History of the American Theatre: Performance and Politics in the Long Civil Rights Era
This course will investigate theatre and performance in the United States in the context of the “long Civil Rights era,” with a focus on new scholarship. Dramatic texts and institutional case studies will anchor our explorations of performance practices between 1935 and 1975 with a focus on the crossing lines of affiliation among artists and organizations committed to varied political projects (anti-fascism, labor organizing, and gender, class, and sexual rights advocacy). We will begin by exploring historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s term revising the traditional periodization of 1954-1968 and consider responses to her scholarly extension of these temporal boundaries. From there, our readings will consider interracial and intraracial community theatres; Black radical theatre in the New Deal era; Communism and anti-Communism on stage; political sociodramas and activist theatre. We will also research the methods and strategies of playwrights and companies who responded directly to the threat of nuclear warfare; resisted the silencing effect of government surveillance; and engaged in debates about integration in the theatre.
Playwrights may include James Baldwin, William Branch, Alice Childress, Edward Chodorov, Lonne Elder III, Lorraine Hansberry, Abram Hill, Langston Hughes, Loften Mitchell, Louis Peterson, and Theodore Ward. Our case studies will pay particular attention to the institutions that confronted varying forms of repression and/or censorship, including the American Negro Theatre, the Greenwich Mews, Camp Unity, and the Free Southern Theater. Our readings will emphasize recent scholarly engagement with this period, and may include works by Julie Burrell, Chrystyna Dail, Soyica Diggs Colbert, Julius B. Fleming Jr., Robin D.G. Kelley, George Lipsitz, Paige A. McGinley, Angela C. Pao, Jonathan Shandell, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Mary Helen Washington.
Urban Stages: Dramatic Literature and the City
This course explores the interdisciplinary nexus of dramatic literature, the stage, and urban space. We will trace the city on stage from World War II to the present and address the “spatial turn” in literary and theatre studies, which conceptualizes dramatic literature as part of urban processes. In order to consider the many geographies of drama, we will investigate stage representations of the modern and contemporary city and analyze the various ways in which theatre engages with urban life.
Our readings of dramatic literature will emphasize struggles over urban space, including the tensions between private space and political freedom, and the local and the global. How has the spatial and social organization of the modern city informed the thematic and formal choices writers make? How have literary texts shaped our own experiences of the city? How do conceptions of place and space alter our interpretations of dramatic texts? How have playwrights spatialized the concerns of city dwellers, such as development, homelessness, segregation, or contested definitions of “public”? How have playwrights responded to changing sites of theatrical production in cities?
Decade of Fire: Theatre in 1970s New York
This course will trace the transformation of New York City’s theatrical landscape during what has been mythologized as one of the city’s most turbulent decades, the 1970s. We will focus on the institutionalization of radical 1960s theatrical formations during a period in which the logic of scarcity reorganized the city’s cultural spheres. How did artists, communities, and governmental figures respond and adapt to the changing sites of performance and conditions of a municipality in crisis? And how have theater artists represented those changes on the contemporary stage?
After we evaluate the existing historiographical narratives of 1970s U.S. theatre, we will explore a series of case studies including Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa E.T.C., Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, Vinnette Carroll’s Urban Arts Corps, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, and Jonathan Ringkamp and Geraldine Fitzgerald’s Everyman Street Theater Company. Playwrights may include Micki Grant, Julie Bovasso, Tom Eyen, Miguel Piñero, Maria Irene Fornes, Sam Shepard, Adrienne Kennedy, Jessica Hagedorn, Amiri Baraka, Robert Patrick, Ed Bullins, Dominique Morisseau, and Joseph A. Walker. We will ask how the changing spatial and social organization of New York’s theatrical communities informed the thematic and formal choices playwrights made—and how the economic crisis and austerity ideologies shaped audience expectations of performance across the city.
Historical readings on the development of “downtown” theatre in New York, as well as readings addressing the emergence of the “neoliberal city” will aid us as we conceptualize theatre as a social practice and part of municipal processes. A series of methodological queries will underpin our explorations. What research strategies facilitate the comparative study of community-based, neighborhood performance and centralized theatrical formations? How have theatre historians conceptualized the relationship between competing “locals”—neighborhoods, audiences, and theatres? Our readings will provide both historical and socio-cultural contexts for theatre and performance practices in urban centers during the 1970s and beyond.
Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Drama and Performance: Censorship and Surveillance
Our focus on twentieth- and twenty-first century drama this semester will be on literature that has been regulated or controlled through various mechanisms of power: states, individuals, communities. We will consider how ideas about obscenity and moral harm developed and transformed across the period. For each reading, we will explore and identify the shifting grounds (political, moral, social, religious) for the suppression of dramatic works on stage.
Topics will include state censorship (and its loopholes); “pre-” and “self-” censorship; the “Red Scare” in American drama; discriminatory industry practices; blacklists; the role of producers and/or institutions in silencing controversial material. We will also consider works by exiled playwrights whose writing was suppressed in their home countries, and dramatists who ran afoul of funders for provocative or “offensive” performances. Playwrights may include Sholem Asch, Edward Bond, Alice Childress, Edward Chodorov, Nilo Cruz, Víctor Fragoso, Václav Havel, Holly Hughes, Langston Hughes, Errol John, Arthur Miller, Sean O’Casey, Virgilio Piñero, Wole Soyinka, and the Federal Theatre Project.
This workshop explores the many paths to playwriting through a focus on the fundamental building blocks of dramatic writing. What do our characters want? How do they achieve their desires and change over time? When and how do our characters speak and listen to each other? Can a focus on intention, action, conflict, and image create powerful and effective stage plays? When do theatricality and imagination enter into the writing process? Can we avoid the clichés of the stage and instead find inspiration in the contradictions of the theatre?
In our reading and viewing of plays we will investigate elements of dramatic structure and contemporary techniques of theatrical storytelling. We will learn strategies to thoughtfully critique our own writing as well as the writing of our peers. This will include the completion of dramatic writing prompts and exercises; scene and monologue writing and re-writing; aesthetic experimentation; reading scripts aloud and in performance; peer feedback; revision; and research.
Queer Drama: The Art of the Quick-Change
From Shakespeare’s comedies to the kabuki theater of Japan, the theatrical possibilities of gender inversion have been explored on stage for centuries. Yet today we often use “queer” to describe a category of performance. What is queer drama? This seminar will explore some of the precursors to contemporary queer theater before focusing on its development in twentieth and twenty-first century American theater. We will analyze works of dramatic literature, queer theory, and GLBTQ+ history and activism including: the scandalous “dirt plays” of the 1920s, Charles Ludlam’s 1970s gothic satires, and the dramas chronicling the onset of the AIDS crisis. How have different communities produced and transformed queer identity on stage? Topics may include theatrical regulation and censorship, the aesthetics of drag and camp, autobiographical stage narratives, Cold War shame narratives, and the creation of the (queer) theatrical canon.