The Long View—Recollections, Remembrances, and Recommendations for Theatre Journal: A Conversation with Joseph Roach

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.


Joe Roach (JR): My first article was in Theatre Journal in 1976. Virginia Scott was the editor—the late and great Virginia Scott, the first female editor. That was a moment, because at the time of the founding of Theatre Journal the field was a boys’ club. The founding members of ASTR, for instance, included only two women, Vera Mowry Roberts and Helen Krich Chinoy, both visionaries, both leaders, both pathbreakers for everyone else, women and men. Then Virginia [Scott] became editor and took a chance on an article from a brand new assistant professor, who thought he knew everything, of course. She was very good, a firm but imaginative editor. And every point in my career since, I’ve tested out my ideas in Theatre Journal, until more recently.

For decades my association [with ATHE and Theatre Journal] was close and really exciting. I was on the publications committee for the new iteration of ATHE and then we had a real moment when the journal was under its next female editor, Sue-Ellen Case. She took a highly theoretical direction and that put it at odds with a lot of the membership—both with conventional theater historians and the traditional practitioners within the organization who were continuing to do great work. It’s just that many of them couldn’t make the turn to a poststructuralist, Marxist, feminist polemical policy. At that point, I was on the publications committee and Beverley Byers-Pevitts was the chair and we came up with the idea for another journal, Theatre Topics, which would speak to the membership that felt excluded—”We not only can’t publish in Theatre Journal, we can’t read it.” And we felt their pain.

One of the great coups of that era was Sue-Ellen publishing Judith Butler before [they were] Judith Butler, very early on. It was one of [their] first publications, and in retrospect, this was, I think almost everyone agrees now, a visionary and far-reaching editorial move to make the journal open to another kind of thinking, another kind of discourse. But at the time it was very controversial. The answer to that was not to silence anybody, but to create a space in which practitioners especially could share their work and the discoveries they had made in doing their work. Theatre Topics was [founded as] a venue for that.

Theatre Topics, in a way, is Theatre Journal as it was originally conceived. The early editors—Barnard Hewitt, Hubert Heffner, H. Darkes Albright, and James Clancy—were scholar-practitioners, and that was typical of ATA in those days.1 It’s typical of my career. That’s how I started out. My [first Theatre Journal] article was published when I was a first-year assistant professor, but I did not attend my first academic conference until after I got tenure. I was working as a director and tenured as a director; the scholarship was secondary and I was putting up shows all the time. That wasn’t unusual in my era. My mentor, Marvin Carlson, directed me in three plays while I was in graduate school. We always thought of Theatre Journal as a place where that kind of scholar could publish, unlike the journals which had a much more literary [approach]. It was exciting to have a journal that recognized performance and to have a journal that was edited by people we knew and went to the same conferences with.

Looking back on it, [Theatre Journal’s] iterations ever since have really been a way of always engaging with and imagining performance. After the theory moment, the performance studies moment came fairly rapidly, and there was more contention over that. [There was a question as to whether] Theatre Journal should be publishing the kind of thing that TDR was publishing, and there was, I think, dissent over that. Although I don’t think [it was] ever as deep as the dissent over theory. But all of these things I thought were ultimately productive, in that dissent clarifies thinking—having to state where you are and what you stand for. So throughout my career—until near the end—I continued to put my first work on a subject in Theatre Journal. It must have been around five or six [articles], and each of them was a milestone for me. After Ginnie Scott, my Theatre Journal editors were Alan Woods, James Moy, Sue-Ellen Case, W. B. Worthen, Loren Kruger, and Harry Elam, Jr., and I am indebted to them all.

Carla Neuss (CN): It really strikes me that the lifespan of the journal overlaps with your career and overlaps with the development of the field across these different phases and eras: from theatre history studies into the theoretical turn and then into performance studies. You really have the long view of that, how Theatre Journal engaged with those shifts.

JR: Yes, that’s right. When I think of it, the excitement at each stage was accelerated by the turnover of editors. There are real disadvantages to that. The turnover made for a great variety of editors and in some ways a debate, if not a dissension, when the next editor was appointed: which part of the scholarly community would the editor come from? Some people, of course, had real investments in one or the other [side of the field]. What I’d hoped would happen is it would never become a place which was exclusionary of any of the work. So I have mixed feelings about the way Theatre Journal has done a lot more in what I would identify as performance studies. I think it’s great, but I’d rather see a Venn diagram than a complete overlap, rather than just being another journal that is a performance studies journal. Theatre is in the title, and it should be honored in the [journal]. I’d look for a mix there rather than one over the other.

