About Kim Solga

I am a university professor currently based in Hamilton, Ontario. I teach theatre and performance studies at Western University; previously, I was Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. On Wordpress, my teaching blog is The Activist Classroom; I'm also a regular contributor to the popular blog, Fit is a Feminist Issue.

New Year, Old Memories

Last November I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of the American Society for Theatre Research; while there I had the chance to catch up with one of the first students I ever taught in a classroom of my own.

Dr Colleen Kim Daniher, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, received her PhD from Northwestern University; before that, amongst many other things, she took  English 289E: Modern Drama (F/W 2005-06) with me at the University of Western Ontario, during my very first term on the tenure track.

Colleen Kim Daniher, in hands down the best prof headshot I’ve ever seen.

Colleen just completed her own first term on the tenure track, with a new baby to boot, and not long after we ate dinner together in D.C. she sent me a lovely, warm message telling me what my class had meant to her.

Any teacher knows what an honour it is to read such words; I was touched beyond measure. But I was also, slightly, amused – because that class was hands-down the hardest I’ve ever taught. It was trial by fire, mistake after mistake. To this day, Every Christmas I remember sitting in my bedroom in my rented flat in downtown London, Ontario on Boxing Day, holding the envelope full of anonymous midterm surveys I’d collected before the break, terrified (and I mean TERRIFIED: sweaty, heart racing, you name it) that they all read: YOU ARE A TERRIBLE TEACHER!!!

Not that kind. But you get it.

After reading Colleen’s note, and wiping the smile off my face, I had an idea. What if she and I did a reflection exercise about that class? Clearly it had an impact on her I didn’t readily recall, and clearly it took a toll on me she didn’t know about. Further, it’s obvious we both took major lessons from that year into our independent pedagogical futures. What were those lessons?

I decided to ask; Colleen was game. Herewith, the results.

1. What’s your strongest memory from English 289E: Modern Drama? What about this memory has stuck with you over all this time?

Colleen

My strongest memory from English 289E was the way it asked me and my fellow English literature classmates to harness performance practice as a mode of dramatic analysis. I remember being confused and yet very taken with the idea that performance could be a way of interrogating text, an idea implicit to the weekly small group scene studies that were assigned throughout the course. The basic premise was that each week, a group of about five or six students in our class of thirty would stage an excerpt from a text we were studying that week. This group was called “The Company.” The class met twice weekly (for one whole calendar year!), so we would have a more conventional professor-run lecture on Tuesdays, and then on Thursdays, we, the students, would essentially lead the day’s conversation. First, “The Company” would perform their interpretation of their chosen scene for the entire class, then another small group of students (called “The Colleague-Critics”) would have to respond, leading the rest of the class in a discussion of the staging just witnessed. The groups were randomly assigned and fixed through the run of the semester, so you would get to know your group-mates quite well and rotate several times as a unit through both Company and Colleague-Critic roles.

It was unlike any class activity I had ever been a part of. I remember prior to my first small group performance (a staging of Ubu Roi) reading and re-reading the syllabus instructions, trying to “figure out” what the assignment was actually about. In hindsight, the hardest part of the assignment was shedding my presuppositions around performance as a (finished, polished) product. I can’t speak for the other students in the class, but the invitation to perform in a drama class was one that I was personally hungering for: I was a theatre nerd in a university without a formal theatre department. I got my kicks in the music department as a Voice major and in the student-run, on-campus theatre organization [Theatre Western]. However, what we were being asked to do with performance in the class was completely different than what I was used to as a fairly experienced musician and actor. We had very little rehearsal time, scripts-in-hand, and the barest of production values. The point, I would learn, was not to “put on a performance” but to think through performance in the act of its doing. It was a bit opaque at the time, but utterly intoxicating. In fact, this first taste of the conjoining of performance as a critical-intellectual endeavor and performance as an embodied practice is what I live for today as a Performance Studies scholar!

Also: Brecht! So much Brecht. Everything I now know about Brecht I learned in this class.

The muppets: seriously epic.

Kim

The methodology Colleen describes above was a hybrid of stuff I learned from one of my undergraduate mentors, Nora Foster Stovel, at the University of Alberta (where I completed my BA), and from my postdoctoral mentor, Jill Dolan, at UT Austin. Looking back through Colleen’s description I realize that what I was asking the students to do was basic practice-as-research (PBR), but at the time, believe it or not, I didn’t have that language to share! (I was trained in Shakespeare, kids.) I didn’t actually realize until now that it was as opaque as it seemed to Colleen and her peers; that said, my experiences of performances up to this point in my career had been less polish, more muck. No wonder we struggled!

My strongest memory of the class, meanwhile, is that moment on my bedroom floor I describe above, and the problems that led to it. While Colleen recalls perfectly the shape of the class’s learning week as it finally settled, we began in a much less tidy place. In the first term, I held a two-hour lecture in our Tuesday block, and the student performances happened on a Thursday. Quickly I realized that the students were struggling to figure out what kinds of questions to ask about their peers’ performances, how to extend the knowledge those performances were making. We had trouble filling the hour and I was devastated; they were looking at me for direction and I felt like I was failing. This problem consumed my first term at Western and produced more than a few nights in tears.

Eventually, after reading the mid-term anonymous feedback (SPOILER ALERT: not a terrible teacher!), I decided on a change: we’d swap the second hour of Tuesday for the performances, then come back Thursday and extend our learning by bringing the performance and our readings for the week into fulsome conversation. This took the pressure off the students to figure out all the performance things, and it helped me to model what performance research really looks like in practice.

It was the best teaching decision I ever made. It reminded me 1) not to be afraid to admit difficulties and make changes; and 2) to trust the students to show me the way.

2. What aspects of the class have you found yourself thinking about as you’ve developed a research and teaching career? IE: was something “inspiring” and in what way? (NB: I know this may be another way of saying question 1.)
 
Colleen

I continue to teach and preach performance practice as a serious mode of intellectual engagement. As an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, I teach courses that follow a very similar two-part model of instruction as English 289E: lecture/discussion one day a week, and an applied performance lab on the second day. In my classes (“Performance and Identity” and “Performance Art”) my students respond to the course material through discussion, writing, and the actual doing of performance.

Integrating performance practice in the classroom is sometimes the hardest thing, especially as a recently arrived teacher at a new institution (the logistics of finding space! of scheduling performance assignments!). But my training, first, as an undergraduate student in Modern Drama, then as a graduate student in Northwestern’s Performance Studies department, instilled in me a strong sense of the value of integrating performance practice and theory. For me, it’s a matter of the politics of knowledge transmission: I want my students to see and to understand that performance is a legitimate site of knowledge inquiry and production, not (only) a specialized domain of artistic activity. It’s an expressive tool and an analytic lens that can help us understand the world around us. And looking back, I can see that Modern Drama gave me my first taste of that specific orientation towards performance.

