With the launch of the website we also launch our first featured series of blog posts from contributors to Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions. Each month we ask a featured author what they were thinking (WWIT?) when we asked her or him to address a “critical” question facing those who practice theater historiography today.

Mixed Metaphors to Live By, or A Thank You to the Good Drs. Lakoff and Johnson

by on February 7th, 2012

Human beings are not built to withstand the pressure produced when steam is trapped within a sealed vessel, and we stretch only so far when our limbs are pulled in opposite directions.  Despite the metaphors we too often live by pre-tenure, I have not met a single junior colleague whose contract requires him or her to undergo the extreme physical duress of a pressure cooker or the Rack. Nevertheless, the precision with which a tenure-stream contract seemingly divides one person’s efforts (e.g. 40% teaching, 40 % research, 20% service) within an inflexible time frame (e.g. first probationary period: three years; second probationary period: three years) has given many of us cause to mix metaphors.  I get it. I also know that these metaphors, even for those of us with macabre tastes, only amplify the anxiety that accompanies uncertainty.

I am not writing this from the Promised Land where elephants captain cumulous pirate ships cross a cobalt sky, whilst the breeze carries the scent of just-peeled oranges past my sun-kissed cheek, standing in a field of black-eyed Susans, sipping the sweet Nothing-I-have-to-do.  Please. Puh-leeze.  First of all, I live in Michigan and it is January. Almost as significantly, I am in my fourth year of a tenure-stream appointment, fifteen months away from compiling my tenure file.  I have not been awarded tenure. I do not know if I will be awarded tenure.  So I cannot advise how to get tenure and win friends. And I will not advise that you find work-life balance, or take time out for yourself, or do the things you love. Advice like that suggests that your work is somehow not a part of your life and not for you.  Instead, I offer three principles that I find helpful.  Please take what is useful and leave the rest.

Do not do the math. My GRE test scores should have taught me this lesson; I gently remind myself of it often. The story is the problem: Over  72 months, pre-tenure faculty member “A” will teach 24 threeish-credit courses; serve on at least 1 graduate committee, 1 departmental committee, 1 university committee, and 1 professional committee for each 12-month period within these 72 months; “A” must attend at least Y conferences, and write at least X articles and 1 book.  If teaching is worth Q%, research is worth R%, and service is worth S%, how many hours per day should she devote to each in order to earn an “Excellent” rating in all categories? And why does “A’s” calculator display “S#*T” after she hits “=”?  As faculty, we have an enviable amount of control over how we structure time. Instead of thinking about how much time things take, I think about good times. The morning is a good time for me to write; the evening is good for me to read; the hour before class is good to create a lesson plan.  You can follow the seasons or imagine endless Happy Hours; just do things when it is good to do them.

Become people deep.  To do this, you must be generous with your time, regardless of how you choose to conceptualize it. The Michigan State University faculty, who welcomed me to campus with invitations to do stuff, taught me this lesson. It comes in two parts. When I arrived at MSU, I was invited to become affiliate faculty in multiple programs, invited to give a talk, and invited to collaborate on a civic engagement project.  I did exactly the opposite of what, I heard, junior faculty should do. I said “yes” to (almost) everything.  And rather than saying “no,” when invited to give that talk, I said “I cannot at this time, but would like to [fill in future date].”  First, these projects did not take time away from what I “should” have been doing. This is because integration does not require serendipity. I thought about how to fit each request into something that I was already doing; I thought about why I was invited.  Second, the exchange rate on generosity is greater than 1:1. Those people to whom I have been generous not only contribute to my projects when I ask.  They think of me.  In doing so, they give me unsolicited support of all sorts. They volunteer introductions to other people, vouch for me, email citations and CFPs, and just check-in to see what I am up to. You do not need to say “yes” to everything to become a part of the community, but if you keep your office door open, helpful people will stop by.

