Celebrating 25 Years of Contemporary Theatre Review (part 2)

2015 marks the 25th anniversary of Contemporary Theatre Review. At the beginning of the year, the current editorial team picked a selection of articles from the journal’s history that reflected something of the spirit of the journal. Now, at the close of the year, we have extended this invitation out to the broader CTR team: its Editorial Associates, Advisory Board, and past and present Editorial Assistants — for it takes a broad community to sustain a journal, working behind-the-scenes as advocates, reviewers, and proof-readers. We are grateful for their careful work, which is evident in the selections they make here. We hope you enjoy this collection of articles, documents, and reviews, which will be freely available for six months (until June 2016).

Selected articles

George Pierce Baker: A Century of Dramaturgs Teaching Playwriting’, by Kara Reilly; ‘How Plays Work by David Edgar/ The Secret Life of Plays by Steve Waters / The No Rules Handbook for Writers by Lisa Goldman’ (review), by Sarah Grochala; ‘How to Describe an Apple: A Brief Survey of the Literature on Playwriting’, by Steve Waters, Volume 23, Issue 2 (2013) (Forum: Teaching Playwriting)

Selected by Len Berkman (Smith College, USA), Editorial Associate:

As a CTR Editorial Associate for the past 13 years of its now celebrated 25-year life, I have been especially excited by CTR’s trans-national, trans-cultural, perspectives and dialogues.  Having taught playwriting and dramatic literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts for 46 years, including my role as Graduate Director of our MFA Playwriting Program, while also working as professional dramaturg with over 500 playwrights and their directors in the development of their new plays and productions, I am staggered by the mix of dissimilarities and overlaps of approach that result in the unique progress-inducing dynamic of each of these hundreds of projects.  Most stimulating to me as an American theater practitioner are the particularly British concepts and methods of writing plays, of teaching the writing of plays, and of the development of plays in production, as set forth in CTR’s Volume 23, Issue 2 (May 2013).  One striking exception in this volume, a virtual charting of my ‘home base’ with its States-side academic-to-professional theater focus is Kara Reilly’s ‘George Pierce Baker: A Century of Dramaturgs Teaching Playwriting’ (pp. 107-113), her perceptive look at Professor Baker’s immense impact on later-prominent U.S. writers, first at Harvard (1888-1924) and Yale (1925-1933) where he helped found Yale Drama School (my alma mater).  Perhaps ironically, Reilly pretty much delineates my point of departure, my and others’ passionate interest in the major British thrust of this CTR volume. I am one among numerous U.S. professor/dramaturg/dramatists who are determined to expand prevailing modes of ‘mainstream U.S. theater tradition’ through putting larger windows in its walls while not out to demolish classic, even all-too-familiar, national 20th and 21st century approaches.

With that in mind, I contemplated the energized CTR 23 contributions by David Edgar, Steve Waters, and others, whose excitements not only as playwrights but as teachers and visionaries range beyond the present into how, through theater and sheer thought, they and their colleagues help shape our local and global future. I was moved to situate their voices, their comprehension of vibrant dramaturgical insights, within the panorama of my direct experiences with British theatre-folk.  Their voices contribute to my ongoing attempts to discern what, if any, genuine distinctions exist between playwriting education and practice on each side of the Atlantic.

The matter boils down to an acknowledgement of options, really, which is what made Sarah Grochala’s more-than-book-review in this volume (pp. 223-248) such a high for me when I read the submitted draft of this piece.  Sarah’s treatment of three recently published (in 2013) books on the craft and construction of plays – David Edgar’s How Plays Work, Steve Waters’ The Secret Life of Plays, and Lisa Goldman’s The No-Rules Handbook for Writers – significantly expanded my thoughts about the tension between an individual playwright’s impulse and goals and the cultural pressures (or presumptions) each playwright harbors as regards what a play ‘is’ and how ‘authentic’  and effective play construction can dramaturgically be achieved.  The entirety of Volume 23, of course, points in this direction, from Edgar’s own tone-setting ‘Playwriting Studies: Twenty Years On’ (pp. 99-106) to Liz Tomlin’s educationally expansive Make a map not a tracing’:  From Pedagogy to Dramaturgy’ (pp. 120-127) to Steve Waters’ phenomenological ‘How to Describe an Apple: A Brief Survey of the Literature on Playwriting’ (pp.137-145) and amply beyond.  Waters cites Beckett’s refusal to speak of (and thereby diminish) the “unknowable” process that writing entails.  He underscores with Beckett the exciting but easily futile adventure each of us embarks upon as we try to understand “writing from within” or, in quite a gnawing image, somehow to comprehend the visceral ‘knowledge’ possessed by a worm writing from within its apple.  Such formidable awareness of what dramatic empathy is up against grants to writers and their art – even, Waters reminds us, the sometimes guilty-as-charged “low” art that playwrights are deemed to chase after – the prospect of a towering theatrical metaphysic worthy of most passionate discourse.  Prominent and obscure playwrights alike in England take as their proper and warranted terrain the mélange of problems and struggles of local and global life, the best of these playwrights refusing to sort out the strands of conflict so as to carve a play’s major concern away from its contingencies and influence.  This is precisely where CTR’s readership in countries beyond an English bent – and beyond that ‘bent’ within an increasing immigrant and resident poly-ethnic multi-racial citizenry in England itself – may most sharply appreciate what Volume 23 has us measure, anticipate, and confront.

