Capaciousness, Access, and Pedagogy: A Conversation with Karen Shimakawa

This interview was conducted in June 2023 at Yale University through the support and generosity of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, UCLA, and ATHE; it has been edited for clarity and length.

Carla Neuss (CN): Thank you again for coming and considering these questions. You’ve had a long interaction with Theatre Journal over your career.

Karen Shimakawa (KS): I think I got my first publication there while I was still in graduate school, which was really formative. One of my advisors was David Román, and he was instrumental in helping me start to even think about publication. I got a “revise and resubmit” and I thought it was a rejection. And so I took it to David and he said, “No, read it more carefully.” And so I went back and it was one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had with a journal. The editors were so kind and respectful, and took the time to really work with me and that was so important to me. Beyond that particular publication, itself, Theatre Journal really shaped how I approach academic publishing. It made me think about how it’s so easy, as a reviewer when you’re doing blind reviews, and especially if you have a lot of deadlines, to just be very curt, blunt, and at times unhelpfully forceful in your comments. And thinking about it from the recipient’s side, when it might be one of their first journal submissions, a reader’s report sets the tone for them in terms of how to be a professional, and models how to be collegial.

And then in terms of the content of Theatre Journal, it has been so formative for me. It’s how I learn about other people who are working on things that might be of interest to me. I read about playwrights I’ve never heard of before and [different] ways of doing work and writing about work. I think one of the things I appreciate about TJ is that, at least in my experience, it has been consistently a place where people with a lot of different interests in theatre studies cross paths; it’s not really area specific or geographically specific in those sorts of ways. So I get to encounter people and works that I wouldn’t just happen across in the library because through the Dewey Decimal System or something like that. And I really like the way it seems to be committed to publishing across the ranks; there are many people [published there] who are graduate students, who are early career scholars, but there’s still robust representation of senior people in the field. And I feel like that’s becoming increasingly rare but is very important.

CN: Absolutely. How do you feel like the research part of our discourse is changing, based on where it’s been and where you hope it goes?

KS: I think I’m biased because I’m now in performance studies and so take this with a grain of salt: I think that the field of theatre studies, including what’s represented in Theatre Journal, has become increasingly capacious. What counts as theatre—the kind of theatre, the style of theatre, the genres of performance—has really expanded, but also the voices of the people who are contributing to the journal. Who has something smart to say about performance is really quite diverse. And so I appreciate the way Theatre Journal and the field have really come to think [in more diverse ways]. I’m teaching an undergraduate performance class right now so I think about this a lot because students come into the class expecting to only study things that are primarily scripts and that are getting performed on a proscenium stage. And it’s so much fun to blow their minds with everything else that is also part of performance. Having scholarship that is available to me in journals like Theatre Journal helps me in helping them expand their minds about theatre.

I also think geographically [the field] has been expanding. There are so many more lines of communication available, that make it possible for more people to learn about performance globally. And then again, speaking purely from my own position and my take on theatre studies and what I see in Theatre Journal, I firmly believe that queer studies and critical race theory have a very special—not exclusive but particular—intersection or set of intersections with embodied practices like performance. And it has been really nice to see more and more representation of work coming from those theoretical perspectives, as well as all the new media/new technologies work that’s coming out now. I think [those theoretical perspectives] have so much to contribute in terms of better understanding what embodied performance both feels like and looks like, and what it means to different people. That kind of scholarship has been really invigorating to me.

CN: In terms of diverse voices and diverse topics, there’s still a lot of work to be done to think through what we as a discipline need to push into more. I am curious about your thoughts on that.

