On Editing, Paying it Forward, and Having Energy: A Conversation with Jean Graham-Jones, Former Editor

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.


Jean Graham-Jones (JGJ): I was coeditor and then editor of Theatre Journal from 2004 through the end of 2007. I worked first with Harry Elam and then with David Saltz. It was a wonderful experience. I really love the apprenticeship model. Being coeditor and actively producing issues—it’s such a relief to have that under your belt by the time you assume the editorship. But that wasn’t my first engagement with Theatre Journal. I first published an article with Theatre Journal in 2001, edited by Susan Bennett. It was from my revised dissertation, which turned into a monographic study, and I was writing about censorship and Buenos Aires, Argentine theatre, and theatre artists during the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983. I just submitted an article cold, as we all do. I sought to insert myself into a larger conversation. I’ll talk some more about that later on. But I really wanted to talk about Argentine theatre outside of a strictly Latin American theatre context, which is also a world I live in and love.

So that was my first experience publishing with Theatre Journal. Afterward, in 2014, I published another essay. Ric Knowles was the editor at that point, and that piece was about Argentine theatre during the latest socioeconomic crisis at the beginning of the twenty-first century. My students are always surprised: “You just submitted it like everybody else?” And I say, “Well, yeah, you’ve got to walk the talk.” I also published a performance review essay on the contemporary Buenos Aires theatre scene at the invitation of then-performance review editor Daniel Sack. That was a lot of fun. I think that was 2016. And my monographs have been reviewed in Theatre Journal as well. I’m currently on the editorial board, and I continue to serve as a peer reviewer. So I’m a big fan, and editing Theatre Journal remains one of the highlights of my entire academic career. It happened because after that first article was published, Janelle Reinelt, a former editor of Theatre Journal from a little bit before then sent me an email and said, “Jean, I think you should apply to be coeditor of Theatre Journal.” I said, “Wow, thank you. That’s a great idea. Someday I’ll do it.” And Janelle said, “No, do it now while you still have the energy.” So I have Janelle to thank for that connection.

Other things that I loved about my editing experience, other than getting to have these wonderful conversations with my colleagues, was getting to read an immense amount of work; you really do feel like you have your finger on the pulse of current scholarship and it’s truly energizing to be able to do that. I also felt that writing editorial comments required a different kind of writing: you’re speaking directly to your readers and writing on behalf of the journal. It was a remarkable and unusual exercise to write those editorial comments. With two general issues and two special issues a year, I spent—as editors do—a really long time thinking about what the focus of my special issues would be. Two, the first one and the last one, come directly out of my own work; I led off with a Latin American theatre special issue because that was my calling card and an opportunity to take a regional stand, and I ended with an issue on theatrical translation, which is also a space where I work and live.

The other two special issues I edited were not necessarily topics I was invested in yet, research-wise, though I subsequently became so I edited a special issue on hearing theatre and then another one on theorizing globalization through theatre. The hearing theatre issue came out of a conversation I had in passing with former editor David Román. David cycled off as editor as I cycled on as coeditor, and he told me how he had attempted during his tenure as editor to create special issues on theatre and its relation to the other arts. He edited an issue, for example, on theatre and dance. David told me, “I never could do one on theatre and music, because I couldn’t fill it.” Today, of course, we’d have no trouble, with the explosion in musical theatre studies. But back then I thought, “Okay, how could I do that?” I had just seen a performance in Buenos Aires of a group called Teatro Ciego, in English “Blind Theatre,” featuring primarily visually impaired and blind performers who perform in absolute pitch blackness. I loved it. I became energized thinking about all the non-visual senses. That led me to thinking about sound.

The hearing theatre issue, of course, has some musical theatre articles. David Savran has an article in there, for instance, but it also goes in other directions in terms of disability and D/deaf performance. I was very proud of that issue as I felt like I was carrying forward David Román’s idea. Then the other special issue, on theorizing globalization, I came up with because of the submissions we were receiving. More and more, I saw people—and of course, we’re talking about 2005—thinking about globalization and its effects on theatre going and theatre making. For that issue, I wrote my commentary on the 2005 World Social Forum and how, for the first time, they included arts and culture under their umbrella, so there was a lot of theatre. It was in Brazil, and Alisa Solomon and Melanie Joseph had come back talking about it. There was a lot going on. That became my internal case study, as it were. But I felt like that it also was responding to what I sensed was happening in the field.