Dear Kim,

Here it is! My responses are probably too long, but it turns out I had a lot to say. Also, so much fun remembering : )

My takeaway: it was more fun being a student than a teacher ; )

-C

Kim

Modern Drama in that first year on the tenure track was, for me, my first inkling that thinking seriously about the practice of teaching was going to become a central part of my academic career. Unlike Colleen at the time, I already had a sense of the importance of practice-based research creation (thank you, UofT and UT!), but what I didn’t have was the confidence of an experienced teacher.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it. After the winter break, when I explained to the students how things were going to shift in our schedule and why this shift was a good idea, I took the time to tell them (in aggregate, of course) about the things they had told me on their anonymous midterm surveys, and how their sharing had led me directly to tweaks I thought would benefit us all. Basically, I told them outright what I’d assumed they’d understood all along: that we were collaborators, a team, and their input was as crucial as mine to our shared learning success.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it.
-K

Since then, I work in every new classroom to name collaboration as the core of my teaching practice: I introduce myself as a team member as well as a guide, I work on building classroom community in the early weeks of term, and I explain my process meta-cognitively as much as possible, also building in meta-cognitive reflection practices for students along the way. In my Theatre Studies classes, I don’t always now use the lab model Modern Drama followed, but we always do active learning labour and then think about the “how” and the “why” of our shared practice.

3. What’s your memory of Kim as a teacher? (Here, please be honest. I love when everyone says how amazing I am *coughs bashfully*, but that term was SO HARD for me. I’d appreciate honest recollections from the other side of the desk!)

Colleen

Kim was easily one of the best undergraduate professors I had ever had. It was just so obvious how much she cared and how hard she was working for us as students. This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.

I remember the epic-long, publication-worthy performance responses she would give to The Company group members after our in-class performances; the incredibly detailed syllabus; her impassioned lectures on alienation effect and Elin Diamond’s “the true-real”; the thoughtfulness with which she worked with her graduate student TA. One thing that especially stands out to me is the informal course evaluation she offered to us at midterm; I can’t remember all the details now, but I think we answered three prompts: “what’s working, what’s not, and what would you change.” We came back from winter break, and then she actually went over our anonymized feedback with us, outlining how she would implement our feedback. And I remember the course (especially the scene study Thursdays) changing for the better from that point on.

This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.
-C

Even then, I was so impressed that she cared to know what we thought before the course was over. Today, the informal midterm course evaluation is a key tool in my own pedagogical tool-kit! There are some semesters where I almost talk myself out of giving it, and then I think back to how seen and heard I felt in Kim’s class, and I am never disappointed with the results.

Kim

Oh my god the floundering! To this day I think of the crappiness of some of those classes, the epic time over-running, how I knew students must be so frustrated with how much I was very clearly overdoing it (#newteacher). Reading Colleen’s thoughts now – and about her memory of the midterm survey! Holy gosh! – honestly reminds me how valuable those early, overly earnest pedagogical tools were.

Many of them have morphed now, or fallen away from me; I rarely teach full-year classes anymore, so often talk myself out of surveying the students in mid-October or mid-February. Hearing Colleen’s take-away here – students need to feel seen and heard; they need to know they know things! That we are all learning together! – is a boost in the arm better than any flu jab. It’s a new lease on my own teaching.

Thanks, Colleen. Maybe from now on we can mentor each other.
-K

Course Evals 2.0: Things We Can Do Now to Make a Flawed Process Better

Kelsey’s post last week, about managing end-of-term course evaluations, struck a chord with me. I’ve fretted about course evals for as long as I can remember; when the results come in, months after a class has ended, I get that panicked feeling in my stomach, the same one I used to get before a big paper was returned back when I was an undergrad myself.

Yes, reader: as a lifelong resident of the ivory tower, I worry about whether or not my students are going to give me an A. 

I’ve been teaching full time for almost 15 years now; I learned long ago that grades are an uneven, cruelly dopamine-laden way to measure student achievement. And yet – despite reams of literature that reflect the fallibility of end of term course evaluations, and their remarkable capacity to rehearse systemic biases based on race and gender – I can’t seem to stop myself scanning my results for the numbers and praying for rain.

After reading Kelsey’s post, I found myself reflecting on my relationship with course evals. Certainly there’s the stuff above, the unhealthy craving for the dopamine hit that comes with a positive response. But there’s also more.

Like many colleagues working toward best pedagogical practice, I’ve tried a range of different ways to gauge student experience at different points in the term. I’ve used my own, anonymous, mid-term evaluations, especially early on, when I wasn’t sure if anything I was doing in the classroom was working. I’ve invited students to reflect on their most and least favourite in-class activities, and even to vote for what we should or should not do on a given day. Recently, I’ve started using participation reflection papers, where, twice per term, students upload a 250-300 word piece (in any form they want – I stress this isn’t an essay) that considers how class is going in light of our course’s posted participation rubric.

My university (like yours, probably) has also gotten into the “better feedback” game: Western now has an online portal where students complete their evaluations and can access loads of information about what they are used for, plus helpful tips for effective feedback. This portal has a login tool for instructors, where we can add questions to the standard form, check response rates for open evals, and more. Students are incentivized to feed back with a gift card draw, guideline documents, and videos demonstrating the process. The system is very consumer-oriented, like most things in the neoliberal university, but it’s also far more user-friendly and open than the paper-based, computer-marked, sealed-enveloped systems of old.

What does all this fresh focus on good feedback mean? Is it translating into systemic change, or just lipsticking the pig? As I struggle myself with meaningful feedback that doesn’t send me into the “please give me an A!!” tailspin, I wonder.

And so, wondering, I turn to Facebook.

Over the weekend I asked colleagues on FB to let me know what they did to “hack” the course evals system at their joint; judging by the responses to that post, the answer was not that much. Certainly we insist to our students that their feedback matters; we offer time in class to fill forms in; we add questions when possible. Some of us, like Kelsey, take the initiative to ask different, not-formally-sanctioned questions, including at mid-term. But we are busy, and we are tired, and course evaluations are JUST ONE MORE THING that we need to worry about as the term rockets to a close.

In this evaluation exhaustion, we share much in common with the students, as I soon learned.

After spamming my colleagues, I asked some former students to feed in. My question to them was as follows:

More thinking about course evals. I’d love to hear from recent former students. Did you treat them seriously? As a chore? Were you cynical about their value? In a world of constant online reviews, etc, how do traditional evaluations rate?

The results I got here were fulsome, and very diverse. Two students told me they were committed optimists who took the exercise very seriously. Another told me his sister was a lecturer while he was at school, and therefore he understood from the inside what the stakes for professors were, which coloured his perception of evaluations. As he noted, from that both-sides perspective, he felt it was essential to be able to justify not giving a teacher top marks. (A welcome attitude, one that takes a teacherly perspective to teacher “grading”.)

Still another student confessed to using evaluations to reward good teachers and dig a bit at the bad ones, knowing that his feedback had a potential professional impact for both. (YIKES, but totally fair – that’s what we are asking students to do, right??)

Finally, one of my best-ever students shocked me by revealing that she did not give a flying frankfurter about any of it, and probably hadn’t filled out most of her evals anyway. (She really dug the gift card incentive, though.)

