A Note from the Editor
Welcome to the first issue of 2018. As one of the official journals (along with Theatre Journal) of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, Theatre Topics traditionally dedicates a section of the first issue of the year to documenting the previous ATHE conference. 2017 brought the conference to Las Vegas, a location that generated a wide range of responses from attendees. For some, Las Vegas seemed an ideal place for a theatre conference—a place of wondrous spectacle, sexual liberation, and fascinating simulacra. One attendee (who shall not be named) even revealed that graduate-school bills were paid off with some shrewd card-playing skills at the casinos. For others, Las Vegas represented commodification and consumption gone awry (noting, for example, the America! store). Others still were concerned with the objectification of female bodies, the dangers of which were evidenced by flyers in the airport bathroom stalls offering aid to victims of sex trafficking. For some, Las Vegas is simply their home. And for many of us the city has since taken on a whole new connotation as the site of the deadliest mass shooting in US history, with fifty-eight people killed and over 500 injured. While not holistic, the opening section of this issue touches on many of these associations.
We begin with the presidential address of Harvey Young, the newly elected president of ATHE. Complementing his speech is a summation of and response to the conference’s open forum by the recent past president, Patricia Ybarra. Looking at these pieces side by side, I am struck by their shared sense of urgency. As Young points out, theatre as a discipline seems to be under attack, evident by the number of theatre programs that have been gutted or shut down. His fears regrettably appear to be confirmed, for as we go to press the fate of Indiana University’s MA/PhD program in Theatre History, Theory, and Literature hangs in the balance. Ybarra echoes these concerns, but also addresses the personal attacks felt by many theatre educators and/or their students. Both pieces urge engagement and advocacy during these precarious times.
Rounding out the section, the documentation of the conference plenary offers a meditation on the conference’s theme of “Spectacle: Balancing Education, Theory, and Praxis.” Titled “2017 ATHE Conference Plenary: A Spectacular Balancing Act,” the plenary featured circus dramaturg Louis Patrick Leroux; Cirque Mechanics founder and artistic director Chris Lashua; performance artist Xandra Ibarra (aka “La Chica Boom”); and director of the Stagecraft Institute of Las Vegas, Jane Childs. Each artist/scholar provides an insight into their approach toward work, while plenary moderators (CarlosAlexis Cruz, Roy Gomez Cruz, Kareem Khubchandani, and Chase Waites) provide context for the reader.
As I was initially assembling the various essays and notes from the field to follow this section on the ATHE conference, perhaps under the influence of Vegas, the metaphor of the buffet table came to mind. The contributions are surely varied, and in keeping with the mission of Theatre Topics represent a wide range of pedagogical and practical concerns. Hopefully readers will find an essay or note to satisfy their tastes. On closer inspection, however, I realized that each of these pieces explores the human body: the body in peril; the virtuosic body; the body in relation to the machine; the objectified body; the disembodied; the body as site for affective shifts; the estranged body; bodies in combat; bodies in collaboration; differently abled bodies; forgotten bodies; and bodies in relationship to space. Of course, theatre is an art form that many (for example, Grotowski) would argue is essentially comprised of interactions among bodies, so perhaps this meta-theme is not surprising. [End Page ix] Nonetheless, I invite readers to visualize corporeality as you consume these pages and see what associations it evokes. For me, the meta-theme speaks to both the fragility and alienation many of us feel, as well as a tribute to theatre’s ability as a live, intimate art form to foster real human connection.
The first essay, by Lisa Aikman, “Freedom Singer: Modeling Performative Witnessing in Documentary Theatre,” analyzes the latest documentary theatre piece by Toronto-based company Project: Humanity. The show tracks writer-performer Khari Wendell McClelland’s travels across Canada and the United States to unearth the history of his great-great-grandmother Kizzy. Aikman demonstrates how McClelland combines personal narrative with the technique of headphone verbatim to problematize easy identification with the autobiographical subject. Instead, she maintains, the show models the hard work it takes to truly listen to another person and pushes audiences to take responsibility for the perpetuation of national narratives surrounding race.
Peilin Liang’s “‘A Home on the Island’: Interbody Performance as a Method to Move beyond Resentment” offers an account of her performance-as-research project working with ASEAN “marriage migrants” (women who have crossed borders to obtain better socioeconomic opportunities) and citizens of their newly established homelands, who often perceive these women as genetically inferior and morally corrupt. Liang extends Kuan-hsing Chen’s concept of overcoming “the politics of resentment” by integrating the other with the self. She theorizes that Chen’s hypothetical proposal can be put into practice through theatre, contending that “[i]f the negative affect associated with marriage migrants is bodily, to move beyond it will also need to be affectively actualized through bodies” (29). The result is a moving case study of people’s ability to make attitudinal and emotional shifts when prevailed upon to walk in another’s shoes (or skins, in the case of their exploration of the tale of the seal wife).
