On diversity, on Canadian stages, right now (part one)

It’s end of term and I’m swamped. I have LITERALLY no time to write ANYTHING… but then I went and promised a review of Anusree Roy’s brave new piece at Factory Theatre in Toronto to Stratfordfestivalreviews.com.

Bugger.

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Happily, I’d spent several days previous at an industry symposium at Modern Times Theatre in Toronto, where we talked at depth about what practicing cultural, gender, and ability diversity in our artistic and academic labour means right now – in the rehearsal hall, on stage, in the the audience, on the page.

Equally happily, my new friend Dhurin agreed to come to the theatre with me, and give me his perspective on the show (a full-on diasporic, new-to-Canada-living-in-Mississauga perspective, yo).

Click here to find out what happened next.

And, once I surface from the marking, look forward to a post on the meatier, more challenging, aspects of our discussions at the symposium.

Almost there!!!!

Kim

 

Top tips… for next time around

Last week of classes for us lucky Canadians! Which, of course, means we finally get to breathe, sleep, and stop being zombies. ABOUT TIME.

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Longtime readers know I often get all nostalgic at this time of year (spring fever?), thinking back on the goods and the not-so-goods of the year passed, and thinking ahead to better-luck-next-time. This year, I started heading back to the teaching future early, thanks to a lunch date with my friend and colleague Kate. We were meeting to talk about Kate’s class, which I had observed early in March; ostensibly I was writing Kate a letter of support for her upcoming promotion, but in fact I really just wanted to pick her brain about the awesome ideas I got from sitting in on her class. (Thanks, Kate!)

I emerged from lunch newly energised – and at the perfect time, because: ZOMBIE. I needed to write down my thoughts immediately, so I thought, hey, why not start with a post on the blog?

As I was driving from lunch to my office I made a mental list of the five things that I think I’d like to try out next time (AFTER MY SABBATICAL! AFTER MY SABBATICAL! DID I MENTION I’M GOING ON SABBATICAL??!!!!), thanks to talking about teaching over soup and beet juice with Kate.

Here they are.

1. Start with a warm-up

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A group of Western University students warming up with artists Mina Samuels and Jacqueline Dugal during a recent workshop on campus. Photo by Julia Beltrano.

This wasn’t Kate’s idea, ok, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a bit, and Kate reminded me of why. In her class, she set the tone for the whole period by pausing at the outset and marking the moment of beginning with some powerpoint slides designed to orient students, grounding them in the work ahead and helping them to understand where they had been, were now, and would be going. This kind of tone-setting is so useful, not least because it brings everyone together, in the space, as a community, and then prepares for the shared labour about to be undertaken.

When I teach studio classes I always begin with a warm-up. Sometimes it’s as simple as some yoga. Sometimes it’s a rousing game of “zip-zap-zop”. (That’s zip-zap-boing! to you Brits, thank you very much… although the Eastenders version is still kinda my favourite.) Maybe we might close our eyes and fall into each other, fear be damned.

The logic: studio classes are about body work, so let’s warm those old bodies up! But… seminar work is about our bodies, too! Which is to say: if we are tired, or poorly nourished, or stiff, our thinking is badly affected. So warm-up rules apply: let’s remind ourselves of the bodies that hold our brains, wake up our arms and legs, laugh a bit, share a moment. There shared knowledge begins.

2. Set ONE overarching outcome, in addition to the obvious

Kate and I talked about time management: how do we get through it all in just three hours per week? We talked about how much less content we teach now than when we started, 5 years ago, 10 years ago…. We talked about all the other things we want our students to take away – critical thinking skills; stronger research skills; better writing skills – that we feel like we just don’t have enough time to land fulsomely with them.

Then I said: hey, you know what? Maybe we only have time for ONE of those things, per class, per year.

We both went: “huh!”

So here’s my idea: set one outcome, a kind of ur-outcome, that rests above the other, more mundane ones that we have to include in our course outlines. Or maybe we don’t even put those other outcomes on the course outline (your mileage may vary, depending on your university’s policies, I know). Maybe we just write (for example):

In this course, students who commit to our shared labour will…

develop valuable teamwork skills, learning how to collaborate with others self-reflexively, and effectively.