Editing Theatre Journal—it’s like no other experience I’ve had. I’m thankful for it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s important.

Carla Neuss (CN): From my own experience, I submitted to Theatre Journal as a first-year master’s student very naively, and got a very lovely rejection letter from Joanne Tompkins. But I was so shocked to also get a whole page of feedback alongside the rejection. That’s really been a signature of Theatre Journal: that every paper gets feedback. Then when you do start the revise-and-resubmit process or on to acceptance, you’re usually working very closely with the editors on five or six drafts. Some of the other people I’ve spoken to say that’s such a special aspect of the Theatre Journal editing culture. I wondered if you wanted to speak to that.

JGJ: Well, I think, first of all, the editor and coeditor read every single submission, and we often would receive over one hundred a year. Every two weeks, Harry and I, and then David and I, would get on the phone and talk through every single submission. Unlike some other journals, Theatre Journal will send a submission back to the author for revision before it goes out for peer review. We thought some fixes would give authors a better shot of being more positively received by the peer reviewers. So there would be many stages of revise and resubmit. There could be two or more, and we were very, very involved.

I don’t know how it’s shifted in terms of the electronic process. I’ve seen with other journals where I think the personal touch has fallen away a bit because everything is electronic. You never really have direct access to the editor. I have to say, working with authors was one of the best experiences of my editorship. All the people I got to know made going to conferences so much fun because I had all these email acquaintances I now met in person. I think the editorial engagement is an important element and a real contribution to the field. There’s always been within Theatre Journal, at least in my experience, support for emerging scholars and an awareness of the demographics of our field—of who’s in our field, and striking a representational balance there. It’s also become more internationalized. We have non-US, non-Canadian, non-UK authors getting published, and I think for a journal that’s a flagship journal of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education [ATHE], we do have a responsibility to our colleagues in the field.

In terms of the question of how our discipline has grown and developed over the course of my career: my PhD is in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, and like many US-based Latin American theatre scholars, my first appointment was in a Modern Languages and Literatures department, at Florida State University, where they were enthusiastically supportive of my editing work and also of my work with the School of Theatre, where I acted and directed as well as taught and supervised dissertations. So it was truly interdisciplinary, which was a wonderful job for me. I’ve now been at the City University of New York’s [CUNY] Graduate Center for nineteen years, and I’m also on the faculty of the PhD Program in Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures, as well as holding a central appointment in the PhD program in Theatre and Performance Studies. I think my dual faculty status speaks directly to the Graduate Center’s commitment to disciplinary fluidity, but I also think that it attests to how our field has changed.

And theatre studies, I believe, along with performance studies, has really started opening itself up to those of us with different credentials. I have a PhD in Spanish precisely because there was no theatre program in the United States in the late 1980s that offered advanced study in Latin American and Peninsular Spanish theatre. So I found a program that had three or four different specialists in theatre. I was able to take classes from a literary vantage point, but I came to graduate school from a background of practice, as an actor and later as a director. UCLA’s Spanish and Portuguese department really was the place where I could take classes in, say, colonial Latin American theatre or Spanish Golden Age theatre or nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin American theatre, and so on, and find myself supported enthusiastically. There’s been a shift in that regard. I’m so proud that I now offer seminars in areas that I wish I could have taken classes in when I was in graduate school. We can do it now. I think my presence in a Theatre and Performance Studies program is really vital and important. It sounds a bit braggy, but I don’t mean it that way. I think we’re building these bridges that disciplinarily didn’t exist before. I feel like the silos between degrees are falling down. Even when I was at UCLA, there was nobody in theatre teaching Latin American theatre—[with the exception of] Edit Villareal, who is a playwright. She was a member of my dissertation committee and the only person in theatre that I could call upon. These days it’s completely different. There’s been a real shift, and not just in Latin American studies. The discipline has expanded, the field has expanded, and it needs to continue to do so. We need to train our students in performance and theatre beyond Broadway and prior to the twenty-first century, and we need to hire emerging scholars working in new fields or working in already established fields in new ways. We need to support these scholars by creating and protecting academic positions that provide them with stability so that they can flourish intellectually, pedagogically, and professionally. At this moment, we’re facing a gig industry and a gig economy. I worry a lot about that because scholars need stability. Scholars need protection. It’s a sensitive moment, even though we’re exploding as a field.

