that Pedro and Costanza be included. We established their official wedding in Act II—because their terrible shame, the reason for Pedro’s exile, is that they were only “secretly” married in their youth, and had been hiding their relationship and children.

Felix and Costanza and Leonor in their “dressses”Felix, Costanza, and Leonor in their “dresses”

Therefore, in our production, at the end, Pedro and Costanza also changed habits and wore both male and female clothing, at the request of their children. This plays against the text, which ends with Pedro declaring he is glad he returned everyone to their own nature. Instead, everyone was transformed our production, and we adjusted Pedro’s line to celebrate everyone “turning” to their own nature. That turning happened in different directions for different characters.

In short, we flipped the dynamics of Castro’s finale. Instead of the children transforming themselves because of the father’s demands and hardening the existing social order, the parents transformed themselves because of their children’s discoveries. Onstage, space opened for a renewed and transformed social order because the characters were able to change. Kathleen’s article on the “power of transformation” argues that comedias use language and create stage business that shows love transforming the characters confirmed and affirmed this interpretive pathway. Kathleen’s point about Leonor’s cruel enforcement of masculine heroics onto Felix starkly made us reconsider her character and pushed us to truly articulate the ways that each of the characters had to be understood as working both within and against the gender norms they had inherited.

Felix and Hipolita trading clothesFelix and Hipolita trading clothes

As we chose to create a transformative wedding, replete with high-stakes character decisions and sexy connections, we also frankly acknowledged that the story we were telling exploded the temporal bounds of Castro’s work. We weren’t trying to indicate that the wedding we presented represented the historical reality of Golden Age Spain, though both Kathleen and Harry’s research provided us with examples of much more complicated public and private gender identity than official representation might allow. Because he is here, it was a great joy to that Harry could join us in rehearsal for a discussion of his article about the lesson of the chapines (the platform footwear women wore outside at the time). In his presentation, Harry shared knowledge about hidden histories of sexuality in the Golden Age, and told us, among other things, about the dildo collections of Spanish nuns.

This was somewhat how our research worked: we encountered the past in all sorts of strange and delightful specificity, but we also had to wrestle with the “official line” about gender and marriage from social tracts and dogma from the day that the most powerful characters in Force of Habit reiterate. Hannah, the dramaturg, was helping Kathleen on a soon to be published facing-pages Spanish/English version of Force of Habit during our pre-rehearsal research and during our rehearsal period. Because of that, she started working with a 17th century Spanish dictionary that she found quite marvelous in its strangeness and the way its entries relied as much on Catalan and Latin as they did on what she recognizes as Spanish. One of our favorite resonances from the dictionary was a definition of habit—a word we had been thinking of in terms of repeated behaviors, clothing, and Bourdieu’s notion of habitus—that linked the word to menstrual cycles.

Across our summer preparation, we developed our notion that in our production, we started telling a story set in 1610, but by the time we ended the story, we were in a place of conversation between the past and the present. I wrote in my program note about how we were having a “new-old” experience staging the play because of this conversation across time, and also because our process resembled doing new work (working from manuscript pages, revising and adjusting the script) at the same time it needed the techniques for staging classical plays (voice and text work for elevated language, dancing, sword fighting, working in a presentational word-driven style).

Our decision about time allowed the story to journey to the wedding at the end and the way we used dance mattered to that too. We added three dances to the action. First, we used a slow, period tarantella that Pedro and Costanza performed in a very formal fashion when they first saw each other again. The early phases of the play where we were more fully in the past moved in a more stylized way, slower, with deeper breath. For a medial moment, Marisela Flietes Lear created a solo for Hipolita to a spare flamenco beat known as the martinete. Hipolita danced this during her frustration with learning to walk in the chapines. The measured pace but intense energy of this dance and the way Hipolita rebelliously ripped off her costume’s sleeves and shoes during it helped index our temporal quickening. At the end, as a finale everyone danced a traditional sevillanas to a pop music version of the form by the contemporary band Las Ketchups called “Sevillanas Pink.”

Once we figured out how we wanted the end to work, we had to move backward through the script to set up how we got there. We wanted to create a subtextual relationship between Marcelo and Otavio, and were fascinated to hear from Kathleen and Harry about same-sex couples in the Golden Age. We needed to allow Felix and Hipolita to struggle with how they are asked to change their habits (literally and figuratively) and emerge as people acting with agency rather than leaving them as social ciphers.Kathleen had already edited her full English translation when she made the performance version we were working from. We made choices to streamline the action even further in Act II and III to reduce the double-crossing plot complications and allow Marcelo and Otavio’s roles more time to breathe.

