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Theatre Topics 17.1 (2007) 69-79

Theatre History, Undergraduates, and Critical Thought
Erica Stevens Abbitt

In this essay, I address the particular challenges and rewards I encountered while developing an undergraduate theatre history curriculum at two separate institutions: the Department of Theatre at Pepperdine University (a private, faith-based, liberal arts institution in Malibu, California) and the School of Dramatic Art at the University of Windsor (a public institution in southern Ontario, Canada, which offers five separate undergraduate programs). The courses devised at both institutions shared a foundational text1 and a markedly similar core curriculum, despite their differences in geography, institutional organization, and pedagogical focus. A consideration of the ways in which I fashioned and delivered both courses provides an opportunity to look at the assumptions that shape the nature, effectiveness, and reception of theatre history, going beyond format, content, and classroom techniques to the unacknowledged forces that shape the discipline. Thus, this extended meditation maps both the challenges of revising the theatre history curriculum at two vastly different universities, and the deeper questions evoked by the experience.

First Attempts: "The Past Is Always Changing"

When I began teaching at Pepperdine University in 2003 I had just completed my doctorate in critical studies and was eager to integrate considerations of historiography, queer theory, feminism, and performance studies into the curriculum I would be teaching. My attempts to shape a participatory and active theatre history curriculum were chiefly inspired by the "mixed poetics" described by Sue-Ellen Case in Feminism and Theatre. In this foundational text, Case suggests that attempting to resolve different points of view and beliefs into a single integrated vision is counterproductive. Instead, she argues eloquently for a theatrical practice and critique of performance that rejects unitary, positivist, "resolved" logic in favor of a multifaceted alternative approach that blends theory, practice, and activism (131–32). This methodology does not reject tension, contradiction, and dissonance; on the contrary, it proposes making use of these forces to engage actively with different threads within performance theory and practice. In this sense, Feminism and Theatre not only foregrounds "forgotten" practitioners and marginalized practices (an activist teaching practice taken up by such theorists as Elin Diamond and Jill Dolan), but also establishes an engaged, articulate model for the teaching of theatre history. From this earlier work to Case's more recent articles, such as "Feminism and Performance: A Post-Disciplinary Couple," the scholar-practitioner is invited to look more deeply at the site where "contesting discourses converge" (150). This insistence on the value of contestation links directly with Maurice Merleau-Ponty's notion of the chiasmus of intersecting perceptions and the plurality of lived experience described in The Phenomenology of Perception (120), as well as contemporary "constructivist" pedagogy inspired by the ideas of John Dewey.2

While Case's concept of mixed poetics, proposed twenty years ago, might no longer be a controversial methodology in theatre history, its implementation within undergraduate courses is not necessarily widespread. As I began the process of revising the curriculum, I used this concept, along with several other techniques of critical pedagogy and feminist methodology (such as an emphasis on process over product, the connection of ideology with forms of theatrical representation, and a [End Page 69] focus on the co-production of meaning), to encourage students to engage with the material and to give value to their own training and experience.

The idea of contradiction as a central, organizational concept was apt for my first position as a theatre history professor, for it offered a particular challenge. Pepperdine University makes no attempt to hide the ideological framework upon which it bases its mission. Although it employs non-Christian faculty members and categorically states that "the truth, having nothing to fear from investigation, must be pursued relentlessly in every discipline" (Pepperdine 1), this university was founded by the Church of Christ, a conservative Protestant sect with a mandate to integrate religious and educational development. Despite (or perhaps because of) my candor at the initial job interview, questions of ideological differences were eagerly discussed...


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