"Make a map, not a tracing": Dramaturgy as Pedagogy
A Statement of Teaching
Of the many artists that contribute to putting on a play in the theatre industry today—from director, choreographer, and actors to lights, props, and costume designers—the dramaturg sits most squarely at the crossroads where drama becomes performance. As an advocate for the playtext in the rehearsal room, they deploy a combination of close-reading skills with socio-historical knowledge to ensure that actors not only understand the metaphorical complexities of the text in order to, as Hamlet appeals, “suit the action to the word,” but also that audiences have many avenues by which to access the world of the play through character, dialogue, and design. This fundamentally collaborative posture, which employs historical knowledge and literary skills to engage specific discourse communities, defines my praxis in the teaching of dramatic literature and theatre history.
Enlivening the past through new media
Digital Humanities pedagogy underpins my teaching beyond the PowerPoint lecture to introduce students to cornerstone skills of critical thinking, writing, and debate at the college level. From the disciplines of museum studies and art history, curation is an essential part of teaching the writing process. For example, in an introductory film course for non-majors, students were trained to use a specialized web platform, Omeka, with the support of digital Humanities librarians. They collected items that responded to a documentary, ranging from over-fishing legislation to tattoos memorializing police officers fallen in the line of duty. At semester’s end, they developed web-based collections that told a story about the impact of the film; analyses of film techniques alongside primary objects to make a claim about its exigency in a culminating “docent guide” essay. These “museum galleries” are now case studies in several articles on teacher-librarian digital partnerships.
Curation motivates students to think more critically, read more attentively, communicate more precisely, and articulate evocative questions with and about texts. With this approach, students consider the complexities of those categories by which we perform identity to discover their intersections, evidenced in a recent Black literature seminar exploring what it means to, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “live in a Black body.” From Nella Larsen’s chilling exploration of passing to Red Velvet, the award-winning play about the first actor of color to perform the eponym in Othello, students explored the ways in which they can productively promote public discourse around race, privilege, and difference. Employing contemporary devised theatre techniques alongside hashtag activism rhetoric, in weekly “twessays” students tested strategies of debate live, linking the work of the classroom with the public sphere. The course concluded with a real-time Twitter play, “#OthellosCrane.” The digital adaptation (performed the week #MeToo broke) evolved into an argument about violence against Desdemona. The students employed the Twitter tactic of memorializing mass tragedies like the Pulse shootings with hashtags to demonstrate that violence against women is not divorced from the experience of the Black body by creating “#DesInOur 🖤.” An article on this praxis, co-authored with the students, is forthcoming with Hybrid Pedagogy.
Engendering original questions through established archives
For students of literature—whether non-major, major, or graduate—there is a particular power in uncovering work for which little attention has been paid. My own research specialties on non-canon early English drama and “lost” plays (where nearly everything, from backstage-plott to daily earnings, may survive except the text itself) allows me to not only point students to works ripe from reclamation, but also how to identify such works in their own communities. For example, in contemporary drama courses, the academic performance review becomes a central archive for the stage history. Students are not only able to track evolving rhetorics of phenomenological preference, casting practice, and anthropological priority, but situates the irrecoverability of the play event within post-modern culture that places Yelp narratives alongside five-star Lyft passenger evaluations.
By foregrounding canonicity, courses such as “ShaxQueer” and “Critical Editing in Theory and Practice” engage students to rethink ways in which literature can be conscripted to establish cultural hierarchies of high/low art, class, and identity. Because the critical scholarship is of a manageable depth and the scholarly need is overt, an emphasis on archives adjacent to canonical voices reliably produces senior theses that actively intervene in a field. For example, a recent student employed affect theory to consider the bandwidth of acceptable modes of male mourning on the Renaissance stage but focusing on all the non-canon scenes of men memorializing or “passionating” epitaphs. A current double-major in Screenwriting and Literature is producing a performance edition of the pre-Shakespearean trans/lesbian romance, Gallatea, which will interrogate how early modern ecopoetics supports staging same-sex relationships. Not only is this enlivening the craft of her screenplay, a BuzzFeed-office lesbian romance, but a double-header staged reading of the two alongside one another will allow the student to circulate a survey amongst college peers about ways in which these works together reveal new insights into the history of sex, gender, and theatre.
Engaging the public through scholarly endeavor
Building bridges between classroom student labor and wider discourse communities not only crystalizes for students specific audiences for inquiry, argument, and discovery, but also applications for their literary skill sets across a range of career pathways. English Club trips to special public lectures not affiliated with any course content—such as Heather Wolfe, head manuscripts curator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, on the biocodicology of Renaissance papermaking, or Ayanna Thompson, president of the Shakespeare Association of America, on Shakespeare and blackface in America—are a gateway to community-building, networking, and envisioning possible futures. Presenting their own work not just on campus, but in regional undergraduate conferences activates a sense of public interest that has spurred many students into magazine journalism writing careers.
Dramaturgy internships have been the most dynamic hinge between the classroom and the workspace, however. Several students have worked summers with the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, a theatre troupe that experiments with original staging techniques such as touring, cross-gender casting, repertory scheduling, and cue scripts in free performances for underserved communities. Other students have interned with Orphic Theatre, a project that commissions a playwright to adapt a work from Classical Greece or Rome. Students act as research assistants to support the artists on text, cultural context, and theatre history leading up to a several workshop performances as part of the Fertile Group Festival of new work every January. Still others have dramaturged for the Bag & Baggage Problem Play Project, another commission that asks winning playwrights to adapt one of Shakespeare’s works with an explicitly inclusive lens.
To this dramaturgical approach students respond positively, routinely identifying four aspects of their own learning in which they register dynamic growth. In evaluations they employ en masse a rhetoric of conversion, “liking” or possessing new mastery over a subject they previously rejected out of hand. Whether explicitly writing-centered or not, students actively see growth in their craft and can articulate it with specificity based on tailored, scaffolded feedback on essays. This experimentation is spurred by the fact that they perceive my classroom to be a safe space where the realities of their specific intellectual, ideological, gendered, and material needs are accommodated. Finally, seminar-style discussion is lively, wherein students feel safe to take intellectual risks and their engagement with the work is validated—encouraging them to rise to new levels of rigor they may not otherwise attempt. Registering not only intellectual but emotional benefits, this dramaturgical approach empowers students to chart their own course for a life in the Humanities.