- A Reflection on the ATHE 2019 Session: “Decolonizing Institutional Norms . . .”
Unmaking systemic expectations. . . . Dismantling established averages. . . . Remaking structural standards. . . . Against the usual. . . . Decolonizing institutional norms.
Decolonizing is a word with a long history that contains an expansive and incisive critique.1 Previously used to define the shift to self-governance within formerly colonized nations, its rhetorical impact has grown with organizations as diverse as the United Nations and TeenVogue weighing in on its meaning.2 In naming our ATHE 2019 session, we chose to address what stands behind each word. Decolonizing. Institutional. Norms. In this reflection, we attend to the temporality, the complexity, the subversion, the challenges, and, above all, the materiality of decolonization as a process toward/for/of dismantling and remaking. As Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang have shown us, decolonization is not a metaphor for anything other than the return of land to Indigenous nations for the purpose of self-governance and Indigenous futurity. The question we reflect upon in this reflection is: How can a group of likeminded, dedicated individuals enact change in the spaces they inhabit and through the actions they take? To articulate the “in” and the “through” of this question, we describe how we understand ATHE as an institutional space and how we understand panel participation as an embodied, material act. We think together through our bodies, across the internet, over time, in multiple locations in order to understand our work to decolonize the (theatre) academy as ongoing. The work is unfinished.
The Work Has Begun
Conference culture reflects and precedes preoccupations of the academy. Consider the subgroups and critical foci one finds at a conference. Think about the plenaries and special workshops, down to the topics of individual panels or papers (the DNA of a given gathering). At any given moment, the specific attributes and programming choices that create a conference’s culture might be described cynically as trendy, reactionary, or exclusionary. But what if we eschewed such temptations to dismiss and categorize––activities that, let’s be honest, thrive in the academy? With a degree of organizational self-reflection, metacognitive evaluation, and sustained dialogue across conference subcultural groups, the culture of the conference has the opportunity to be transformative. Conferences serve as vital nodal points, sites wherein well-established networks are nourished and new connections can be formed. Conferences have their established ways of working and ways of knowing. We can adhere to them. We can deride them. Or we can utilize them to try out other ways of working, to honor and mobilize other ways of knowing. The Association for Theatre in Higher Education has been tending to such a transformation, which like any sea change, has been swelling for over ten years, building to a perceptively altered landscape. [End Page E-17]
Various material conditions such as the rise of nationalism at home and abroad, the catastrophic impact of climate change, and increasingly polarized views of civil and human rights form the cultural milieu that theatre professionals and scholars must address in our work. This environment did not emerge suddenly; the vitality and diversity of the field of theatre has provided searing commentary on all of these existential concerns as they enter the mainstream––sometimes, perhaps even often, in advance of popular knowledge. ATHE’s inclusion of programming that contemplates or enacts decolonial practices and opportunities for scholarship on non-hegemonic theatre, performance, aesthetics, and craft has roots in the establishment of a variety of focus groups including, but not limited to, the Latinx, Indigenous, and the Americas Focus Group (LIA), and the Black Theatre Association (BTA). We have been especially interested in and heartened by the conversations and programming choices that ATHE has made over approximately the past five years, which include Indigenous peoples, histories, aesthetics, and ways of knowing.
This momentum resulted in the Latina/o Focus Group (LFG) reflecting deeply on the scholarship and scholars it had regularly been supporting for years during the 2015 business meeting. In 2016, the members present at the LFG business meeting at the ATHE conference in Chicago discussed and...