These diverse responses about the experience of course evaluations converged at one point, however: Timing. As cranky-pants Camille* (above), after confessing to eval ennui, added:

“if administration wants to have a genuine dialogue with students about how certain classes/professors may or may not be working, why don’t evals happen halfway through a semester? This gives everyone time to adjust on the fly. No one cares in the final weeks of class because nothing can be done to help the students that were struggling all along. The idea of course evals is wonderful, although I don’t think the way the system is currently set up ‘helps’ the students in any way.”

Mid-term check-ins are increasingly typical, but they aren’t yet the norm. At Western, instructors are invited to do an “optional” mid-term check in, but even though I’m fully committed to student feedback, I’ve never taken the option.

The timing thing stands out for me here not because it’s a great idea (OF COURSE IT IS), but because it gets at deeper issues, which Camille nicely bulls-eyes in the above comment. Do we want evaluations to be part of a dialogue about teaching and learning? If so, why do they still work like a multiple-choice, one-way street? Do we want evaluations to be materially helpful? If so, what are they doing at the end of the semester? We need to frame them, locate them, and structure their relationship to classes, to departments, and to the university community as a whole very differently if this is actually our aim.

After all this fulsome feedback from Camille, Jake, Jonas, Jack, and Thalia appeared in my FB feed, a couple of colleagues weighed in. One, playwright and Weber State theatre professor Jenny Kokai, wrote about her recent experiences on a committee rethinking evaluations at her school. (NB: there are a lot of these projects afoot, which I discovered when I went snorkelling for some of the research before writing this post. I was particularly impressed by the documentation around the recent pilot project at the University of Waterloo, just up the highway from my house.)

Dr Kokai pointed out that research reveals mid-semester feedback focuses on class effectiveness, while later semester feedback is generally tied to grade expectations. She also noted that metacognitive questions – about, say, students’ learning practices, and their parallel commitments to their own class labour – tend to offer a more holistic picture of student experience, while also benefitting students as a reflection experience.

I’ve realized over the course of preparing this post that it’s exactly this last thing – encouraging metacognitive reflection – to which I’ve turned my attention. As a teacher, it’s where I want to put my time and energy.

Why don’t I take the mid-term “feedback” option Western gives me? I’m too busy reading and writing back to students’ mid-term participation reflections!

In these documents I invite students to think about what’s working and not working for them in their current participation practice – I’ve taken to framing participation, and studenting in general, as a practice, in the same way I call my teaching a practice. (I repeat this to students as often as possible. All we can all ever do is PRACTICE!) These reflections are not anonymous documents, but – as with peer review, a post for another day! – I don’t think student feedback need be anonymous to be useful. In my class, you can get full participation marks only if you engage with the participation reflection exercise, but other than that these documents are not graded, and nobody is discouraged from being frank and clear about both strengths and weaknesses. Students write these reflections to themselves and to me, in the lowest-stakes possible way, and reveal where their wins and their struggles are; I then use that feedback as an opportunity to make suggestions, check in, validate their perceptions, and invite them to come sit down in office hours to figure stuff out. At the very least, I gain some tools that allow me to check in with them, in class, repeatedly until the end of the semester.

This week, our last of term at Western, both of my classes will do a guided reflection in class, where I will ask three slightly different questions: what went really well after your last check in? What didn’t get off the ground? And, most importantly: what have you learned about your own experience of learning that you can take with you into next term?

These reflections cannot replace fully anonymous feedback, of course, but they model the kinds of questions, and invite the kinds of mutual and dialogic class investments, that all evaluation tools need to aim for. The next step is to shift our evaluation structures systemically so that “feedback” becomes actual dialogue, and leads to a better understanding of what it takes to sustain a healthy learning environment from both ends.

*Thanks to Camille, and to everyone who responded to my queries, for their reflections and for granting me permission to cite them here.

Mentorship at mid-career

I’ve had mentorship on the brain lately. Last week, I was at the annual ASTR (American Society for Theatre Research) conference in Washington, D.C.; during the event I took part in not one but two mentoring events. The first was for graduate students, and I participated as a faculty mentor. The second was for mid-career scholars, and I was invited by my colleague (and, in fact, mentor) Tracy C. Davis to sit on the panel that would anchor the event.

I admit I had to blink and read twice when Tracy’s email asking me to take part on the panel came through; I don’t automatically think of myself as senior enough to mentor anyone who identifies as “mid-career”. I think of MYSELF as mid-career! And that’s part of the point, I suspect: at this stage in the game, those of us lucky enough to have won the tenure-job lottery need to take care of one another.

Mentorship

For the mid-career mentorship panel, Tracy asked me to speak briefly about my experience going up for promotion to full professor, something that happened just three years ago. At the time that I was putting my application together I took a sidelong glance at the process here on the blog, in a post about the value of scholarly editing, but it was only in preparing comments for the panel that I really stopped to take stock of what I’d learned going through the promotion process. As a young-ish woman (I was 42 when I earned full) who did not have the slam-dunk, two-monograph, so-called “gold standard” promotion portfolio, I had a slightly tricky time of it, but I persevered.

Why I did, and how I got through it, provided me with valuable lessons in mentorship and support, scholarly responsibility, and self-care that I realized were more than worth sharing.

So I’ll share them again here.

ext

I googled “getting promoted” and clicked on “images”. I’ve picked a few that I found most inspiring.

First, some quick context. When I returned to Canada from the UK in August 2014 I had written one scholarly monograph (the book that earned me tenure, which I wish every day I could write again, and better!). I’d co-edited four volumes of essays, all of them award winners. I had another edited volume, solo this time, in the pipeline, and I was just completing a short monograph for students, Theatre & Feminism. I’d written many articles and book chapters – what I’d call a solid number for my discipline – and edited two journal issues. I had great teaching notices. And I’d just contributed to the design and founding of my school’s new Theatre Studies program.

Sounds like a lot, right? Except in my department (English Studies) at my school, something was missing: the second full-length scholarly monograph, that chestnut of a “gold standard”. Never mind that my collaborative work had been at once scholarly and pedagogical, not to mention prize-worthy and with extensive reach. And never mind that my lowly book for students would shortly go on to sell more copies than all my other volumes combined. (I even got an advance for it.)

I knew I might be a “risky” case, but I also knew there was enormous value in my scholarly portfolio and in the ways it crosses over into teaching. I also knew that it would be immeasurably valuable to help set a precedent in my department for alternate routes to full, especially for women and minoritized scholars. I was nervous – nobody likes to be told they aren’t good enough, or “not ready yet”, which is what I feared – but I decided to go for it anyway. The years in the UK had been bruising for a long list of reasons, and I was ready for a good shot in the arm, however hard it might be to achieve.

I sat down with my chair at the time, Bryce Traister; Bryce and I had a good chat about the situation, and he offered me unwavering support. He was realistic about possible negative outcomes but never said anything less than: go for it, and I’m behind you.

And that makes lesson #1: find the folks in your corner, both at your university and outside it, in your wider discipline. Locate mentors, locate champions, especially those who currently outrank you. Listen to their advice, and hold fast to their support of you, especially when you doubt yourself.

