- Editor’s Comments
Over the past few years, the decline in public support for the arts and for public higher education has been countered by growing professional activism and increased awareness of the importance of advocacy. The last issue of Theatre Topics thus opened with Peggy Phelan’s call to join the ARTNOW demonstration this spring in Washington, DC. This issue opens in similar fashion with an address to the ATHE membership by President-Elect Jill Dolan. In the face of shrinking resources, a disappearing job market, and calls for educational reform, critical debates about what we teach, and why, take on an urgency difficult to ignore. Understanding that the current political climate has polarized positions in unusually destructive ways, Dolan exhorts members of the association to dismantle the borders that keep us from creating a more progressive and socially responsible future for our field.
The authors of the articles to follow each perform, in different ways, the important role of critical audience. Accounting for the contradictory reception of Pearl Cleage’s play Flyin’ West, Esther Beth Sullivan looks to the play’s melodramatic form in a provocative discussion of race and genre. The intersection of race and genre also proves central to Alicia Kae Koger’s dramaturgical analysis of Lee Breuer’s musical Gospel at Colonus; in a close reading of the play, Koger locates the power of Breuer’s work in its particular weaving of Christian, Greek, and Afrocentric traditions. Whereas Koger uses Breuer to demonstrate the continuing usefulness of a formalist approach to dramaturgy, Iris Smith takes up Breuer’s contradictory position as part of an “established” avant-garde in an essay informed by feminist, materialist, and postcolonial theory. Examining the trajectory of his most recent work, Smith helps to make sense of the interesting, and perhaps irresolvable, contradictions in Lee Breuer’s intercultural projects. Moving from avant-garde to more popular art forms, Stacey Connolly discusses the gay aesthetic and educative function of Working Out With Leona: The Musical in a wide-ranging article that both introduces and historicizes the work of artist/educator Nelson Jewell and the HIV Ensemble. Finally, Mary Callahan Boone brings feminist insight to the groundbreaking work of lighting designer Jean Rosenthal. Acknowledging the ideological limitations of both her time period and the aesthetic forms with which she worked, Boone’s analysis uncovers the gendered nature of lighting design as it continues to operate on contemporary stages.
Though different in approach, the articles collected here implicitly take up Dolan’s challenge to revitalize our theatre curriculum with methods and subjects more closely attuned to our postmodern moment. Paying serious attention to contemporary artists like Lee Breuer, Pearl Cleage, and Nelson Jewell means paying serious attention not only to contemporary, noncanonical [End Page i] plays but also to the audiences for whom they write and the imagination of social alternatives their work represents. As Boone’s article demonstrates, the reframing of historical subjects by current critical theory can also make possible a better understanding of contemporary theatre practices. Rereading this issue, I am again reminded of the importance of audience to performance. Ultimately, the questions we ask, the analyses we make, and the debates we engage in over work we see is precisely what gives performance a history.