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Advocacy and Activism: Identity, Curriculum, and Theatre Studies in the Twenty- first Century

From: Theatre Topics
Volume 7, Number 1, March 1997
pp. 1-10 | 10.1353/tt.1997.0003

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Theatre Topics 7.1 (1997) 1-10

As the President-Elect of ATHE, I've spent nearly two years chairing its Advocacy Committee. Our committee has had a broad purview, focusing the work of its task forces on creating rationales for theatre studies in higher education; suggesting survival strategies for faculty and for departments; studying curricular reform and K-12 initiatives; and thinking about how we might expand the ways in which a theatre studies degree is useful professionally. My work with the Advocacy Committee has led me to think more generally about ATHE's relationship to arts advocacy and educational advocacy, and the various ways in which theatre studies straddles the arts and education.

For the last three years, I've also chaired two different theatre programs in two large state institutions. Both experiences have taught me sobering lessons about the need, not just for administrators but for all of us who teach theatre in higher education, to be able to articulate clearly what we do, why, and how. At the same time, my own research remains devoted to the activist projects of feminist, lesbian/gay, racial, and ethnic representation -- theatrically and politically -- in American culture. I see my writing and my administrative responsibilities as sites of progressive political work at which I can participate in creating knowledges that matter.

One academically political issue that implicitly hampers the ability of our field to state what it does and why, with force and persuasion, is the border recently drawn between advocates of the core curriculum and advocates of identity-based studies. The so-called "culture wars" or "PC debates" have been analyzed in various ways over the last five or so years, but we haven't confronted this issue head on in theatre studies. We've fought over theory, but implicit in our tense exchanges about methodology is also a rift between those who champion Euro-American, canonical bodies of knowledge and those who believe knowledge is embodied, and who teach and write through politically-inflected, multicultural studies, often based in poststructuralist methods or postmodernist theory. My own work, from The Feminist Spectator as Critic (1988) to Presence and Desire (1993), has held steady faith in embodied knowledge. This article, which I'm addressing to those of us who are ATHE members, is an exhortation to dismantle the borders too often drawn in our field, in order to proactively represent ourselves to the academy and the public sphere as a vital part of educational culture into the twenty-first century.

Those engaging in a nostalgic return to core Euro-American values and a unified understanding of which knowledges are the most important knowledges --members of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) or the activists of the National Alumni Forum (NAF) might best fit this category -- have generally proceeded from a perspective not unlike Bob Dole's now demolished "bridge to the past." As African American cultural theorist Michael Dyson writes, the desire to return to a unified core curriculum requires a kind of "racial amnesia," "because the goal of unity is the reconciliation of difference and oppositional discourses" (341). Such calls for unity also misrecognize the complexities of the postmodern moment in which we're now operating. How we produce knowledge in the academy has been shifted dramatically by computer technology, new media, and the global reach of late capitalism and its fetishized commodities. Those who champion core curricula are often unhappy in the postmodern condition and prefer what they consider to be more stable historical moments.

Yet the worst case uses of identity studies can be as modernist and ahistorical as those bridge-builders to the past, and just as rigid in their presumptions about how experience becomes knowledge. I'm thinking here of sexual or racial separatists, or any identity group faction that shores up the borders of its own differences through essentialist reasoning. How identity is produced -- and how we understand race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender, and all their intersections -- has been profoundly changed by poststructuralist and postcolonial critiques of subject formation and essentialism. More complicated, subtly nuanced work around identity in theatre studies proceeds from a materialist understanding of history and socioeconomic systems, and doesn...

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