As we built their relationship, we brought the final duel between Otavio and Felix onstage, instead of leaving it only narrated as it is in the original play. We created its storytelling arc as one that wasn’t only about Felix establishing his manhood, it was also about him using his own fluidity as he bested Otavio. The fight ended when Felix disarmed Otavio and then kissed him before reclaiming Leonor’s glove from him (our Felix grabbed Otavio’s hat then tore the glove out of the hat with his mouth and held it in his teeth, growling). Otavio fell to the ground when Felix took his hat and Marcelo rushed to him and, relieved he was unhurt, kissed Otavio as well. What was hidden was revealed.

Felix kissing OctavioPedro meeting Felix for the first time,
while Felix is still in his “long skirts”

The duel kisses were one of several such moments of instability and revelation, including the moment when Hipoilta emerged in breeches for the wedding and Luis admired her codpiece. We aimed to be both serious and playful about gender, identity, and representation in our performance. We had performers with Latino and Asian-American backgrounds in the cast. We had cast members who prefer “they” pronouns to describe themselves. Our choice to cast a female performer to play Galvan also meant we asked whether or not the character was a man, or a woman, or, in one tradition for fools and soothsayers, both and neither. Hannah and I knew that our Galvan’s talent for physical comedy and rebellious antics meant that nothing she (the actor) was doing played by the class rules of Golden Age Spanish society, but we embraced the character (he/she/they) as an irruption of the carnivalesque in the space. The costume designer dressed her in a parti-colored skirt and breeches with codpiece that featured an embedded squeaky toy, which Galvan honked for emphasis whenever a prank went well.

These types of choices traded on the play’s investigation of interiority and exteriority, the relationship of social roles and inner self that Kathleen’s articles imagine into possibility. Our set designer, my colleague Kurt Walls, created set that referenced the architecture of corrales, but also added a curved ramp to the front of our stage that encouraged and allowed our direct interaction with the audience. Galvan was always talking to the audience and hiding on the ramp. This sense of projecting out into the audience space contributed to our decision to interpolate four speeches from Life is a Dream into the proceedings to give the main characters time and words to reflect on the monumental decisions facing them. Castro provides fewer of those moments in his text, though his great speech for Hipolita when she surrenders her sword is a heart breaker and her speech about needing to take revenge on Luis when she thinks he’s betrayed her won applause every night.

In Kathleen’s article about Force of Habit and El Caballero Bobo (The Foolish Young Gentleman), she notes the thematic and intertextual resonances between El Caballero Bobo and Life is a Dream. Some scholarship she cites suggests that Calderon knew of Castro’s play and borrowed details. Flipping that idea on its head, Hannah and I imagined what would happen if Castro’s characters got to read Calderon’s play. What parts would speak to their hearts? We also talked with Kathleen about the choice, and, as a collaborator, she challenged us to create more moments using blocking and business to increase Hipolita and Felix’s accessibility to the audience, and to see if, after exploring the text as written first, we still felt the need to add the interpolated text from Life is a Dream.

Heeding that prompt, we took a blocking suggestion from Kathleen’s other article very seriously. This article, about gender politics in Force of Habit, considers the interplay of words and staging extensively. Kathleen proposes that one effective way of foregrounding what’s at stake for Hipolita and Felix is to have them directly exchange as many of the clothes they are wearing as possible when they are first asked to change “back” into men’s clothing and women’s clothing in Act I. We went after Kathleen’s ideas about staging and stage business gusto. Our Felix and Hipolita indeed exchanged key pieces of clothing as they changed onstage in a moment of Brechtian gestus demonstrating what it takes to construct a man and construct a woman with clothes.

Then, following up on an important comparison Harry made, we maximized every bit of awkwardness and complication that we could about their complete failure to adapt to the new clothing or to attain the new skills they are supposed to master to be a good man or good woman. Harry’s brilliant article points up several things about how gender gets performed in Force of Habit, and one key insight is that Golden Age comedias abound with gender disguising/cross dressing, but that Force of Habit uses the convention differently. First, Felix and Hipolita are not disguising themselves in order to get something.