Round one did not go my way; my department committee felt I needed a contract in hand for the book I was about to write (Theory for Theatre Studies: Space), another mini-monograph for students, in a series I co-edit at Bloomsbury. Heeding Bryce’s advice, I agreed to wait, and then I began to plot.

I sought out another mentor, my longtime friend and colleague Susan Bennett. She helped me map the landscape, and together we brainstormed excellent names for potential external examiners. (At my school, the candidate for promotion offers a list of names to the Dean, who vets and selects final readers.) Because I’d worked with so many of my colleagues on edited books and journal issues over the years, lots of great potential readers had to be ruled out as conflicts of interest; having Susan’s senior, expert eye across the field helped me light on potential examiners I would never have thought of myself.

uploadsstorythumbnail621664fc468c2-f704-4be2-9a31-39a72faf7840.jpg950x534

Susan was terrific not only in this administrative name-gathering exercise, but also as another supporter, champion, and thoughtful interlocutor about the business of promotion. She reminded me of the value of the work I’d done, but also, more importantly, of the need for and value of women with capacity seeking access to the top academic rank, precisely in order to create precedent and make space for those talented young scholars without traditional academic privilege rising after us.

Every new woman Professor in our field shows another woman they can do it; every woman Professor in our field means another female academic available to review tenure and promotion files elsewhere, to sit on major prize committees, to do crucial senior administrative labour that often impacts the lives of graduate students, contract and junior faculty. Of course that’s not to say all women, or only women, support and champion other women, or that men don’t – not at all. But perspectives matter, lived experience matters; for someone like me to have the influence of a top-ranked academic in a major research university means more people who grew up like me might yet get there, because of the example I can now set, and the heft I can place behind it.

Susan and I both come from non-traditional backgrounds (for example, I was the first person in my family, on either side, to go to college), and as a result her advice to me has always touched on mentorship as a lineage and a responsibility. A lot of her advice over the years I’ve banked and paid forward: from offering holistic, work-life balanced advice and support to graduate students, to making the time to write truly detailed and excellent letters of reference for students and junior colleagues, to bearing in mind the immeasurable value of using my profile to bring others into the spotlight whenever I can.

And thus, lesson #2: don’t think your promotion is only about you. Take up this space now, so you can actively help make space for others.

I got my promotion on that second push forward, and after I got the good news I was invited to review the external letters of recommendation in my file. While one was a touch grumpy about the missing “gold standard”, the other two reflected back to me what I had hoped would emerge from my research statement: that I have chosen – actively and consciously – to edit A LOT, to collaborate often with peers, to work hard at my teaching practice and also to write for students, precisely because those paths are scholastically valuable. They are, and should be counted as, no less “scholarly” than choosing to write exclusively, or primarily, traditional monographs for academic audiences.

(One reviewer made a point of singling out my collaborative ethos as crucial to the next generation of theatre scholars in my community; to be honest, that, more than the promotion itself, was the shot in the arm I needed.)

https---cdn.cnn.com-cnnnext-dam-assets-190604183210-20190604-not-getting-promoted

What happened after I got promoted? A funny thing. I began to recognize the freedom it brought me: to focus in my research only on projects I truly care about; to continue to advance my skills in collaborating; to spend more time on service to my university; and (maybe above all) to spend more time living the life I’d put on hold for so long.

I have been for as long as I can remember so focused on keeping the “imposter” gremlins at bay that I think I forgot how much of our careers in academia can, at bottom, be about proving ourselves to ourselves. This isn’t inherently a bad thing – it’s a quite human thing, I suspect – but it’s amplified by the hothouse of a walled meritocracy. We’re always scraping and scrapping – or I was, anyway. Going up for full was an important means for me to prove to myself that I was, indeed, worthy of this place, but once I had the achievement in hand, I was surprised at how humbling it turned out to be. It was time for me to refocus, recalibrate; it was time for me to ask myself what I’m actually doing here, not just in my work, but on this earth.

And that’s lesson the last: the path to promotion may be hard work and stressful in the way that all “tests” are, but for that very reason it can be remarkably enlightening – even revelatory.

 

My job and the climate crisis: thoughts on the structures that prevent us from going carbon-neutral

Two years ago last month I moved 125km down the highway from my campus office. I made this move for my own wellbeing: I was unhappy in the town where my university resides, and I wanted to be closer to the theatre and performance work in Toronto that I routinely see (and write about professionally). I also wanted to be closer to friends in Toronto, and to the ebb and flow of that city’s urban life.

There’s nothing controversial about choosing a city to live in, and then moving there; well, nothing controversial unless you’re an academic. Those of us inside the ivory tower learn quickly, when we apply to graduate school, that very little of the job is about picking a place to live; it’s all about picking the right program, and the right supervisor, at the university that’s a best fit for your research. WHERE that university is located is generally immaterial; in grad school, anyway, you can reason it’s an adventure and you’re there 5 years max.

niagara-escarpment-best

Another thing I get with my new home: close proximity to a landscape worth celebrating, playing in, and protecting. My work-life balance has really improved.

But if you follow this career path through, get *super* lucky and end up with a full time academic job, you realize the sting in this particular tail: the school that actually wants you and is about to throw an actual salary at you may not be in New York. Or Chicago, or San Francisco. Or Toronto. More likely it will be someplace quite far, both socially and culturally, from the places you most love and want to be. It may be really far from family and friends. It might even be in a community that is, at times, overtly hostile to your values, one that drains you from the inside.

But it’s still a job. Worse luck yet, it’s probably a really good job, a “dream” job. A job you need to take, because these jobs don’t grow on trees.

What happens to these insanely fortunate academics – people like me, with great jobs in cities they do not want to live in? Sometimes they make the best of it; I did for almost 10 years. Many of my friends in small-town or small-city universities tell me all the time how much they’ve grown to appreciate their new homes, and I respect that.

Sometimes they complain bitterly and on the regular, taking every chance to escape on city breaks at weekends (yup, also me).

And sometimes they decide to move away, and commute to campus part-time. This commute might be 50km, 100km, or 1000km long. Usually it’s a city-to-city commute, requiring cars, trains, and even airplanes to sustain.

commuter-train

I googled “commuting is hell”.

There are lots of us commuting to my university; in fact, it sells itself to new recruits with its proximity to Toronto. A decent number of my departmental colleagues commute, and we are often kindly accommodated in our teaching and meeting schedules, others taking pains to recognize that we’re only within shooting distance of campus a couple of times a week.

So my commute is a privilege, and I recognize this. My ability to work half the time from home, the respect my employer shows for my commuting choice, and of course my financial ability to afford to commute: these are all things I know I have that many others do not.

But my commute has also opened my eyes, wide, to how poor our public transport systems and infrastructure in North America are, especially when you leave major urban corridors behind. It has opened my eyes to how hard it can be for my students to get to class on time, when they are relying on packed buses running tens of minutes behind schedule even in the heart of the city. It has revealed the incredible economic privilege it can take to get around exclusively by public transportation in this part of my country, when the car is often a far cheaper and easier (and bloody faster, more convenient) option.

It has also revealed to me what it might look and feel like to be not so fortunate as to be able to commute to one’s good academic job, but rather to be financially trapped in a place where the job is good enough, but the living is not really, on balance, living. (But hey, in the neoliberal universe, working *is* living, right?)

