In an age when public, shared spaces are being threatened or erased and when new technologies blur private and public domains, what does it mean to engage the public? Theatre has long provided infrastructure and social processes that enable mass communication detached from official political authority. In diverse times and cultures live performance has provided the labor and space for historical and judicial reckoning not possible elsewhere. Similarly, theatre scholars have insisted on the ways in which theatre is a primary site of political discourse. Theatre audiences in many eras can be seen as manifestations of critical public opinion, and performance more broadly conceived has helped create distinct publics and polities across continents. Political protest, for instance, is a vital site where performance, scholarship and “publics” converge.
Theatre is thus not just one among many artistic and intellectual media for commentary upon public affairs; theatre history and theory are also the history and theory of publicity itself. Theatre scholars also engage the public. Whether through teaching, theatre practice (especially as dramaturgs), social media, writing Op Eds and “trade” books, or participating in various forms of outreach, theatre scholars are increasingly expected to bring their work to audiences beyond the academy. Mobile digital technologies erode distinctions between public and private space, arguably transforming formerly closed venues (private homes, exclusive theatres) into sites connecting thousands of dispersed viewers. Theatre and performance scholars now make increasing use of these technologies to engage with audiences beyond the printed page. The subject of our study thus often becomes our method—we historicize, theorize, and analyze performance even as we become performers through our engagement with multiple publics. What, then, does it mean for us to bring our work as scholars/citizens/artists to a general public? What has it meant in past historical moments? How does it change the ways in which we understand theatre of the past and what we anticipate for theatre of the future?
Arlington is an ideal site for exploring these questions. As we gather on the unceded traditional lands of the Pamunkey people, adjacent to properties once held by General Robert E. Lee, and minutes away from Arlington National Cemetery, we recognize that the greater Washington D.C. area has long been the site of attempts to situate the state’s relationship to the governed, to represent the experience of immigrants and indigenous peoples, and to interpret and perform national “publics” who engage with museums, monuments, ceremonies, and demonstrations. The greater Washington D.C. area is also a vibrant theatre hub and home to artists and citizens who use the stage to confront weighty concerns with imagination and empathy. And since 2016, the region’s function as a unique focal point for public attention has given rise to new concerns. Old concepts such as “public opinion” are subject to rapidly evolving representations thanks to new social technologies, but the proliferating and splintering bodies public of the 21st century continue to circle the machinery of the modern nation state, and make use of the ancient technology of the performing body. We very much want to make our meeting site part of our convening and call on local artists, activists, and public intellectuals to join us as we position ourselves in the local, the national, and the global.
2019 Conference Program Chairs
Pannill Camp, Washington University in St. Louis
Charlotte M. Canning, University of Texas
Brian Eugenio Herrera, Princeton University
Koritha Mitchell, Ohio State University
2019 Conference Program Committee
Ahmed Asi, University of California, Santa Barbara
R. Darren Gobert, Professor, Theater Studies, Duke University
Anita Gonzalez, Professor, Theatre and Drama, University of Michigan
Francesca Marini, Texas A&M University Libraries
Eric Mayer-Garcia, Instructor, Women’s & Gender Studies and English, Louisiana State University
Marcus E. McQuirter, Professor, Drama, Austin Community College
Christine Mok, Assistant Professor, English, University of Rhode Island
Jason Shaffer, Professor, English, United States Naval Academy
Jimmy A. Noriega, College of Wooster, ex-officio