KS: I think that academic publishing needs to grapple with issues of accessibility and affordances of several kinds. There are so many more ways of accessing information than when I started out. The long form, heavily citational article is still important. It’s my mode of choice and it’s what I try to teach my students. But I fear that that kind of scholarship has become more and more rarefied and risks speaking only to its own constituency. It is becoming increasingly clear that there are other styles and sites of learning, by traditional students and people outside of academia. So I would love to see academic publishing, in general, find work toward proliferating points of access. In addition to diversifying the kinds of “students” (academic or otherwise) who can access (or see themselves reflected in) our work, I hope our scholarship continues to engage directly the artists making performance. I see sometimes artists getting turned off by scholarship because it seems to be having a separate conversation over their heads, or that isn’t really even about them or their work. I have a lot to learn from them, and I want them to think that we have something to offer. Obviously, I’m talking about them as if these are two mutually exclusive groups, but there are plenty of people who do both.

Still, I do fear that academic publishing is diverging from the practice in ways that I think would be a shame. It would be a loss. As for where it needs to go in terms of content, I’m constantly blown away by people who are creating work, both academic and artistic, from perspectives I haven’t heard before because they’ve been under-represented or underfunded or underproduced or they’re just new. I’m not a huge proponent of representation for representation’s sake. But I think there are some exciting new voices out there who are expanding the field. Playwrights of color, queer and trans playwrights and scholars who are coming from those perspectives, people from outside the US, and non-English speaking performance…TJ has always served as a conduit for that work, and I’m grateful for it. That is the way to keep the field vital. I think for those of us who are academics in the field, our job is not necessarily to teach our students particular sets of texts, especially at the PhD level. I’m not necessarily delivering to them a body of work, I’m training them how to continue to spark curiosity. And so you need new things to keep you curious, right? And there’s an infinite world of things to learn that we don’t know yet. So I think it is not diversity for its own sake or for a political banner. It’s actually the raw material for the work that we do.

CN: Thank you for that. I love hearing you talk about how articles and journals can be brought into the classroom pedagogically. I’d love to hear more about how you approach that.

KS: I love teaching journal articles. I love teaching whole books too. But journal articles I think have a very special place, and at different levels. So for graduate students who want to write this stuff, they have to learn the genre. I think there’s something about the size of an idea—you start to get a gut feeling for what constitutes an article sized chunk of thinking rather than a seminar paper or a conference presentation. These are obviously on a continuum, but giving students a sense of the genre is important. So I will do really close readings of journal articles in my classes, not only for content but to really take them apart structurally, forensically thinking [through] what an article needs to do. At the undergraduate level, I will teach excerpts if the content will be very theoretically dense and I won’t have enough time in the space of a semester or syllabus to really walk them through entire articles. But even when the [articles are] advanced, I find they are excellent exercises for teaching close reading. Above and beyond whatever the content is, I like teaching that skill because I find it really empowers students to feel like academic work is accessible to them.

I don’t know about other people, but I think for many of us during the pandemic, it seemed like the right thing to do was, for lack of a better term, to sort of pull back. There was a moment for that; there were contexts where I think that was necessary. We just had to slow down because people had too many other things to do, under-grads included, just to keep themselves physically and emotionally healthy. But I’m trying to get back to giving them the sense that “you can do this—this thing that at first blush seems really hard and is written over your head—you can actually do this.” Sometimes it might mean just taking a paragraph [to read and analyze] or something like that. I find that can be a really satisfying way of teaching. But on a content level, the kind of articles that are in journals like Theatre Journal are really helpful because there is both the activity of learning how to read or write that kind of essay, but it’s also applied. Oftentimes there is a performance text that we can also share. And it’s a really interesting way to see what the relationship is [between an article and a performance text]. I try to only teach things where I have video material available rather than just the script so that we can really talk about what’s not in the text, about what the performance has to offer that the text doesn’t. So we can think of these things as different components of a larger kind of research topic.

CN: I think that makes so much sense and even solve some practical things I’m always thinking through, like how can we ask students to write arguments if they’re not reading arguments? I really like the idea of using media so their reading energy is going to reading arguments and scholarship.

