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.



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.


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.

{ 1 comment }