Contributing Authors

At a recent conference on African Atlantic Culture, History and Performance, one of the keynote speakers encouraged participants to consider how we deploy history.  While the word deploy can mean simply “use,” it also has connotations that suggest a more deliberate and even strategic function.  As we face new questions concerning open universities and universal access, how do those possibilities change the way we as scholars imagine “deploying” our history and our methodologies?  How do we envision the audiences for those new venues deploying history in their own turn?  What is the difference between teaching our students to deploy/use history vs. simply absorb/know it?  If there is a difference? How might it change the ways we approach our pedagogy and our research?  Should it?


The idea for my essay, and the classroom exercises it treats, came out of a moment in which I realized I was not doing the kind of historiography to which I was holding others accountable.

I’d been researching several living museum sites that used “second person” programming, where program designers invite visitors to “do” history instead of just passively experiencing it through exhibits and/or traditional living history encounters. I could see how these emerging practices were promising but also limited: At the sites I was visiting, the programs were basically scripting museum visitors’ behavior. While giving them the illusion of choice, they actually didn’t allow participants much room to depart from the story the program designers laid out.

One program I thought could do better was “Follow the North Star” an Underground Railroad reenactment at Conner Prairie in Indiana, where museum visitors step into the role of black slaves trying to escape to freedom in the north. “Follow the North Star” has all the elements of what I’m calling performative learner-driven historiography: visitors are assigned characters, given a scenario, equipped with information, and put into the field to solve a problem (escape to Cass County, Michigan, or all the way to Canada, without being caught by police or bounty hunters, by picking up the codes and finding abolitionist Quakers and other allies), but plants in the group make sure our choices always follow the pre-set path (we aren’t allowed to make the “wrong choice” and see how the consequences play out, then try again, as I would like to see in such a program).

I offered “Follow the North Star” and other programs some suggestions for improvement in a couple of articles, looking to Forum Theatre from Boal’s Teatro Oprimido for a model, but it became quickly evident to me that if I was expecting this kind of pedagogy from my research sites, I’d be hypocritical not to work it into my own theatre history and performance studies classrooms. So, I tried it out, beginning in Spring of 2008, my first year teaching graduate theatre history and performance studies at Bowling Green State University. This essay represents some of my initial findings, and an invitation to others to try it out.

I haven’t been at it for long, and the results have, of course, been mixed. I’ve also been surprised or made uncomfortable on occasion by my students’ choices. The black-face minstrelsy reenactment I walked into for one class, mentioned briefly in the essay, had me wondering whether I needed to shut the whole thing down (the students had told me they’d be presenting on vaudeville—a little white lie, as it were). But they knew what they were doing: The blacked-up students weren’t the protagonists of the reenactment. The other students and I were.  We were the ones being confronted with a dilemma and forced to make a decision. At what point we intervene and stop them from performing?  It took us longer than it should have to do so, and that was a learning experience.

My essay is more of a provocation than a handbook for doing this kind of work in the classroom. As the example above would indicate, I’m still working out the bugs myself.  As a provocation, the second-person voice I use in the essay is an attempt to model second-person museum programming and pedagogy, and I had to bone up a bit on “textual” or “narrative-You” strategies from literary studies (see Bruce Morissette, “Narrative ‘You’ in Contemporary Literature, Comparative Literature Studies 2 (1965), 1-24, reprinted and expanded in Morissette, Novel and Film: Essays in Two Genres [Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1985] 108-40; and David Herman, “Textual ‘You’ and Double Deixis in Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place,Style 28.3 [Fall 1994] 378-411).

Does it work? It kind of ends up scripting your experience though the essay (cf. Matt delConte, “Why You Can’t Speak: Second-Person Narration, Voice, and a New Model for Understanding Narrative,” Style 37.2 [Summer 2003] 204-219, which argues for a multiplicity of voice variables in narrative). Henry and I batted around the idea in early stages that I might rewrite it a “choose your own adventure” piece, where readers could have a bit more agency throughout. The four-thousand word limit we set for each essay, however, made this a bit more of a challenge than I could figure out how to solve.

But, to even be aware that you’ve got possible responses that fall outside the narrative I’ve scripted puts you squarely into what Stuart Hall calls a negotiated reading (Hall, “Encoding/decoding,” Ed. Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, ed., Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79 [London: Hutchinson, 1980] 128-38). And, if we look to Marvin Carlson’s take on reader-response theory, we can say that you the reader have a lot of agency in whether to co-produce and actualize the readings produced by the author (Marvin Carlson, “Theatre Audiences and the Reading of Performance,” Interpreting the Theatrical Past.  Ed. Thomas Postlewait and Bruce A. McConachie  [Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989]).

