The Open Forum of ATHE
On August 5, 2017, before the business meeting of ATHE at the 2017 conference, the governing council brought together a group of interested attendees to talk about the current state of affairs in our institutions at this political and cultural moment. Attendees were asked the following questions:
• What are the greatest challenges you are facing in your own institutions? How are you meeting those challenges?
• What realities are you facing in terms of funding and institutional support?
• How are you supporting students? How are students reacting to the present moment in your classrooms and in their academic and creative work?
• How might ATHE support you in your work in the future? How would you like to continue discussions in future conferences and meetings?
The discussion that followed was both candid and emotional. I therefore take this opportunity to both summarize the salient point of our admittedly too-short forum and to call for a particular mode of advocacy in light of the escalating violence and real and perceived threats to freedom of speech and assembly that have emerged during the last year.
Discussions held over the course of a forty-five-minute block ranged from very particular challenges in the current moment to more long-term struggles. The long-term struggles included the desire to have arts research recognized on campuses in an era in which the value of humanities and arts research and practices are being questioned at large, to the very particular trials of the last year: protecting DACA students in our classrooms, theatres, and offices; fighting for freedom of speech on campuses and in social media; being responsible art-makers at a time in which students are stressed and triggered by representations of violence and oppression; and exploring the consequences of a reality in which students can carry firearms on campuses.
Several of the strategies for the long-term issues vocalized echo larger reframings of the value of arts education that ATHE has long worked on, including collaboration and problem-solving skills in an increasingly complex social world. It was a joy to share specific strategies for working across departments and disciplines in a public forum.
But much of the rest of the conversation was frankly terrifying: How do those of us in theatre departments, some of which harbor those with identities under attack in the public sphere and/or employ persons who publicly decry discrimination and violence, protect our rights to live and speak? Yes, that’s right, we were discussing not just how to protect our rights to speak, but how to protect our right to stay alive. It was clear that many of us are scared. Too scared? Maybe, but given the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas during an open-air country music concert, probably not. And our students are also scared, confused, and panicked, even subject to being re-traumatized by some of the very provocative theatre and performance we create and present with the intent of changing the world for the better. Figuring out how to make brave spaces in a time of fear is our larger job. [End Page 5] How can we do this brave work in public spaces—theatres and classrooms—where we are asked to be together in an attitude of trust, if not community, given the armed capacity of individual citizens in this country? I don’t know, but I truly hope we can begin with finding ways to protect and support one another. If there is one theme from the wide-ranging conversation we had, it is this. [End Page 6]