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Planes, Trains and Automobiles, 1987. Sadly, the train in this image looks way more modern than the average VIA service.

How do I get to work from my new home? For the first winter, I drove exclusively. This proved emotionally devastating in ways I did not expect. I was exhausted from the driving, even though there’s virtually no traffic on the very well-maintained highways lining my route. (Turns out going 120kph for 75 minutes is stressful. Who knew?) I kept leaving too late and running out of the house with the gas hob still on. (Fun fact: you can leave a gas burner, with nothing atop it, on for 12 hours and it’s fine.) Sometimes I was so drained from the teaching day that I’d get gas for the drive home and forget to shut the gas tank door.

So driving all the time wasn’t the best. It was, however, by far the cheapest option – at most $25 round trip in gas, vs at minimum $55 round trip on the train, and that’s the super-planning-ahead rate. By no small measure it was also the fastest and most convenient option. Still, I was increasingly aware of just how much bigger my carbon footprint was growing; between January 2018 and January 2019 I think I put 40,000km on my VW Golf. (That’s twice what insurance companies consider an annual norm for North America.)

Last winter, faced with my stark new carbon reality, I started investing in the train journey despite the costs and timing inconveniences. VIA, Canada’s national intercity carrier, serves my local commuter rail station with a service that goes a bare few times daily between Toronto and London, ON. I bought a raft of tickets during a Boxing Week sale, scheduling my outbound train for first thing in the morning and my return for last thing at night.

Why? Because these were the only services that fit with my (totally normal, mid-afternoon) teaching schedule, and they turned my four-hour teaching day into a 14-hour colossus.

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A glam shot of VIA’s “Rocky Mountaineer” snaking through the Jasper corridor. This is a holiday train. My train is not a holiday train.

The train proved saner, on balance, than the car: I could work on the train, relax and drink coffee rather than fretting about speeding, and I had plenty of time to schedule in stuff like yoga and visiting my elderly parents between classes and the departure home. So far, so middle-class work day.

But the train also came with added problems. For one, getting around town. I can walk to my campus office from the VIA station in about 50 minutes, which is pleasant on a warm winter morning but a real pain in the sleet and snow. The buses in London between downtown and campus are fine when they aren’t packed out and passing you by, but if I wanted to go from campus to my parents’ apartment the journey became a long, inconvenient ordeal for what is actually a 10-minute car ride. Taxis are ok, I guess, but they add up, and my commute was already costing me at least $300/month – not peanuts. Full size bikes are not allowed on the VIA, and there’s no bike share scheme in LonON.

I was feeling eco-friendly and also stranded.

When winter turned to spring and summer, my commute relaxed and I settled into research work in my home office, forgetting about the winter’s challenges. But then the extreme weather systems returned. “Climate change” became “the climate crisis”, and students rose up around the world to ask people of my generation to take it much, much more seriously.

Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic in a carbon-neutral vessel, and got vitriolic attacks from privileged adults about the gall of her. I looked at her and thought two things: a) what an admirable young woman; b) wow, I wonder how many people on earth can commandeer a carbon-neutral sailboat for their trip to the UN.

This past August, I decided to commit to riding the train every day in term time that the option was available to me. I bought a Tern folding bicycle, taking the cash for the purchase from my commute budget. (These bikes are not cheap, and again I feel privileged to have been able to save for it.) I’ve now had a month of commuting with Titania (yup, I name all the bikes, and they are all bad-ass women), and it’s made a huge difference to my work days.

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Titania, my new Tern folding bike, on the platform at my local station.

My point with this post is not to humblebrag about my eco-creds, nor to celebrate the nifty expensive things I’ve done to enable my posh commute. Not by a long shot.

Instead, I want to highlight how challenging it has been, even for a very fortunate and well paid professional like me, to create a life where my job doesn’t stop me living in a place I want to be, and doesn’t in the process add thousands and thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

I also want to highlight how easy it is to look away from these problems when you have a certain level of privilege and can just get on with driving the car and throwing money at the problem. This looking-away choice does not make you a bad person; it makes you a human in this world, where the structures of living and working have for so long been directed away from community care, care of the planet, and care of one another. The “bad” choice is almost never really a choice; it’s half a necessity.

Contrary to the popular discourse surrounding her, if Greta Thunberg shows us one thing clearly it is that the climate emergency, like the neoliberal superstructures that have abetted it, is not something individuals can solve: the solution will take real change at the highest levels of government and a firm commitment from whole communities to come out in solidarity for change.

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A screenshot (likely illegal, tbh) of a fantastic recent cartoon about Greta Thunberg by First Dog On The Moon. Go here to read the whole thing.

Thunberg’s rise has demonstrated clearly that the climate crisis is not something all individuals are privileged enough to be able to address in equal measure; she knows she’s damn lucky to have had that carbon-neutral Atlantic crossing, and she is always at pains to remind people that her advocacy is not about her. Let’s not vilify her and students like her for their rising voices, and let’s not use their vocal protest as an excuse to do nothing ourselves.

Instead, let’s examine our choices not just for how they might change, but also for how they are structurally restricted from changing. Then, let’s use our discoveries about those structural problems to power further advocacy, on our campuses and in our broader communities, in solidarity with students, less fortunate friends and colleagues, and many more. We can do better by each other and by the planet – but, as with most things, only together.

Performance as mental health crisis intervention: an interview with Natalie Alvarez

Friends, once more I’m thrilled to be able to share with you the full text of a piece published in my new (August 2019) special issue of Research in Drama Education. (If you missed the last two freebies, please click here and here.) In this interview, Ryerson University Performance Studies professor Natalie Alvarez talks about an extraordinary research and development project she is currently helming in southern Ontario, and reflects on how that project debunks some of the persistent myths theatre and performance scholars carry with us about what performance-led interdisciplinary work should look like. I learned a huge amount from conducting this interview with Natalie and, although it’s long for a post on this blog (4500 words), I hope you can make the time to read it. It will be worth it.

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Natalie Alvarez, Ryerson University professor and investigative lead on the SSHRC-funded four-year project, “Scenario Training to Improve Interactions Between Police and Individuals in Mental Crisis: Impacts and Efficacy”

Living the interdiscipline: Natalie Alvarez speaks with Kim Solga about conceiving, developing, managing, and learning from a large-scale, multidisciplinary, scenario-based project supporting police de-escalation training in Ontario

(Published in RiDE 24.3 [2019]; click here for a free download of the published interview.)

Ryerson University theatre and performance professor Natalie Alvarez is currently helming a large, interdisciplinary team of forensic psychologists, mental health clinicians, Applied Theatre practitioners, police trainers, and community stakeholders with lived experience of mental illness in southern Ontario that is testing the power of Forum theatre to build better, more responsive scenarios for police officer training in de-escalation and mental crisis response. Funded by a four-year Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the project, titled ‘Scenario Training to Improve Interactions Between Police and Individuals in Mental Crisis: Impacts and Efficacy’, is already significantly changing the paradigm for police training in response to persons in mental crisis in the province.

