Teaching and Resisting Rape Culture #2

This conference roundtable was inspired by a student who, when describing the plot of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, wrote the phrase “Blanche gets raped.” In the subjectless passive voice construction of this phrase, I saw the need to more closely examine how we receive and interpret sexual violence plots and representations.

Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando in the 1951 film version of Streetcar.

Below, I’ve listed a few key sources about rape and representation.

Lisa Fitzpatrick, Rape on the Contemporary Stage (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)

Solga, Kim. “Rape’s Metatheatrical Return: Rehearsing Sexual Violence Among the Early Moderns.” Theatre Journal (2006): 53-72.

April De Angelis’s 2014 BBC4 radio piece “Theatre of the Abused” outlines some key issues about the politics of representing sexual violence. De Angelis was inspired by the play Nirbhaya by Yaël Farber (with substantial contributions from the ensemble), which is about the 2012 attack and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi, India. She questions whether it is productive to depict sexual violence on stage. @13:00 De Angelis speaks with The Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner and @ 14:48 with Dr. Lucy Nevvit on theatre and violence. The piece does not engage with how categories of sexuality, race, and class impact the issue and it only discusses women as victims and survivors, so it is limited in its scope. Still, the first 16 minutes offers a lot to discuss regarding representation within the theatre apparatus. (Content warning: Please note, the section on the show Freak by Anna Jordan @ 22:00 includes a graphic monologue so please listen with caution.)

Welcome Letters to Students

Writing a welcome letter to students is a tried and true Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) pedagogical activity. I first learned about them as a CUNY Writing Fellow at Lehman College. The welcome letter can have different functions. It can humanize you as an instructor, it can establish some initial context about the course’s themes and workload, and it can elicit responses from students if you actually have time to read them.

Usually, I distribute the letter during the first class and students take 5-10 minutes to write back. I collect their letters, write brief responses, and return them the next class. This semester, I sent the letter via an email before the first class and asked students to compose their response letter in a Google Doc and share it with me. I’m in the midst of reading them right now and am loving the ease of commenting. I will probably switch to this format for the future (although I do love seeing actual handwriting on actual paper).

This semester, I wondered what exactly I should say. How should I acknowledge the current public health crisis and political upheaval without freaking students out? Below, I’ve pasted the letter I wound up composing.

Dear Captivating Animals student,

Welcome to Princeton and your Writing Sem. I admire your fortitude. As we live through a profoundly tumultuous time in our nation, you have decided to “give it a go” and begin your first year of college by jumping into the unknown. Even though it can be challenging to focus when working from home and being on the screen all day, remote teaching and learning can actually be fun. We’ll be doing a lot of small group work and will take the time to build a sense of community. I’m truly looking forward to getting to know you and working with you. We’ll be doing a lot in 12 weeks, including close reading, analysis, research, and, of course, writing, revising, and reflecting. 

I am a theatre historian by training and have been teaching writing intensive courses for several years. I came to the “Captivating Animals” theme because my research investigates the cultural practice of training mammals to perform in the circus and in variety entertainments at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a fascinating but difficult topic. The fascination comes from discerning what the animals’ lives were like and why theatre managers would risk the inconvenience of putting animals on stage. The difficulty comes from the challenges of finding evidence, and the painful nature of some of that evidence. 

As a first step toward us building a relationship and classroom community, I’d love to hear a bit about you. Please share something that interests or puzzles you about human-animal relationships. I’d also like to hear about a writing success that you’ve experienced, as well as a writing struggle. I’m glad to share mine. My biggest recent writing success is a 10,000-word essay that I developed and revised (on and off) for over two years. It is about a 2016 Broadway show and will be published in two weeks. I recently finished a huge writing challenge, painfully trying to complete a 5,000-word essay on indoor circus performances in London, Paris, and New York. Completing it was much more difficult than I could have imagined. 

