By Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel, Heather Barfield, and Abigail Schroering
In response to the 2020 ATHE conference theme "Drive," the Theory and Criticism Focus Group took up scholarly and practical explorations of the concept of "Spare Parts." This emerged from questions musings on the bits of time and space of which we have both too much and a deficit. How often during rehearsals, preparation for classes, and the writing process, do we stumble on some aspect of our research that does not fit? As scholars, how often do we eliminate tangents from our narratives? As practitioners, how often do we cut material that we love in deference to time limitations and where does that artistry go? As teachers, how often do we lament the lack of just "fifteen more minutes" or "one more class meeting," and what is it that always seems to get pushed to next class? For the "Spare Parts" roundtable series, we welcomed contributions from practitioners, educators, and scholars where we imagined ourselves to be "performative mechanics" who discard/use/replace these Spare Parts of our written and embodied texts as if they were parts of an automobile.
Our pre-conference served as an exploration of what spare parts we must work to leave behind as we strive towards creating more inclusive practices. The Theory and Criticism Focus Group's preconference continues ATHE's commitment to facilitating exchange between theater practitioners, scholars, and educators. In contrast to the standard pre-conference, Theory and Criticism has created a space dedicated to the creation of brand-new work in collaboration with fellow attendees. The preconference's format—featuring asynchronous pre-work, expert presentations, and in-session writing and workshopping time—created a creative, inclusive environment in which no expertise was assumed but any expertise could be leveraged to help to collective. The pre-conference also continues ATHE and the wider field's effort to interrogate the white supremacy that undergirds how theatre practice, scholarship, and education functions in our society. The performances, presentations, and workshop sessions introduced participants to anti-racist narratives and tools that facilitated critical reflection on the power structures in the field and illuminated one step on the path toward dismantling them.
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With a similar collaborative spirit, one Theory and Criticism workshop invited participants to put thinking in partnership into practice. In "Pair Research—A Working Roundtable," scholar Elizabeth Hunter demonstrated an online partner pairing tool. Participants were invited to post two sentences on a topic or item they would appreciate talking through for twenty minutes. After all the topics were posted, participants ranked how useful they thought they personally could be on a scale from one to five. The online tool then paired participants based on this ranking alone. This allowed for pairings outside of credentials and lowered stakes among those asking for and receiving feedback/thoughts. From here, participants had a shared forty minutes to co-think and offer feedback. In the first step, participants needed to get specific about their ask and what support they may be seeking. In the second, participants reflect on their ability to offer such. Pair Research provides for an efficient and useful manner to couple thinkers based on mutual opportunity for support, in essence fostering a productive jumping off point for participants to bounce and refine ideas.
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The panel "Fizzles, Flops, and Frustrations: Failure in Theatre History, Theory, and Practice," presented by the Theatre History and Theory and Criticism Focus Groups, centers on the possibilities of generative failures in historical performances and productions. Applying the 2020 ATHE conference themes of combustion, energy, and resilience, the panel asks what theorists and scholars might discover from antecedent blunders and disappointments that nevertheless energize a push towards a kind of resilient progress. Panelists offer encouraging insights that discern friction between theatrical attempts at innovation, precision, and dissenting new work against their preceding absence of notoriety, achievement, and appreciation. Through these examinations, we can push toward an alternate understanding of success and foster furthered inquiry.
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