Four Notes on Six Conversations

In June 2023, I had the unexpected privilege of being able to sit down, in person, with six scholars in our field for a series of open-ended and wide-ranging conversations. The occasion was, nominally, a chance to reflect on the seventy-five years of Theatre Journal’s contribution to theatre scholarship; but over the course of my conversations with Rustom Bharucha, Jean Graham-Jones, Joseph Roach, Karen Shimakawa, Patricia Ybarra, and Harvey Young, what emerged was a multi-valenced probing of the past, present, and future of what has come to be known as theatre and performance studies. As a recently minted PhD, I was conscious of proverbially sitting at the feet of intellectual giants in our field and had planned on dutifully asking a series of pre-prepared questions: What has your experience with Theatre Journal been? What do you see as the role of scholarly journals today? What are your hopes for the next seventy-five years of the journal? As in only but the richest of conversations, what resulted exceeded the narrow bounds of such questions and I found myself sharing ideas, concerns, and hopes with my interlocutors that ran the gamut from redefining diversity to the collapse of public universities, the sidelining of theatre history to the tensions between scholarship and practice.

My task since that June has been to distill the knowledges generated from these conversations in order to share them with TJ readers and the field at large. To that end, I have produced a series of short videos drawn from these interviews (which I had the good fortune to be able to record) as well as publishing the transcripts of our conversations in hopes of building an archive of reflections on the state of the field that can serve scholars in years to come. In this short essay, I cannot do justice to the richness of this archive. What I can do, though, is distill the threads of conversation into four key considerations, each of which continues to linger with me. I hope by sharing these notes with you we can collectively consider—and create—what the next seventy-five years of the discourse on theatre and performance will be and the form it will take.

  1. 1. Dwindling, if not gone, are the days of receiving a journal like TJ in the mail, sitting down with a beverage of choice, and reading it cover to cover. Harvey Young suspects that perhaps only Ric Knowles still enacts that ritual of reading that was once dominant. For me, as a scholar raised in the keyword generation, reading a journal in its entirety has gone the way of listening to an entire album; instead, I usually just stream the hit single from Spotify (in this case, JSTOR or ProjectMuse.) A sense of loss surrounding this shift underpinned these conversations. What do we lose when we consume scholarship outside of its curatorial context? But in other ways, we have all benefited from the search-enginization of encountering scholarship, in no small part because we are now more likely, through algorithms and keywords, to encounter work from fields beyond our own; my own current book project’s central case studies were the results of erroneous hits on JSTOR that caught my eye and attracted my curiosity. My interlocutors also spoke to the need and desire for academic publishing to move to more open-access models. That shift, already underway with some publications (facilitated by moves like JSTOR’s free access to one hundred articles monthly for all registered users) holds the potential of lifting the paywall curtain that often keeps valuable work out of the hands of readers beyond the academy. Perhaps much more of the scholarship in our field would function as public-facing if the public could in fact access it.

  2. 2. Many of the interviewees spoke to the question of diversity in unexpected ways. Yes, several praised the progress made by Theatre Journal and its peer journals in widening the range of voices and contributors to the journal; Patricia Ybarra wryly recalled a special issue on Women in Drama published in 1990 that featured only one female author. Rustom Bharucha, however, incisively critiqued the notion of diversity as a US-centric concept, noting that mere diversity doesn’t achieve the greater and more necessary goal for functioning democracies: pluralism. Ybarra also astutely spoke to the need for diversity beyond the production of content or publishable topics; diversity needs to extend to supporting a wider range of editorial talent, not just those editors who are positioned at well-endowed institutions. This dovetailed to a shared awareness between interviewees that the past few decades have witnessed the loss of several flagship public university doctoral programs in our field. My interlocutors expressed a common concern that editors for journals like Theatre Journal are increasingly only able to be sourced from elite institutions due to the struggle to get sufficient institutional support.

  3. 3. On the subject of editing, this concern about support for editors was most adamantly articulated by Jean Graham-Jones’s clarion call for service through editorial roles. Scholarship, publication, and tenure all depend on the labor of editors who partner with authors to produce new and worthy work. Many of those I talked to fondly recalled their experience working TJ editors, reminding me that the best editorial interactions are truly collaborative and relational. Given that much of our research is conducted and written in isolation, the editorial relationship is a rare space where scholars work together to birth the best work possible. Graham-Jones speaks movingly to the joys of editing, while acknowledging the demands of time and labor; in her words, scholars should seek to serve as editors “while you still have the energy!” I share her hopes that this anniversary issue will inspire and encourage editors, both current and prospective across our field.

  4. 4. Finally, there were some recurring areas of chagrin around persistent divisions within the field. The first was a repeatedly voiced awareness that theatre history has become decentered—and perhaps displaced—within our scholarly discourse. Theatre Journal itself was once viewed as the home for theatre historiography research (with TDR functioning as the locus of performance studies scholarship). Now, with the proliferation of journals in the field and the performative turn, has theatre history been pushed out of its founding central role in theatre and performance studies? Has the field become too broad, with anything and everything counting as a form of  “performance”? How, and should, we fight to keep theatre history relevant, not only within our research but in our teaching and in our departments? In parallel, rigid distinctions between scholarship and practice that have emerged, as pointed out by Joseph Roach. No longer are those who conduct research necessarily engaging in the practice of theatre; the tension between the practitioners and the scholars seems to be a chronic malaise across many departments, especially when it comes to competing for shrinking pools of funding.

Access to scholarship, diversity and pluralism, the labor of editing, theory versus history—we did not arrive at conclusive answers to the questions surrounding these topics. But by articulating them here, I tentatively hope that perhaps the next seventy-five years will provide the space and incentive to continue to engage them in favor of great connection, clarity, and creativity, both artistic and academic, within the little corner of the world that we call theatre and performance studies.