Please also share two things that you hope to get out of the Writing Seminar, as well as anything about your study habits and learning conditions that you think will help me understand you better. –This information might include your network reliability and what time zone you are in. I know that there will be special stresses this semester and, while I can’t make those stresses disappear, we can work together to problem solve and mitigate challenges. 

Here’s to a semester of close reading and deep thinking!


Dr. Young


ASTR 2019 Plenary

This past weekend was the annual conference of the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR), which took place in Arlington, Virginia. I’ve been attending ASTR on and off since 2008, so it was amazing to present my first plenary, “Inculcating Racist Fun: Kicking Mules and Anti-blackness Across Genres and Generations,” as part of the “Playhouses as Publics” plenary #4 gathering. It was all the more meaningful that a fellow presenter was my former boss, and another was my former classmate and co-author.

Animals of the Jury Roundtable at NYU

Last night I had the pleasure of participating in the roundtable “Animals of the Jury,” convened and moderated by Joshua Williams as part of NYU Tisch Drama’s Theatre Studies program.

We discussed Phantom Limb Company‘s latest work, 12 Angry Animals, which adapts Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men to imagine a “future dystopia in which 12 endangered animals (actors in mask) debate the guilt or innocence of the last known surviving human for the destruction of the planet.” It was a real treat to be in dialogue with Jessica Grindstaff (Phantom Limb Company and the show’s director), Naama Harel (Columbia University), and Karl Steel (Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center).

Two animal jurors argue.

12 Angry Animals fascinates as it deploys anthropomorphic characters to protest anthropocentrism. The irony, of course, is that language use has, historically, been a major claim for human exceptionalism. The script pokes at the tensions of our contemporary contradictions in which zoos are both sites of forced captivity and possibly protection within the context of extreme habitat loss, and granting legal personhood to non-humans sometimes seems like the best strategy to secure rights within a legal framework. The show’s body work and soundscape are stirring.

Erik Sanko’s gorgeous animal masks and the dapper costumes transform the actors as they embody creatures who bicker and confront each other. Anthropomorphic animal characters can create a disturbing and unconvincing hybrid aesthetic (recently discussed when the Cats trailer dropped this summer).

12 Angry Jurors solves the aesthetic problem of anthropomorphism beautifully. If the costumes were too “costume-y,” they could seem cartoonish. Instead, everything was elegant. While the human clothes and detailed masks intentionally contrast species boundaries, gloves mitigate the human hand vs. paw/hoof dilemma. The gloves match the human costumes and blend into the actors’ animalized movements.

Having read the 12 Angry Animals script but not having seen the production until after the roundtable, I chose to focus my comments on both the exciting adaptation and what I thought the Tisch students would connect with: animality, actor training, and mid-twentieth-century US American psychological realism.

When it comes to adaptations, I’m always curious about what the source material means and meant and what motivates cultural producers to turn back to that material for inspiration. The 1954 teleplay and 1957 12 Angry Men film take place during the Cold War and post-WWII white flight. The film stars Henry Fonda, Lee Cobb (who originated the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman), and John Fiedler (who always sticks in my mind as Karl Lindner from A Raisin in the Sun). Thus, I interpret the work as a manifestation of mid-twentieth century US realism.

It is so much about whiteness and masculinity parsed by class and ethnicity. Sweat, sport jackets, and ties telegraph different dispositions and class positions as the men deliberate the fate of a young defendant accused of murder. As the film and 12 Angry Animals melded in my mind, I made these notes: Lee Cobb is a Tiger, Henry Fonda is a Mandrill, John Fiedler is a Proboscis Monkey, Ed Begley is a Black and White Ruffed Lemur.

In Rose’s narrative, the absent presence of women and people of color propel the plot, as the ethnicity of the defendant is not mentioned, but many believe he is supposed to be imagined as a young man of color. The plot turns on the vanity of an unseen female witness for the prosecution who testified without wearing her eyeglasses.