And then we organise our assignments and in-class activities with that outcome in mind, trusting that the other stuff we’re expected to teach will come along with it – or will happen in another course in our program, because we’re labouring together, after all.

3. Write more, and more creatively, during class time

Kate and I both use versions of what I know as the “two-minute paper”, a chance in class to think while writing, and thus think/write before speaking.

My strategy: I pose a question about stuff related to whatever we’ve read/watched. I make the students write for two minutes before anyone can answer said question. I swear by this as a chance for students to gather their thoughts – whether or not they *actually* write stuff down – before I ask for replies, thus (among other things) circumventing the usual problem of the usual suspects raising their hands right out of the gate.

But the problem is this: some students don’t want to write in reply to the prompt/question. And often the students who DO want to write are the usual suspects. So it works… kind of.

Kate made me think about a couple of writing-related things during our lunch: first, that sometimes the best class writing might not be two minutes long. Sometimes it might be longer. Sometimes it might be five, ten minutes – in relation to an assignment, say, or maybe just reflecting on the state of affairs, the state of the day, how we’re all feeling. More time might be good time.

She also reminded me that, sometimes, the best writing is creative writing.

Academics often forget that we were once students. Students who found stuff academics find fairly familiar kinda… well… hard. Baffling. Frustrating. And when we were students, did we not want to express ourselves? Find ourselves? Discover our creativity, what we have to offer the world? Sure, it’s all very Dead Poets Society, but it’s also true: we are teaching young people who are struggling with big ideas and tired and looking for outlets to express themselves creatively whenever possible.

And that’s no bad thing.

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So maybe next year, my prompts will become less scholarly, and a bit more creative. That’s not to say they’ll stop being rigorous; they might just change their skin a bit, invite a bit more playfulness.

I’ll keep you posted.

4. Be a hard(er) ass

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During the class of Kate’s I attended, several students came in late. Kate glanced toward the door (everybody glanced toward the door) as this happened, but mostly she let it slide.

I do exactly the same thing, every time.

So I asked Kate over lunch: what should we do about students who come in late?

We talked about the labour of calling them out. About how tiring it is, for us, to get angry or lay down the law (whatever that might be). We noted the emotional labour of teaching-as-is; it’s already a hell of a lot, and dealing with thoughtless latecomers is an extra pain in the ass.

(Full disclosure here: I’m pretty sure I was a thoughtless latecomer at least once in my undergraduate career, if not, oh, 17 times.)

So then we said: hey, what if we didn’t – just DID NOT – deal with it? What if, instead of calling it out or ignoring it, we just stopped?

What if we said, on the course outline, and at the outset (fair warning):

Hey! Sometimes you might be late. When that happens, we’ll just STOP. Stop the class. Stop talking.

Not to embarrass you (you might be embarrassed, but, hey, that’s not the goal, though it has fringe benefits…), but because talking through your disruption is tiring and unproductive.

So we’ll pause. When you’re settled, we’ll start again.

Hey, being late happens. It’s happened to all of us.

Maybe just don’t let it happen again, if you can help it.

5. Build in time for spontaneity

I’ve been teaching full time for 12 years now. Every year, every week, I over-prep. I prep because the prep is for me – to make sure I don’t run out of stuff to say. Because that would be a catastrophe, right?

Kate reminded me of something I’d forgotten entirely: sometimes, often, the best learning happens spontaneously.

How do we build in time for that? Maybe by sticking it in the prep.

I’m serious! I’ve started including “if this, then maybe this… or if that, maybe not” moments in my prep, to remind myself that I’m always, already, being responsive to my students’ input, and sometimes that means throwing the whole thing out. But mostly it means being willing to be at sea for a while, to see where the conversation goes.

Usually, if the conversation goes sideways, I scold myself for not getting through the entire plan in my prep.

But what if the conversation going sideways IS the best possible version of the prep? Maybe I need to make more time, and space, for that.

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Happy end of term!

Kim

On the art of saying no, redux

Remember back last year – in July! Blessed July! – when I wrote about learning to say no more often?

Well, yesterday morning my good friend M sent along a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education written by our colleague Robin Bernstein, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard (and a terrific performance scholar, btw). Robin’s article made me wish I’d written it, instead of the thing I wrote. Her “The Art of ‘No'” is more or less the ideal distillation of everything I wanted to say in that post, and much more besides.