“Floating in a most peculiar way”: Angels in America, David Bowie, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’, by Denis Flannery, Volume 24, Issue 2 (2014)

Selected by Steve Bottoms (University of Manchester), Editorial Associate:

I have chosen this piece for unashamedly personal reasons. It has always seemed to me that the editing process, when conducted right, constitutes the cultivation of a kind of critical friendship between editor and author. Conversely, though, a friendship in the more traditional sense can also give rise to unexpected forms of editorial collaboration. Denis Flannery, who was for seven years a colleague of mine at the University of Leeds, and has remained an invaluable friend since my departure, developed this brilliant essay as a labour of love over a period of several years. During that time I was party to its evolution, reading several different drafts, and I was able to suggest to Denis that CTR (with its longstanding commitment to documenting the work of non-Anglophone European theatres) would be the perfect location for it. A student of English and American Literature, Denis has no formal background in theatre or performance studies, but to me this piece serves as a salutary reminder that we can sometimes be beaten at our own game. Theatre scholars too seldom aspire to the degree of close reading that Denis applies to his performance analysis of Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s superb production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Just as important to the essay, though, is director Ivo van Hove’s insistently varied use of the music of David Bowie. Denis’s reflections on the performative conjunctions of ‘sound and vision’ in this production, and on the queer triad of Bowie, Kushner and van Hove (all of whom he has long adored), demonstrate conclusively that one can be both a ‘fan’ and a ‘critic’ without compromising either capacity. This piece is driven by passion, as well as being informed by deeply felt personal circumstances. It was my great privilege to witness its evolution.

On Rosemberg Sandoval’s Performance Actions: Questioning the North/South Paradigm’, by Paola Marín & Gastón Alzatel, Volume 22, Issue 4 (2012) (Special Issue: South)

Selected by Jean Graham-Jones (CUNY, USA), Advisory Board:

Among CTR features I enjoy most are the forums and special issues. Like the “Documents” and “Backpages,” ongoing sections of the journal, they exemplify CTR’s flexibility and range and the journal’s responsiveness to current issues of import to our larger field. The 2014 forum on UK yellow-face casting practices, for example, was particularly enlightening to this US-based scholar, but an earlier 2012 special issue really captured my Argentinist’s eye. There, coeditors Caridad Svich and Roberto Gutiérrez Varea signal perspectival shifts at work in what they term “South” as “intellectual construct and living reality.” The geographic range of contributions and contributors impresses even as it drives home the fact that while the cultural works discussed may come from (and stay in) the southern hemisphere and sometimes travel broadly, much of the Anglophone scholarship about them is still produced and circulated “above the equator.” The essays analyze theatrical performances of the Samoan diaspora in today’s South Pacific; make a case for Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s artistic dialogue with her own country’s hierarchical past; consider Mexican playwright / screenwriter Sabina Berman’s recent artistic focus on the US/Mexican border, femicide, and globalization; and reread British author Sarah Kane’s “Balkans” play Blasted from a Balkan perspective. The essays are followed by three documents, one of which compares two plays (one created in Scotland, the other in Chile) inspired by the same story of “spider-girl” burglars in Santiago, while another recounts the author’s own project of using Internet connections via Skype to “bridge” the work of Peruvian performers living in Lima and New York.

Of all this very rich and richly analyzed material, I recommend especially Paola Marín and Gastón Alzate’s document on the performances of Colombian artist Rosemberg Sandoval. Not only do Marín and Alzate provide a detailed account of the important contributions of Sandoval, “one of the first, if not the first Colombian artist explicitly working with performance art in the twentieth century”; they respond to the international criticism of Sandoval’s controversial artworks as pornomiseria [misery-porn] by entreating us to “remember that it is the immediate Colombian context, rather than his person or the recognition of the North, which endows [his performative work] with both political and poetical sense.” Their contextualist lesson is reinforced through strategic inclusion of texts produced and published in the “South.” Translating from Spanish into English, the authors insert into the North-based critical discourse of such journals as CTR heretofore untranslated texts by key Latin American scholars such as Nelly Richard and Ileana Diéguez as well as interviews and other important documents unavailable to non-Hispanophone scholars. Marín, Alzate, and the artist Sandoval reverse the North-to-South artistic-critical route far-too-well traveled. Coeditors Svich and Gutiérrez Varea challenge us “to release the border from borders.”   A good place to begin doing that is by (re)reading this special issue.