Second, in many comedias, when the main character disguises himself or herself, usually they are depicted as immediately being masterful at portraying the “other” gender. Seamlessly, they can sword fight, or dance, or walk like a lady, and they are convincing to others on this front. Felix and Hipolita, however, can’t do anything well except what they are used to doing; and the whole first and second act show the work it takes to get anywhere near being mediocre at new gender skills, especially the cursed walking in high platform shoes. These sequences must have made Force of Habit funny at its first performance, and it’s still wonderful and poignant stage business today.

Finally, Harry enumerates, typically once the character is disguised, he or she becomes overwhelmingly sexually attractive to other characters, so the woman disguised as a man gets pursued by other women relentlessly and vice versa for the man disguised as a woman. This type of set-up evokes and offloads homoeroticism and also suggests that gender fluidity has romantic potency in ways that are hard to pin down. On this front, Hipolita and Felix don’t so much fail as present a unique case study. Because they are not in disguise, the characters who fall in love with them have to be “open” in some ways about being attracted to them exactly because they are gender fluid. We found this to be very powerful in performance. “I never thought there could be anyone like her,” enthuses Luis in the script, and his status silences Marcelo and Otavio when they want to give him a bad time for his desire.

Working with Harry’s scholarship also opened for us the script’s implications about Pedro and Costanza’s youthful transgressions of gender norms and that was extremely generative for moments at both the beginning and the end of the play. In the opening scene of the play, Costanza tells Felix about his father and explains their hidden affair, noting how Pedro snuck into her room from the balcony. A scene later, when she meets Hipolita, who is dressed in men’s clothes, she reacts by describing Hipolita as a mirror image of herself at that age. For Costanza as a youth to look exactly like Hipolita at that moment would mean for Costanza to be dressed in male clothing as well. Harry’s close read of this moment helped us create a character biography about Costanza disguising herself in men’s clothes to sneak out of the house, and made us wonder about Pedro disguising himself as a woman to get in.

We were working imaginatively rather than historiographically at that point, of course, creating character biography in dialogue with Harry’s provocations (and one of the scholars he most directly takes on is Thacker). What was most important to telling our version of this story was that we were spurred to wonder about what other ways the parents too could be fluid and playful and desperate about gender, in ways that paralleled the younger generation. This made the moment we created when Pedro takes a skirt from Hipolita and puts it on before the play’s envoi speech feel very connected. In short, Harry’s scholarship helped us situate the play in a much sexier, more subcultural world than its surface text about gender might suggest.

Though I will stop here, there’s much more to consider about how we grappled with this text and what informed us. We produced the play in the midst of national and local discussions about the representation of transgender identities that impacted us, though our approach did not frame Hipolita or Felix as transgender in our current sense of the word. We also struggled with what the Golden Age emphasis on sexual purity and honor/shame mean in a time when college campuses are consistently thinking about rape and consent.

And, in a matter of performance technique, it was only when the student actors unlocked how to do the asides that the play truly began to work. That made me want to read more scholarship about asides as a matter of actor training, actor-audience relationship, and as indicators about historical shifts in the nature of dramatic storytelling and live performance. Perhaps that will be my next scholarly quest, when the calendar cycle turns and its time to do a classical play once again. In this process, the foundational and bold scholarship we read became utterly central to the performance experience we created.

 

Click here for Kathleen Jeffs’s entry on The Force of Habit on Out of the Wings, the Spanish-language play resource for English-speaking practitioners and researchers

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MD_58_4_2015

Modern Drama, Volume 58, Number 4, Winter 2015 is now available at Modern Drama Online and Project MUSE.

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“The photograph of Aylan Kurdi [http://media.breitbart.com/media/2015/09/ap_ap-photo219-640×497.jpg], the Syrian child from Kobane whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, has sparked a “light bulb moment” in the heads and hearts of European public and policymakers alike – forcing both significant debate and new policy towards the refugee crisis.”

-James Denselow, Al Jazeera English 8 Sept. 2015 http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/09/europe-light-bulb-moment-150907115044435.html

What is a light bulb moment?

In David Grieg’s eerily prescient play Europe (1994), the cast of characters assemble as a chorus at the beginning of each act (Scenes 2 and 9, to be specific)—each actor identified in the script as a number, not as a named character—and offer descriptions of the play’s time and place to the audience:

1 Ours is a small town on the border, at various times on this side,

2 and,

3 at various times,

2 on the other,

1 but always

1,2,3 on the border.