CN: Absolutely. To follow up on that, it’s something that has come up in some of my other conversations for his issue: how the field, which perhaps began as very rooted in theatre history, has moved to incorporate theory and performance studies. How have you experienced that shift within your own career, both as a scholar and as an editor?

JGJ: In my graduate studies at UCLA, I did a minor in literary theory, so I took a lot of classes through Comparative Literature and really worked with people coming from many different disciplines. I’ve always kind of had that in me. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Theatre Journal is that I’ve felt there was the expectation of a theoretical frame—it used to be stated explicitly if maybe not now, but it’s still there. I can see it. That makes it slightly different from some other journals with more of a historical or practical focus. Theatre Journal can have that focus, but it is also always theoretically inflected.

In terms of my own development, I became a theory junkie in graduate school. I loved it. I considered it the greatest form of mental gymnastics around. I gravitated toward that. Even though I wrote a historically inflected dissertation, I also worked a lot with theories of censorship, as well as what came out of Chile as the idea of counter censorship—which is not self-censorship—became very important, and I also took up some of narratological and post-structuralist theory. Nearly all my professors were post-structuralists (with some older structuralists thrown in), so working theoretically is a natural fit for me. I’m also a contextualist. Context is everything, in terms of theatre. I cannot (even though I have a degree in Languages and Literatures) read a play without thinking: where was this staged? Who was in the audience? Who was on the stage? What was going on outside the theatre? If it’s in a theatre, these are all really important questions to me, and my courses reflect that, too.

CN: What role do journals like Theatre Journal play in our discourse?

JGJ: I think it’s important to remember that Theatre Journal is, in a way, a generalist journal. It seeks to serve our field broadly. This idea, which is in the current mission statement of the journal, says it’s “an outlet for scholarship and criticism in the theatre arts.” There is a responsibility that Theatre Journal has to publish broadly. I think that’s actually very important. One of the reasons I submitted my first essay to Theatre Journal was because I wanted to insert Latin American theatre into the larger field and to engage in other conversations. There are journals that focus on the nineteenth century; there’s the Bulletin of the Comediantes, which publishes exclusively on Spanish Golden Age. I published in the Bulletin, but I really wanted to get into another kind of conversation. That larger conversation is very much part of Theatre Journal’s purview; but embracing the larger field poses a challenge. I mean, Theatre Journal is committed to publishing broadly, but that means its editors have to work more: good editors are at conferences, attending sessions, and encouraging presenters to submit their articles. They have to be active promoters of the journal. That’s a really important role that editors take on to keep the journal open and broad. And I love the balance between the general issues and the special issues because in a general issue you can publish something where it’s not quite in the field yet. It’s one person doing a very specific thing. Special issues allow you to really home in on something that’s a trend or a research obsession of the moment and build that conversation.

I also think that there’s a role [for editors] that has to do with peer review. As long as we have tenure and promotion based on publication, as long as we have academic institutions that rely on book and journal publishers to ratify the quality of individual scholarship, which is what peer review is, then peer-reviewed journals are fundamental. They serve a very real purpose in terms of promotion, tenure, stability, and access to jobs. For me, I think of journal editing and reviewing as a kind of paying it forward. I appreciate everything that others have done for me in reviewing my work, in writing letters of recommendation and reviewing my tenure and promotion portfolios. And I feel very strongly that that is something I want to give back by supporting other scholars who are coming up. I feel that way about editing; editing is a lot of work. It felt at times like a second job. I But it’s one of the greatest contributions we can make to the profession. I feel strongly about that, and I so appreciate a good editor. Good editors improve your scholarship. They not only disseminate it, but they also improve it.

