Working the Field with Oral History: Talking Towards the Research Encounter in Theatre and Performance Studies
- Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism
- The University of Kansas, Department of Theatre and Dance
- Volume 24, Number 1, Fall 2009
- pp. 99-116
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Fall 2009 99 Working the Field with Oral History: Talking Towards the Research Encounter in Theatre and Performance Studies Lara Nielsen1 When I began teaching within the auspices of a drama department some years ago, I wondered: how does this curricular structure imagine the student of theatre and performance? How does it initiate students into the field? Can there be something new in the practice of theatre and performance studies, in its curricular modules and methodologies of instruction, to nurture the energetic connections between its practical and scholarly components? Whether faced with the propinquities of BFA or BA degree programs, these questions are pivotal for developing talent, teaching, and leadership in the interdisciplinary fields of theatre and performance. It is not just that institutional structures consistently illuminate a familiar division of labor among the faculty or in turn reproduce that old sequencing in students, who sense that they can safely care either about scholarly or practical study (as if those divisions made any sense), but not so easily accommodate both identities in their work. In this way, curricular concerns are as institutionalizing as they are pedagogical. Students are always grappling with what those distinctions might mean as they navigate their own imaginations of what they might do; the quality of these negotiations, in turn, impacts not only how our students apprehend the field, but how they invent its future possibilities. As a process of initiation, an education in theatre and performance typically introduces students to the protocols of authority that define the distinctive paradigms and powers of the field, here appended as acts of making performances versus critical thinking about them, “as though studies were theory and the arts were practice.”2 Curriculum development has always been one of the mechanisms to articulate and develop shifts in the organization of the field and its methodologies at the local level—sometimes, as those with an appetite for departmental histories know, with epochal struggle. Whether or not faculty choose to deliberate upon it, curricula elaborate theoretical agendas. Within the international theatre and performance studies community there is real commitment to the 1995 recommendation by J. Ellen Gainor and Ron Wilson that “educators need to reinforce performance considerations so that historical, theoretical, or strictly textual analysis do[es] not lose sight of the importance of artistic elements; and so that active, production-related components such as acting, directing, and Lara D. Nielsen is Assistant Professor in Theatre and Dance at Macalester College. She specializes in critical theory; gender, feminist, and postcolonial studies; orality, ethnography, and multimedia documentary methodologies; and avant-garde events. She is published in Performance Research, Women & Performance, Contemporary Theatre Review, Theatre Journal, TDR, and Journal of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. Her first manuscript, Sacrifice Plays, addresses the modernist détentes of globalization and Latino performance in major league baseball. She is also co-editing an anthology on theatre, performance, and neoliberalism. 100 Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism design regain balance with the spectatorial position.”3 With a sideways glance, however, the diagnosis still tilts, here and there, into a state of emergency revealing the repetitions of that familiarly hierarchical, and sometimes bipolar pedagogical structure—academia on one side and artistic activities on the other—proscribing the possibilities of the field at its pedagogical and institutionalizing sites of inception.4 Meanwhile, other fields do their best to profile performance in their classes, but with varying degrees of collaboration with theatre and performance arts faculties and departments. For students and faculty alike, these can be delicate initiations. When I began teaching in the Department of Drama at New York University’s Tisch School of theArts, I was lucky enough to be working with colleagues who were keenly attuned to the need to address the artistic research environment, particularly in a BFA context.5 NYU’s department promises to deliver a “combination of rigorous conservatory training and broad-ranging academic education.”6 I listened to Drama majors remark about the powerful gaps they felt between the languages, purposes, and cultures of the artistic and academic research environments they found themselves in, and I wondered, what kinds of working and dwelling spaces do such testimonies map? What languages and cultures, what research...