4 We’re famous for our soup,

5 for our factory which makes lightbulbs

1 and for being on the border.

These manufacturers of soup and light live in a town that, like a rock in the sea, has been washed over by the ebb and flow of warring armies, political and economic interests, and, soon, inevitably, tourists. The identity of the town has been rubbed off. The text hints at the erasure of the town and its people even before the characters speak: “Setting: A small decaying provincial town in Europe. Autumn.” Unlike Autumn, however, a natural and recurring event, or for that matter a rock smoothed into sand by the sea, the decay and erosion of this unnamed European border town results from man-made causes.

I am not sure why Grieg chooses soup and lightbulbs, except that, by doing so, perhaps he offers a spectrum of use-values. Soup to sustain the body. Light to protect the body from darkness. Together, soup and light to nourish the soul and the intellect. Regardless of the meaning, I am confident that Grieg offered a synecdoche of 1994 Europe in his depiction of this small decaying town and by doing so should have sparked a “light bulb moment” to ward off the darkness of racism and economic exploitation that was, at that time, mounting.

The play comments on numerous issues through Grieg multi-layered dramaturgical style. One worth mentioning here is the connection between monetary (in)stability (perhaps thinking of the coming Euro currency) and the hocus-pocus of money changing. The character Morocco, a man who has discovered how to make a living through his mastery of the magic of trade, lays the situation bare:

Morocco         This is what the border is. See…?

Berlin             What?

Morocco         A magic money line. See. You pass something across it and it’s suddenly worth more. Pass it across again and now it’s cheaper. More…less…less…more…fags, drink, jobs, cars…less is more, more or less…see? Magic money just for crossing a magic line. I’m not a smuggler, I’m a magician, an illusionist. There’s no crime in that.

[…]

Morocco         I swear to God it’s a conjuring trick. Swear to God. Give me a dollar…abracadabra…I give you roubles back…give me some roubles…come on…give…hey presto…Deutschmarks. It’s all imaginary…none of it’s real, none. You just have to think up the trick…it’s easy.

Looking for contemporary resonance? If we shift our attention to Greece and the never-ending discussion of bailouts, I think we’ll be able to return to Grieg’s play and discern the satire in Morocco’s character. But Berlin, the character with whom Morocco shares his secrets, does not find anything amusing. Berlin—a name laden with historical significance—seems to prove Dan Rebellato’s statement in Theatre & Globalization: “The geographical boundaries of a country are often the arbitrary sediment of centuries of historical processes. Yet they can take on symbolic importance in the national imagination and any penetration of these boundaries, real or imagined, can cause a convulsion of national feeling” (xvi). For Morocco, who no longer pledges any allegiance to the small town where he and Berlin grew up, the border is porous. For Berlin, this porosity and Morocco’s carefree jaunts back and forth through the pores, such a situation amounts to an attack on his way of life.

These two causes in particular bring tragedy to Fret, the local station agent, and his daughter Adele: economic destabilization at the cusp of Europe’s transformation into the European Union and rage; rage focused at the flood of immigrants coming into the town by locals Berlin, Horse, and Billy who believe immigrants—whom they refer to as Flying Boat People—will take their jobs and their money. Again, this twenty-year-old play starts to sound familiar. Grieg managed to capture not only the social, political, and economic forces that contributed to Europe’s internal fracturing in 1994 but also the human habits that ensure the repetition of history. (Consider and consult the following links:

http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9560982/the-invasion-of-italy/

http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2015/05/graphics

http://www.blazingcatfur.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/African-Boat-people-very-crowded-620×451.jpg)

Economic decline shows itself in the play’s setting, a train station that Grieg describes as “a forgotten place [that] bears witness to the past century’s methods of government.” The rage of the townspeople amplifies upon news of the station’s closing, the announcement of layoffs at the light bulb factory, and the arrival of Sava and Katia, a father and daughter who are escaping an unnamed war-torn landscape. For Sava and Katia, the train station acts as a threshold between an old life of violence and uncertainty, to one side, and a new life of stability and hope, to the other. The townspeople, however, see the same train station, which becomes a makeshift immigrant camp for the two refugees, as the threshold between the old Europe that brought them economic stability and the new Europe that makes no promises at all.