I wanted to add that in the hearing theatre issue, we brought in some sound performance scholars like Allen Weiss, and there was Marla Carlson’s piece on “Ways to Walk New York after 9/11.” Both pieces incorporated recordings. I wanted to find ways to bring sound into the journal. I know it sounds like real baby steps, but Johns Hopkins [University Press] allowed us to have certain URLs embedded in the article so people could, in theory, listen while reading, and experience, say, the Janet Cardiff sound installation that Carlson was writing about. At that point, I think it was the first time Theatre Journal did [something like this], and I was so proud of that. But it was 2005, 2006. Today we have you, Carla, editing the whole online section. I’m really intrigued by where that’s going. I do think accessibility is always an issue there. I also think about how reading digitally has really changed how we read journals. Does anybody read a journal from the beginning to the end? What happens to the editorial comment if we’re all just doing keyword searches and finding an article and just reading that article out of its publication context? I do that, everybody does that. But how is that shifting how we conceptualize an issue of a journal? I think that’s a challenge that I’m sure Theatre Journal and other journals are facing right now: how are you getting people to access the online supplementary material and engage with that? I think Johns Hopkins [University Press] needs to confront that as well. It’s not just the journals. Theatre Research International gives you the option at a much reduced price to just have the digital, and I’m going digital just because even though I have a whole bookcase full of journals, I’m accessing them electronically and not pulling them off my shelf. I’m curious to see how this unfolds beyond the question of accessibility: what happens conceptually to the Journal and journal editing in general? I’d love to have a meeting with all the journal editors in Theatre and Performance Studies to talk through just that issue. That’d be a good ATHE session.

Open access is a fantastic possibility. I remember how resistant everyone was eight years ago, saying, “Oh no, how do we protect intellectual property?” Now almost everybody’s of course saying, put it out there. Ultimately, my goal with my scholarship is to have it read, right? I have a day job, and I’m not a for-hire writer in that sense. One of my books was published in Spanish translation in Argentina by the National Theatre Institute. Their published books are distributed freely without cost to all of the public libraries throughout the country. The fact that my book is in every single public library in Argentina thrills me no end. You can go by their offices and get your own copy for free. They’re free books. I thought I’d died and gone to publishing heaven.

CN: That’s amazing that they have that infrastructure. Our next question is: what areas would you like to see publications develop more in and—building on that or even separately—how are we approaching and how should we continue to approach the call for intersectional and anti-racist practices?

JGJ: To speak to the first part of your question, I think that journal editors need to always be reaching out to potential authors. You can’t wait for submissions, and I include all editors in that. I’m always a little disappointed when I see a book review editor, for example, who has assigned reviews based on queries or whoever wrote and asked to review that book, rather than taking a proactive approach to soliciting reviews. I’ve actually worked with my students sometimes on this, counseling them against reviewing a book just because it’s a free book. But there’s the politics of it as well. There’s a power dynamic. It’s asymmetric if a graduate student negatively reviews a book by someone with a lot of power in the field—that can hurt their career. I also feel that it’s a validation when someone who really knows your particular field reviews your book, in the sense that that person is likely one of the people you want to have a conversation with. So that review constitutes one side of that conversation that will be continued. I think it’s important that editors actively seek out submissions and are really present. There’s a kind of presence that’s required of the role. I know that certain journals support editors financially, or the publishers give some money to help with the costs of traveling to conferences because it is expensive. Why should a journal editor doing all this already-unpaid work incur further costs?

