From Theatre Topics 30.3
By John Fletcher
Every issue of Theatre Topics is a time capsule. We write today, guessing what tomorrow's readers might need. No author for this issue, however, could have predicted how abruptly and drastically our lives would change between February and November of 2020. Theatre Topics volume 30, number 3 is the last issue featuring work from The Time Before.
The authors you read here wrote in blissful ignorance of the global pandemic. Submitting their work for the long process of review and revision in late 2019 or early 2020, they knew nothing of lockdowns, social distancing, masking, and the pervasive anxiety-boredom that defines COVID life. Although police violence against BIPOC individuals is a longstanding outrage, none of the writers for this volume could have foreseen how the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and others would provoke a broad wave of protests hammering home the truth still not fully realized: Black Lives Matter. Finally, all the essays and notes contained here capture a view from a time when live theatre was possible, commonplace, and perhaps even taken for granted.
We don't know, even as I write this, how the crises we are facing thus far will resolve—or if they will. The next issue (volume 31, number 1) will be the first one written from the middle of COVID. Following that, we have a Call for Papers for a special issue on "Essentials." In those issues, we will grapple together with this unprecedented moment in our field and in our world. What can we preserve? What new possibilities can we realize? What do we put away forever? These are questions for us all as teachers, artists, scholars, and people. For now, however, I invite you to read these offerings from 2020 BCE (Before the Covid Era).
Conrad Alexandrowicz's provocation reminds us that, even as the acute catastrophe of the pandemic shakes us, our world's chronic climate crisis continues. I am caught by Alexandrowicz's desire to listen and respond to our students' "climate grief"—the stress and dismay they feel at adapting to the consequences of their predecessors' complacency and pride. He reaches out and reaches back, brainstorming ways to transform grief into action. Theatre, Alexandrowicz insists, can help students and us to join in the constant labor of resisting extinction.
David Eshelman relates a production that resists historical erasure. The musical he and his collaborators create aligns with the present moment's call to reevaluate our local and national histories in light of larger struggles against white supremacy. Eshelman goes further, however, sharing the techniques he incorporated as playwright to ensure that the play does not simply re-inscribe white people as the central characters of American history. The complexity and ambiguity he introduces into the script interrupts white audiences' tendency to see themselves as the main heroes of antiracism.
In "State of Play: Theatre Education at a Crossroads," Jodi Kanter reflects on the ambiguities and complexities that her students unearth in another's play. Excited at the chance to produce edgy work by an established playwright, Kanter is at first taken aback when her students call out numerous problems with the script's portrayal of race-based comedy. Kanter listens to her students. By approaching their concerns with curiosity and understanding, she models an admirably collaborative pedagogical and theatrical relationship. After hearing her students, Kanter decides to cancel the planned production. In a time when we ache to see live theatre, the notion of not producing a show might seem frustrating. But Kanter's careful analysis helps us to see how important it is not to place the opportunities we perceive higher than the values we hold.
If Eshelman and Kanter help us to see the virtue of restraint, Sissi Liu's essay gives us a lens for analyzing joyous, tactical excess. Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music represents one of the most daring and original theatrical offerings of the last ten years. Liu's theory of "designturgy" contributes to the ongoing critical conversation about Mac's work as well as to larger discussions about postdramatic theatre. Her analysis of costume designturg Machine Dazzle's outfits—playful, naughty, sophisticated, campy—open a new avenue for appreciating Mac's queered historiographic dramaturgy. Just looking at the photos of the brilliantly phantasmagoric costumes makes me eager to see what costumes Mac and Machine Dazzle might add for 2020.
One of the things I love most about Theatre Topics is our "Notes from the Field," section, where colleagues share briefer tips, challenges, encouragements—and occasionally warnings. Jaclynn Jutting's piece about directing pedagogy perfectly models this form. She takes a situation that at first seems like a failure—her directing students remain non-inclusive in their casting—and leans into it. The best practices she relates reinforce the lesson she gleans from the experience: inclusivity and antiracism in our practice cannot merely be a single lesson or a single class; battling systemic inequities requires us to alter our "normal" way of doing things beyond the classroom.
Shawna Mefferd Kelty embraces the overturning of norms in her piece about teaching theatre history. Stressing to her students that history operates not merely as discovery but as production, she equips students with the research tools to realize their own original historiographic productions via a podcast. Prepping for classes during COVID can sometimes feel like an endless crash-course in the latest media technology. Mefferd Kelty reminds us, however, that such tools are not pandemic-only adaptations, but are the preferred mode of historical access and transmission in 2020 and beyond. As news becomes history at ever-higher velocities, it behooves us all to equip students with the ability to create historiographically as well as theatrically.
We end the issue with a pair of notes that reflect the sea change our field has experienced (was experiencing) about onstage intimacy. Intimacy choreography is one of those ideas that seems so obvious that it is easy to forget how unstructured and slapdash most onstage and rehearsal practices of intimacy were until recently. Hadley Kamminga-Peck introduces the work of Theatrical Intimacy Education (TIE), one of the first and most influential intimacy-training associations. Through her interview with TIE founders Chelsea Pace and Laura Rikard, Kamminga-Peck nicely distills the what/why/how of this vital movement. This would be an excellent piece to share in undergraduate acting and directing classes. Elaine DiFalco Daugherty, Deborah Hertzberg, and Darrell Wagner complement Kamminga-Peck's offering with an exploration of the design-tech side of intimacy. Through their cogent, detailed instructions to costume designers and dressers, Daugherty and coauthors demonstrate how to incorporate the ethos that TIE models into all parts of the production process.
I found the intimacy-related pieces so compelling that, this past February, I decided that "Intimacy" would be the theme for my first special issue in 2021. Subsequent events, however, moved me to switch to a different focus: "Essentials." I look forward to receiving short pieces from readers about what you have discovered to be essential about theatre, scholarship, and teaching in this difficult time.
My thanks to Theatre Topics Editor Noe Montez, ATHE Vice President for Research and Publications D.J. Hopkins, Online Editor Margherita Laera, and Book Review Editor Jessica Del Vecchio for welcoming me onto the editorial team. My thanks also to my brilliant Assistant Editor, Katie Morris. Finally, thank you to all the authors who have invited me to respond to their work. It is an honor. I look forward to future authors, future issues, and, well, to a future where we can once again entertain and enlighten one another onstage. I hope you are reading this in a moment where that future is present for you.