Due to their different ages, Sava and Katia have different expectations about the Europe of the north to which they are fleeing. Grieg crafts the viewpoints of all his characters into a kaleidoscopic view of 1994 Europe. In particular, though, Sava’s and Katia’s perspective from the bottom, as it were, offer his European (at first English and Scottish) audience members a vivid portrait of the violence waging just to the south as well as the myth of Northern European Enlightenment that supposedly keeps the north safe.

Sava    […] Katia, we’re not in some savage country on the other side of the world. Look around you, look at the architecture. Listen to the sounds from the street. You can smell the forest. We’re a long way from home but we’re still in Europe. We’ll be looked after. Our situation will be understood.

Katia  Europe. Snipers on the roofs, mortars in the suburbs, and you said: ‘This is Europe…we must stay in Europe.’ So we stayed, even after the food ran out: ‘This is Europe.’ When the hospitals were left with nothing but alcohol and dirty bandages. I warned you and you still said: ‘This is Europe. Honesty will prevail, sense will win, this war is an aberration…a tear in the fabric. In time it’ll be sewn up again and things will look as good as new.’

Things, however, do not begin to improve for the two immigrants or for Fret and Adele who would like to help them. Berlin and Horse conspire to enact revenge against these boat people who will surely take their jobs and steal their way of life. Fueled by hate and ignorance, the two characters eventually set the train station ablaze. Grieg dramatizes this action by having Berlin narrate the events to the audience:

Berlin On the news the fireman said the station was a tinderbox. He said it was criminal. Criminal that it could have been left in that condition. They didn’t have a chance he said. No one stood a chance in that place. Criminal.

LOOK AT IT LOOK AT IT LOOK AT IT! … IT’S BEAUTIFUL.

At first we just saw the light inside. Just an orange glow inside and then some smore. It was a clear night so we could see the smoke rising. Even from that distance we could feel it warm. AMAZING. (He holds out the back of his hand.)

Katia and Adele manage to make it out. They escape on a train for destinations unknown before the bombing occurs. Fret and Sava do not escape. The darkness of the scene culminates in the final words, which Grieg decides to give to Berlin: “They know that, in our own way, we’re also Europe.”

That is to say, “we,” the good and the bad, the left and the right, the center and the margins, the awake and the sleeping, the hopeful and the hopeless, the terrorists and the terrorized, we’re all Europe. If this play, written 20 years ago, didn’t have the power to enact lasting change for the minorities of Europe or to prevent the public from being duped about the sleight-of-hand economics of the European Union, it is hard to imagine that an image of a dead child on a beach will make an impact now. The “light bulb moment” alluded to by the Al Jazeera journalist may only be a flash, more like the final moments of the forgotten light bulb factory in Europe than an enduring Enlightenment.

 

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CTR_163_SUMMER2015_100 DPI

CTR 163 (Summer 2015)
Performance Futures: Imagining Theatre in 2030

Edited by Jenn Stephenson and Laura Levin

Also available on Project MUSE

CTR 163 (Summer 2015): Performance Futures: Imagining Theatre in 2030, edited by Jenn Stephenson and Laura Levin, explores very recent innovations in theatre and performance, and asks what they can tell us about where the field is headed. Focusing on new formats of theatrical production and reception, contributors have been invited to answer the question: “What will the performance landscape in Canada look like in fifteen years?” This is not theatre in a distant sci-fi future but theatre that is just around the corner. The assembled collection brings together voices that are passionate and visionary, and address such disparate topics as the future of theatre in online venues, the future of interculturalism and cultural diversity in theatre, the future of theatre funding, and the future of theatre criticism. The script featured in this issue is Concord Floral, winner of the 2015 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Play. Written by Governor General Award-winning playwright Jordan Tannahill, and co-created with acclaimed artists Erin Brubacher and Cara Spooner along with a group of exceptional Toronto teens, this powerful text exhibits alternative ways of representing the lives of tomorrow’s youth as well as more ecologically responsive human futures. Concord Floral is accompanied by an arresting series of staged photo-portraits by Erin Brubacher, which help reconceptualize the boundaries of a theatrical script and production.

Click here to read the full table of contents.

