Theatre and performance vs the “crisis” in the Humanities (warning: this post requires you to think about doing something!)

Friends, I am excited to share with you a call for papers I’ve created for the fantastic, UK-based journal Research in Drama Education.

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The issue I’m guest-editing will appear in August 2019; its purpose is to gather exciting, stimulating, but above all useful best practices from around the world that demonstrate how theatre and performance makers, scholars, teachers, and community partners are helping to rewrite what has become our “common sense” refrain: …that Humanities schools, faculties, and programs at our colleges and universities are being marginalized by business- and STEM-forward administrators and government pressures, and that there is nothing we can do about it but grouse and cry while the ship sinks.

I know this “common sense” state of affairs is not really the case – that it is, rather, another situation where we have all swallowed a load of depressing Kool-Aid, largely out of sheer bone-weariness. (Fighting endless battles simply to demonstrate one’s relevance has a tendency to make one rather tired, and longing for a drink.)

How do I know this? Because I also know too many people (friends and colleagues alike; friends of friends and colleagues of colleagues) who are busy doing something, right now, about it. And even sometimes succeeding.

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What this issue wants to know is exactly what that doing-something-about-it looks like. It wants to hear from those of us in higher education’s theatre and performance (and dance and music…) trenches, but it also wants to hear – very much wants to hear – from administrators who have insights to share.

Above all, it argues that theatre and performance programs have an obligation to be at the heart of the 21st century, “neoliberal” university, not at its periphery – and it wants to know how to make that claim a “common sense” reality.

There are a lot of ways to contribute to this issue – I’m inviting scholarly articles, shorter case study articles, as well as creative expressions, dialogues, and a variety of things that might be web-only friendly. We are fortunate that RiDE has the capacity to make this issue a cross-platform publication, and that its audience is helpfully international and very diverse.

Below, I’m reproducing the issue’s core research questions, as well as information about how to submit a proposal (due 1 October 2017).

I’m also including a link to the full CFP, on RiDE‘s website, here.

I know many of you will have seen this come across your desks already – if you could take a moment now to forward this on to anyone you’ve thought perhaps might like to see it, but hasn’t yet seen it, I’d be grateful!

Sometime between now and October I’ll do another post on the issue’s topic, which will feature some personal stories about how I ended up getting the RiDE gig and coming up with this particular idea. I’ll also think ahead there a bit there to an event I’m planning in London, UK, in November, with connections to the issue.

Until then, questions most welcome!

Solidarity,

Kim

Theatre + Performance vs “The Crisis in the Humanities”: Creative Pedagogies, Neoliberal Realities*

*Call for papers in full available here: crde-cfp-crisis-in-humanities-2q2017

Research questions

  • What initiatives are already underway to ready schools and departments of theatre and performance for survival within the neoliberal university?
  • How are these initiatives received by stakeholders (students, teachers, artists, administrators, community partners) both inside and outside of institutional contexts?
  • How essential is interdisciplinary collaboration to the survival of theatre and performance labour in the neoliberal university? What models exist for such (successful) collaboration?
  • How essential is community collaboration to the survival of theatre and performance labour in the neoliberal university? What models exist for such (successful) collaboration?
  • Within the initiatives and collaborations thus detailed, what room exists for creative, performance-driven critique of neoliberal structures? How is that room made? When and how does making such space fall short of goals?

Logistical Details

The issue will blend scholarly articles of approximately 6000 words with evidentiary documents of 1500-2000 words (brief case studies; module/course outlines; measurements gathered on behalf of initiatives; etc) and online materials. The latter may include recorded interviews, classroom or other performance clips, or creative data dissemination. The issue aims for a rich mix of scholarly discussion about the issues at hand, and practical, re-usable models and materials.

Contributions are welcomed from artists, teachers, and researchers, but also from administrators, students, community partners, Teaching and Learning Centre staffers, or more. (If you feel members of your team, or other officials at your university, might like to contribute independently or alongside you, please circulate this CFP to them!)

Collaboratively-authored works are very welcome.

Time frame

Please send proposals and/or descriptions of 300 words (for any of the above categories of contribution), along with a 150-word biography, to Kim Solga by 1 September 2017.

Power to the female creators

I’ve been thinking this past week about the powerful shifts that occur in popular culture when the means of artistic production are given to those previously denied them, or those who typically don’t get unfettered access to them. Of course I’ve been inspired by Beyoncé’s album drop last Saturday, and the gorgeous film that makes Lemonade what it is; everyone on the planet with a social media account should now know (I hope) that there’s this talented, political, stunning, forceful black woman from the American South who is changing the conversation around feminism and black women’s roles in it, about black participation in contemporary pop culture, about which #blacklivesmatter, and a whole bunch of other stuff besides. (Here and here you’ll find just two of the many excellent commentaries I’ve read about Lemonade in the past few days; the second one features my friend and colleague Naila Keleta-Mae, who teaches a fantastic course on Beyoncé at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.)

