- Citizenship in a Space, on a Stage, at a School, in the SouthXanti Schawinsky’s Stage Studies at Black Mountain College
Here were students who search something [sic] they would not find in the glamorous universities with their impressive diplomas—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.—opening the doors to “success.” Instead of success, here there was the search for the truth.—Xanti Schawinsky, “My Two Years at Black Mountain College”
From the Bauhaus to Black Mountain
John Rice’s invitation found Alexander “Xanti” Schawinsky in Italy. It was 1936, and the newly married master teacher of Bauhaus fame was jobless and without a nest. Though the Bauhaus community had gotten considerably nimbler in their nomadism, the rising Nazi regime permanently shuttered the brutalist campuses of Germany’s most famous art and design school in 1933. As a refugee-artist, Schawinsky, a Swiss Jew of Polish descent, fled to Italy and slipped into circles of the young intelligentsia who were resisting the rising fascist movement there.1 With totalitarianism seemingly tailing Schawinsky wherever he fled, an invitation from a renegade American professor arrived as a well-timed opportunity. The offer? Come to America and set up shop in rural North Carolina. Mountain country.
A new experimental school was opening, Black Mountain College. Select Bauhaus teachers had claim to faculty positions. No English? No problem. World-famous Bauhaus teachers like the weaver Anni Albers and her husband, color theorist Josef Albers, had already arrived stateside and [End Page 78] testified to the school’s legitimacy. For teaching, only a small salary could be ensured with modest housing and some square meals a day. The offer would have been insulting to an artist of Schawinsky’s eminence only a few years prior, but now, with the world’s order upending, Schawinsky needed only two things: space and freedom. And Black Mountain College, this new little school, had both to offer in America. As a location, the village of Black Mountain, North Carolina, revealed an unsuspected economic and social promise of the American South: land, distance, and affordability made for a vital hideout for social and political outlier artists.
At the Bauhaus, theatre was a visual method for bewitching physical space with the intervention of unconventional line, form, and mass.2 The Bauhaus’ theory of artistic alchemy would define Xanti Schawinsky’s citizenship in America, introducing a new form of theatre pedagogy. For Schawinsky, artistic and academic truth was defined by the exploration of his new American space on stage and in exile. In this paper, the unacknowledged presence of Schawinsky’s tools and innovations in the contemporary theatre will be defined and termed as “Schawinskian Space.”
Because the American imagination historically distinguishes the South as a politically, socially, and artistically alien region, experimental expressions of citizenship conducted there can expand our understanding of theatre.3 Such contributions are compounded when a refugee’s expressions are formalized by an educational institution and multiplied through the regenerative platform of progressive pedagogy. Schawinsky was not only innovating but sharing. The theatrical innovations Xanti Schawinsky contributed at Black Mountain College are vital to acknowledge, as they reveal a blind spot in American academe. In popular discourse on citizenship and immigration, theatre in the southern United States often gets left out. I aim to provide a brief corrective to this historical oversight and contribute analysis of Schawinsky’s innovations to the discourse on American performance and pedagogy. This essay acknowledges the vital significance of how a European refugee in the rural South reshaped performance and citizenship.
At the Bauhaus in Germany, Schawinsky was a jack-of-all-trades. His artistic dexterity typified the persevering spirit of the institution, particularly in its last years on the run, traveling between satellite campuses in Dessau and Berlin to avoid the Nazis’ strengthening grip. Schawinsky was a living mascot of the Bauhaus. As a student, he joined the Bauhaus theatre workshop led by Oskar Schlemmer and fostered by school founder Walter Gropius (who would make his American academic debut at Harvard in the same decade).4 Schawinsky was also a member of the Bauhaus Band, an experimental ragtime-Dixieland cabaret that enchanted Bauhauslers with mutated instruments at...