Theatre Topics 11.1 (2001) 1-17
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Advocacy, Public Intellectuals, and Civic Engagement in Theatre and Performance Studies
Let me start this argument for academic advocacy with three salient anecdotes:
1) A member of the acting faculty in my department at the University of Texas at Austin has a decal pasted on his office door designed in the ubiquitous Ghostbusters symbolic style that transliterates as "Don't Think, Act." Although I very much respect this man and his work with students and department productions, walking past this declaration of his values each day challenges everything I believe in as a theatre educator.
2) A theatre department colleague and I were recently asked to join a planning committee for a conference organized by UT's law school on questions of art and authenticity. One of their influential faculty members wants to address how a play's reception changes over time, citing, for example, the antisemitism of The Merchant of Venice as a "problem" for twenty-first-century audiences. In addition to pondering legalistic questions about intellectual property and copyright infringement, he wants to address the law as content in cultural representations. Although Holly Hughes had just been to campus, performing at a local theatre her newest performance piece, Preaching to the Perverted, the law professor didn't once refer to the legal challenge to the National Endowment for the Arts's decency pledge or its upholding by the Supreme Court. Neither did he suggest that the conference consider censorship as a legal issue that historically haunts performance and representation. While we're glad to be brought to the table for an intercollege, interdisciplinary event (with a budget, provided by the law school, of an astounding $100,000), we resent being asked to address other people's issues when they clearly have no knowledge of our own. Obviously, we will try to steer the conference conversations toward topics that are more germane to contemporary theatre and performance studies. But the invitation was extended through ignorance and presumption, and considered, once again, a theatre department as a service unit with no inherent history or critical discourse of its own. [End Page 1]
3) In my classes this semester, in part because we've been studying and seeing quite a lot of queer solo performance art, my students are concerned with questions of political efficacy. They ask hard questions about how we measure a performance's effect, and how it encourages real political movement. They ask, is it enough that Hughes simply tells her side of the NEA Four's story, personalizing a public event, offering a critical accounting in a public forum? Although she positions her audiences as "perverted" for the space of her show, aren't they really already converted, my students want to know, predisposed to agree with her ironic, angry reading of Supreme Court injustices? Who can we presume as willing or able cocreators of the progressive meanings we might want performance to generate? Maybe engaging the hearts, minds, souls, and politics of a predisposed audience is already politically effective. Can political change actually take place within the conventional architecture of theatre production, or can it only happen in street demonstrations, such as those staged recently by student activists against the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and global corporatism? I'm happy to debate these questions with my students since I, too, find them crucial to understanding the political dynamics of theatre and performance. But I'm less cynical than they sometimes are about the power of performance to directly affect social life. Just the act of going to the theatre, of demonstrating a willingness to see and hear stories that might not otherwise be accessible, models a hopeful openness to the diverse possibilities of democracy.
These examples illustrate the conundrum of trying to do politically invested work not only in a theatre department but through theatre and performance in American culture. Our endeavors to engage students in civic life outside of the university, in a life of the politically...