Keep your sense of humor, but do not keep it to yourself.  I finally learned that being serious is not necessary to being taken seriously. Oscar Wilde and Ron Swanson taught me this lesson. Lazzi, linguistic inversions, impersonations, and one-liners do not abound in Ivory Tower interactions. For me, not making dumb jokes is self-censorship.  It does not feel right, and it is exhausting.  Initially, I worried that colleagues and students would not get that I was an expert in my field unless I strode stern-faced into rooms to profess. I am not suggesting that all junior faculty should go for the laugh. Some people are just not funny.  What I am suggesting is that you should let colleagues and students know you.

By way of conclusion, I’ll say that it is folly to conclude before finished.  Instead, for the next year or so, I am going to institute the Magic “If” and play Gwendolyn Fairfax: “This suspense is terrible.  I hope it will last.”

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Theatre History (Ir)Rationale

by on January 23rd, 2012

A palpable absurdity permeates my being whenever I prepare to teach a theatre history survey course. This absurd feeling, something I would describe as an out-of-tuneness with the actuality of the task facing me, reverberates wildly through my bones. What, frankly, are we to do, we who teach these courses? As Steve Tillis has argued in his essay, “Remapping Theatre History,” we teachers of theatre history in the United States find ourselves heirs to a centuries-old Eurocentrism that forecasts a dreary classroom experience. More than Eurocentric, Tillis argues, we frequently succumb to a bland parochialism, “‘parochial,’ that is, in the sense defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘relating or confined to a narrow area or region, as if within the borders of one’s own parish; limited or provincial in outlook or scope’” (Tillis 1). That is, despite the multitude of perspectives that have opened onto South American, Middle Eastern, African, and Asian, and Australasian theatre histories in the recent years, theatre history survey classes in higher education continue to abscond back within the well-protected walls of European theatre history.

Of course, the solution to this parochialism cannot simply rest in an adoption of non-European material at the expense of the Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, Medieval monasteries, Cid controversies, and Elizabethan playhouses, can it? I mean, we’re supposed to figure out a savvy self-reflexive method of pairing the parochial with the global to present a thorough historiographic deconstruction of all that we know, aren’t we? This is the point at which that out-of-tune feeling begins to resonate in my toes. I have three weeks to put together my syllabus. I don’t want to quarantine my students within the tiny parish of traditional theatre history studies. What do I do?

My decision: to fail tactically. To face this absurd challenge in front of me, I have chosen not to construct a radically global theatre history syllabus that can address Tillis’s concerns and blaze new trails through the halls of the university, but, rather, one that allows me to perform the limitations of the traditional theatre history survey timeline along with, and for the benefit of, my students. This tactical failure takes a cue from Beckett’s motto in Worstward Ho, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  This failure does not take success as its opposite; rather, tactical failure describes the practice of mapping the limit of thought, setting sail towards that limit, and embracing the perplexity that comes from reaching it. In the spirit of this mission, I present this Theatre History Irrationale to accompany my syllabus posted on this theater historiography site.

To fail tactically with my students, and, through doing so, to embrace the problem of theatre historiography: this is the goal that undergirds my syllabus. To achieve this goal, I embrace not only the Western theatre history tradition but also the futility of attempting to cover that canon of works in any depth in the span of fifteen weeks. Each of my lectures and class discussion frequently fall in on themselves and expose what Matthew Goulish calls the “irreducible complexity” of, in this case, historical inquiry. I want to encourage my students to engage in that complexity instead of bypassing it for easy answers. To do this, we need to learn how to ask questions. We, my students and I, need to learn how to see what has been rendered invisible by historical narrative. We need to sift through the historical ground from which specific plays emerge in order to grapple with the modes of thinking that allow such plays to exist.

