From Theatre Topics 31.1, March 2021
by Noe Montez
As you read this essay, COVID-19 has impacted theatre and higher education across the globe for over a year. For many of us working in the arts and in higher education, we remember and long for the experiences we miss—interacting with our students in the live classroom, making and seeing theatre, gathering at conferences in fellowship with our colleagues in order to imagine better worlds. For many faculty of color, the pandemic became one more calamity that demanded attention from ourselves and our BIPOC students who were already injured by racism and white supremacy made legible through the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Manuel Ellis, and so many others killed and harmed by police violence. Many of our faculty have begun to examine their responsibility to their communities as academics, artists, and activists.
But amid crisis and a longing for personal connection, I also see how many of us are collaborating in ways that augur hope for the field's future. I have learned greatly from the social media groups pooling resources and strategies about teaching live performance and embodiment through online learning and the collective efforts to connect scholars to one another through digital lectures and open access to academic journals, as well as through virtual conferences that allow us all the opportunity to take in more sessions and see more work than we might have otherwise been able to access in live spaces. This is not to ignore the fact that the labor of teaching and staging work has grown more time-intensive as we navigate our hybrid classrooms and Zoom performances. We must also make greater efforts to ensure that students feel our care as they navigate precarious situations in their homes. This happens at a time when universities are eliminating theatre and performing arts programs across the country in the name of COVID-19–related austerity. There is still so much to do to ensure our collective survival as a discipline, but I hope that reading this issue of Theatre Topics can remind us why we do the work that we do and offer sustenance in the difficult times ahead.
As usual, our first issue of the year highlights moments from the previous year's ATHE conference, raising awareness of some of the themes and ideas that took place during our gathering. Although we could not congregate together in Detroit, several hundred of us convened in virtual space to share research and new practices. The conference theme, "Drive," invited theatre academics to "consider how various technologies—theatrical, automotive, political—work to keep our work going, keep our field driving (somewhere)." Vice President for Conferences CarlosAlexis Cruz and his conference committee scrambled to innovate the conference by creating space for sessions that featured techniques for moving classes and productions online. Additionally, BIPOC faculty insisted on sessions where ATHE could grapple with the racism and white supremacy that continues to make itself legible across the United States, theatre and performance studies, and the organization itself.
The first three essays in this issue draw from the conference proceedings, beginning with President Josh Abrams comments on the state of the organization. This address speaks to the uncertainty surrounding higher education throughout the year, while inviting us to expand "our pedagogy to incorporate new forms, modes, and globally distant collaborations" (2). At the same time, he commits the organization to expanding diverse leadership and to change the organizational bylaws in order to redress the organization's previous harms to Black and Brown peoples.
In a similar spirit of introspection and organizational reflection, CarlosAlexis Cruz reflects on the myriad changes to the conference that occurred over the spring and summer of 2020. He discusses his feelings about transitioning the conference from an in-person event to an online convening, while maintaining the presence of our original site of Detroit. Additionally, Cruz speaks candidly about collaborations with the Black Theatre Association (BTA) and the formation of an ad hoc subcommittee, giving recognition to their work planning plenaries and concurrent sessions addressing systemic racism.
The online component of the journal will feature videos featuring highlights from several of the organization's focus groups, including Black Theatre Association, Dramaturgy, LGBTQ, and Performance Studies, as well as Playwrights and Creative Teams. You can find these videos on the journal's webpage: https://www.jhuptheatre.org/theatre-topics. But the print issue highlights the work of the newly formed Middle Eastern Theatre focus group, which had its first conference in 2020. The group created several robust and generative sessions, but this issue highlights their roundtable discussion, "Pedagogy and Absence," which centered around the intricacies associated with promoting the visibility and dissemination of scholarly and artistic works produced by MENA artists, educators, and scholars operating in an academic setting. Several focus group members share their professional and personal experiences in addition to thoughts on decolonizing syllabi and countering the stereotypes attached to Middle Eastern identity.
