From Issue 29.1, March 2019

by Lisa Brenner

As an official journal of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, Theatre Topics traditionally inaugurates the first issue of the year with documentation from the previous ATHE conference. Boston’s complex history of revolutions (both marked [the Boston Tea Party] and unmarked [the Wampanoag uprising]) inspired the conference’s theme, “Theatres of Revolution: Performance, Pedagogy, and Protest.” As we had just published our special issue on Theatre and Protest, the conference felt like an exciting continuation of the many questions raised by our contributors: What makes theatricality a particularly effective as a form of protest? How can and should theatre respond to an increasingly polarized society? How can we call attention to events that often go unrecognized? How can we convert theoretical ideas into action, both in and outside our institutions?

In my introduction to that special issue, I expressed the waves of hope and despair that I sensed many of us find ourselves riding. It was therefore both heartbreaking and emboldening to hear the joint keynote address of Quiara Alegría Hudes and her sister Gabriela Serena Sanchez. In vivid and personal language, they speak openly about discrimination, in both theatre and life, and the sheer exhaustion of having to continually navigate such events. I feel immensely honored to publish their address and hope that their words invoke critical conversations in the theatre community. In that spirit, Theatre Topics’ editorial team invited Martine Kei Green-Rogers, president of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas; Shawn LaCount, artistic director, Company One Theatre, Boston; Patricia Ybarra, former president of ATHE; and Harvey Young, ATHE’s current president to write responses to the address. Both the keynote and the responses can be found on our online edition of this issue. There, we also provide Bethany Hughes’s depiction of one of the conference outings in “Guesting on Indigenous Land: Plimoth Plantation, Land Acknowledgment, and Decolonial Praxis,” as well as Monica White Ndounou and Nicole Hodges Persley’s “Stepping Up: Reflections on the ATHE 2018 Plenary and Pedagogy Clinic,” which provides valuable guidance in addressing some of the challenges raised in the keynote.

While I was working on this issue, the theatre universe coincidently put in me in contact with both Quiara and Gabriela—concurrently, yet independently. I co-teach a community-based theatre class in which my Drew University students mentor high school students from Newark, New Jersey. In the spring of 2018, we took both sets of students to see Miss You Like Hell, a new musical by Hudes at the Public Theater, which charts the journey of an undocumented mother and her daughter. Several of us (including myself, who had brought my own daughter) were affected by the show, but one student seemed particularly moved. Cristina Martinez, who has undocumented family members herself, was amazed to see this story come to light, and to see Latina women who were strong, vulnerable, funny, smart, sexy, and scared. After returning to campus, she framed her ticket.

In fall 2018, Cristina directed Hudes’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Water by the Spoonful. During our department debrief of the production, I shared an excerpt from the keynote address, because I felt it important to turn Hudes’s questions on ourselves:

Does your mainstage season, syllabus, and/or curriculum reinforce dominant cultural values, and in particular, appearance-based and presentation-based casting hierarchies? Do looks, class markers, accents, and presentation afford students more or less cachet when it comes to casting departmental productions? Are students paying thousands of dollars to learn and replicate upper-class market structures? Are departmental seasons modeling theatre for wealthy ticket buyers? Are there abundant opportunities for students to center themselves, and the department, in different values and aesthetic systems? (7) 

Although I am proud that we produced this show, by no means do I feel that we have adequately addressed these questions. I am also mindful that answering Hudes’s revolutionary call is not a one-time event, but a commitment to enter into a state of vigilance. Nonetheless, I also believe it is important to mark the small ripples in the water as well as the waves. I therefore wanted to bring the interaction full circle by asking Cristina if she would like to say a few words about what Hudes’s work has meant to her, which I share here with her consent:

When I found out I would be directing Water by the Spoonful my senior year of college it felt like a victory. I had spent what felt like millions of years (but was actually three years) advocating to see Latinx characters on the maqinstage—wanting so bad to see characters who looked like me. I remember when I was introduced to the play by my mentor Rodney Gilbert, a black professor who had directed our department’s first mainstage production by a black playwright. Everyone in my class expected me to read it immediately, because, after all, this was the type of play I had been pushing for. But I didn’t read it right away, because I didn’t think I could handle the possibility of disappointment. What if I didn’t like it? Would I then be a hypocrite? The pressure to always be fighting for inclusion seemed to dictate the kind of theatre I should enjoy. If I didn’t fall in love with Water by the Spoonful, others would use my feelings to justify their own and disregard the work. I needed time to prepare myself.

When I finally read Water by the Spoonful I couldn’t put it down. I read it again, and again, because when you find a character who reflects you it’s magical. Yaz was like me! I related to her struggle with her identity. I could barely afford my tuition, and my family didn’t understand why I wanted to go to college so far from home. I had worried that the play would portray tired stereotypes of Latinx characters, but what I got instead was a reflection of myself and my family back in Los Angeles. I held onto Water by the Spoonful as proof! Proof to my mother that her Latina daughter from South Central LA could follow in the footsteps of another Latina woman, Quiara Alegría Hudes, and succeed in theatre. Working on Water by the Spoonful, all I could think was, “We are standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Cristina and my other Latinx students were very much on my mind when I met Gabriela Serena Sanchez—the same month that I saw Miss You Like Hell. My work with my community-based theatre class also brought me to a conference at Villanova University. As a panelist, Sanchez spoke about her Philadelphia-based theatre company, Power Street Theatre. She was insightful, truthful, and personable, and when we were asked to choose a follow-up workshop, my colleagues and I quickly joined Sanchez’s. I have been teaching for nearly twenty years, but her workshop gave me new pedagogic strategies, including an exercise that I later successfully integrated into my Women and Theatre course. I am therefore especially pleased to publish the entire keynote featuring both speakers. While Sanchez may be the less well-known of the duo, as she discusses in her address, wisdom occurs at many ages and stages. In the introduction to our special issue on Theatre and Protest, I reflected that to rebel, one must feel a sense of anger at the injustice at hand, be able to overcome fear, and have a sense of hope and a vision for the future. While Sanchez certainly expresses anger at injustice, she also embodies that hope and vision for the future.

