Robbie McCauley: A Journey Toward Movement
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Theatre Journal 52.4 (2000) 519-542



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Robbie McCauley:
A Journey Toward Movement

Becky Becker


The critical educational language which we envision is one in which difference is seen as a site of both affirmation and remaking, as a negotiated and complex critical practice in which the possibility of democratic public life becomes a central referent of both critique and possibility.

--Peter McLaren 1

I think moving fast is moving deep at the same time.

--Robbie McCauley 2

Actor, performance artist, director, collaborator and educator--all titles descriptive of Robbie McCauley whose 25-year body of work may best be described using her own performance vocabulary: movement. 3 McCauley explains, "[w]hen I say movement, I mean going from something blocked and unclear to something open and clearer so that we can move to change things." 4 From her early work on Off-Off Broadway and with Sedition Ensemble, to a recent Site-Specific 5 performance theatre piece, Shays' Rebellion, at Mount Holyoke College, McCauley's work represents a career-long struggle to move collaborators, audience members, her community--and herself--toward social change. McCauley has sustained a high level of social consciousness since her earliest work. During her years as an Off-Off Broadway actress, she supported herself as a social worker. As McCauley explains, "It was a job, but it [End Page 519] was also part of the sensibility I was starting to develop and hone. I wanted to be able to take in personal experiences that are the result of social conditions and be able to speak on them and I thought theatre could do that." 6 Eventually, this sensibility began to move its way into her performance work in a much more palpable way.

McCauley's aesthetic seems to have grown out of this early work, joining a sensibility of social consciousness with a strong political awareness, and a distinct connection to history. She characterizes her work as "content as aesthetic"--in other words, an aesthetic that allows content to dictate the form, rhythm, and flow of a piece. Regarding content, McCauley says that she "began to see possibilities of teaching history in a non-academic way." 7 Aside from extending historical perspectives and allowing content to determine form, other qualities may be attributed to McCauley's "content as aesthetic"--I would also describe it as collaborative, and as an aesthetics of difference. Additionally, McCauley's work embraces two qualities that, in my observations of Shays' Rebellion at Mount Holyoke College, I feel are specific to her performance process: cross-cultural/dialogue and movement, the latter a term used frequently by McCauley. Although these terms may seem to be rather elusive in name, each becomes more tangible when grounded in practical work. My essay introduces these characteristics as they relate to McCauley's performance work and expands upon each, in a discussion of Shays' Rebellion at Mount Holyoke College, thus providing a closer look at these elements in practice.

Mapping the Terrain of Movement

As McCauley's body of work demonstrates, her approach to each individual piece evokes a slightly different aesthetic. Discussing her conceptions of "content as aesthetic" in an interview with Sydné Mahone, McCauley explains:

The way I shape work is to listen to what is going on; and of course, "listen" is a big word. . . . The thematic thread in my work is the connection of things that have been torn apart. I don't try to make connections. I'm trying to find the connections that are there. For instance, I know about differences between races. I know about commonness between races, between men and women, and so forth. The commonness is easier to speak than the differences. In a strange way, speaking differences makes the connection happen. 8

McCauley shapes each work, based on its content, through a careful process of listening and allowing the connections to happen. 9 Yet, as she describes it above, "content as aesthetic" is also an aesthetics of difference because it is through the differences--inherent within the content--that the form emerges. [End Page 520]

Turning the tables on dominant...