In this interview, Alvarez sits down with issue editor Kim Solga to talk about where this project came from, what challenges arise when working in an intensively interdisciplinary way—and how theatre and performance can serve effectively as a methodology at the heart of a wide range of scholarly investigations, both inside and outside of the arts and humanities.

KS: To begin, can you say a few brief words about your own training and background? As a scholar, how do you ‘identify’?

NA: I would have to say that I identify now as a performance studies researcher since I am most interested in how performance can be used as an optic and method of analysis to examine cultural practices both onstage and in the public sphere. But my training, formally, has moved from English and dramatic literature with a focus on discourse analysis and critical theory as an undergraduate student to theatre and performance studies as a graduate student.

KS: Can you give us the project’s ‘elevator pitch’, and tell us what stage of the project you are at right now?

NA: The project is tough to distill in two to three sentences—you are testing my pitching skills!—but in short: it’s a four-year, evidenced-based study that brings together theatre practitioners, forensic psychologists, mental health clinicians, people with lived experience of mental illness, mental health advocates, and police trainers to develop a scenario-based training program designed to improve police response to individuals in mental crisis. I realize I squeezed a lot into that first sentence. Sentence two: We are using a mixed methods approach that is longitudinal, with quantitative and qualitative measures, to determine whether a scenario-based program can improve skills in effective de-escalation and reduce stigmatizing attitudes towards individuals living with mental illness. We are in year two of four of the study.

KS: Where did the inspiration for this project originally come from?

NA: It emerged from the field research I did for my book, Immersions in Cultural Difference: Tourism, War, Performance(Michigan, 2018), which took me to military training sites in Canada, the US, and the UK. I was struck by how these large-scale, pre-deployment training environments of simulated Afghan villages were using high intensity scenarios to test soldiers’ capacities to engage in ethical decision-making while under extreme stress.

In this training designed to prepare soldiers for deployment in Afghanistan, military training personnel worked with special effects teams largely drawn from the film industry to create scenarios that would expose soldiers to what would be, in many cases, their worst possible day in theatre: surprise insurgent attacks requiring them to rehearse their tactical responses and rules of engagement. But in the context of a mock Afghan village, scenarios were also designed to build soldiers’ ‘Cultural Intelligence’ (or CQ) about local populations in Afghanistan to better establish working relationships for the purposes of a counterinsurgency mission. Scenarios would unfold 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a large-scale environment: in the case of CFB Wainright, outside of Edmonton, Alberta, for example, four small Afghan villages were set up across a wide swath of Alberta prairie to create this sense of full immersion. This fully immersive, 24-7 form of scenario-based training is a far cry from the short, discrete scenarios in contained environments that we now design for police, but it’s nevertheless instructive since it shares many of the same principles that underlie scenario-based learning in police training contexts: the creation of high-fidelity scenarios designed to capture the stress of the encounter and develop trainees’ capacities to think critically, responsibly, and ethically in the heat of the moment.  

There was one debrief I witnessed during pre-deployment training at Wainright for soldiers headed to Afghanistan that made a particular impression on me, and sparked the idea for this current study. It happened after a mass-casualty scenario involving actors in-role as Afghans in a village that had just been struck by an IED, which killed a member of the Afghan National Police who was well known to villagers. It called on soldiers in training to manage frightened and grieving villagers while following through with their protocols to establish a safety cordon and contain the area.

The scenario debrief was impressively led by a staff sergeant and I found myself struck by his teaching skills: he asked soldiers to replay the scene in their minds and hit the ‘pause’ button at key moments in their recounting—effectively, to ‘rewind’, replay, and reconsider their courses of action and decision-making. The moment made me think of how useful it would be if soldiers had this opportunity to pause, rewind, and reconsider on their feet, in an embodied way, in a kind of modified, Boal-inspired use of Forum Theatre.

It was around that time that the Sammy Yatim incident occurred on a streetcar near my home in Toronto on the night of 27 July 2013. Yatim was armed with a switchblade and behaving erratically, exhibiting signs of mental distress, and he was alone on the streetcar by the time Constable James Forcillo arrived on scene with his partner. Forcillo fired two volleys of shots, nine in total, to subdue Yatim. Forensics revealed that the first three shots killed Yatim almost instantly. Forcillo was later convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to six years in prison.

After that incident, which made headlines around the world, the Ontario Ombudsman, Paul Dubé,issued a report investigating the state of police training in Ontario with respect to de-escalation in cases where mental illness or distress is a factor. I have an elder sister who lives with schizoaffective disorder, and so I find these incidents of lethal force in response to people in mental crisis harrowing and deeply concerning. As I was bringing the book to completion, I kept thinking about the Ombudsman report and whether the discoveries I had made in my field research could evolve into a new context of police training.   

Auspiciously, around this same time my former department, the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University, hired Dr. Yasmine Kandil, a specialist in Applied Theatre. Shortly after her hire, I cornered her in the university cafeteria and pitched the idea of this project that would aim to realize many of the recommendations that had come out of the Ombudsman report. The vision I had was to take officers in training through a spectrum of scenario-based training—from the stop-playback method of Forum-inspired scenario training to a high intensity circuit of scenarios that would assess officers’ critical decision-making while under stress—and gather a multidisciplinary team from across the humanities and social sciences alongside community stakeholders to design, execute, and measure it.

KS: I hear you saying that police and armed forces already use complex scenario training—hence your work embedding with and observing them for your 2018 book. Can you speak briefly about how the scenario work you envisioned for this project differs from existing scenario training models for police officers?

NA: Our stop-playback method of Forum-inspired scenarios, which allows a multidisciplinary team to ‘press the pause button’ and offer feedback to a trainee in the moment, is a significant departure from how police training typically unfolds. In general, mental crisis response knowledge is most commonly conveyed in a de-contextualized classroom context with guest lecturers often delivering information about signs and symptoms of mental illness with minimal scenario-based learning. Scenario-based learning is most often used in police Use of Force ‘block’ training contexts, which don’t necessarily prioritize cases of mental crisis and are comprised of five- to ten-minute uninterrupted scenarios that are led by and debriefed with police trainers only.

Our study, by contrast, uses scenarios as the primary method of content delivery, so that material that would otherwise be delivered in a lecture format becomes immediately demonstrable and experiential. And we’ve designed the forum scenarios to have a host of built-in ‘what ifs’ or hypothetical circumstances, so that trainees can discuss and practice a range of de-escalation strategies in fluid situations with minimal to significant complexity and discuss the potential circumstances leading to that crisis situation. Trainees then receive feedback from multiple perspectives: a mental health clinician, a person with lived experience of mental illness, and a police trainer.

KS: This is clearly a very larger project with lots of people of very different backgrounds and skill sets involved. Who are your collaborators? How did you go about realizing you needed them, and then finding them?

NA: The research team formed over the course of two years, as reading one publication led me to a particular researcher who then suggested another publication that led to another researcher…and so it went. I began with Dr. Terry Coleman and Dr. Dorothy Coleman’s 2014 Mental Health Commission of Canada report on the state of police training in mental crisis response, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé’s 2016 investigation into police training, and the Hon. Frank Iacobucci’s 2014 independent review of police response to individuals in crisis. And I read through their works cited lists to follow the trail on the existing research on scenario-based police training, de-escalation, and mental crisis response. I visited the Ontario Police College several times to meet with trainers and curriculum designers and observe their scenario-based training.

