On theatre & feminism!

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…

On writing “properly” – in the academy, and also in life

It’s term paper time: cue panic! As one of my students in History of Performance Theory told me earlier this week: “I am stressed to my core!” Enough said.

This year, term paper time coincides for me with a host of seemingly unconnected events that have me thinking anew about the old saw of a question, “what is good academic writing, anyway?” First, the eminently sensible and always provocative Melonie Fullick, regular contributor to University Affairsweighed in on the politics of academic style and the erroneous argument (much repeated) that all uni profs write indecipherable, useless theory-speak. Then, my friend and colleague (and soon to be guest-post author!) Kat Low told me about the most recent issue of Contemporary Theatre Review, edited by Joanne Tompkins and Maria Delgado, which focuses on the labour, the value, and the challenges of academic editing – an area of our jobs that is so, so important and yet receives far too little credit and attention. Finally, my performance theory students and I read the heartfelt preface to Diana Taylor’s landmark 2003 book, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, and spent half an hour “appreciating the text” (more on that later). During that class, I realised what I’d long suspected: that the most creative, most intimate, most personal academic writing is also the stuff that resonates most clearly, sticks with us, influences us, makes the most sense, and means the most to us. So why don’t we write more of it?

I have a personal history with the battle over “proper” academic writing, and the longstanding anxiety that the personal has no place in it. I was fortunate to arrive in graduate school with a superb education in reading and writing: I took my primary and secondary schooling in Alberta, in Western Canada, where I received intensive training in the rules of English and French grammar; I progressed through the International Baccalaureate program during high school, learning not just to love literature but to write creatively (in fact, my IB extended essay was a series of short stories); and I wrote constantly during my first university degree, where I both unlearned some bad, earlier habits and became comfortable with critical theory as well as secondary research in literary criticism. In all of this I am privileged in ways that many of my own students today are not. But this eclectic background has also meant that I rarely feel compelled toward the kind of formal, proper, academic prose that I have long been told I “should” produce. Instead, I prefer to write creatively, even at times performatively; as often as possible I get personal in my academic essays, spelling out what is at stake for me and why. (A recent example I’m quite proud of, about the superb Theatre Replacement show BIOBOXES, is here.)

But I’ve run into some trouble with my urge toward personal, creative, “crossover” writing. That same essay I link to above went through multiple drafts and a number of different peer reviews, some of which were furious, even vindictive; one anonymous reader was enraged I should dare to be so personal in an essay that was not “about me” but about the show, and about the ethnic minority subjects that comprised it. Another accused me of sounding racist – in a moment in the paper when I was trying to come to grips with a difficult, but honest, reaction of my own to the performance I had attended. In both cases, as in many others I could cite from my own and colleagues’ writing histories, I was being challenged, even attacked, for daring to insert my own human fallibility, vulnerability, and culpability into writing for an academic audience.

I know well this challenge: my students remind me of it every time they approach me, tentatively, and ask me if it’s ok for them to use the pronoun “I” in their essays. Of course students learning to write formal essays often need to be trained out of the habit of defaulting to their own personal, anecdotal experiences as “evidence” for their arguments – our worlds are so much bigger than the boundaries of our bodies, and it can be hard, but essential, for young scholars to develop the skill of looking outward with compassion and some objectivity. But I’m a strong proponent of nevertheless returning to ourselves, in order to understand how the things we explore in our writing impact us personally. Which means I always tells my students that yes, they absolutely may use “I” in their papers, and their personal experiences too – just as long as they also consider the perspectives and evidence of others alongside their own. And as a reader of manuscripts for academic journals and presses I take the same approach, lauding colleagues whenever I can for taking the risk of being personal and professional at the same time.

Being personal as well as professional; regarding the two as interlinked: women know this is a constant challenge, burden, and privilege, one in which feminist movements have been invested for decades. There is ample research demonstrating the difficulties women face in academic professions as they attempt to balance personal responsibilities with professional expectations (curious? Look here), and my own experience of trying to be myself – a flawed woman scholar, warts and all – in print has suggested to me that the harsh backlash that accompanies “personal” academic writing can often be gendered. It’s true that outstanding women scholars are among those who have paved the way for many of us interested in creative academic non-fiction (I’ll name my favourite two here – Jill Dolan and Peggy Phelan – though I could name many others), but on balance it’s harder for women – in the world at large, let alone at university! – to express opinions based on personal, gendered experience and be understood to be sharing sincere evidence about what it means to navigate a human life. By way of contrast, I recently peer-reviewed an article for publication by a much-admired male scholar that contained an extensive, arguably excessive, amount of personal detail, some of it quite sexist; in my review I supported the author’s desire to be personal while resisting some of the assumptions the article made, but I privately noted the tone of secure authority with which the author reproduced his experience as proof of a much broader worldview. Time and again, male scholars have regarded their “personal” and the “professional” as coeval; no wonder women who dare to tread this ground, even today, fear being rebuffed!

So what can we do, those of us who value creative academic prose, to further encourage the expansion of “good” academic writing? I’d say we need to listen more carefully to our students! When my performance theory class and I looked together at Diana Taylor’s preface to The Archive and the Repertoire, we tackled the text with an exercise in “appreciating”: I asked them if there were moments in the piece that they had found surprising, or even inspiring; I invited them to highlight those moments and then reflect on them, in writing, for two minutes. (Write about the thing you think for two minutes: this is a favourite free-writing exercise of mine in all of my classes. Conversation is much easier as a result!) Afterward, I asked them if they would describe their chosen passages as “good” academic writing, and why or why not? They reflected for a further minute on paper, and then we shared our thoughts. Their choices were eclectic: from the fanciful to the relatively theoretical, but of a piece they were moved by the combination of a personal tone and a genuinely provocative argument. And they generally agreed that their choices might not be considered “good” writing by the powers that tend to judge these things, but perhaps they really ought to be. Because they had been moved to imagine, to grapple with, even to cherish, Taylor’s points as a result, rather than to throw their books against the wall in frustration. Surely that’s a win for us all.


Write on!