For more information about the Canadian TheatreReview or for submissions information, please contact:

Canadian Theatre Review
University of Toronto Press, Journals Division
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This spring (2015) I led a graduate seminar in the Center for Performance Studies at the University of Washington called “Emerging Discourses in Theatre and Performance Studies.” Throughout the ten-week term, we discussed readings in three areas: Ecocriticism, the Cognitive Sciences, and Affect Theory. Each of these areas represented discursive “turns,” that is, conversations that have emerged fairly recently in our fields and do not seem to be going away soon. The goal for the seminar, then, was for the students to become familiar with these discourses, so that they would be at the very least conversant with them in reading and at conferences, and, even better, equipped with “tool belts” of helpful concepts and resources for their own research.

We devoted roughly three weeks to a crash-course in each area, reading essays from special journal issues and collections and discussing them in the seminar. One of the benefits of taking on contemporary scholarly conversations was that when we had questions or confusions about particular concepts or arguments, we could contact many of the working scholars in the field to ask them directly, and our colleagues in the field were generous, thoughtful and timely in their responses. At the end of each unit, the students compiled a working inventory of provocative key terms and concepts that gave some shape to the conversation and that could serve as indexes for future term papers, dissertation chapters, conference presentations and publications.

Attached are .pdf files of our inventories, along with a syllabus for the course. We hope they might be useful springboards for a larger collective of scholars engaged in these conversations.

Additions, corrections, and suggestions are welcome in the comments section, below.

 

Seminar Participants: Monica Cortés-Viharo (Drama), Jay Eckard (Drama), Duygu Erdoğan Monson (Drama), Storm S. Sundberg (Dance), Robert Wighs (Drama). With thanks to Monica Cortés-Viharo for transcribing and organizing the inventories, and to Rhonda Blair, Amy Cook, Baz Kershaw, and Theresa May.

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I fumbled, I shifted, I repeatedly ran my fingers over the scars made by boxknife blades on the back of my hands, I touched the raised flesh hidden under the hair of my head, a reminder of those who tried to squash the queer materiality of the punkified presence I had imposed upon the quaint rural community of pre-internet Sand Springs, Oklahoma; I recalled the hunger pangs and acrid smells of the Los Angeles streets. As I sat listening to the keynote address from Dr. Irma Mayorga of Dartmouth, I could not help but run over the past traumas of my body, desperately searching for evidence of suffering. Why?

Mayorga’s speech was a blend of biography and social analysis that made visible markers of race (a predominantly externally regulated category) and ethnicity (a more agential category in its uptake) central. She is the first Latina to receive a doctorate from Stanford’s Drama Department, and her personal exploration of the techniques of policing the raced body was inscribed in her phenotype as much as her words. None of the stories and representations she encountered in the dramatic canon resembled her world, those colored bodies who looked like her and populated that world, or the stories attached to and circulating around those colored bodies. She has continually sought to rectify this.

Opposed to the brown, marginalized body is of course the neutral (yet masculine) gleam of whiteness, a historically and ontologically (through discursive reinforcement) disembodied positionality in all its hegemonic force and appeal. Whiteness is concerned with white history, the great man theory—as long as those great men are white with a few tokenistic gestures to the Frederick Douglasses and Luis Valdezes thrown into the mix. Whiteness is not a body, certainly not my body, though I benefit from its categorical deployment. Whiteness is a way of looking, of appraising, of rising above the body. It too has its phenotypic markers that must be filled in with history, rhetoric, and the deflation of affect. It is not my body, or at least my embodied experience in total, but I bear its marks and benefits.

At these conferences we are all about the embodied experience, embodied epistemologies, affective ways of knowing, phenomenological bodies (a term Harvey Young prefers), and the body as a political site of resistance, containment, and surveillance. But as I looked around the conference room I saw many souls uncomfortable in their fair skinned bodies: a spasm, a fidget, a twitch, a look down, a forced smile. In sum, consciousness was reversing Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological schema, knowledge was attempting to de-situate, to transcend the material and the flux of subject-object, and leave behind only the trace of a mechanical nod of the head.

Yes, we white theatre scholars were fulfilling the mandate of whiteness to rise above our bodies, but realizing the impossibility of doing so. Why? Because in some ways to agree with Dr. Mayorga was to reject those benefits of Caucasian phenotype, to possibly deny oneself a job, publication, or field of study. No one of course mentioned this, but that potential move from imaginary to actuality was nonetheless there. No one wanted his or her body to plunge itself back into debates on affirmative action, especially to find that body on the “wrong” side, that side that centers the self as it partakes of fruits of domination. (And unfortunately, sometimes affirmative action only affirms systemic racism if its actions do not go deep and wide enough).

