Charlotte McIvor with Rhonda Blair
Summer 2012. The final months of Rhonda Blair’s ASTR presidency. We Skype between Dublin and Dallas in order to discuss her time in office and the intersection...
between her service to the profession and her scholarly and pedagogical interventions in our field. If that was not enough to cover, she informs me that she is in rehearsal. As director of or performer in over 70 productions over the course of her career, this is perhaps not surprising but this time she is taking on an old but familiar role: actor. Though she has created and performed in pieces that might be called “political cabaret” and solo monologues, for the first time in 20 years, Blair returned to the stage as a “regular” actor this summer in Echo Theatre’s NYC Coyote Existential (a play with songs and science) by Melissa Cooper with music by Thomas Cabaniss. Not surprisingly, she took on the title role of the singing Coyote (a little folk, a little country, a little blues) in a play about a woman and a Coyote coming face to face in New York’s Central Park meant to celebrate “the mystery of unlikely migrations and meetings” and “interspecies dialogue.” [Echo Theatre, NYC Coyote Existential (a play with songs and science), http://www.echotheatre.org/shows/nyc_coyote.php, accessed 6 August 2012.]
NYC Coyote Existential’s blending of theatre and science, music and drama, and human and animal perhaps serves as the best possible vehicle for Blair’s return to the stage as she herself has frequently defied categorization in her career in the best possible ways. Her scholarship and practice has pushed boundaries of knowledge in the field of theatre and performance studies for many years. Her publications range from critical studies of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov to feminist critiques of acting pedagogy and training, with her body of research most recently focused on the relationship between cognitive science and actor training. In addition to this work and her work as a director and performer, Blair has also created solo works as well as being the author of translations of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde early in her career. Reflecting on being asked to run for ASTR president in 2008, Blair observed that her election reflected a continuing shift in the membership at large in terms of the growth of wider theoretical and interdisciplinary interests. Blair’s diverse profile positioned her as an active participant in multiple conversations within the field and set the conditions for a presidential term based around advocacy for the field and the support of varied projects within the organization as a whole.
Her tenure as ASTR president has seen her preside over multiple initiatives such as the New Paradigms Committee, as chaired by incoming President Heather Nathans, that have encouraged an aggressive forward-looking approach to knowledge and sustainability in our field as whole. When asked how ASTR and the field has evolved over the course of her presidency, she immediately identified the need for “more attention to the conditions affecting support for our work (research, etc.) and the changing markets for employment.”
ASTR’s continued direct involvement in member-led data collection such as through the general membership survey in 2010 (coordinated by Scott Magelssen), the New Paradigm Committee’s Graduate Programs surveys in 2011 and 2012 (coordinated by Heather Nathans) and related conference panels and working groups aims for not only sparking discussion but following through on it. Rather, under Blair’s leadership, these efforts have been aimed at creating both new opportunities and plans for direct intervention in creating a stronger infrastructure for the future of our field in the face of widespread shifts in academia in terms of funding, job opportunities and support of the humanities at large. She said of the resulting 65-page Membership Report in 2010, prepared by Magelssen and his committee members Chase Bringardner and Charlotte McIvor, that it showed “ASTR to be a complex and vital organization: it lays out in concrete terms some of the rich commonalities, differences, hopes, frustrations, and challenges we face. I have already found it useful in thinking about how we all might move the Society forward.”
On this note, she supported the development of former president Tracy C. Davis’s two-day workshop in optimizing mentorship effectiveness prior to the annual meeting in 2011 [See Tracy C. Davis, “Tracy C. Davis on Conscious Approaches to Optimizing Students’ Experience,” ASTROnline, http://www.astr.org/component/content/article/16-featured-article-archive/285-mentoring-our-doctoral-students] and has worked closely with the Graduate Student Caucus throughout her tenure. Also, along with Davis, Blair presided over the creation of the American Theatre Archive Project via the Ad Hoc Committee on Archival Preservation taking over this initiative from Davis at the conclusion of her presidency. This project is notable for not only its broad aims which includes supporting “theatre makers in archiving records of their process and product, which can be shared with scholars and other theatre makers on premises, online, and/or in a repository” but for the opportunities that it has provided for ASTR to connect with affiliates from other organizations and areas in the field.