Come Closer: Confessions of Intimate Spectators in One to One Performance’, by Deirdre Heddon, Helen Iball & Rachel Zerihan, Volume 22, Issue 1 (2012) (Special Issue: Live Art in the UK)

Selected by Jen Harvie (Queen Mary University of London), Editorial Associate:

Deidre Heddon, Helen Iball and Rachel Zerihan’s article most inspires me through its feminism-in-action. The authors foreground collaboration; they narrate the collective labour, discussion, and debate behind the article’s composition. They actively embrace first person, subjective perspectives. This is a crucial tactic for effective analysis of one to one performance; beyond that, it is essential for approaches to scholarship and life that are properly sceptical about implicit or explicit claims to universalism. It is essential if we are to attend to differences across social experiences, differences of, for example, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, class, and age. It is essential if we are to attend also to the inequalities that can attach to those differences. The authors explore a whole gamut of messy, complex, and often overlapping feelings, including endearment, affection, shame, embarrassment, self-consciousness, competitiveness, and being moved and distracted. Airing these feelings, the authors do not try to repress, reconcile, or even rank them. They acknowledge the vital role feelings play in making people who we are and making our experiences what they are. The authors refuse to romanticize feelings, acknowledging, for example, how unflattering they can, or how they can motivate us to behave against our own best interests. In this context and others, the authors engage with ever-urgent but often neglected questions of care – of others and oneself.

These formal features of explicit and self-reflexive collaboration, self-expression, and emotional expression may be becoming less rare, but they are still unconventional. Many of their greatest advocates are feminists dedicated to hearing women’s voices, making transparent the (uneven) distribution of labour, challenging hegemonic discourses, and seeing feelings as important, meaningful, and critical (instead of irrelevant and distracting). Theatre and performance studies have arguably been more amenable than many other disciplines to methods such as these, but the example provided here is, for me, vivid, moving, and inspiring.

Alongside all the above-noted features, I also like this article for its hands-on, mucked-in engagement with the long-emerging but critically neglected one to one performance form. Contemporary Theatre Review is particularly good at is responding quickly to emerging forms and issues, and this is a strong example of the journal’s capacity. The authors helpfully document details about particular performances, such as Adrian Howells’ Garden of Adrian. They also propose critical approaches to such work, reflecting on a range of relevant topics including spectatorship, agency, applied ethics, and intersubjectivity. Though they clearly like much one to one performance and are professionally invested in it, their analyses are constructively critical, not least of one to one’s potential to prioritise individual experience over collective experience – and collective politics. The tone of the writing is welcoming and dialogic, combining critical prose and creative reflection. In an admirable politics of citation, the authors note key collaborators such as Howells’ garden designer Minty Donald and a range of important scholars, feminist and otherwise, including Hélène Cixous, Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant, Michael Warner, Jean-Luc Nancy, Grant Kester, and Helen Freshwater. This is CTR – and performance scholarship – at its best: critically responsive to emerging cultural trends, documenting creative practice, developing analytic methods, supporting critical and creative dialogue, modelling politically engaged critical practice, and making it readable and inspiring.

Cultural Effects of the Edinburgh International Festival: Elitism, Identities, Industries’, by Jen Harvie, Volume 13, Issue 4 (2003)

Selected by Sarah Thomasson (Queen Mary University of London), Editorial Assistant:

It has been 13 years since Contemporary Theatre Review published its festival special issue and yet it remains an influential resource that maps what continues to be a burgeoning field. Jen Harvie’s contribution was one of the first critical sources in our field to explore the direct and indirect cultural and material effects of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), which includes provoking the beginning of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in direct opposition to it. Harvie carefully traces the cultural history of this foundational post-war event and the cultural practices that it is has inspired, in order to challenge the commonly held belief that the EIF denigrates Scottish culture. The materialist methodology that she deftly employs throughout this case study, moreover, is emblematic of CTR’s commitment to grounding performance and theatrical events within their social, cultural, and historical contexts. This article, and the special issue that it sits within, continues to inform my thinking on festivals and was part of what encouraged me to pursue doctoral studies in London under Jen’s supervision and to apply to work for the journal that first inspired my topic. Lovely!

