- Hyperlinking and Hyperthinking through Theatre History:Haiti, "Hotel California," Woyzeck, Hegel, and Back Again
"You don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings . . . serendipitously."—John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
Teaching Theatre History Differently
As a professor at a large, public research institution, I face the challenge that many theatre historians do as the "twice-damned abject apostles of an abject faith" (81), as Henry Bial terms us: the difficult task of teaching a theatre history survey course over two semesters that is supposed to give students an understanding of 3,000 years of theatre history throughout the world. Students are often reluctant or resistant to the study of theatre history as well, responding with what Erica Abbitt calls "disdain, boredom, passive-aggressiveness, and downright hostility to the study of theatre history" (70). Many of our students consider theatre history to be, in Kaarin Johnston's words, "the boring, sit-still-and-take-notes, do-a-lot-of-reading, and have-to-write-those-papers side" (91) of the study of theatre. To the task of making theatre history engaging and worthwhile to reluctant students, my co-instructor Will and I add our desire and commitment to expand the lens of study beyond the Western frame that delimits so much of theatre history as it is taught at the university level, and to teach, or model, a historiographically engaged practice of history. In short, we seek to teach theatre history differently, to attend to the way it is shaped and made meaningful, while including perspectives from beyond the usual-suspect lineup of the Western canon.
Following the kind of merging of methodologies that Bial (a performance studies scholar) and Scott Magelssen (a theatre studies scholar) endorse in Theatre Historiography: Critical Interventions, we set out to broaden not only the geographic coverage of our course, but also our very definition of theatre. Our goal was to expand the minds of students in a theatre history class, so that they would leave the class knowing that "theatre" refers to a specific set of conventions, as well as a way of thinking about representation, a form of political resistance, and an embodied repertoire as diverse as there are bodies capable of telling stories. We wanted students to be comfortable including in their definition of theatre not only printed play texts and performances that occur under the proscenium arch, but also scrolls pulled from vaginas, Balinese dance, devised performances à la forced entertainment, happenings, and acts of hacktivism. Thus we had an explicit project to motivate students to think creatively within a certain structure—a theatre history survey course that required us to teach a broad range of knowledge in a liberal-arts context.
What follows is our attempt to accomplish this—a productive creative-failure, if you will1—in our recent iteration of Engaging Theatre History II (TH3172), which we taught together at the University of Minnesota in the spring of 2010.2 Seeking to avoid the dynamics that Abbitt describes—of [End Page 183] active students in studio courses, "eyes shining, laughing, and interacting energetically," who are then "frequently late, inattentive, and tuned out when attending theatre history classes" (71)—we titled the course Engaging Theatre History to mark our approach to the teaching and learning of this subject; that is, to make it engaging and to have students engage with material that is relevant and meaningful to them. Rather than strive for complete mastery of the material,3 our aim was to ignite interest, to train creative-critical students, to fan flames of passion that would inspire students to "take something away" from the classroom and to "practice critical thinking" about the material as Sonja Kuftinec suggests (44). We sought to teach our students that history is a "dynamic and creative enterprise," and to encourage them to "formulate their own questions for discovery" (Bial 81-84).
While the course covers a predetermined period in Western theatre history,4 our approach was to focus on case studies about which we were excited in order to inspire...