So, of course, I emailed her right away and asked if I could link to her work here on the blog. And she kindly and enthusiastically said: yes!

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“The Art of ‘No'” a rich and funny piece, full of smart, clear advice. It’s also – I think – all the better for its brash, uncompromising tone:

Don’t explain. Maybe you have a good reason for saying no. Maybe you don’t. Either way, if you try to justify your answer, you open yourself to judgment and bargaining, or you risk oversharing. You don’t have to defend your decision.

  • Don’t say: “I wish I could attend this event, but I need to drive my aunt to the doctor on that day.” The event could shift to a different day — and now you’re on record stating that you want to attend. Or the asker could judge your personal life, or question your commitment to the profession.
  • Instead, say: “Thank you for this invitation. Unfortunately, I’m unavailable to participate. I appreciate your thinking of me.”
  • Or: “I received your invitation to participate in [event]. I have a previous commitment at that time, but I wish you the very best for a successful event.” No one needs to know that you previously committed to going home, watching Project Runway, and eating Funyuns.

At the same time, though, the article is generous in key ways:

Be strategic in naming your replacement(s). If the proposed gig is desirable, suggest someone who could use a career boost. Pay special attention to issues of gender, race, and position: Consider passing a good opportunity on to a person of color, a person without a tenure-track job, or someone else who faces documented disadvantages in academe. If the proposed labor is undesirable, nominate someone competent but underutilized. Be sure only to suggest someone you respect and trust to complete the task reasonably well.

So go forth and read this piece. You’ll be glad you did. Quite apart from the sage advice, it’s a beautifully performative piece of writing in which Robin, as a woman with cultural privilege in our public sphere, models the act of standing up for herself, unapologetically and unabashedly, while also supporting the needs of others.

Thanks Robin!
Kim

No-frog

Lots of memes with white girls saying no. So I decided to go with the frog.

 

Present or else!

It’s spring break – that is, for everyone who attends or teaches in a grammar school in Ontario. This year I decided, along with several of my cycling friends who are grammar school teachers, that I needed a break break (I spent our Reading Week mostly working and fretting; it was not a break), so I decided to give my students a mid-March channel change. This week, they are working independently while I ride up a bunch of mountains in Table Rock, South Carolina. I’m on my bike 3-4 hours a day and otherwise sitting quietly, catching up on reading, eating (mostly) healthy and abundant food, drinking no alcohol whatsoever, and having a deep think.

One of the things I’m thinking about is the relationship between the assignments on my courses and student learning outcomes. How am I getting students where they need to be, on one hand, and where I want them to go, on the other? I’ve been considering lately how we might talk in new ways – to students, parents, administrators, and each other – about what social goods adhere to arts and humanities learning, and how those goods can be brought to bear on our “creative”, “information”, and “post-truth” economies (choose your adjective – I think they all mean similar things right now, alas). In particular, I’m wondering how we can start that process of revaluation inside the neoliberal university, encouraging administrators at the highest levels to recognise arts and humanities teaching as something to be better appreciated – both affectively, and fiscally – across faculty lines.

So, assignments. It matters what we ask students to do for marks, and not least because that impacts directly who can, or will, take our classes – students might want desperately to learn more about theatre, for example, but might not want to write a bunch of essays because a) they suck at them, b) essays aren’t valued in their home discipline, and/or c) they can’t afford to get a bunch of less than good grades on essays at which they believe they suck. (I recognise the inherent problem with fear of failure here, AND the problem with fear of learning new and hard things – but that’s another post.)

As I’ve been building my new Theatre Studies courses at Western (so far: intro to performance studies [“Performance Beyond Theatres”]; history of performance theory; a study abroad number called “Destination Theatre”), I’ve paid particular attention to alternative assignment submission structures. For example, this term students in both of my courses have the option of creating a traditional essay, a creative essay, OR an audio-video piece for their final projects. Research requirements are the same across all three, but the format options are designed to play to students’ individual strengths and interests.

One thing I’ve not managed to hack yet, though, is in-class presentations.