CN: One thing I’ve observed serving in an editorial capacity is [that] there’s now such a proliferation of journals, but maybe in the [19]70s and [19]80s there were only two or three journals. But now there’s actually been some challenges in figuring out which of, say fifteen journals, to submit to, especially for emerging scholars.

JR: You’re right. It’s great, because [the field and discourse] accommodates a lot of work and different kinds of work. But it would be an ideal world in which each of those journals has its own special approach that’s accommodating to many different points of view, but has an [overarching] editorial perspective. That’s one of the disadvantages of the change of editors. On the other hand, Richard Schechner has been editing TDR since 1962.

CN: Yes, they are opposite models when you think about it. [With] Theatre Journal, the editorial pair changes every two years.

JR: The time we got into real trouble was when a number of editors in a row were assistant professors, not yet tenured. That really was a strategic error. Imagine being an untenured assistant professor trying to put together a career and get that first book out. I think probably part of the problem was it came simultaneously with the expectation of the first book and the second book. That was new, because the field had changed so much. My first teaching load was four and three [courses per semester], production included or even really on top of that. So there wasn’t a lot of time for [publishing]. The field had to bend to accommodate the pressure, and the expectations for publication. And the journal was operating before that really consolidated. Some editors got, I think, a bad deal out of that because they were so overloaded. It was so hard for them to do their own work along with all the things that go into editing the journal.

CN: It seems like, in some ways, you have the sense that theatre studies and theatre history has lost some of their predominance in the field, with the rise of theory and performance studies. But in terms of you own work, you’re both an incredible theatre historiographer and a theoretical thinker. Your career has included both.

JR: It always has seemed all connected to me, and with production and practice as well. I write about the work I do, either directly or indirectly. The research that I do as a historian feeds into my productions. So it’s always seemed like one thing to me, although with different aspects, but I’m open to those who are more concentrated [in their focus]. I do think that the field has become more presentist. I’m okay with that because it’s good work. I’m excited by it. But I do think that history is probably being de-emphasized more than is healthy for the ecology of the mind.

CN: This segues really well into some of the questions I have about the state of the field and the sort of work you would like to see happening, especially with regards to theatre history if, in some ways, it has dropped out of contemporary scholarship a because of a presentist lens. What sort of work would you like to see in, let’s say, the next seventy-five volumes of Theatre Journal? And what do you feel are the sort of lacunae that should be filled?

JR: I think that the opportunity now, in part because of our present political moment, is that I hope it will make scholars more acutely aware of a philosophy of history; we’re living in the past in many ways, and you have to deal with it. And I hope that that theatre history studies will come back a bit more. But never as it was—I don’t think we’ll go back to the empiricist theatre history that was so rigorously anti-theoretical, even anti-intellectual. I hope we won’t go back to the divide between theatre history, which had a different development and origin, and scholarship in drama. Theatre history evolved from theaterwissenschaft—the empiricist, positivist, very rigorous, archaeological and to some degree, art historical, approach to theatre history. You found out what the Greek theatre was, what those ruins really meant, and reconstructed them, or [Shakespeare’s] Globe, and you reconstructed that. And if you were reconstructing the Globe, you weren’t terribly interested in the plays except for the stage directions that told you something about the theatre building. At the same time, the literary basis of drama studies meant that there was a real resistance to and contempt for empiricist research in theatre history. Those two camps squared off in various ways at various times, often around different authors—mainly Shakespeare, in the English speaking tradition. And we could reconstruct those battles, but I would like to see them in more productive conversation.

CN: It does strike me that you’ve been in an English department as a theatre scholar. My own training is in English literature, and one reason I got my doctorate, not in English, but in theatre and performance studies was the freedom to be transhistorical. When you’re applying for jobs in English departments, as I’ve done, [you’re asked]: What is your time period? And you can get stuck in there.

JR: That’s very observant and very true. English departments still, even to this day, have the coverage model. With a large faculty, you can afford that kind of specialization. And it’s tremendously productive for research. It imposes a rigor because you’re going deeper and deeper into the subjects covered. So, that is one model, and it has real power. Theatre will never have the scope of faculty to have that level of specialty.2 In many departments, we’re lucky to cover thousands of years of history with one person. A resignation or a death can really, really damage even some of the most established programs because the number of faculty is so limited, which is why Theatre Journal and Theatre Survey have to take a broad view of what constitutes the field. 

CN: That returns us to the idea of what would you like to see more research on moving forward.