The two notes from the field that follow these essays offer practical tools from both higher education and the professional world. Professors Drew Chappell and Jocelyn Buckner have collaborated with their former student Maxie Lankalingam to share their application of Anne Fliotsos’s visual response method to teach “worldmindedness” in a mixed majors and nonmajors world theatre course. While Chappell and Buckner explain how these exercises function within their class, Lankalingam shares her personal experience utilizing this method to explore the significance of Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office. Although Chappell and Buckner typically use this method “to decenter a Western approach to studying theatre” (43), in this case they discovered that it also helped a third culture student navigate her complicated feelings toward her identity and homeland.
Meanwhile, Danielle Rosvally, a Shakespearean scholar and fight director, offers a manual of sorts of best practices in fight choreography inspired by a summer in which she worked on three distinct productions of Hamlet. Because at Theatre Topics we try to provide a platform for theatre artists of various artistic backgrounds, I am therefore excited to provide a lens into a seldom showcased practitioner. As Rosvally notes, the fight choreographer is nonetheless an essential collaborator in a production.
While Theatre Topics typically features a special subsection highlighting the previous ATHE conference, less typically do we feature a special thematic subsection to boot. Although the journal’s essays and notes often include lessons learned through shortcomings or regrets concerning theatre pedagogy and practice (for example, Elizabeth Horn’s “New Thoughts for New Ages and Stages” in July 2016 issue comes to mind), I was intrigued by Henry Bial’s pitch to investigate the very concept of failure. This subsection, “Failing Better,” exposes two kinds of flawed assumptions based on “success bias.” The first is that of theatre institutions that assume a successful inclusion of Deaf spectators due to the relatively easy and now routine use of the sign-language interpreter. Michael Richardson’s research, however, reveals that this technique has in fact failed to provide access for Deaf audiences. He not only challenges theatre institutions to rethink this method, but also provides some suggested alternatives. [End Page x]
Complementing this essay is a note from the field by Brian Herrera, who questions the tendency of theatre historians to study (and teach) success stories or epic failures that have proven successful over time: the transformative figures or productions, the iconoclasts who incited new movements, the artistic geniuses. Instead, Herrera discusses the case of Virginia Calhoun and her quest to stage Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. Given that Calhoun’s “many middling failures” might be more representative of the work of the majority of theatre practitioners, we might examine the implications of dismissing such figures in our emphasis on success narratives.
The online edition of this issue takes readers back to Las Vegas by enhancing the discussion about location, spectacle, and the body. I would encourage readers to view the stunning images in the photo supplement to the plenary documentation of “A Spectacular Balancing Act.” Online editor Peter Campbell has also facilitated an interactive venture by members of ATHE’s Performance Studies Focus Group titled “The Annotated Planet Hollywood Project,” inspired by site-specific interventions. Highlighting site-specific performance even further, Rachel Bowditch, Daniel Bird Tobin, Chelsea Pace, and Marc Devine offer “Four Principles about Site-Specific Theatre: A Conversation on Architecture, Bodies, and Presence.” Included in this online-only note from the field are evocative images and links to videos of the contributors’ works.
I am proud that this issue continues to reflect the expansive reach of this journal. Not only do the authors represent a spectrum of theatre practice and pedagogy, but they also hail from a variety of countries—a testament to the growing international presence of Theatre Topics. This issue would not have been possible without the dedication of our contributors (some even sending their writing in the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the earthquake in Mexico). I would like to thank Alicia Tafoya for putting me in contact with the plenary presenters and moderators, and I would especially like to acknowledge Henry Bial for conceptualizing the special subsection and having the dedication to make it a reality.
This issue marks my first as editor of Theatre Topics. It is not a responsibility I take lightly, and to be frank I would be daunted were it not for my role model and mentor, outgoing editor Gwendolyn Alker. I have learned so much from Gwendolyn about communication, organization, taking and giving criticism, and the importance of laughing and breathing! In addition, I feel surrounded by an invaluable team: I am pleased to continue to work with managing editor Bob Kowkabany and online editor Peter Campbell and would also like to introduce our newest members. Coeditor Noe Montez is diligent and thoughtful and brings an intelligence and perspective that will benefit the journal for years to come. I would also like to welcome our two new, exceptional editorial assistants Jessica Pearson-Bleyer and Teri Incampo. This team, along with the guidance and service of the editorial board, the dedication of our external reviewers, and the passionate investment from you, our readership, makes this venture one that I am humbled and grateful to embark on. [End Page xi]