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Beyoncé is an exceptional talent with a lot of money and incredible mojo, but she also proves a basic rule. Give a disenfranchised person (like an ordinary black American girl) without a voice some tools, some money, and some amplification, and incredible things emerge. That’s because disenfranchised people are very rarely disenfranchised as a result of some kind of internal lack – of talent or interest or ability or chutzpah. They are disenfranchised because other, often far less talented and motivated people, are well served by keeping them quiet.

I was thinking about this stuff even before Lemonade was released, because last week in my university’s official weekly, Western News, I and several of my colleagues shared the spotlight to talk about the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Not one keen to celebrated the already celebrated-to-death, however much I love Mr Stratford, I decided to use my contribution to the Shaks400 special issue to talk about the risks of continuing blindly to revere a playmaker whose work often features incredible violence against women (because, you know, it was, like, 1600 or something), and what it would mean to enable more women directors to grab hold of the reigns of those plays and investigate that violence as it is transported into our contemporary contexts.

Because when women tell stories that men have historically been privileged to tell, just as when black women tell stories white women and black men have historically been privileged to tell, new ideas emerge, and new worlds come into being. And surely we all want to live in a bigger, more beautiful world, right?

With kind permission of general editor Jason Winders, I’m reproducing my Western News piece below, along with the cheeky and joyful picture of me that ran alongside it. And if you’ve not got hold of Lemonade yet, it’s just $17.99 on iTunes, £13.99 in the UK. Download and be moved.

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Women need freedom to shape narratives for a new century

It’s no surprise, then, that the plays Shakespeare wrote tend to include a lot of complex men, and far fewer women overall (as well as far fewer complex female roles). This reflects the material reality of his context: Shakespeare’s England was structurally patriarchal, and for a good portion of his life was led by a female ruler, Elizabeth I, who took no husband and enacted the role of the ‘Virgin Queen’ in part to shore up her authority as a woman in a man’s job. This does not mean, of course, that Shakespeare’s canon does not include compelling women and complicated issues of sex and gender, but it does mean that his context was very different from ours, and that the historical differences between his world and ours need to be respected, and reflected carefully upon, when we approach the plays today.

I’ve spent a lot of my career reflecting on this issue. What does it mean when we, in the early 21stcentury, call Shakespeare “our contemporary”? How do we reconcile the general lack of female characters in the plays, and the stereotypical nature of a lot of those characters, with modern cultural contexts in which women are presumed to be equal citizens and subjects of power? (I say “presumed to be” because, of course, there’s a difference between the theory of women’s equality, in which most of us believe and invest, and the reality of women’s lives in what is still a pretty unequal world.)

Most urgent of all, for me, is this question: what do we do about those plays that revolve around plots driven by violence against women and girls – plays like Othello, in which Desdemona is murdered by her husband after he is duped by Iago into believing his wife unfaithful, or Titus Andronicus, in which the daughter of the titular character is brutally raped and maimed in the second act, then left traumatized for the remainder of the play?

Contemporary theatre practitioners take a host of different approaches to this fundamental problem with the plays and our love for them. The first is to take seriously the fact of Shakespeare’s historical and cultural difference from us. This often involves setting the plays in Shakespeare’s time, or in a time equally historically distant, and then paying precise attention to the kinds of details that demonstrate to an audience the differences that separate us from the plays and their worlds. This logic partly lies behind the recent interest in ‘original practices,’ a style of mounting Shakespeare that attempts to recreate the conditions under which Shakespeare’s actors lived and worked. (Original practices is not without its own challenges, however; it runs into the fundamental problem that there were no women on stage in Shakespeare’s day, nor any actors of colour. Excluding women and non-white performers from the stage under any circumstances today is, of course, both ethically wrong and politically inappropriate, making ‘authentic’ original practice work very hard to achieve.)

Other directors and producers imagine historical settings for the plays, but find ways to build modern understandings of their most difficult elements, like violence against women, into the representations they fashion. This was one of the most remarkable features of British director Deborah Warner’s 1988 production of Titus Andronicus for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Warner’s Lavinia (the character who is raped) was played by Sonia Ritter as a woman suffering visibly from post-traumatic stress disorder, something that threw into comic but also critical relief the ways in which she is ignored or misunderstood by her male relatives throughout the third act.

Canadian director Peter Hinton took a parallel approach with his 2008 production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Stratford Festival, setting that play in the late Elizabethan period (it was written in the early 1590s) but creating a fresh, feminist framework for it that allowed audiences to see for themselves how ‘shrew-taming’ devices like the ‘ducking stool’ worked to traumatize and silence outspoken women in Shakespeare’s time.