Transparency and access for members to the organization was also paramount to Blair’s presidency as she spearheaded a volunteer questionnaire for members to fill out as a gateway to serving within the organization. This was accompanied by multiple calls by Blair at the annual meetings and via e-mails for new individuals to step and serve in the organization. Executive Committee member, Mike Sell, actively credits Blair’s leadership with the success of endeavors such as these: “I have known Rhonda for three years as a result of my membership on ASTR’s executive committee. I have grown to admire her ability to affirm the contributions of everyone in the room, to ensure that all have an opportunity to argue, share, and collaborate. But most remarkably, I’ve never attended a meeting that she’s chaired where we don’t end on time with all work completed! She has a way of gently, but firmly steering a meeting where it needs to go just as fast as it needs to go.” Former Treasurer Tobin Nellhaus echoes Sell’s sentiments: “She ran meetings and discussions among the officers in a relaxed but productive manner, and created opportunities for the EC to think about ASTR’s direction.” Another former EC member, who chose to remain anonymous, concurred: “It was such a pleasure for me to serve under Rhonda Blair on the Executive Committee for ASTR. Her clarity of purpose, decisiveness, and imagination for the organization made for a smooth and productive transition from President Davis. Her distinctive blend of warmth, wisdom, and integrity is inspiring!”
Blair also worked actively to network between ASTR and other organizations in the field, for example repeatedly reminding the membership of the opportunities available through the American Council of Learned Societies for research funding at various levels. One new fruit of this labor will be a meeting organized by ATHE President Bill Doan of the leadership of various theatre-related organizations to be held at Penn State University, Nov. 9-10 (the week after our conference). Anticipated attendees include, among others, MLA President Michael Berube, NAST President Dan Carter, USITT President Lea Asbell Swanger, past and incoming ATHE Presidents Steve Peters, Bill Doan, and Henry Bial, BTN President Artisia Green, our NP Chair and incoming President Heather Nathans, and myself. Blair shares: “The gathering will focus on questions currently being addressed in ASTR primarily through the New Paradigms committee, i.e., questions of graduate education, career paths, and the state of the academy in relationship to these.”
Her presidency also saw plans to expand Theatre Survey to three issues per year come to fruition and the continuing development of the ASTR website, and ASTROnline specifically, as a year-round available resource for members. Former (and first-time) ASTROnline editor Matt Omasta muses, “Her strong support of the web committee and founding editorial team during the development of ASTROnline was unparalleled. The evolution of this platform would not have been possible without her vision and consistent support.”
On another front, Blair’s strong partnership with Dorothy Chansky, former Director of Awards and Fellowships, saw the renaming of existing awards including the Helen Krich Chinoy Dissertation Research Fellowship and the Oscar G. Brockett Essay Prize in collaboration with Davis, as well as renewed outreach efforts to members to notify them of the available awards and fellowships. Finally, other key initiatives in Blair’s presidency include proposals for bylaw changes that would create new Vice Presidents for Awards and Fellowships and for Publications, bringing these positions in line with their importance and responsibility for the Society, and a proposal to allow e-voting for ASTR business. Again, these examples speak to her concern for increasing ease of access to ASTR for members and honoring their work, contributions and possibility for future contribution in the field. Ultimately, Blair’s presidency has been most characterized by a commitment to increase awareness of and access to opportunities for ASTR members not only within our organization, but in the field at large.