But also, to go to the second part of the question, I think that a journal like Theatre Journal is beautifully positioned to support intersectionality and anti-racism and other diversity, equity, and inclusion practices across the academy. The commitment to the field at large can align the journal with such practices on a practical level. I wonder if the editors might consider, and maybe they already have, publishing more forums and round tables. I did two of them and, yes, it was a lot of work, but they offer ten to fifteen brief interventions on a single question or topic. It is a way of getting many voices into a conversation and hearing from scholars who are established and up and coming, as well as including emerging scholars and other voices. I think that plurality is important and that’s one obvious format for doing it. Also, some of those forums in Theatre Journal have proven very useful to me in the classroom. I consider them a curricular state-of-the-field tool. You read all of them and talk about them, and it’s a great opening for a class. I do think that the online section has the added benefit of getting more voices into the conversation in different formats, with interviews, for example, or video essays. I do think that if Theatre Journal truly honors its commitment to the larger field, it will be honoring a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, anti-racist practices, and intersectionality. That’s something I think is actually at the heart of the Journal and should be visible in its publications.

As editor, I remember (because the Journal was accountable to ATHE) that the editor would deliver a report to the Governing Council of ATHE at the annual conference. Part of that report was a review of number of submissions. Who submitted? Where did they submit from? At what point in their career are they? It allowed me as editor, and the coeditor, to reflect back upon that and ask: are we publishing as broadly as we could? Are certain scholars seeing themselves reflected in the journal and therefore submitting or being encouraged to submit? It’s so important to demystify the process. I work with my students a lot on this. Revise and resubmit is not rejection. My students bring the peer reviews or they bring emails from the editors to me, and I help them decipher their language. Having been an editor, I can better read between the lines. But that’s part of understanding the process. It’s on the editors to help demystify the process, not make it more byzantine.

CN: Speaking of your students, I’m interested in the role of articles and journals like Theatre Journal in your pedagogy. Some of that really depends on what institution you’re at, and the types of students you’re engaging with, at the undergraduate or graduate level. How do you see the relationship between the journal and articles as a knowledge form and how that enters the classroom?

JGJ: I teach exclusively at the doctoral level now, so of course, journal articles are a key feature of my syllabus. The students have three fields that they customize for their qualifying exam, each with a different faculty advisor, and they create a field statement and a reading list. Those lists always include articles, not just books, because articles actually come out much more quickly. They allow you to see what’s going on now, whereas a book may take five years to come out, and edited collections take even longer sometimes. Articles are where you see what’s happening right now. So I talk to students about the importance of different modes of publication. But my students are already embracing it at the doctoral level.

At the undergraduate level, the articles fulfill a different function. I probably would say that I’m pulling from them more than the students are, and I bring them to the classroom and sometimes students will engage on that level. But often we’re working with primary documents like plays or performance videos. Sometimes students will, if they’re writing a research paper, talk about articles. But I remember that, as an undergraduate, I had no idea that my professors were publishing in journals. I got to graduate school, and one day, in my twentieth-century Latin American theatre class, we were reading an article by one of my undergraduate professors. And today I think, “Wow, so he was publishing in Latin American Theatre Review, where I now publish and I’m on the editorial board, and I had no idea.” So sometimes working with undergrads, I’ll drop that in so they have something of a sense of what it is we professors do.

In that same moment in graduate school, I remembered what had happened when I had been on my sophomore year abroad in Colombia, and I had to write an independent project, a thirty-to-fifty-page paper. I wrote it and turned it in, and this very same professor said, “I think you could publish this.” And I went, “Oh.” And he said, “Let me read it again.” And he gave it back to me. This is where I’m sympathizing with my students. When he gave it back to me, all I saw was red ink, and it went into a drawer and I never looked at it again. Then I got to graduate school and realized, “Oh my God, that’s the journal [he recommended and had published in].” But I was nineteen and interested in other things. That now-dated article informed everything else I did because it was on the new theatre, on the politicized part of a much larger Latin American political theatre, collective creation, and that kind of work. The practitioners were older than me, but they were the gods at the moment in Colombia as theatre practitioners. And I had discovered theatre in Colombia seeing their plays. I was a total novice, and I decided to interview each one, and they were very nice to me. They let me participate in workshops. I even slept in one of their dressing rooms for a while because I couldn’t afford a place to live. The kind of thing you do when you’re eighteen or nineteen. Years later, I think I wrote about this in my first editorial comment for Theatre Journal. The Colombian playwright, Enrique Buenaventura, who was one of the big theatre practitioners of that moment, I ran into him at a gathering at UC Irvine, and when I kind of worked up the courage as a graduate student to go up to him and reintroduce myself, he claimed to remember me. He says, “You interviewed me. Do you still have those questions?” I said I can’t possibly give you those questions. They are so basic and naive that I would be mortified. But in some way, they inspired the rest of my career, both as a practitioner and as a scholar.

