On Tuesday afternoon I collected a courier package – from my Dean’s office, of all places! It contained, to my surprise and delight, an advance copy of my new book, Theatre & Feminism, which is published on 13 November in the U.K. and 27 November in North America.
Part of Palgrave MacMillan’s Theatre & series, established and still edited by my friends and colleagues Jen Harvie and Dan Rebellato, this book introduces students to some of the core concepts in feminist performance theory, one of the major strands of critical practice in theatre and performance studies since the 1970s.
I can’t tell you how honoured I am to be the author of this volume. The incredible scholars whose work I survey here (including Jill Dolan, Elin Diamond, Elaine Aston, Peggy Phelan, and many more) have been inspirations for me, in both my research and my teaching, for more than two decades now. The extraordinary theatre and performance I explore as part of the book’s four case studies (including Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show, Carrie Cracknell’s production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein‘s How to Become a Cupcake, and Peggy Shaw’s Ruff) confirm that amazing feminist ass-kicking work is alive, well, and thriving all over the place. And the series’ commitment to accessibility, readability, and affordability (the book retails for GBP6.99/USD11) means it truly can impact a new generation of readers, teachers, and scholars.
I’d love for the book to be free – I’d happily give up my advance and royalties if that could be the case! – but in lieu, here below I’ve excerpted the introductory pages, which I hope will tempt you into reading further, and asking your school library to order a copy too.
From Theatre & Feminism, by Kim Solga (London: Palgrave: 2015), pp 1-4
Theatre & Feminism tells the story of the movement known as feminist performance theory and criticism, the lens through which scholars understand theatre and performance practices that take gender difference, and gendered experience, as their primary social and political focus. This story, then, is about women and theatre, women at the theatre and women in and of the theatre; but it is also more than that. Above all, it is about how feminist theatre theory and practice allows us to understand the way all gender is constructed and reinforced in performance, for better and for worse, and for all human beings on the planet – be they men, women, transpersons or others. “Feminism” remains a contentious term (more on that in a moment), but for me it is the best and most accurate term to use when thinking about gendered experience from a human rights perspective. Any human being worried about discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation will have some affinity with the term, whether or not they realize it; similarly, this book aims to demonstrate the many ways that feminist scholars and makers of theatre and performance have enabled, and continue to enable, productive discussions about women’s (and others’) experiences of gender, sexuality, political power and human rights, both on and off the stage.
My version of this story begins in 2005. That August, Jill Dolan – one of my mentors, and the author of the pioneering 1988 book The Feminist Spectator as Critic – began writing her popular blog, The Feminist Spectator. I spent the spring of that year working on my postdoctoral research with Jill in the Performance as a Public Practice programme at the University of Texas, Austin. The lessons of her feminist practice – as a scholar, a teacher and a spectator to the many shows we watched together – stayed with me after I returned to Canada, thickening and re-politicizing my own feminist archive and shaping the way I tackled my first academic job. Thanks to Jill’s revitalization of the “Feminist Spectator” brand on her blog, 2005 became indelibly linked in my imagination with its origins in her 1988 book, and the connection prompted me to think about the trajectory feminist performance theory and criticism had taken over the intervening 17 years. Was the movement that had so fully shaped my own research, teaching, theatrical tastes and political imagination now properly “history”? If it was “history” and yet remained urgently relevant to me, what was different about it today, and what had not changed? Given Dolan’s deliberate choice to turn her acclaimed book into a blog directed at a public audience, could we argue that feminist performance criticism, like so much contemporary feminism, had gone “mainstream,” become the norm or status quo rather than a movement pushing in from the margins? If that was indeed the case, why should we still keep talking about it?
These are the questions that have framed my engagement with feminist performance scholarship over the last few years, and that remind me never to take the value and impact of my commitment to feminist critique for granted. The research questions that drive this book embed these questions, but also extend them. First, I ask: what did feminist performance theory and criticism aim to achieve when it broke onto the critical scene in the 1970s and 1980s, and how did it go about the task? What critical strategies in use then are still in use now, and what new critical strategies have feminist scholars and makers of theatre and performance adopted, and adapted, as the political landscape has shifted between then and now? Second, I ask: why is this form of criticism still important – indeed, to my mind, still vital – for students, scholars and makers of theatre today? How have shifts over time in the popular meaning of the label “feminist” affected the ways we might perceive theatre and performance work that openly identifies as such – or that refuses to identify as such? How might fresh work by feminist scholars and makers today help us to understand the limitations, even the dangers, of imagining that we now live in a “post-feminist” age?
The bulk of this book is devoted to exploring the history of feminist performance theory and criticism alongside its lively contemporary afterlife. In three main sections I examine three central frameworks that feminist scholars and makers have used to unpack the way gendered experiences are both represented on stage and also manufactured in performance in order to seem “given” or “natural” both on stage and in the world outside the theatre. Each section – “looking/watching/spectating”; “being versus acting”; and “hope and loss” – discusses influential theoretical texts, engages with critical debates, and features a very recent case study that demonstrates how the strategies discussed in the section can be applied to work being made and shown in theatres right now. In my conclusion I look at recent work by Peggy Shaw – arguably the most influential Anglophone feminist performer of the late twentieth century – in order to think about what happens to the feminist performance body (the body of the artist as well as the body of the critic) as we all get older in a world where women over a certain age (sadly, about 40) remain pitifully under-represented in public life and especially invisible in Hollywood and on Broadway. Before we reach the shores of these histories, however, I want to spend some time addressing my second research question, and with it those readers who might wonder if “feminism” itself ought not, by now, be history…