- Reflecting on ATHE’s Silver: Archiving Conference Curation and the State of the Field in Theatre and Performance Studies
An anniversary always provides an occasion for looking backward as well as forward: the 25th Conference of the Association of Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) offered us, as co-curators of the event, a challenge to consider the state of the field in a particularly fraught moment. ATHE is an academic organization that reflects North American disciplinary models of the ways theatre and performance studies have been framed within higher education. Structured through a series of “focus groups,” the organization maps the history of North American relations between theory and practice, especially over the past twenty-five years of its existence (it was founded in the shadow of the culture wars, but focus groups have been added throughout the years).1 ATHE’s programming structure—predominantly “bottom-up,” with individual focus groups driving most of the schedule—means that conferences held as part of the organization’s purview tend to reflect issues at stake in local contexts, whether those contexts are institutional, disciplinary, identity-based, or task-driven. A focus over the past ten years on a variety of structures for “multidisciplinary panels”—panels supported for inclusion in ATHE by two or three distinct focus groups—has sought to reflect a sense of theatre as inherently multidisciplinary. In reality, however, these panels are often no more multidisciplinary than those submitted through individual focus groups, so while the multiple sponsorship aims to create conversations among disciplines, the planning and execution of these frequently reveals the interstices in the languages used by different focus groups.
Curation of the annual conference is usually done by an individual “Vice President for Conference,” alongside executive director Nancy Erickson and her staff. Being put in the unusual position of being elected as co–vice presidents as a result of a tie in the election (for the first time in ATHE’s history, which inadvertently revealed a gap in the organizational bylaws that had not considered possibilities for runoff elections), we began to explicitly discuss the state of the field. We both believe that a conference is always a snapshot of the field, both in terms of current research and on a macro-level, mirroring institutional politics and practices. Thus in our early discussions we focused on the opportunity to imagine the conference as a moment of intervention into shaping what the field could look like, in particular thinking about ATHE’s locatedness and institutional structures and the ways in which we might “speak back” to these. As we worked with our conference committee with this dual sense, these ideas emerged in the conference title: “Performance Remains, Global Presence: Memory, Legacy, and Imagined Futures.” Our committee proffered and discussed a number of early titles, among them “Past Performance, Future Returns” and “Past Performance, Global Futures” (both with implicit references to capitalism and the current crises), as well as “Theatre and Performance in a Global Future.” The final choice offered possibilities across all focus groups to allow for reflection on a variety of issues. As we moved forward toward curating a series of all-conference events, we engaged not only questions of history, but also how the structures of academia both foster and impede certain intellectual, artistic, and even political goals. [End Page 1]
The State of the Field
Explicit study in theatre and performance as a discrete discipline (or set of disciplines) is relatively young, with a history that stretches back, at most, a century. Local histories and relationships within and across the disciplines vary regionally; viewed globally, these disparate histories diverge even more widely. At a moment when challenges to financing of the arts and higher education often focus on questions of instrumentality and impact, what might be gained from looking together at varying global models of theatre in higher education? What might the UK focus on praxis and practice-as-research bring to the table vis-à-vis the US focus on “real-world” pragmatics, and vice versa? What can be exchanged in terms of best practice between the political contexts of teaching theatre in the Middle East, sub-Saharan...