While it is perhaps clear what Blair has contributed to ASTR, what has ASTR contributed to Blair? An enrichment of “my sense of interconnectedness of different aspects of our work,” she replied, “theory, history, practice, teaching.” Her Presidential Keynote addressed these issues head-on as she called out continuing divides between theory and practice. As president of an organization that many view as dedicated to scholarship instead of practice, Blair firmly insists that as outgoing president:
I want to begin with rejecting the binary (and noting that “theory” here is being used in the humanistic, rather than scientific, sense of the work). Theory is a kind of practice. Practice is always at least implicitly informed by theory. That said, I’m heartened by the fact that a person with my research/practice profile was nominated and then elected to the office of president of ASTR, and by the existence of working groups such as the cognitive science and practice-as-research ones.
Blair elaborates: “I remember when we heard the election results and when we first saw each other after that, we were thrilled. We have known each since the mid-1980s. One way in which we are similar is that we are collaborative, we don’t work in isolation. I completely agree with and get what President Obama meant when he said, ‘You didn’t build that.’ None of us operates separately without support. Stacy and I are firmly rooted in this feminist project about relationships and complexity. And personally it has been a joy to work with Stacy on this project. ” Like Blair, Wolf’s vice presidency has been strongly focused on her work to broaden access to the annual meetings between confronting head-on member feedback about the themes and focus of conferences, as well as fine-tuning the makeup and remit of ASTR’s Committee on Conferences and Program Committees to ensure ultimate productivity and accessibility for all members attending each year. Wolf stresses, “During our tenure as president and VP, Rhonda and I have wanted to increase ASTR's accessibility as much as possible. ”
One major area of achievement in this regard came for Wolf out of the impact of the membership survey: “Scott Magelssen did a great job with the membership survey, which launched a number of new initiatives, including an open call for volunteers for ASTR committees and positions. Officers and committee chairs reply to anyone who wants to get involved and hope that members who've not served the organization will want to serve. The membership survey also led to a new early morning session, which we started in 2011 and will do again in 2012 on ‘Demystifying ASTR.’ Scott organized and facilitated the first one and I'll do this one, during which officers and committee chairs and the conference planners for this year and next year will talk about their jobs and how to get involved. The session was extremely well attended last year and we hope it complements the ever-important mentor-mentee breakfast.” Wolf finishes: “Personally, I have found working with Rhonda to be a joy. She is an open-minded, curious, energetic, thoughtful, and impressively calm leader. She can untangle difficult problems and see her way to the most expedient and diplomatic solution. She runs an excellent meeting and makes a huge effort to allow everyone to be heard. She is always attentive to what's not being said or what issue isn't being raised. She has inspired me to push for more openness and collaboration, to instigate projects to get more people involved in ASTR intellectually and in service positions.”
But as the conversation between Blair, Wolf and myself came to an end, one name in particular stood out as a continuing symbol of the necessary interconnectedness of ASTR, past and future: Nancy Erickson. Blair stresses: “Nancy is absolutely central to facilitating the work of the Society and providing invaluable guidance and advice on how to get things done.” Looking forwards and backwards to the mission of ASTR, Wolf concurs, “Nancy is indispensible, not only for her extraordinary administrative skills but because she also knows the history of the organization. When officers turn over every three years, Nancy knows what happened before and how and why it matters now.” As the new officers are inducted at this year’s annual meeting, they will have an impressive recent legacy to build on as Blair, Wolf and all those who have contributed and continue to contribute to ASTR have demonstrated once again that interconnectedness (and openness) as well as scholarly rigor are the core values of this organization. And if they happen to forget, they can always ask Nancy about it.
Charlotte McIvor is a Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies in the Department of English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She is also the Editor of ASTROnline.
Rhonda Blair is Professor of Theatre at Southern Methodist University. Recent publications include The Actor, Image, and Action: Acting and Cognitive Neuroscience (Routledge), articles in TDR: A Journal of Performance Studies and Theatre Topics, and she has edited a new edition of Richard Boleslavsky's Acting: The First Six Lessons: Documents from the American Laboratory Theatre (Routledge).