Mentoring theatre students is fantastic, because you are mentoring them in many ways – not just as scholars, not just as artists. You are deeply involved in their personal growth and a whole multiplicity of interests.
- Dorothy Chansky
Almost all my work has to do with how particular American audiences, past and present, make sense of, or find value in, theatrical undertakings. Why do urbanites in a certain decade go wild over some play or other? Why is some kind of performance phenomenon popular in the Midwest and invisible on the West Coast? What creates “relevance?” Who else, besides theatre artists, has to be “on board” for a work to take off?
My research objectives usually fall into two categories: (1) basically, what has to be handled immediately, and (2) what is farther out on the horizon. “Immediate” objectives mostly involve completing articles, chapters, or conference papers that have been accepted for publication or presentation. Deadlines are a great incentive – both stick and carrot. They exert pressure, but they also hold the promise of a public presentation, an audience response, or of seeing your work in print. I really depend on conferences to get me writing.
After this summer’s “immediate” obligations are met, I’ll get back to my “big,” ongoing research interest, which currently is a book about how domestic labor and food figure in drama and performance.
It’s important for any researcher in the twenty-first century to think globally, but it’s also scary. Of course, what I investigate is important to me, but sometimes it feels excessive or even arrogant to expect people in other countries to care. I do believe, though, that my work allows anyone interested in American theatre and performance to consider the ways in which certain plays, genres, and movements were meaningful for reasons beyond the obviously aesthetic. Theatre departments (and ours at Texas Tech is a prime example) work hard to produce compelling, aesthetically rich productions of plays that will speak to audiences – real ones in real time. What practitioners are not tasked with doing (this is where scholars come in), is assessing how and why some things “work” and others don’t, or with thinking about how these things morph over time. Theatre is a great place to do social history. It’s a site of pleasure, making it a good place to look at what people want to do with their leisure time, and what they value (or don’t). Some want simple escape, others want to be seen at places that confer status on them. Theatre sometimes offers both of these things. I like to think that my work helps people interested in the cultural function(s) of theatre, gain a better understanding of how performances of plays have fed (or repelled) groups of Americans past and present.
Inspiration is an unpredictable thing. I think I got the idea for my current book project from a call for papers for a conference whose theme was something about realism in theatre and how it depended on artifice to be legible and moving to an audience. I’ve been inspired by a footnote, an essay, a performance, a conference presentation, a quote. You just don’t know what will jump-start your imagination. I’m in Paris as I write this, and I had the good fortune to see avant-garde (American) director Lee Breuer’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Comédie Française a few nights ago. I can still hear Blanche DuBois’ famous last line in my mind’s ear – the one about depending on the kindness of strangers (la bonté des inconnus). In some ways, that captures it. People are kind enough, or compelled enough, to put their work and ideas and art “out there” and this – on which I depend – sparks ideas in others. Writing is sort of a big conversation. You hear or read something, respond via your own work, and hope you will, in turn, get a response.
Because I’m so passionate about ideas and research, I’ve really loved serving on several TTU committees that assess research proposals in the arts and humanities. It feels so good when you are part of a group that gets to tell a colleague, “your idea is wonderful and the committee has voted to approve funding.” But I’ve loved a number of the university-wide committees on which I’ve served because they’ve put me in touch with colleagues, thinking, and departmental cultures outside of theatre. Also, because TTU has such an international faculty, I’ve had the good fortune to meet – via committee work – colleagues from a number of other countries. People are incredibly generous about answering questions on anything from translation, to food, to university culture in their home countries, and I feel very fortunate to have personal contacts right here on campus.
This year (2011), I am working on two papers to present at conferences during the summer. One looks at two canonical American plays – “The Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullers (1950) and “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry (1959) – with an eye to how domestic labor defines the rich lives of the central black matriarch figures. I’m also interested in how much the domestic landscape changed over the course of the 1950s, as television became a part of most American homes, and as a suburban ideal (one that depended on cars, not streetcars or trains) took hold. This paper will also be folded into my larger book project, which is an extended study of domestic labor on the American stage.
My other paper, for the International Federation for Theatre Research conference (this year in Osaka), looks at how American postsecondary educators make use of plays in translation. Drama studies, more than almost any other literary program or department, roam freely across cultures and languages. It’s hard to imagine a theatre person who doesn’t have at least a nodding acquaintance with something by Sophocles, something by Molière, something by Ibsen, something by Chekhov, and something by Brecht, and that’s just a short list. Theatre professors, therefore, depend on translations, but we are often at the mercy of anthologies, since selecting, say, a dozen individual scripts would probably be too costly a strategy. So, what do we do? More to the point here, what do my colleagues nationally, think about how to proceed, and about what is important when it comes to translation? I created an online survey to jump-start my research. One of the great things about being in a big research university is the community of colleagues to whom one has access when one needs help. Kent Wilkinson and Todd Chambers in the TTU College of Media and Communication were generous, and of tremendous assistance, in helping me get my survey and statistics sea legs, and in pointing out ways to make my survey better.
I’m also revising an article that was accepted for publication in the Journal of Adaptation in Performance and Film. My essay looks at a stage adaptation of a graphic novel and considers how the shift from one medium to another entails compromise and loss, even as it offers immediacy and revivification.
My book (the big, “ongoing” project), Kitchen Sink Realisms, is always on my mind, and when the conference papers are done I plan to finish and clean up the chapter on which I’ve been working. It’s the fourth of six, so there is light at the end of the tunnel.
One of the odd things about balancing the components of integrated scholarship is that departmental cultures differ across the university, and, indeed across the academy writ large. For all of us, there is work that has to get done, whether it is teaching service courses or funding our labs. Those tend to be areas where no one needs prodding. There are also areas about which one is passionate – often one’s research or, in the arts, creative professional output. Again, prodding isn’t always necessary. But I know that I have to remind myself that, as a salaried employee, I have obligations, and these are not only in the areas that are my “favorites.” Service seems to be something that people often think of as less important than the other areas. My advice there is to try to find one committee that will really teach you a lot about the university as a whole and maybe one focused on your own areas of interest. Not all committees require the same amount of work either, so looking for one that’s labor-intensive and another that’s less so, also allows you to serve without being overwhelmed.
Native of Beverly, Massachusetts (birthplace of the American Navy and site of the oldest frame house in the U.S.), and a graduate of Smith College (A.B., English); the Catholic University of America (M.A., Theatre), and New York University (Ph.D., Performance Studies).