So, feel free to read this essay with a healthy amount of resistance.  You’re making its meaning as much as is the author.


The impetus for my essay arose from my desire to research the ways in which performance is involved in the simultaneous production of both class-based and gender-based identities. I allude to this project in the opening paragraphs of the essay. I plan to write a book-length study on the intersections of class and gender politics in performance, but, as I want to examine cases of such intersections across the long span of the entry into and the exit from the Western Modern Era, I have been using opportunities like the writing of this essay to explore specific moments that I will feature in the much larger project.

About the time Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions was being published, I was preparing a proposal for the 2011 Mid-America Theatre Conference on two “closet dramas” on the subject of sodomy published in England between 1672 and 1707 that dovetail neatly with recent scholarship on shifts in the sexual mores of the era—shifts that redefined the role of sexual expression in the “public” vs. the  “private” spheres. I presented this essay in Minneapolis this past March. I am therefore linking my new research on this topic to my earlier research on “The Golden Rump,” in which a public satire on the private “sodomitical” acts of the royal family occasioned the passage of the restrictive Licensing Act of 1737. In this way, I hope to use individual research projects to build chapter-length studies for my future book.


What was I thinking?

Like many scholars employed in theater departments, I also direct plays and teach “studio courses.” When Henry and Scott invited me to propose an essay for Theater Historiography, I thought first to address the historical underpinnings of the theory/practice split in theater studies. Their email hinted that among the reasons they solicited my contribution was my ongoing practice as a theater maker. And I have a lot to say about the deleterious effects of the institutional and discursive arrangements that sift people who make theater from people who make scholarship about it. But my historical research has addressed the theater of Restoration and early eighteenth-century England. Could these concerns meet in the context of an anthology about historiography?

Part of my yearly teaching load is Major Directors: Theory and Practice. In this class, I ask students to study, appropriate, and re-purpose the work of canonical theater directors. The students read and write (quite a lot, actually), but their primary task is to create theater pieces – to craft bodies, objects, speech, and sound through space and time. The one director I always teach and the one who looms largest in my own training is Brecht. He’s the theater maker whose concepts and techniques best help me think and feel my way into the look, sound, and rhythm of a moment; he’s the anxious influence I’ve spent the most time mimicking and getting over.

My essay then developed as a challenge to myself. I often hear myself enjoining directing students to thread historical and critical thinking into their artistic practice. Steeped as they are in Romantic myths of creativity, they sometimes find this hard to do. For this essay, I thought to flip the dynamic. How might it look to adapt epistemologies developed in the context of the rehearsal hall to the tasks of historical research and writing? Might I, working as a theatre historian, draw explicitly upon analytic moves assimilated from my years of making plays? Could a re-purposed Brecht yield new historical insights into the life and work of the Augustan actress Anne Oldfield? Might this be another way to disrupt the theory/practice rift? And might such an essay exemplify a method that other people would find useful? My chapter is a foray into these questions.



When I wrote History Takes Time, I was preparing to go up for tenure. I was also advising a number of graduate students who felt they simply did not have time to do their work. I was distraught, as I felt and still do that we are conditioned more and more aggressively to be almost surgically strategic in doing our research.  My own experience in largely unorganized archives in Mexico had taught me that some of the most important discoveries in doing historiographical research come from what you do not know is present before you begin that work, from looking at what else is in the file, from what articles and ads surround the newspaper article you had to read to do your work. [Read More]


About 5 years ago, I started a position as a joint appointment in departments of Theatre and Media Study. My formal training in media was as a more or less traditional film scholar. By contrast, most of my new media colleagues were engaged in more digital-focused projects: virtual reality; robotics; and social media. In conversations with them, I became increasingly aware of and connected to a community that was more than a little technophilic, if not outright utopian. [Read More]


JUDITH: The idea for our essay grew out of my two-fold frustration with the field of musical theater studies. First, I had experienced/read bias against what I considered to be one of the most significant shows in contemporary musical theater history, Rent. Specifically, one editor of a prominent journal rejected an article I had written on Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical primarily on the grounds that he did not like the show (it was subsequently published elsewhere), and I read about and heard similar reactions against it.  Clearly not everyone echoes such sentiment, and Rent has been the subject of increasing scholarly attention. But I still felt that its complexity and significance remained unexamined.