I asked Grindstaff how the absent presence of race and gender in the original informed 12 Angry Animals. She shared illuminating insights about the devising process and how the multiracial and mixed gendered cast chose which animal to embody. When the actors remove their endangered animal masks at the end of the show, yet another dimension to the performance was revealed. I look forward to seeing future iterations of this evocative piece.

Vaudeville’s Rooftop Theatres

This great post, “New York’s Incredible Lost Rooftop Theatres,” from Messy Nessy Chic is a fun scroll-through.

One afternoon, in the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the NYPL, I became distracted from my task as I began flipping through an old rooftop garden profile in a theatre program. It went into elaborate detail about the bucolic agricultural scenes fabricated for the audience. The tableaux starred buxom young women actually milking cows. And, apparently, it was an immersive environment that blurred the line between performer and audience space.

Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library. (1895-1935).

Once my current writing obligations are squared away, I’ll return to this eccentric moment in popular performance history. In the mean time, Messy Nessy Chic’s post rekindled my interest in rooftop theatres and reminded me how deeply peculiar they were (and that Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Theatre was a fiscal hot mess).

As someone who studies circus aesthetics, I’m intrigued by the indoor/outdoor hybridity of the rooftops. What does that hybridity mean for the vaudeville acts that performed in these spaces? Did they transform audience reception and, if so how?


Epic Fail / Epic Success

In the 2017 Oscar Best Picture debacle, we can see so much about our expectations for the seamless seduction of the entertainment industry and the inertia working against disruptions of established power dynamics.

First, I think it is important to lead with professor Brittney Cooper’s article about Moonlight being robbed of its moment. It took much too long for the stage to be given over to the people who brought “Moonlight” to fruition. Winning Best Picture should have been a full celebration of a poignant film about a specific experience of Black life in Miami, Florida. Instead, a muddle of doubt and confusion delayed Moonlight taking the limelight. Director Barry Jenkins noted the delay of disbelief: “Very clearly, even in my dreams, this could not be true. But, to hell with dreams. I’m done with it, because this is true.”

It just so happens my Introduction to Theatre Studies class was slated to discuss Bertolt Brecht on Monday. For most millennial theatre students accustomed to realism and steeped in consumer capitalism, it’s difficult to get on board with Brecht’s urge to disrupt audiences’ expectations and reveal the theatre apparatus in order to “make strange” what seems automatic and natural. Thanks to the 2017 Oscars, I had a ready-made lesson plan about the emotional and political costs of disrupting the status quo. Eight hours after the award show’s conclusion, fifteen students and I were able to discuss what happens when a seemingly seamless illusion unravels.

We watched the whole six minutes of squirm-inducing anxiety, confusion, embarrassment, and inadequate celebration of Moonlight that was the Best Picture award. The moments of fissure began to mount. First, Warren Beatty’s long pause. Could he read the envelope? Was this an age issue? Was he OK? Or, was he inappropriately mugging? When he turned to Faye Dunaway, was he looking for support or passing the buck? The moment appeared resolved when Dunaway announced “La La Land!

The cognitive blip disappeared as the key players of La La Land promptly fell into the ritual of crowding the stage and taking turns at the microphone, thanking loved ones and supporters. But, wait, look at that man with a headset on stage! What was happening?! The moment you see a headset on stage at an awards show, you know there is a huge problem. Months of planning and scores of employees work strenuously to make the events seem effortless, to render invisible the labor involved in getting celebrities to appear glamorous and unruffled on stage. In epic theatre, Brecht wanted audiences to pay attention to that invisible labor, revealing the means of production that bring a theatrical event to life.

With no Brechtian intent, the 2017 Oscars Best Picture error had audiences asking themselves “How could this have happened? What is it actually like backstage? Wait, how do the envelopes get into the hands of the celebrities? Do they sit on a table, does someone hold onto them? Who is that person?” All of a sudden, audiences were compelled to think of all the work that goes into putting on a live show, even a fairly staid and uninteresting live show like the Oscars.