JR: Well, first of all, I want to see more research based on a passionate vision; what the young kids are excited about. That’s what I want to see: stimulating topic areas. I’m glad as a dissertation director to guide and to suggest and to offer opportunities, but it’s my philosophy of education that you don’t put into, you don’t pour into, and you certainly don’t cram into: you draw out of what’s already there. I want people to be excited about what they’re doing, and it has to be a discovery. They have to find it.

I also think we’re poised to make a big move beyond what we’ve seen before in the way in which theory, history, ideological critique, social critique, and cultural critique are woven together. The topics that excite me the most are those that have all of those things functioning in one way or another, in one degree or another—that offer a real sophisticated sense of what the intellectual opportunities are in the field. And that makes it an easier step to make a new contribution. To find a new way of looking at those established modes of thought. I’m very excited about the work that I’m seeing. Of course, I’m seeing it as a reader of journals. Just a week ago I finished with my last direct advisee, though I’m still consulting with other graduate students. What I’m excited about [for graduate students] is that they’re coming out of undergraduate programs with an absolute command of literature—in terms of scope of drama, scope of theatre history, scope of theoretical discourse—that it took me a lifetime to acquire. They are also braver, smarter, of necessity because they have to get it right so fast.

CN: In terms of thinking about theatre history—and maybe this is a broader question that’s always circulating around the humanities generally—how and what do we look back to the past for? How do we get a new generation of students to care about the past and make those connections? I’m curious, over your career and the students you’ve worked with, how have you seen that work? Especially as it seems to be a perennial question the circulates around the anxiety over the relevance of the humanities. How have you engaged students to look backwards and not just forwards?

JR: Well, the way that it has worked for me, when it’s worked—and it hasn’t always—is putting history in conversation with everything else we’ve talked about and certainly with dramatic literature…there’s always a symbiotic relationship and I’ve always, even indeed from undergraduate days, been interested in theory, although we didn’t call it that. We called it Brecht, Stanislavski, and Appia. In that way, the theatre was more theoretical than any English department. The theatre department was reading theory. We were reading theory when English department faculty were still looking up “signifier,” because the structure of performance and the history of the discipline put us in contact with a lot of discursive texts.

CN: That’s such a good point, the idea that because of the coupling of texts and practice that we see in theatre, it’s been a self-theorizing field. We start with the Poetics. Literature starts with The Odyssey. Those are different forms of writing.

JR: That’s right. In many theatre departments in days of yore, there was a course in theory and criticism. You had big fat anthologies that started off with the Poetics and came through to whatever was the most contemporary move. One of them was called Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Grotowski.

CN: That’s pretty comprehensive.

JR: It was. And that’s why the students used to call my two-semester survey of theatre history and dramatic literature “From Caves to Cats.”

CN: Can you reflect [further] on your own experience with Theatre Journal as an author and editor? You spoke to that earlier but I wanted to follow up in case there was more you wanted to share.

JR Well, I was an associate editor forever. I went through so many editors. I was reading articles for them, and I always tried to be a good citizen and say yes, even when it was a stretch in terms of making time. It was always thrilling to see editorial change as a member of the [ATHE] publications committee, also to help with the appointment and to find recruits and then assist them and respond to them when they needed a reader or advice. That was always my connection to the journal, aside from being a contributor and reader—it was serving as an associate editor. I thought of myself as being a very active associate editor. I was not a full editor, but I went through it with so many of my friends. Starting in 1980, the Women and Theatre Program’s Pre-Conference met before ATHE to offer papers, conduct round tables, and provoke spontaneous debates about urgent questions (for example, should non-binary performer Kate Bornstein be admitted?). The thought-work of the pre-conference participants, including Sue-Ellen Case, Janelle Reinelt, Elin Diamond, and Jill Dolan, among others, energized the whole field and changed it demonstrably for the better.

Janelle and I were editing Critical Theory and Performance when she was editor of Theatre Journal. And when John Rouse was editor, he was just across the quad at Tulane, and every other editor of that era I’m on first name basis with, as we worked on the project of keeping the journal the most exciting and the most welcoming intellectual home for people in the field that we could make it.

CN: In my own experience with the journal, and also to some of the other people I’ve spoken to for these interview, I’ve said that Theatre Journal has a real legacy in terms of giving feedback. I submitted to the journal first as a master’s student, very naively. But I still got a full-page letter from Joanne Tompkins, rejecting the paper, but giving feedback. Theatre Journal is very unique that way.