All of this reading and all of these meetings made clear to me the fact that training of this kind exceeds the insights and capacity of any one discipline and any one individual. It demands a multidisciplinary team: we needed mental health clinicians who could offer insight on signs and symptoms and best practices on how to engage effectively with persons in mental health crisis; we needed police trainers to marry those best practices with police de-escalation training that prioritizes safety and the sanctity of life; and we needed people with lived experience of mental illness who have had encounters with police to be at the table in both the design and delivery of the training in order to help guide officers on how best to realize consumer-centered decision-making. We also required individuals who specialize in intercultural communication, and who can support an intersectional understanding of the experience of mental illness as informed by ethnicity, gender, class, age, and thus help develop trauma-informed approaches to persons in mental crisis. Many, many phone calls with experts in these areas and many, many meetings later, I had assembled our core team of 12 research collaborators and partnered with a police service in southern Ontario. We have since added 6 trainers and instructors and have developed 7 scenarios that involve over 26 actors.

And, of course, we required theatre practitioners who know how to craft and direct effective scenarios that have complex and credible levels of challenge and escalation for officers-in-training to practice a range of de-escalation strategies in a host of possible ‘what ifs’. This project also requires theatre practitioners who know how to direct and work with actors who have a very particular kind of skill set: our actors need to be able to toggle between the role of actor and that of educator as they navigate high-affect scenes while improvising within certain parameters set by the scenario and guiding trainees through various rewards or redirects based on the choices the trainee is making.

Iacobucci’s report in particular made evident to me the need for partnerships between researchers and police services. His report emphasizes the need to measure the efficacy of de-escalation training and the impacts that training is having on the person in crisis’s experience in the encounter with police. For this study to impact police training standards or make a persuasive case for more robust mental crisis response training in the province, generating meaningful and reliable data is imperative. That’s what brought my co-investigator Dr. Jennifer Lavoie to the project. Alongside Yasmine, Jennifer has been pivotal to the success of this project. She isa forensic psychologist in the Department of Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University who specializes in policing and mental crisis response; she has spent over 250 hours in ride-alongs observing police response to individuals in mental crisis. She designed the qualitative and quantitative methods for data collection and analysis for our study. Critically, she led the team in the design of a tool to assess police performance in de-escalation strategies, which I feel is a key contribution this study has made to public culture. As a humanities scholar, I never thought I’d find myself thisexcited about an assessment instrument, but it’s truly a beautiful thing. It’s the product of input from people with lived experience, advocates, psychologists, police trainers, and performance practitioners… . It’s basically the first, validated assessment tool in Canada, to our knowledge, that sets a measurable, observable standard for effective de-escalation in police training.

KS: As the performance-trained scholar at the centre of this interdisciplinary team, how much did you have to bend or flex your scholarly perspective—and maybe even your identity?—to enable the shaping of the project? Has your sense of the work you do as a performance scholar shifted over time to accommodate interdisciplinary methods and perspectives, as per your work with the military?

NA: I’ve had to adapt to new vocabularies and certainly new paradigms of engagement, to be sure. But that remains true for every research project I engage in because, predominantly, the studies I work on require some form of field research and therefore an ‘embedding’ in different worlds of experience, discourses, and fields of inquiry. The question that remains constant for me is this: what does performance have to say within these worlds, and what will performance unveil there?I think of performance as a kind of hermeneutical method through which we can examine a host of cultural phenomena—this is, of course, influenced by and related to the ‘broad spectrum’ approach to performance studies (championed by Richard Schechner, Barabara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Diana Taylor, Dwight Conquergood, among many others), but it also exceeds it. Performance, for me, is above all a methodology, and as such it is always bending, flexing, and shifting—its site-responsiveness is what is most exciting to me.

What’s become clear to me over the course of this particular project—and I would say that this is a recent development—is the way in which performance can serve as a nexus or meeting point for different disciplinary perspectives that can work in concert toward social justice initiatives. Looking back, I realize now that the seeds of this idea were planted at the ‘conversatorios’ I curated with Aluna Theatre for their 2014 RUTAS/ROUTES festival, which formed research ‘clusters’ that brought scholars from different disciplines together with actors, directors, activists, elders, and students for conversations with the public on the social justice issues raised in the festival performances. But this is the first time I have led a project of this scale that draws on a multidisciplinary team toward a shared set of research aims.

KS: I’m really interested in the place of theatre and performance within this complex interdisciplinary work, given how many science-side stakeholders are involved here. For example, in your description of collaborators above, I get the sense that theatre is both central, yet also somewhat marginalized, in the project, given your (necessarily) heavy focus on assessment and measurement. Can you talk about this tension?

NA: The reality in practice is that roughly 80%-90% of our time is spent developing scenarios—writing them, structuring them, rehearsing them with actors, and testing them over a period of months with our actors, police-in-role, and our multidisciplinary team—and delivering them in the training week, which is comprised almost exclusively of scenarios. Performance is, then, the core methodology and the substance of the project, without which the project would not exist. I would say the qualitative and quantitative methodologies we have developed to build the evidence-base could be described as theatre’s indispensable partner in this project, since they help us answer the question, ‘Does scenario training actually work and, if so, how?’

The tension you describe—performance as ‘both central, yet marginalized’—is something I simply don’t experience in this project. But I wonder if what you’re picking up on is not so much a tension but a movement, the kind of movement that happens when performance is used as a methodology that flexes and bends with the project’s demands, a movement that goes between being ‘central andmarginal’ (rather than ‘central, yet marginal’). This central-marginal movement, in my mind, describes the exigencies of multidisciplinary work, especially in an intensely collaborative and multifaceted project of this kind. As a methodology, performance provides the container for the research, which allows, in turn, points of emphasis from all of the contributing disciplinary perspectives to become centralized as needed, moment to moment, as circumstances and project demands require.

It’s a fascinating question, though, and it makes me wonder whether it’s revealing of certain assumptions about performance studies as a bounded discipline that makes itself visible, central, or ‘less marginal’ on certain terms. Or, to put it differently, and perhaps more importantly for the concerns of this issue: I wonder whether it reveals certain assumptions that performance needsto be positioned as a bounded discipline in order to make itself visible, central, or ‘less marginal’. But what happens to these assumptions, and this sense of boundedness, if we follow, in earnest, the notion that performance studies is an interdiscipline and performance a kind of hermeneutical method? The enormous potential of performance studies in these collaborative research contexts lies, for me, in the fact that it is not a discrete, circumscribed field of study but a mode of investigation that reorients other fields to uncover new pathways of inquiry. For me, it’s less about proceeding with a systematic core that is then applied to other fields, which would only be a form of analogical thinking, and more about flexing performance across fields to reveal otherwise-invisible structures and paradigms within those fields.