To my mind, however, the most effective way to approach the challenges posed by Shakespeare’s gender imbalance is simply this: to give more of the plays to women to direct, especially at the most prominent Shakespeare venues around the world.

Throughout the 20th century women have had far too few opportunities to direct Shakespeare’s major plays, but thankfully this trend is changing:

  • Last year, Emma Rice, an experimental physical theatre artist and former artistic director of the Kneehigh theatre company, was named the new head of Shakespeare’s Globe, the most visibly important venue for his works in the Anglophone world and a theatre with a very strong educational mandate as well as a populist sensibility;
  • Flipping Shakespeare’s gender imbalance on its head, Phyllida Lloyd recently directed two all-female productions (of Julius Caesar in 2012 and Henry IV in 2014) at the Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End. Both were runaway hits, made possible in no small part by the support of another prominent woman in the theatre business, Donmar Artistic Director Josie Rourke;
  • In summer 2014 Erica Whyman, the Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), staged a season of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (artists like Thomas Middleton, John Webster and Thomas Dekker) that all featured powerful female mains. Titled Roaring Girls, the season was held in the RSC’s smaller Swan theatre venue, but nevertheless made a huge impact on reviewers and audiences alike; and
  • Closer to home, Jillian Keiley, who heads the National Arts Centre’s English company (and who visited London, Ont., in March as part of our Public Humanities initiative), is directing a Newfoundland-inspired As You Like It on the Stratford Festival’s main stage this summer.

Shakespeare’s female roles can of course be incredibly empowering for female actors even in the most conventional productions: Portia shapes the climactic scene of The Merchant of Venice; Lady Macbeth is the original Claire Underwood; even Lavinia gets to take control of her own body and narrative in the fourth act of Titus Andronicus when she uses a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to explain what happened to her, and a stick held between her forearms to spell out the names of her attackers.

But just as we learned a couple of weeks ago at the end of the Jian Ghomeshi trial, it’s often not enough for women to be given ‘a voice’ on a public stage. For true gender equality to obtain, women need to be given equal access to the means of theatrical production, and the freedom properly to help shape Shakespeare’s narratives for our new century.

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On leaving campus, for a change

The brand-new Theatre Studies program at my school, Western University, is off to a roaring start. We’ve got a small but mighty crew this first year, plus lots of interest in the wings for next. We’re not rich, yet we’re full of promise – which means we’re also making do with what we’ve got until we’ve gathered enough momentum to attract fresh investment. That is, we’re using found spaces to make performances, we’re Skyping in artists, and we’re taking every opportunity to leave campus in order to see good theatre and performance work in our own and nearby cities.

Twice recently I’ve taken small groups of my Theatre Studies students on field trips to fairly unique performance-related events; these trips have reminded me of the pleasures of leaving traditional teaching spaces behind in order to learn from, among other things, the precariousness of being out in an environment I can’t fully control. Last October, I drove (I drove!) to Toronto with six students from my Performance Beyond Theatres class, where we spent 7pm through 1am taking in the city’s annual Nuit Blanche all-night art festival. The seven of us – Sarah, Caitlin, Reggie, Rita, Jonas, Kat, and I – parked, ate dinner, and then wandered the streets with a basic road map of performances we’d starred as worth visiting. We sought shelter in the city’s underground PATH network as the temperature dropped, discovered an extraordinary installation performance in a parking garage – Vertical City’s 2uTopia – and then found ourselves willingly shivering and chattering outside once more, as we stood awe-struck before another gorgeous installation about the precariousness of labour and the ravaging of the environment in the global marketplace (Lars Jan’s HOLOSCENES).

TS2202 at Nuit Blanche 2014 (image by Rita)

(Finding our way down Queen Street West, photo by Rita (Minji) Kim)

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(Lars Jan’s HOLOSCENES, photo by Kat dos Santos)

I’m convinced that the rhythm of our meandering made all the difference to the learning experiences we had that night. Figuring out where to look, what to look at, what to make a note of, and what to dismiss was the basis of our labour as artists, advertisers, retailers, and fellow spectators clamoured for our attention. I was as new to all of it as the students: despite the fact that I have been to Nuit Blanche many times before and am adept at navigating downtown Toronto, where I used to live, I was no more sure than they were whether or not, for example, the trim woman in the fancy yoga trousers meditating in a bubble was a piece of “real” art, or a shill for Lululemon. We had to figure it out together, and once we had (yup, it was advertising) it became a teaching moment: I explained the relationship between performance art and yoga pants as commodities in the “creative city,” and we proceeded to debate, as we walked on, whether or not art and retail could or should coexist at a festival like Nuit Blanche.