City of Dreams: Social Engagement and Aesthetic Creation in the Cultural Olympiad’, by James Andrew Wilson, Volume 23, Issue 4 (2013) (Special Issue: The Cultural Politics of London 2012)

Selected by Sarah Bartley (Queen Mary University of London), Editorial Assistant:

Appearing in ‘The Cultural Politics of London 2012’, a special issue guest edited by Jen Harvie and Keren Zaiontz, this article evaluates Freedom Studios’ production The Mill – City of Dreams as synecdochic for the broader tensions at play in socially engaged arts practice. Through an analysis of the challenges faced by the theatre company, James Wilson deftly unpacks the ideological discord inherent in the funding structures of the Cultural Olympiad. This framework serves to illuminate the potentially contrary objectives of socially engaged practice since its two key stakeholders, The Arts Council and Legacy Trust UK, required divergent outcomes: the former aesthetic excellence, the latter a sustained social impact. Wilson’s reflection on how practitioners might frame their work in relation to systems of value is increasingly pertinent in the contemporary funding landscape, where forms of accountability are constantly shifting. Drawing on scholarship from Shannon Jackson and James Thompson to illuminate his argument, Wilson argues for adopting a socio-aesthetic approach which, rather than simply overlaying social effects on to arts practice, attends to the social through the affective encounter intrinsic to the artistic experience. This approach champions the particular lens the arts offer to reimagine our shared past and to collectively dream our futures in social spaces, a lens that must not be overlooked lest we lose its unique social contribution.

Contemporary Theatre Review has a knack for keying into the resonant concerns of practitioners, giving a platform in the journal to ideological wrangling, stimulating debate and aiding reflective praxis. Indicative of this, Wilson’s article contributed to an exemplary special issue which provided a timely, multi-layered and culturally engaged reflection on the spectacle of London 2012.

Performance Matters: Gavin Butt, Lois Keidan and Adrian Heathfield in Conversation’, Volume 24, Issue 1 (2014)

Selected by Harriet Curtis (King’s College London), former Editorial Assistant:

Performance Matters was a three-year collaborative research project led by Gavin Butt, Lois Keidan and Adrian Heathfield, that brought together artists, academics, activists, and curators in a series of public dialogues, performances, workshops and symposia. The project investigated the challenges that performance and live art pose to notions of cultural value, reflecting particularly the institutional focus on performance as an increasingly viable art form. The project documented and exemplified a shift in cultural discourse around previously marginal performance forms, including experimental theatre and club performance, and this is reflected in the conversation published in Contemporary Theatre Review (CTR). Performance Matters explored multiple creative research processes, matched by alternative forms of research output to the more conventional book publication – a DVD series, archived digital files of artists’ films and in-conversations.   Indeed, the CTR issue in which the conversation between the three project leaders appeared was accompanied by the launch of CTR’s new website, which featured audio and video materials arising from Crossovers, the theme of the final year of Performance Matters. (See http://www.contemporarytheatrereview.org/2014/performance-matters-crossovers/)

The dialogue in the print journal also operates as a kind of alternative publication – a conversation reflecting current and ongoing issues for scholars of performance studies and visual culture. CTR is an ideal forum for such a discussion as it focuses on a wide variety of theatre and performance forms, and increasingly the interconnections between performance and visual culture. The Performance Matters conversation builds on the journal’s embrace of contemporary performance and live art in its special issue on ‛Live Art in the UK’, which was published in 2012. My research and teaching reflects on the relationship of institutions to performance, particularly in relation to visual art, curatorial practice, and the re-writing of art’s histories to highlight the influence of performance and live art. The Performance Matters project, and particularly this succinct reflection on the trajectory of the project and its cultural impact in CTR, provides a model of cross-disciplinary scholarly and artistic practice. It has been an invaluable resource for developing my own vocabulary for articulating how performance matters in the current moment.

House’ by Marvin Carlson and ‘Waiting’ by Lara Shalson, Volume 23, Issue 1 (2013) (Special Issue: Alphabet: A Lexicon of Theatre and Performance)

Selected by Elyssa Livergant (Queen Mary University of London), former Editorial Assistant and current co-editor of the Contemporary Theatre Review website, www.contemporarytheatrereview.org

While writing and reading are solitary acts, ideally a journal is a place that helps to transcend that solitude. One hopes for a place to keep company with others, where exchange is dynamic, rigorous and vital. One of the last issues I worked on as an editorial assistant for the journal exemplifies that ideal. Alphabet: A Lexicon of Theatre and Performance was a special issue helmed by the editors and conceived as a tribute to David Bradby and his commitment to scholarship. It sought critical reflections on the discipline from a range of theatre and performance scholars and artists – twenty-eight in total. It is a multi-voiced, -styled and -layered code for the stories theatre and performance tells about itself. I often use different entries in my teaching, to help students enter into a particular key theme or term. Marvin Carlson’s ‘House’ and Lara Shalson’s ‘Waiting’ are just two examples of the riches in this issue. Reading it confirms for me the pleasures of the discipline.

 

 

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