One such example of this philosophy in action is my unit on Classical Roman Theatre. I have assigned two class periods, a total of four hours, for our exploration of this material. This year, I paired a chapter from Donald G. Kyle’s Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome with Seneca’s Oedipus. The students read these two texts and I supplied some additional contextualization through excerpts from History of the Theatre on the phenomenon of the “closet drama,” passages from Horace’s Ars Poetica, and some tidbits on Seneca’s relationship with Nero. Once we had orientated ourselves within the matrix of these materials, a problem emerged: to which historical line of sight does Seneca’s play belong? Should we read it as a closet drama that abides by the rules of decorum set out by Horace, or should we treat it as a spectacle of death akin to the munera of Seneca’s day? For the majority of class, the students developed arguments to support one of these perspectives. I asked them to pay special attention to the stakes of their argument. So What? What does it matter if Iocasta’s death was merely described in words on a page or if an actress actually disemboweled herself in front of an audience? Why should we care about this question at all?

Despite the multiple and well-argued answers to these questions, our conversation was cut short by time. We reached no solutions. I announced that we were leaving Rome and jumping ahead nearly ten centuries next week. The students groaned, a sound I interpreted as a desire to keep digging through Seneca. Death, its particular significance in the spectacles of Ancient Rome, its relation to Seneca’s play, and its ambiguous treatment in Horace became floating themes that will continue to haunt our future classroom discussions. My lesson plans did not bring any answers to the students, just as I had willfully acknowledged prior to starting the exercises. Instead, what we did experience was how to wrestle with a diverse set of historical materials and events, and we gained an understanding that the need to wrestle outweighs the need for certainty.

Of course, this failure is neither good nor bad. It is, at best, a delay. Tactical failure-as-delay helps to provoke inquisitiveness and teaches the art of producing arguments instead of the acquisition of knowledge. This type of failure applies to my own process of learning as well. This fact became vividly clear while trying to unpack the ambiguity of Aeschylus’s play The Persians. Is the play a victory lap for the Athenians after a harrowing war with Xerxes’ forces, or is it a complicated display of empathy through which the other becomes more knowable? For two of my students, both of whom claim Persian descent, neither question mattered. Both students were so furious with the depiction of the Persians that they didn’t even listen to the in-class conversation. For my TA, the mere presentation of this play created trouble because, she felt, it was likely that the students would have no other representation of Ancient Persia to supplement this Greek-centric portrayal. After receiving this feedback, I decided to bring the conversation around the upset into the classroom and to explain that I had failed as a teacher. In fact, I suggested, teaching is a never-ending string of failures through which the wealth of the unsaid becomes visible. I admitted that, having taught The Persians for the first time, I would like to pair Aeschylus’s play with a Persian theatrical piece in the future. At the present, however, I am unfamiliar with that aspect of theatre history and I need to mark that fact for everybody. In the future, I’ll try again, fail again, and fail better.

I call this supplemental document an “irrationale” partially because it does not adequately defend the choices I made while creating my Theatre History syllabus. I make no effort to defend those choices because I feel they need no defense. Instead, I intend this irrationale to highlight the tactical use of limitations and failures in my pedagogical strategy. While my syllabus may appear no different than the material Tillis (rightfully) scrutinizes and queries in his essay, I want to express the thought that what we teach is only half the story. How we teach the material we choose to share with students seems to be the more fruitful avenue of inquiry. Within that how exists a practice of teaching. By allowing that practice to embrace failure and the limitations of the canon as teaching materials I try to help students learn the art of questioning and I work on developing a reciprocal method of learning through which I teach the students and students teach me. In fact, there is a third party: the historical material itself. This third party acts as a spectral beacon that helps us to triangulate our ontological and epistemological position in the present, though the perpetual appearance and disappearance of the historical signal means that, ultimately, the students and I are left wading through the deep ocean of the past together.

Will Daddario is teaching the theatre history sequence at University of Minnesota—Twin Cities Campus in 2011-2012. You can find his syllabus in the Faculty Club area.

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Performance as Learner-Driven Historiography (WWIT)

by on November 5th, 2011

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.

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Sodomitical Politics (WWIT?)

by on October 18th, 2011

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.

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Intradisciplinarity in Theater History (WWIT?)

by on September 6th, 2011

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.


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