So I (unconsciously at the time) searched my body for its history, its marks of travail, poverty, homelessness, hunger, violence, those typically un-white varieties of experience—no doubt to make myself feel better because I agreed with Mayorga in many of her assessments. But also I considered my bodily exploration an act of theorizing, of connecting, of perhaps destabilizing categories, of potentially empathizing and connecting with other embodied agents. The body is a repository of memory and this could be where we start.

At the University of Washington many of our students share an East Asian heritage (of course, a multi-sited heritage or heritages), but the curriculum centers upon Anglophone or European traditions of performance. Some lament that there is no common base of analysis in the classroom: Haven’t any of these students read Hamlet? Don’t they know Oedipus? But rather than seeing this problematic as an insuperable obstacle, I take it as an opportunity. John Dewey writes of publics as formed around and by problems, and this “problem” of no Hamlet, no Oedipus, can force open (if an instructor is receptive) a dialogic encounter rather than a unidirectional lecture–the continual dialectic of wrestling with the ostensibly incommensurable clutter of objects between cultures.

I carry no utopian visions that a comprehensive shared language is developed, but rather that common terms are learned or created together in order to deal with new problems; the canon is shifted, adjusted, refracted, enlarged etc. In short, we theorize through the body, through co-presence, through expanding the frame of critique to include entities of association usually excluded–to realize anew the network of agents. Treating histories as bodies treated as repositories of clashes, trauma, failures, problems and yes, affects, jouissance, hopes and alliances. Let us ask considerate questions: considerate because they consider the presence of individuals, of interests, of difference. To deny this is to deny a situatedness that extends beyond the self. I study animals and other life forms, and argue with them for better treatment and an adjustment and extension of certain rights, so I am always willing to look beyond the flat ontology of whiteness, but its push and pull is always there, circumscribing possibilities of imagination if one is not vigilant or diligent in his or her resistance.

So as I mentally return to that MATC luncheon, I again think about my embodied history, but what about all those bodies marked in various ways that got me there: human bodies, animal bodies, plant bodies, rock bodies? I think of what has been de-emphasized from political belonging to become my resource, my means to an end, and I again, feeling uncomfortable and guilty, “reach for the scars.” But let me not stop there. Let me gesture towards another’s scars and inquire. Let us notice our scars. Let us think beyond sight to embodied histories rich with sounds, smells, tastes and the tactile. Let us be truly theatrical in our sharing—cordoning off time and space to listen, see, and experience the other. Students should never be considered an obstacle or a means to an end. Differences, gaps in understanding, blank stares are all opportunities for reflection both on the self and what we consider external to the self. Perhaps I receive blank stares (which I sometimes do) because I am not asking interesting questions about interesting things because I am not being expansive enough in my definition of interests. So where I land after this impromptu foray into memory is in a place where I am no longer just looking at my scars or reflecting upon myself, but I am looking at the other—I am looking at you and exulting in where our differences can take us.

Scott Venters is a Doctoral Student in Theatre History, Theory, and Criticism in the School of Drama, University of Washington.

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CTR 162

CTR 162 / Spring 2015

Performing Products: When Acting Up Is Selling Out

Edited by T. Nikki Cesare Schotzko, Didier Morelli and Isabel Stowell-Kaplan

How can we, as artists, scholars, and critics, determine where art might and might not intervene into matters that exceed its immediate aesthetic parameters? Why is there such a pervasive fear within the art community that art might presume too much, getting in the way of “real action” and “real change”? Moreover, does art’s role, witting or not, within commodity culture render any political motivation it might carry with it a commodity as well? What do we do when acting up is already selling out? These tensions and confusions, these preoccupations and paranoias are precisely what we address in Performing Products: When Acting Up Is Selling Out. Featuring interviews, photo-essays, reflections on performances past, articles on the current state of performance as a set of deftly imbricated practices and economics, as well as one letter-cum-manifesto, we have deliberately blurred the lines between art, performance, and criticism in this issue: Percival P. Puppet discusses his copyright dispute with Marina Abramović; Istvan Kantor writes to Jeff Koons; Nicole Lizée talks of her love for merch in a world of avant-garde composition; Lawrence Switzky considers the redemptive possibility of exhaustion in marathon theatre; and many more artists and scholars reflect upon their own experience of performance in the current economy.