To illustrate what I mean here: at the risk of severely over-simplifying, Judith Butler’s notion of the ‘performative’, for example, is not a metaphor; it does not say we operate ‘as if’ we are in a performance. It highlights something configured into our everyday behaviours that would have otherwise gone unnoticed had we not deployed performance as a means of thinking it through, allowing us the opportunity to reconfigure what is otherwise taken for granted.

I guess I’d like to hear more about how this project would unfold—or what it would sound like—if performance was more ‘central’?

KS: That’s an incredibly useful response. One of the reasons I posed the question is because we theatre workers often risk, in interdisciplinary projects where performance is not the core method or framing paradigm, feeling marginalized or undervalued; it’s one of the concerns of this issue to unpack when and how much theatre and performance scholars and makers need to bend and flex on others’ terms in order to survive the STEM (or even the STEAM) turn. But you’ve created a project that implies something very different: you’ve centred performance as method, as paradigm, and then grouped others’ needs and concerns around it, allowing the hermeneutic power of performance to become evident for a wide range of collaborators and to a wide range of practices. That’s exciting!

Given the wide multidisciplinary range of labour at work here, I’m curious to know if the project looks today more or less like you conceived it to start. How have your collaborators helped to shape its development, through the process of grant applications and beyond into training proper?

NA: In terms of the general structure of the training program—with respect to a spectrum of scenarios moving from Forum to circuit—it remains more or less as I had envisioned it at the outset. But it crystallized into its current form over many conversations with Yasmine. On the ground, the program has continued to develop to include additional types of scenarios: what we’ve called ‘What If’ scenarios, where study participants (or officer-trainees) develop their own scenarios in collaboration with our actors that re-enact a mental crisis call trainees themselves have already encountered in the real world as an opportunity to ‘replay’ it and get feedback from our multidisciplinary training team. Further, the exact structure and management of the high-intensity scenarios (this is the point in the program’s training week where officers’ de-escalation skills are assessed) took shape over many conversations with Yasmine and one of our trainers and scenario-writers, LJ Nelles, both of whom have extensive former experience running OSCEs or exam circuits with actors/Simulated Patients in medical training contexts.

What developed most from my initial vision, and over the course of many discussions, was the method to build an evidence-base for the study. Jennifer designed a sophisticated plan of data collection to ensure we were getting reliable data that would allow us to measure intra-officer changes pre- and post-training. She also designed a consumer satisfaction survey to measure whether there are changes in the region of our partnering police service in terms of people’s perceptions of and satisfaction with police response to mental crisis. We plan to track these consumer responses as officers move through the training over the four years of our study.

With Yasmine’s guidance, we’ve continued to fine-tune the structure of what we’re calling the ‘Forum Scenarios’—the stop-and-playback method that allows officer-trainees to step in and try a host of de-escalation tactics and communication skills while receiving feedback from a multidisciplinary team of instructors: a mental health clinician, a person with lived experience of mental illness, a police trainer, and an intercultural communications expert. Yasmine is very skilled at facilitating Forum Theatre, drawing on her years of experience using Applied Theatre methods with vulnerable populations, and she’s very attuned to how delicately these Forum Theatre experiences need to be structured. Trainees can easily feel overwhelmed and vulnerable, with all eyes on them, scrutinized by their peers and a team of instructors, so Yasmine developed a nuanced facilitation structure that addresses the power imbalances in the room and ensures that the multiple perspectives at play have sufficient room to be heard.

KS: What lessons about interdisciplinary, cross-platform collaboration have you learned that would be worth sharing with other T&P academics?

NA: I think in this political moment, we have an opportunity to harness performance’s potential to foster genuine interdisciplinary, cross-platform collaboration, especially if we take in earnest Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett’s claim that performance is an ‘organizing concept’.[1]Think about the potential in that. What if we work seriously to understand performance studies as an inter-discipline, one that at its best becomes a means of organizing and bringing together multiple perspectives around the core principles we as researchers value in performance—the doing, the behaving, the embodying; attempting to inhabit different vantage points and constructing hypothetical visions of the world to imagine what’s possible. These principles are integral and foundational to allinvestigative research, but theatre and performance researchers are the ones with the expert insight to support their broad-spectrum application. I think T&P academics have much to offer when we think of performance as a kind of methodological container for interdisciplinary research—a container that holds the research but whose shape is plastic and responsive to those working within it.

KS: Our issue is about the role that theatre and performance already plays—but also could better play—in the neoliberal university, and it’s dedicated to strategizing around impact on our own terms (or, perhaps, on terms framed by performance, to pick up on the spirit of your comments above). When you talk to administrators, industry partners, or others outside our field, how do you describe this project? Is ‘theatre’ as a mobile learning platform part of your description?

NA: I describe it as ‘scenario-based, de-escalation training’ and the scenario-based approach instantly makes the connection for people between theatre/performance and this project. I talk about theatre in terms of the methodology it offers of scenario-based thinking, planning, and learning, which lies at the core of this study. I think that approach best—and most readily, for non-specialists—conveys what performance has to offer across disciplines.

Scenario planning is, I think, one of the most viable ways in which we can transmit what performance has to offer to other areas of public life—and areas that sorely need our support! Scenario planning has, since the 1990s, acquired much traction (and scrutiny) across a host of industries as a way of anticipating and imagining all possible futures—a core theme that ran through my 2018 book, which this current project extends. Scenario planning immediately conveys the centrality of performance as integral to these kinds of ‘logic modelling’ exercises that require environments to be created and ideas to be tested in hypothetical, high-fidelity contexts. I think this is what theatre does best. Scenario planning is actually a kind of neo-naturalist approach to the idea of theatre-as-laboratory, one taken beyond the stage proper to address social justice issues with all of the necessary community stakeholders at the table.

KS: How has the work on this project shaped the way you think about the role of T&P in your individual institution? Are you thinking differently at all? Have you caught the eye of administrators or other change-agents who are now beginning to think differently about the work we do as ‘theatre’ scholars?

NA: Since moving to Ryerson University (in Toronto) in 2018, I was very pleased to hear my Dean, Charles Falzon, in one of our very first meetings, key in to what this project suggests about the potential of performance in ways he hadn’t considered before. He acknowledged that ‘theatre’ for most people tends to invoke this idea of actors on a stage performing for an audience in a discrete/contained environment. And while he was careful not to diminish the power that theatre proper has in these contexts, he also expressed his excitement about what, for him, was this new and comparatively under-explored idea of performance’s potential in the public sphere—as a paradigm for thinking and a nexus for cross-disciplinary collaboration. For my Dean, it allowed him to understand how performance fits within his broader vision for the Faculty of Communication and Design, which is heavily invested in the idea of creative innovation. I left that meeting with the distinct impression that the project had already changed preconceived notions of what performance does and can do for someone in a senior position at a university that is at the forefront of thinking about new ways university students and researchers can contribute to important community and industry conversations in Canada. And I get the distinct sense that it’s opened up the scope in administrators’ minds here of the reach of performance-based research, particularly in terms of its social impact.

[1]See Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s allusion to the idea of performance ‘as an organizing concept for a wide range of behaviour’ (2002, 25) in her essay, ‘Performance studies’ in The Performance Studies Reader.