When I teach dramatic literature classes, I put students in groups and assign plays for scene study; sometimes we do these weekly, and sometimes we run scheduled scene study workshop days and show our labour all together. I’ve done both, each time incorporating Q&A sessions with each group, and they both work really well. The students learn deeply about the plays they are assigned, and they have the creative freedom (built into the assignment) to play around with the text, including the freedom to do a re-write or a physical theatre re-imagining of the work. Over the last decade, consistently students have returned again and again to their scene study texts over a semester or a year, doing superb things with them on essays, final exams, etc. The scene study assignments are both fun and win-win, where deep learning is concerned.

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OK, so this ain’t a scene study action shot. But it IS of my students – in last semester’s intro to performance studies – and they ARE making theatre (image theatre, to be precise). Plus, I just really love this photo. The students in the foreground are Olivia Helewa and Muhammed Sameer.

When I teach theory classes, however, I take a different approach. We’re learning a lot of challenging material, and all of it requires a knowledge of context. I scaffold assignments to help students figure out how to make sense of a piece of tough theory; I also invite research into social history and political context.

Right now, for example, my history of performance theory group are doing three short reflection papers. One asks them simply to “explain” the key ideas in a work – that’s it. The second asks them to “apply” the theory to something they’ve recently seen, live or on-screen. The third asks them to “expand” a theorist’s ideas by challenging, or pushing further, one of the more controversial aspects of the theory. They are also each required to do one in-class presentation on one theorist, offering social and political background to help us ground the theorist and their writing in space and time.

In the main, the presentations this year have been fine but not stand-out. The problem, of course, is that students find presentations stressful – and then they speak too quickly, or try to cram in too much information, and so on. They are worried they’ll miss some key point to do with the history; they are worried they won’t get through everything in 10 minutes; they are new to the material and thus unsure about everything they are saying. They are mighty nervous, full stop.

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Yup: sorta like that nervous.

I assign presentations of this sort in part to test this kind of stress; after all, many jobs require human beings to present material they have studied and/or know about in front of other human beings who do not know about it (yet). So learning to present comfortably and successfully in front of a group is a very, very transferable skill – and performance classes should teach it.

And yet. I’ve started really to question my use of the bog-standard context presentation this year. How much value is it adding to student experience in the class overall, and to the arsenal of students’ knowledge about themselves (or even about performance theory!) in particular? This isn’t a public speaking class; I don’t have the time in thirteen short weeks to cover the last 2000 years of thinking about drama and live performance, and to help students become stronger public speakers.

At least, not in this format I don’t.

Which is why, as I’ve been sitting here and gazing out at the Appalachians, I’ve been wondering about presentation alternatives.

The stress that builds up around scene study work is different from the typical public speaking stress I see in one-on-class presentations: it’s creative stress, it’s about anticipation rather than fear or dread, and it tends to be shared among group members in ways that usually work to alleviate rather than ramp up panic. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s ultimately more productive stress than the other kind: it encourages students to work in teams to support each others’ emotional and creative needs, and it requires both resourcefulness and flexibility, rather than just Wikipedia-trolling skills. These are, as my colleague and friend Barry Freeman argued in a recent reflection on the future of theatre studies teaching and learning (in the “Views and Reviews” section of CTR 161), exactly the kinds of skills we as theatre instructors need to provide for a range of learners – they are even more transferable, arguably, to both work and life, than the basic skill of “public speaking”.

I’m now trying to imagine how to incorporate more of my dram lit scene study model into my theory classes. I’m envisioning a “workshop” format for next year’s history of performance theory, in which every couple of weeks groups of students present a scene from a play or another piece of creative work designed to model two or three key ideas from the theorists we are studying. Or maybe I’ll trial a capstone format, where in the last week of class groups of students present creative material they’ve developed in response to one theorist’s work – a scene study, a manifesto, or a theorist “update” for the twenty-first century.

As usual, I’ll be polling this year’s class for their input at the end of the semester. Meanwhile, though, if you teach theory classes, and have creative ideas for in-class presentations, please leave a comment and tell me about it!

Kim

On literacy, in the age of misinformation

Around Christmastime, I had a small freak-out on Facebook. It was prompted by a comment left online in response to some public writing I had done elsewhere. The comment was not, strictly speaking, invalid, but it did do an impressive job of missing my point. It preferred to read my words superficially, filter them through a pre-existing axe, and then grind away, chips flying directly into my face.