Click here to read the full table of contents.

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Ed. Note: Lewis Jaffe runs the website bookplatejunkie.blogspot.com, which features images from his and others’ collections of bookplates used by important figures in the theatre profession as well as in cinema and television.

Terry1

Bookplates:  why I collect them

I am retired now and devote a good deal of time in pursuit of and learning about new bookplates for mycollection. A client once asked me why people collect? It wasn’t meant to be a trick question but at the time I was at a loss to explain.

Upon reflection the answer which suits me best is that collecting is therapeutic. Sometimes I feel like an archeologist digging up old artifacts or a detective trying to locate a person. Interestingly enough several entertainers were also notable rare  book collectors. Among them were James Cagney, Jean Hersholt, and George Jessel.

David Garrick

Here are some time-tested ways to obtain bookplates

eBay: When I started this adventure about 45 years ago there was no Ebay, so I built a collection without it. Today Ebay is certainly an excellent way to find bookplates from around the world. It takes time and discipline because there is so much clutter and misrepresentation, but it is still worth the effort.

Bookplate Societies: When I first got interested in bookplates I joined both The American (www.bookplate.org) and English (www.bookplatesociety.org) bookplate societies. That gave me an opportunity to meet with and obtain bookplates from other collectors. It still makes good sense to join these organization and exchange bookplates with other collectors.

Antiquarian and used booksellers will go out of their way to help you if you make your interest known to them. It gets harder each year as the number of open shops decreases, and the number of pre-1940’s books on the shelves are decreasing. Nevertheless, it is often productive. Start looking in either the poetry or drama sections as owners of such books seem to have used bookplates more frequently and there is often less turnover of inventory. Ask the bookseller if he keeps a box of detached boards. I have found some excellent 18th century plates in such boxes.

John Gielgud

Michael Redgrave

Bookbinders: In most large communities there is at least one hand bookbinder. Check the Yellow Pages, Google, or ask a book dealer. More often than not they, being pack rats, hold onto old bookplates, and in some instances are more than willing to sell you a cigar box full.

Book and Paper Shows: I have always enjoyed going to shows. After a while, dealers will save things for you. It pays to stop at every booth and ask.

Noel Coward

Angel of Death letters: I am almost (not quite) embarrassed to admit to the fact that I used to look up the ages of bookplate collectors and wrote to all those over eighty to inquire if they knew of any collections for sale. The point is that it was very productive and I’ve purchased several major collections that way.

For the record, I am 77, so do not bother me until 2018!

Letters to Famous People: I’ve occasionally gotten some remarkable bookplates by writing to celebrities, but I have not had much luck in recent years. Most celebrity mail is filtered by clerks and more often than not you get a signed photo or an auto penned label.

Wylly Folk St. John

Wylly Folk St. John

For those of you wishing to obtain additional information about this topic, Lew can be reached at Bookplatemaven@hotmail.com

 

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CTR 161_winter 2015(3X3)

Performance and Human Rights in the Americas

Also available at CTR online

Motivated by recent artistic and scholarly efforts to query Canada’s place in the hemisphere, this issue features activists, artists, and researchers working at the intersection of performance and human rights both within and beyond Canadian borders. The performance actions examined in this issue travel across the geography and the history of the Americas in an effort to resist, redress, and protest human rights abuses. In the wake of the official opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, this issue raises timely questions about how performance can serve as a potent site of inquiry that interrogates the very terms and conditions of human rights discourse, particularly in the curation of Canada as a human rights leader. While each voice in this collection speaks to a distinct issue that is harrowing in scope (femicide, genocide, institutional violence, treaty rights, food insecurity, corporate violence), all unite in their call for continental coalitions and solidarity to expand inter-American dialogue northwards and to assess Canada’s role in the complex, ongoing, and unfinished history of human rights.  CTR 161 / Winter 2015

Click here to read the full table of contents.

The Canadian Theatre Review features thought-provoking plays and articles on currentissues and trends in Canadian theatre. CTRprovides the Canadian theatre community with in-depth feature articles, manifestos, slideshows, videos, design portfolios, photo essays, and other documents that reflect the challenging forms that theatre takes in the contemporary Canadian arts scene.

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