KS: It’s really fun. One of the things that a TA of mine developed and then I stole it and started using at both the grad level and the undergrad level is just straight up object description: describe a performance and try to think about the relationship between forming an argument and describing a performance, noticing how and where these activities overlap. At the graduate level, I find students sometimes want to go straight to the argument and say, “Here’s my interpretation of this performance.” And as a reader, I say, “Well, that’s an interesting idea but I have no idea what the performance looked like.” So it’s really getting them to slow down and convey in its fulsomeness what a live performance or even a screen performance is in the experience of it. On the other hand—and it’s not like they’re qualitatively distinct but I see this more in undergraduate classes—students sometimes think they don’t have a perspective, or they see their perspective as separable from the performance itself. So trying to get them to be really thoughtful about unpacking a description and then seeing where your opinion is working into how you saw this or that detail—it’s a fun exercise. I was actually having a conversation with one of my students last week and we were both saying that it’s a really fun and in some ways an impossible assignment: you’re asking somebody to put in linear sentence form something that didn’t unfold in that way for you. But you can take that as a fun challenge.

CN: I love that. And when you’re choosing articles for, say, the undergraduate level, how do you approach that? Are you just thinking through the density of the material and what’s going to be the right balance of being challenging but not totally overwhelming?

KS: Yes. I mean I often find myself drawn to things from names I don’t recognize, from scholars that are maybe more junior or even if I’m teaching a well-worn play, then [I find] a newer take on it, something that came out in a more recent journal article. That’s because when I’m teaching theory, I’m often teaching the theory itself. So I’d rather teach those things as the theory itself. And then teach these newer works by people who maybe haven’t yet published their first book.

CN: That’s such a wonderfully egalitarian ethos. 

KS: I figure the more names I can get on a syllabus, the better. It’s just more interesting and more fun for all of us. I’m always fighting the urge to have a preformed take on any given subject when I’m putting a syllabus together, even when I have one. My job is not to indoctrinate my students into my take. Instead, I’m trying to give them a bunch of different ways of coming at it, even if I don’t agree with all of them.

CN: What hopes would you have for the next seventy-five years of Theatre Journal?

KS: As I said before, I do think that TJ serves as a vital conduit, a point of asynchronous conversation for people at different ranks, in different places academically, but also in terms of different discussions of performances that are going on all over the place. One of the things I often am a little scoldy about with my own students—and I think I’m really projecting because it’s something I tend to fall into myself—is that, because I’m based in New York, there’s a tendency to write about very small, very self-contained, downtown New York performances. And my concern about that is that access to those performances can become a certain kind of capital: “I saw this, I was there. You weren’t. Let me tell you about it.” And this becomes a thing of value. I was talking to one of my students about this and his response, which I thought was really insightful, was, “Yes, but there’s also a way to write about it that is sharing the knowledge that was produced in that performance, sharing it out to a wider audience that might be able to do something different with it.” And then he said, “And besides, you don’t get to see things that happen in other towns.” And I thought, that’s really true. That asynchronous in-print platform serves as a place where we can actually share the thing that I have over here that you couldn’t attend. But I can give you something of it and I can benefit from what you can tell me about what happened in your space. And I think the more of that that can happen, not only regionally, not only nationally, but internationally, the better. My language skills are shamefully limited, so I only work in English—but maybe AI will even help us work in multiple languages with other scholars. I would love to see that function expand: to be in this kind of network communication where we can all learn and teach about performance everywhere. I will never get to some of these places, but if I can learn about them through things I read in these journals, it’s fantastic. So yeah, I think that’s what I would like to see: new/wider conversations across difference contexts..

CN: Yes, absolutely. Thinking of the journal as a technology for sharing and accessing knowledge is such a rich concept.

KS: It’s really exciting. And not just [in terms of] geographic space, but in other kinds of spaces: really small community theatres that I can’t get to, or different kinds of artists, different kinds of theatre productions or performances of all kinds, that are inaccessible to me other ways. The whole function of the journal is communication. And I think the more things there are to communicate, the better. It’s very simplistic, but that’s what I would like.

CN: Thank you so much. This has been a really wonderful conversation. And I loved the dive into pedagogy as well. It has all my wheels turning.

KS: It’s fun talking about this with you. I guess at the moment I’m feeling like teaching is the best part of the job.