2uTopia, Nuit Blanche 2014

(Kiran Friesen in Vertical City’s 2uTopia)

Not all of our outings are to see performance proper, though. This afternoon I drove two of those same students, Jonas and Sarah, back to Toronto to take part in a colloquium at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies. I’d been invited to give a talk as part of the event, but the timing conflicted with the History of Performance Theory class I’m offering this term. Since the class was working on just one text this week I thought it would hardly matter if I cancelled just once; I also thought, however, that the students should have the option of coming with me to the Drama Centre. After all, I’d be speaking on a subject – feminist performance theory – directly related to our work in the class. And I’d be doing it in the very room where I took Performance Theory myself 15 years ago.

A full afternoon’s field trip is a big commitment, and some of the students in the class did not feel comfortable missing other classes for an outing that was not, strictly speaking, required. But Jonas and Sarah were game, and I’m glad they came. Not only did they have the chance to sit at the long seminar table with a group of Master’s and PhD students and faculty, listening to both talks on the agenda and to the wide variety of questions posed during the Q&A, but they were also able to observe how other participants were behaving in this semi-formal academic environment. Knowing that they would be attending along with upper-level students, I prepared my talk with a heterogenous audience in mind; the excellent senior PhD student who presented alongside me, meanwhile, gave an exceptionally clear presentation that inspired both Sarah and Jonas in its style as well as its content. On the way home we talked about it, as well as about the techniques of other teachers they’d had who were especially good at sharing complex information with a student audience. From their feedback, as well as from my fellow presenter’s clear style, I learned a great deal myself from today’s experience.

Leaving campus is like skiing off-piste: you’re in uncharted territory, even when you sort of know where you’re going, and you need to be ready for unexpected stuff to happen and, when it does, to adapt and regroup. That’s a bit nerve-wracking, of course, but it’s also refreshing and freeing. Thanks to having my students at my side I learned more from both Nuit Blanche and today’s colloquium than I would have done alone; they noticed things I might not have otherwise noticed, and thanks to my reactions to their reactions they thought harder and longer about stuff they might otherwise not have stopped to reflect upon. For all of us, then, a win-win.

Glad to be home safe,

Kim

It’s the ‘Blue Sky’ Raffle!

Activist Classroom friends: what follows is a slight deviation from our regularly scheduled programming. I hope you’ll forgive me for using this forum for a slightly unorthodox purpose; the cause is a good one. Back to thinking about teaching in our next post!

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Well, we did it: this past weekend, my husband Jarret and I each rode 271 miles from London to Paris, straight through, without sleep. We did not get on the rescue bus. We did not keel over. We made it in 24 hours and 18 minutes: pretty damn respectable.

And now it’s time to celebrate.

We began this journey last September as a test of our own strength and endurance, but along the way we have managed to raise over £2000 for Scope UK, a charity that supports men, women, children and families with disabilities here in the United Kingdom (and beyond). Now that the race is over, we are making one final fundraising push – thanks to my colleague, the talented Canadian painter and multimedia artist Sky Glabush.

Sky has generously donated this piece of his most recent work to support our cause.

Sky collage

It’s a collage that, in its subtle colouring and palimpsestic quality, captures for me an aspect of the building, layering, and shaping work that has been a huge part of our journey over this past year of training and preparation. At its centre is a silver vessel – sleek, strong, a beautiful, powerful body. I find it a fitting tribute to the experience we’ve been privileged to have as we’ve prepared for, and now met, the incredible physical and emotional challenge of this ride.

Sky is an important young member of the burgeoning Canadian art world, and this collage is valued at CDN$1400 (about £900). In the spirit of Scope’s mission, though, we have decided to make it as accessible as possible: we’re holding a raffle to find it a good home.

£10 buys a chance to win the collage; £15 buys two ; £20 buys three. If you’d like to participate in the raffle, here’s what to do:

  • go to our fundraising page at Virgin Money Giving here;
  • enter for donation one of the amounts above (or, if you prefer, a multiple of that amount for double the chances);
  • to ensure fair play, please include your name in the donation or in the donation message (we can’t verify the number of chances you’ve bought if you make your donation anonymous);
  • once you’ve donated, e-mail me privately using the contact form on the “about” page of my blog with your name and a contact email address or phone number (remember: it’s totally cool to buy chances for friends, for family, or for others! If you do, please let me in on the secret in your email);
  • before too long, you’ll receive a confirmation email from me. Once you’ve got that, you’re done. Except, of course, for the finger-crossing!

The ‘Blue Sky’ raffle will remain open until 1 September 2013or until we’ve reached a minimum target of £450 in chances purchased. (We want to honour and respect Sky’s labour in creating this piece of work and his generosity in donating it to us; hence the minimum target.) I’ll offer periodic updates on the blog about how we’re doing; meanwhile, I’d be enormously grateful if readers could pass this post to friends, colleagues, and, especially, to students who you think might really like this piece of work for their own. It’s our hope that someone who could not afford to buy a piece of Sky’s work on his or her own, but who would be tremendously inspired by it, will end up our winner.

With thanks for your indulgence, and for your support,

Kim