I was just thinking today, I have five people writing dissertations with me right now. Three of the five are working on areas related to Latin America, and the other two are working transnationally, one in disability and D/deaf performance and the other on documentary theatre and rehearsal room practices for documentary theatre, but with Native American and Palestinian collaborations—so theatre in war zones, in conflict zones. I’m just so happy that they’re all working across cultures. We are training the future Latin Americanists in addition to other practitioners. That to me is really important.

CN: We’re on to our final question we’ve spoken a little bit to this already, but what hopes you would have for the next seventy-five years of Theatre Journal, in terms of the ways it needs to grow or new directions you want to see? 

JGJ: We’ve talked about challenges in terms of the digital. Open access—I don’t see it as a challenge, I see it as an opportunity, as well as digitization and digital platforms. I think those are all great opportunities for journals. Minds are going to have to shift a bit about it and really embrace that. But I also feel that Theatre Journal should be very proud of itself, if we can give it some consciousness, and I hope it continues to flourish. I hope it remains the leading journal I consider it to be in our field. I’m very proud to have been associated with Theatre Journal. I learned an immense amount in all those different ways I have discussed. I’m always thrilled when colleagues and students publish in Theatre Journal, which they have. I think it’s important that it keep working to engage in current critical debates and conversations. That must be active. It cannot be passive. Attracting top-notch, intellectually generous scholars as editors, not only authors. I would love it if our conversation inspires others to apply to be an editor, because it’s hard to find editors. But I think it’s really important that we do that work. I think paying it forward matters: somebody has to peer review your articles, your books, your manuscripts, et cetera. And I hope that Theatre Journal continues publishing scholarship at the forefront of our field. I mean, every journal has peaks and valleys, but I think there is a real consistency to Theatre Journal of good quality, of good work, of sometimes taking risks—which is also really important—not just sitting back and letting it come to you. I think ongoing experimentation will be very important for the next seventy-five years.

CN: Absolutely. Can I just ask—because you’re the only previous editor I’m interviewing for this issue—what is your pitch for why anyone should apply to be an editor, of on any level, for a journal in our field?

JGJ: I encourage everyone to think about editing. Editing is a skill that makes us better writers. I learned a lot about writing from editing, and I think it has absolutely improved my work. It’s made me more human about it. You see what’s out there. You are interacting with people who are at different stages of their careers and learning how to communicate. I just really think it’s an important job. When I was editor of Theatre Journal, Joe Roach would come up to me at conferences and say, “Jean, you’re doing God’s work.” And I’d say, “Thank you, Joe,” because he really appreciates what it is to edit. To be a book review editor, a performance review editor, online editor, digital editor, you learn a lot as well, and maybe it’s not quite as terrifying. I will say that I think Theatre Journal has a remarkable structure in having the coeditor interact with the editor from the start. We really felt like we were equals. The editor was the public face of the journal. The editor was the one who wrote certain emails. The editor appeared at certain meetings and served on certain panels, but it was always a team so that by the time I became editor, I felt confident. It’s daunting if you’re an associate editor and you don’t do much except read the occasional articles and maybe edit one special issue, and then you become editor. I don’t know how I could have done that. Theatre Journal’s [structure] is a really great model. Anyone who is thinking about becoming an editor or wanting to give back to the field, or wanting to enter into an ongoing conversation with the field, should apply to be coeditor of Theatre Journal because you actually get that kind of support. Yeah. How’s that pitch? Is that okay?

CN: Absolutely perfect.

JGJ: I have one more note: if nothing else, I hope this interview has inspired some of our colleagues to apply to be an editor. Do it now while you still have the energy, to quote Janelle Reinelt.