Our content beyond the 2020 conference materials offers three essays and a note from the field that address academic conference travel, project-management systems, structural racism on Broadway and regional theatre stages, and intimate, site-specific performances that will resonate in the current moment. Meredith Conti reflects on a year of conducting professional travel without flight in her essay "Slow Academic Travel: An Antidote to 'Fly Over' Scholarship in the Age of Climate Crisis." It offers a vision into a world where travel without flight might offer scholars an opportunity to use slow travel as an act of resistance against neoliberal models of productivity, and as a way that some scholars may be able to reduce their carbon footprint. One reviewer of this essay noted that Conti is prophetic in the ways that she understands the inextricable connections among the global pandemic, our climate emergency, and our individual behavior.
E.B. Hunter introduces readers to the Agile Research Studio (ARS), a system used by STEM research labs to train students in the planning and execution of complex projects in her essay "Structuring Courses with Agile Research Studio: Five Components and Four Pedagogical Values." ARS becomes a way of approaching project-based, research-oriented theatre history seminars by adapting the research lab in order to cultivate broadly relevant pedagogical values: effective planning, robust community, marketable skills, and the equitable distribution of labor. The essay is accompanied by several resources as addenda, including sample syllabi, templates, and a process guide for forming student groups. It gains a particular pertinence in the post–COVID-19 world as faculty throughout the country grapple with ways in which to revise their courses for digital frames, while still maintaining focus on community building and communication.
Finally, Julio Agustin exposes systemic racism toward Latinx people in musical theatre productions from regional stages to Broadway, drawing on his experiences as well as others in "From Mu-Cha-Cha to Ay-Ay-Ay! A Critical Explication of the Use of 'Latin' Dance Styles and the Absence of Latinx Creatives in the Broadway Musical." Agustin begins by exploring Broadway's incorporation of Latin American dance styles from the Golden Age of the Broadway musical to recent productions. He notes the ways in which Latin American dance forms are appropriated, while the choreographers and consultants who introduce such work to predominantly white audiences are often marginalized or rendered invisible. From there, he turns to his own experiences as a dancer to explore how microaggressions and a lack of cultural competency reinforce white supremacist practices.
In the Note from the Field section of the journal, director Craig Quintero introduces the "Performance for an Audience of One" assignment that he uses in his Advanced Performance class at Grinnell College. He assesses the project in order to explain how it delivers the expected outcomes of a liberal arts education by empowering students to write, design, direct, and perform their own short site-specific performance pieces. The note offers a detailed look at the ways that Quintero guides his students to examine performer/audience relationships, and provides some remarkable examples of the work that his students create that I hope will inspire other instructors to take up similar work.
I am ever grateful to the team of collaborators who help to make Theatre Topics a space where we can share new pedagogical practices and reflections on what it means to make theatre together. Thanks to John Fletcher, who is currently hard at work on a special issue of the journal titled "Essentials," which seeks to explore ideas, practice, and values that seem especially true or necessary in the current moment. Please watch for that issue to arrive in July. Additionally, John and I have worked to bring several new scholars into the Theatre Topics fold as members of our editorial board. I would like to welcome Michelle Liu Carriger, La Donna Forsgren, Kareem Khubchandani, Patrick McKelvey, Lisa Jackson Schebetta, Margaret Werry, and Isaiah Matthew Wooden onto our team. Margarita Laera continues her tireless labor to bring additional material to our readers freely and accessibly through the journal's webpage. Jessica Del Vecchio scours catalogs from presses across the globe in order to curate book reviews that speak to the heart of the journal's mission. Managing editor Bob Kowkabany works to ensure that our accepted essays are thoroughly copyedited and properly set for print. Our editorial assistants Mia Levenson, Katie Morris, and Jessica Pearson-Bleyer read essays, offer feedback, search for external reviewers, and review page proofs. We are grateful to Louisiana State University and Tufts University for their support in hiring these assistants. Thanks are also warranted to ATHE Vice President for Research and Publications, Christin Essin, and to the external reviewers who diligently volunteer their time and expertise to read on behalf of the journal. If you have questions, suggestions, or comments you may contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please enjoy the issue.