Feeling misrepresented and misunderstood, I wrote the following on my FB page:

When I write for a public audience, I remember that most readers are barely literate. That is: they can read the words and understand the words. That is it.

Time for a radical humanities intervention, peeps. This is our year.

Harsh? Yes – as one of my colleagues (a totally sympathetic dude) pointed out. But, hey – it was to my friends, folks who know me. Besides, it got at what I had been feeling since early November: in a moment in which fake news = (alternative) “facts”, and pretty much everything that we encounter in the public sphere needs to be treated with exceptional care and more-than-usual levels of skepticism as a result, what exactly can be said to constitute civic literacy?

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I back-pedalled on FB, of course; I hardly wanted my friends and family to think I meant THEM. But I continued to stew about this question as the holidays gave way to the mid-winter doldrums. Then I met my (lovely) group of undergraduate students in Performance Theory. Smart? Sure. Engaged? More than most, I’d wager. But quickly it became apparent to me that not all of my cultural references were landing – and peeps, I keep up to date, rest assured.

What was going on?

This is when I learned – first from a colleague with an especially savvy and tuned in twenty-something daughter, then from the kids themselves – that our friends the millennials are not on Netflix; rather, they are hanging out on Youtube. So I decided to ask the class what was up. I asked them to tell me about how Youtube figured in their daily lives. They told me:

  • YT is free, which makes it a very compelling place to get both information and entertainment regularly and consistently;
  • it’s not uncommon for the students I’m teaching to spend significant amounts of time binge-watching extremely short Youtube videos on topics that range from applying make-up to the history of the 1960s;
  • the smart kids (IE: those in my classes) prefer Youtube to social media alternatives like Snapchat; it’s thought to be more “intellectual” (no, really).

I admit this caused another existential crisis in my brain. After all, the very idea that *intellectual* is now a competition between Youtube and Snapchat would, I think, make Willow Rosenberg turn in her electroshock hands and Buffy herself declare an unbeatable apocalypse. (OK, maybe not unbeatable… but up there with Glory, no doubt about it.)

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Where god, WHERE was Willow when we needed her?

OK. So I don’t actually think any of the students in my PT class would have voted for Agent Orange. But I also do not think the state of epistemological affairs they reported to me is unrelated to what happened last year in both Britain and the U.S. And note that I’m not suggesting that it’s the barrage of information we receive, across such a huge range of forums both free and paid, that’s the real problem here; I think of greatest import is the way that information is curated for us online, and the ease with which we are encouraged to accept curation as a kind of peer review by another (and less “elitist”) name.

Youtube queues up the next video it thinks I should watch, based on what I just watched, automatically; Facebook’s algorithms advertise to me in my newsfeed and encourage me to get into what my friends are into. Every website I visit links me to another website just like it. If I’m not careful about asking questions and remaining skeptical as I browse (a horrifyingly pacifying activity, btw), I can easily slide into consuming consensus tailor-made for me and my viewing habits by those who stand to benefit, monetarily and otherwise.

Youtube has something else important in common with The Donald and politicians like him (I’m glancing sidelong at both Rob Ford and Justin Trudeau, btw): it communicates a huge range of information with greater and lesser degrees of accuracy and fictional embellishment as unvarnished, as real, as just like (just for) YOU. It’s extremely easy to be seduced by its logic: that video is made by “real” people who want to share stuff that they know/that happened to them/that they do all the time; why shouldn’t we believe they know what they’re on about? Youtube as medium lends the messages of truthfulness and democratic access to every single thing posted there – that’s its power, but also the danger it poses to our ability to ask useful questions about how our infotainment is constructed, by whom and for whom, who pays, and who ultimately benefits from our willingness simply to believe in the truth of what we are seeing.

This, then, is the paradox of our social moment: perhaps more than ever before, we – the makers-cum-consumers of information, democratised – are in a position where we need to be critically tuned-in all the time, or else (we know what comes next). The problem is that now, more than ever before, we’re constantly, seamlessly, being encouraged to recognise our infotainment as real, authentic, simply “true” – and to accept the (curated) hunt for authenticity as itself an act of critical thinking.

Civic literacy resides inside this paradox – except that paradoxes are no longer considered valuable; they are complicated, so probably “fake”. The opposite of real, simple, true.