Second, I was growing increasingly frustrated with my inability, as a theater historian, to explore all aspects of this multivalent, interdisciplinary form, particularly music and dance.  The most rewarding conferences I was attending, in terms of gaining new knowledge, were not theater conferences but musicology conferences. I found myself eager to enhance my scholarship on musicals with the knowledge of a musicologist. I was aware of Jessica’s work and had met her at one of those conferences, so asking her to join me in exploring Rent was a no-brainer. Luckily she accepted. Finding a dance historian to join us proved impossible, largely due to the lack of dance scholars focusing on musical theater dance. Perhaps that was for the best, as the first draft of our collaboration was over double our word limit! I am unsure how we could have fit in ideas about the dance in the show.

JESSICA: I was thrilled to accept Judy’s invitation to co-author this chapter, for two reasons (besides the fact that I admired her work and enjoyed meeting her at conferences!).  First, I had been having a similar experience to Judy’s:  the most fruitful and stimulating musical theater conferences have recently become those that purposely combine scholars from a range of disciplines, resulting in a discussion that brings all sorts of methodologies, backgrounds, and perspectives to the table.  Musical theater in the world of musicology is a friendly, interesting, and growing field – but we all know that we can’t do this work alone and we’re all actively seeking voices coming from other directions.  How can any one scholar know everything about theater, music, dance, design, and more?  My second reason, then, for jumping on board is that musicals are collaborative processes, which means there is no reason why the scholarship on them shouldn’t also be collaborative.   Conferences are one model, but Judy’s invitation to write with her became an example of the philosophy we both share:  that even published, “formal” scholarship can be (boldly, transparently) collaborative, conversational, and interdisciplinary.


How “past” do events have to be before they’re “history”?  I confess I was (and am) a little nervous contributing to a volume about writing theatre history when my primary research (activist performance and US evangelical movements) seems so . . . current.    What qualifies my work as historiography instead of performance studies, criticism, or even journalism?  For me, historiographic concerns inhere not in the subjects I study but in the questions I address in investigating that subject.  I draw on the work of Michel de Certeau, who posits historical research as heterology—an encounter between different entities, between distinct imaginations past and present.  Crucial to this encounter, argues Certeau, is the realization that historians cannot (or do not) simply bracket their own commitments in their research.  Rather, historians’ present concerns shape and are shaped by their representations of the past.

In my work, I am drawn to performances by groups whose worldviews actively oppose or exclude my own.     Beyond requiring that I meet baseline expectations of accuracy, evidence, and argument, my historiographic training pushes me to attend to how my ideological investments influence my representation of groups who stand on the other side of ethical, political, and/or theological divides.  In particular, I must be aware of how the words and critical models I use to describe both my allies and my enemies can subtly reinforce my own positions and assumptions.  Certeau argues that heterologies ought to be mutually transformative, resituating not merely the object of research but the researcher her/himself.  Writing within/for an academic community that generally shares my worldview, I can easily craft technically accurate studies that flatter the assumed rightness of my position.  A heterological historiography demands something more.  It demands that I de-familiarize my own political assumptions, displacing myself, through encounters with ideological others.  It may not be in the past, but it’s historiography to me.


I’ve been called a “historian in theatre-people clothing”  — colleagues often comment on how much non-theatre history I include in my research.  Given that both my parents are historians and that one of my dissertation advisors was a historian, this may not be surprising.  However, it continues to resurface as a question: How much “history” do you need to know to do theatre history?  For me, that question draws an artificial distinction among fields.  John L. Brooke, currently a professor of history at OSU and one of my dissertation advisors back in the 1990s, once told me to “look for the names” in crafting any kind of history.  That advice has continued to resonate for me over the years.  It led me to my first book as I pondered why the founders of the 1794 Boston Theatre also kept showing up in legal cases involving something called the “Boston Tontine Association”.  It turned out that the theatre’s founders amassed substantial amounts of money in their tontine scheme — part of which they poured into flouting state law and building Boston’s first professional playhouse.

Looking for the names automatically takes me across disciplinary boundaries.  If my theatre founder turns up in a land scheme or a bank deal, I need to understand how he got there.  In writing my chapter for Theatre Historiography: Critical Interventions I followed an even more elusive name — that of “Mr. Solomon” — a Jewish performer who appears in the historical record with no established point of origin and, so far, no first name.  Mr. Solomon has become something of an obsession for me.  On the one hand, he is supremely unimportant.  He was never a star performer and appears only sporadically in the histories of the early national theatre.  On the other hand, as one of the first Jewish American theatre performers in the new nation, he is incredibly important.  Questions abound.  Was he known to be Jewish at the time?  Was he practicing his faith?  What did he think about the negative Jewish stereotypes of the period?  Did other Jewish Americans embrace him because of his faith, or did they reject him because of his profession?  My compulsion to follow this one offered a wonderful opportunity for me to interrogate my own research process and to think seriously about whether there can ever be too much “history” in my theatre history.

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