Although this issue is not theme-based, in keeping with the keynote address, the pieces all highlight unrecognized populations—be they types of audiences, students, teachers, characters, or performers—and/or expose the implicit biases within the theatre as to whose work is most regarded. (Perhaps this is a mere coincidence, yet I feel compelled to note that all of the authors for this print edition are women.) Lindsay Brandon Hunter’s “‘We are Not Making a Movie’: Constituting Theatre in Live Broadcast,” for instance, examines live broadcasts of theatre productions, such as National Theatre Live, to demonstrate how they function didactically, teaching global audiences about theatre’s defining qualities. If digital translations can be “read as evidence of the affinities, priorities, and expectations attached to theatre and its reception,” she argues, they therefore “reveal themselves as quite potent in their power to propagate, inflect, and shape those same priorities and expectations. That includes wielding significant power to suggest who should do theatre and what is worth watching” (24). While Hunter finds that digital translations of theatre function to preserve conservative forms and content, she also suggests that they might “offer a means by which theatre’s constitutive practices might be re-defined as well as enshrined” (ibid.).

In “Listening to the Girls of Generation Z: Using Ethnographic Dramaturgy in Laura Schellhardt’s Digging Up Dessa,” dramaturg Grace Kessler Overbeke shares the process of creating a Theatre for Young Audiences’ play about a budding female scientist fighting systemic bias. Overbeke and playwright Laura Schellhardt utilized several ethnographic tools to ensure that their piece not only spoke to girls today, especially young females of color, but reflected their lived experiences. In Overbeke’s assessment, this process “resulted in a representation of girlhood characterized by a fierce desire to contest dominant ideologies not only of gender, race, and class, but also of vocation and virtuosity” (30).

In a similar spirit of process sharing, Aotearoa/New Zealand scholar and director Nicola Hyland describes her Hip Hopera version of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in “‘Tagging’ over Thomas: Embodying Aotearoa in Under Milk Wood.” More than a reinterpretation of Thomas’s Welsh text, Hyland’s production serves as an embodiment of postcolonial counter-discourse. The essay argues “that the stylistic changes made to the play operated as an intertextual ‘tagging’ over the host text, with expressions from a contemporary, youthful, predominantly Māori and Pasifika (Pacific Island New Zealander) worldview” (44). Hyland’s contribution strengthens our ongoing inclusion of international authors and the potential for intercultural discourse.

Our Notes from the Field section offers personal reflections on two often disregarded communities. In “Normalizing Disruption: Advocating for Reproductive Health in Academia,” authors Adanma Onyedike Barton, Meredith Conti, Kristi Good, and Ariel Nereson break silence regarding reproductive trauma while studying or working in academia. Their contributions not only continue conversations initiated at the 2018 ATHE conference (including “Care in the Academy: Revolutionizing Our Experiences and Access” convened by Janet Werther) and in recent articles like “Pack and Play: Theatre Parents Find Strength in Numbers” (published in American Theatre), but they call attention to the particular struggle of theatre artists/scholars in the academy who miscarry, experience birth complications, and/or face postpartum difficulties. Their note provides concrete action steps, as does Linda Lau and Rachel Mansfield’s “Waves of Opportunity: Best Practices for Working with Older Adults in Theatre,” which reveals the challenges and rewards of teaching theatre to senior citizens—a demographic that often remains invisible despite their collective wisdom and desire for lifelong learning.

This volume year brings the addition of Margherita Laera as our new online editor. Margherita hit the ground running by curating and editing all of the online materials outlined above. Her enthusiasm, professionalism, and rigor inspire us all as we expand our offerings to our readership. I would also like to acknowledge my coeditor Noe Montez, who is ever thoughtful, intentional, and insightful, and to welcome back editorial assistant Jessica Pearson and welcome anew Stephanie Engel. Editing this journal is certainly a team effort, and I am ever grateful for the comradery of the Theatre Journal team—editor Jen Parker-Starbuck and coeditor E.J. Westlake—and to D.J. Hopkins, Vice President, Research and Publications, of ATHE for facilitating this alliance, as well as the managing editor of both journals, Bob Kowkabany. This particular issue would not have come to fruition without the immense work of the 2018 ATHE conference committee, especially the Vice President, Conference 2018, Ann Shanahan, who helped coordinate the publication of the keynote address. Finally, my appreciation to all of our authors for their passionate and much-needed voices and to our board and external reviewers, who ensure the high-quality work of which we are proud to deliver. And to you, our readers, who I hope will respond to the breaking of silence in these texts with your own voices, discussions, artistic creations, and visions of revolution.