In a comment piece for the latest issue of TDR: The Drama Review, my friend and colleague at Northwestern University, Tracy C. Davis, examines this very terrain, and links it explicitly to questions about the state of public education:

I watched the Republican National Convention heartsore and with mouth agape. I felt for schoolteachers in conservative districts who, when classes resume, would have to swim upstream to explain plagiarism. I ached for the community organizers, religious leaders, and other civic-minded individuals who would try to counter the doctrine of hate, fear, and loathing that speakers urged upon the delegates and audiences at home. But more than anything, I wondered how a nation with compulsory education
in every state and where in 2015 the federal government appropriated more than $37 billion for K–12 education and $43.5 billion for post-secondary education could understand so little about logic.

(TDR is available here – note that Tracy’s article is free for download)

The problem of Trump (and of 2016) is a basic failure of education – of liberal arts education. It’s not a failure of educators in the liberal arts, please note, but rather of our ever-declining cultural investment in what that kind of an education means, should mean, and should do for us as a society.

The same voices that tell us, variously, that Hillary is crooked, that Obama wasn’t born in America, and that watching three videos on Youtube will prepare you to renovate your bathroom (or teach you all there is to know about the history of civil rights in America), are all heavily, financially as well as culturally, invested in making us think that there’s literally no “use value” in the arts, and that’s why going to university and taking a STEM degree is a smarter use of your time and money. These same voices insist loudly that universities make workers, or job candidates – not citizens – and that universities need to take in more and more students while also cutting programs and saving money (usually in the arts… because saving money is a public good, right?). Logic, as Tracy notes, fails utterly here – but the current of “common sense” is strong.

Tracy’s comment piece is, in the main, a reflection on her trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, last summer. She went because she wanted to understand how Christian, conservative Americans were being asked to think and absorb information by their cultural curators – by those who purported to share their affiliations and have their best interests at heart. This is how she ends the article:

The quaint evasion and equivocation of political doublespeak may be a thing of the past, for it has become acceptable to tackle questions head-on with fabrication, unrelated elements, and sheer flights of fancy. Instead of utilizing critical thinking to scrutinize arguments, critical thinking has become a synonym for identifying the paradox, complexity, or conundrum, and then resolving it by the least rigorous means.

What do we do about this? How do we reclaim the public, civic value of rigour, paradox, of asking questions and watching skeptically, after all we’ve just been through?

I don’t have an answer; I’ve been holding off writing this post in part because of that. But I have a hunch that if there is an answer, it has a lot to do with theatre and performance – and thus with those of us who teach performance, both as a practice and as a set of critical social tools.

Performance is not, after all, simply the means by which Mr. D. got elected… although it really is that. Performance is a means of receiving and communicating knowledge; it is a set of social codes enacted in the public sphere; it is a history of civic engagement that reaches all the way back to the Greek polis, for better and for worse. And it is, of course, at the very, very heart of what I describe above – the Youtube culture that expects all mediated entertainment to come glossed as somehow “more real”, believable, confidence-inspiring, than the stuff that goes on in the streets (inaugurations and rallies and marches on Washington).

Unpacking performance as central to what just happened, to how we live now and ever have lived, means thinking carefully about what it means to “be real”, about who counts (or does not count) as real, about who decides, and about how the paradigms of “realness” shift and change over time – and usually in the interests of the wealthiest and most powerful among us.

How can we, as theatre and performance educators, bring this message to a broader public in a world that looks, but isn’t really, culturally literate? What are the stakes of this game? If information has become “democratised” to our detriment, can we democratise the teaching of performance theory and practice to help salvage this situation?

I’d welcome your thoughts on all of the above. A number of my colleagues are doing great work in this direction already (check out the special “Views and Reviews” section of Canadian Theatre Review 161, winter 2015, for example), and I’ve just been invited to guest-edit a special issue of Research in Drama Education which will explore this stuff and more.

But, truly, I don’t have answers right now, and I’m scared – like many of us. We’re being told, more and more, that the arts deserve less and less (money, time, interest) – even as we know, just as I did back in December on Facebook, that this is THE moment when the world needs radical humanities intervention most.

How, god on earth my friends HOW, do we make such an intervention, and make it land?

Uncertainly,

Kim