The confusion of Beatty and Dunaway, and the inadequate quips offered by Jimmy Kimmel in response to this crisis of liveness, point to how difficult it is to imagine alternative possibilities when confronted with entrenched institutions. Why not just say “I have the wrong envelope”? Because the show must go on. Why did the words “La La Land” stick out to Dunaway’s eyes more than the phrase “Best Actress, Emma Stone”? Because Dunaway, like most of us,  saw what she expected to see.

Last year #OscarSoWhite brought needed attention to the persistent institutional neglect of films made by and about people of color. Moonlight was lauded for the story it tells and the subdued luminance with which it tells it, but there was strong consensus that Hollywood would continue to honor a story about itself.

The most conventional nineteenth-century melodramas involve the wrong documents getting into the wrong hands, and the right documents eventually getting into the right hands. The 2017 Oscars offered a similar crisis, in which a last-minute reveal changed the fates of the characters and the larger meaning of the story being told. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the bizarro world of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz insisting “There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture. This is not a joke, Moonlight has won best picture.” And then, with the all-important evidence, Horowitz held the proof up to the camera, and reiterated “Moonlight, best picture.” Without the evidence of that heavy cardstock in hand, who could possibly have believed it?

From an epic disruption to a melodramatic reveal, this was certainly the most theatrical event of the evening, and one of the most theatrical in the history of the Oscars.

The New York Hippodrome!

As a vaudeville scholar, American hippodromes intrigue me. Their epic scale points to the propulsive consumption of spectacle during the early twentieth-century. I enjoyed reading Allison McNearney’s overview of the New York Hippodrome for The Daily Beast. One of my favorite research subjects, the German equestrian Therese Renz, made her US debut at the Hippodrome in 1906 before touring the Keith-Albee Circuit.

Applied Pedagogy: Black Lives Matter

Last Thursday, The CUNY Graduate Center’s Doctoral Theatre Students Association’s Professionalization Liaison, Margit Edwards, facilitated an applied pedagogy workshop on the topic of bringing #BlackLivesMatter into theatre and performance classrooms. Professors Erika Lin and Jim Wilson both contributed their expertise, and many students (and this alum!) attended.

Margit created a wonderful space of exploration and examination, beginning with the opportunity to share successes, concerns, and curriculum ideas via large newsprint post-its. The process of walking around the room, swapping markers, and doing our best to write legibly grounded the discussion in specifics while forging a productive and open space for discourse.

Along with my colleagues Stefanie and Janet, I presented a few curriculum ideas that I wrote up in a Google doc. There are so many ways to think about lesson plans, but I used a grid with five categories to help me organize my thoughts:

Learning Goal Necessary Background Assignment Prompt In class Discussion / Result Questions I still have

Within this rubric, I shared some of the resources that I include in my post “A Raisin in the Classroom.” We also discussed the continuing relevance of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, and how contemporary violence against Black women often remains invisible. This clip of Shange in conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry can be a strong tool for bringing for colored girls into the present day: Ntozake Shange on the prevalence of domestic abuse.”

Janet presented her robust Othello lesson plan, and others shared moments of tension and revelation in the classroom. This was a necessary and enriching event.

Hamilton’s Profit Sharing

This Bloomberg News piece, “How Hamilton‘s Cast Got Broadway’s Best Deal” is a great article for charting how the performers of Hamilton worked together to achieve retroactive resource distribution and royalty participation for future domestic productions based on their artistic contributions to the piece as it developed off-Broadway.

There are so many issues here! The messiness of collaboration, the fact that the letter itself was collaboratively composed, the classic use of a “buffer” beginning to an “ask” communication, the super shady way the head producer dropped off individual checks with a weird memo that made it seem like everything was over, the fact that the performers probably wouldn’t have known how to go about this and what to ask for if they didn’t have friends in Book on Mormon, and the dicey interpersonal dynamics.

This is a great article to assign for theatre and performance students and/or any communications class.