JR: It is. It has been one of the things in its DNA that I’ve been so proud of. And that brings me to the end of my association with Theatre Journal. I had an extraordinary graduate student at Yale and I encouraged her to submit an article to Theatre Journal and she did. She got a form letter rejection with no comment at all. And I thought: this is not the journal that I have been a part of for all these years. I’ve got to find out what happened. As it happened, I knew the editor who made that so I wrote asked “Can you tell me why this material was rejected without going to readers?” I did not ask for a reversal or even a reconsideration, only the reason for the bench rejection without sending the article to readers in case I was missing a serious flaw in research I believed to be among the best I had ever advised. The junior Theatre Journal editor took this the wrong way and, without checking back, complained to the senior editor, who, without checking back, wrote a letter reprimanding me for interfering with the editorial process, circulating it to the ATHE board (as in, “Send All”). Even if I not been a long-serving associate editor of Theatre Journal, I would have found this to be not only preconceptual but defamatory. An apology was forthcoming, but only with the senior editor’s apology-negating insistence that I apologize too. I had pointed out in my letter that I was an associate editor of long standing and I had an interest in the journal that was a career-long fidelity, on just the point that you raised about the remarkable quality of editors who have always been ready to help any scholar, but particularly for younger scholars who need advice early on. And one of the reasons that’s so important is the limited number of advisors that students have in their PhD programs. The journal editors are another source of mentoring.

CN: Do you feel like the experience with that editor ended up being an anomaly within the history of the journal?

JR: I hope so. But hat ended my association with Theatre Journal, except as a subscriber and specialist reader whenever I’ve been asked. The story ends happily, however, in that the work of which this was a part won multiple prizes, and that former student holds a position of great distinction and visibility in our field.

CN: I will say, having worked with the journal now for four years, every submission gets a full letter of feedback. Even when we get undergraduate papers.

JR: I’m so pleased to hear it. That’s so gratifying. So let us say this was anomalous.

CN: Yes, I hope so. I think that ethos, if it was interrupted at that time, has been restored. And I think there are usually several revisions with the editor before it even gets sent to reviewers just to give the authors the strongest opportunity to succeed in peer review.

JR: That’s beautifully seen and beautifully said. I couldn’t have put it better after, whatever it is, fifty years.

CN: It does remind me that in academia, we’re all just a village, but especially our field, as we are small.

JR: Right. We’re a small field.

CN: How has our discipline grown or developed over the course of your career?

JR: Theatre practice has grown and scholarship has shrunk [in higher education]. And I say that because some of the great research centers in theatre that seemed like perpetual beacons have folded, just over the course my career: Tulane, University of Michigan, University of Iowa, Indiana University. Even Yale, which offered a theater PhD jointly housed in the Drama School and the Graduate School until 1975 and produced distinguished scholars like Bert States and Erroll Hill. All had PhD programs that were important, and they do not have them now.

CN: Right. There have been a lot of public institutions that lost those programs. Do you attribute that simply to the crisis of funding for the arts in the public sphere? 

JR: I guess in the most general sense. But also, it’s not that they aren’t funding the arts. They’re funding a faculty that can teach students where to go to get their teeth bleached and how to turn on one foot. It’s such a missed opportunity. I’m not against production. I’m not against working out some arrangement of tenure or whatever the institution wants to do in terms of credentialing its own [practitioner] faculty. But in my experience, when faculty members of performance production get the majority of tenured votes, the research side starts having to fight for its existence.

CN: That’s the only model I’ve experienced. Every department is dozens of practitioners and only a few of scholars. Was it ever, in your experience, more balanced?

JR: In the early days, the departments were smaller. Almost everyone directed. That was an expectation.

CN: So when you started, you were both [a scholar and a director].

JR: Yes. I didn’t think of that as an issue. Why wouldn’t you put on plays if you’re in a theatre department? If you want to, you know, go and sit among the archives and get a lot more done in terms of writing, you can be in a Comp Lit or English department. if you’re in a Theatre [department], you’re putting on plays. That was the model. All the faculty directed.

CN: It’s so valuable to hear that it hasn’t always been this way, because I think for young scholars like me, that’s often a chronic issue—so many departments have that divide [between scholarship and practice].

JR: I don’t mean to demonize any one part of our profession. I love the technical directors and designers. I love working with designers. They’re my heroes and heroines, but some departments have even passed rules that if you teach theatre history and theory, you don’t direct. You can’t direct.

CN: Why do you think that is?

JR: It’s just anti-intellectualism. It’s the fear that ideas will somehow corrupt young actors because they need to be in touch with their gut. I’ve actually seen that in a memorandum in an institution, you wouldn’t expect to see it: “The problem is our students are in their heads. They need to get out of their heads and into their guts”—as if decapitation is an effective strategy for approaching the arts! I guess I could know what they mean. That if you’re too focused on the textual details, you lose the spine, you lose the momentum. You lose the energy of the room if your face is in the book. But some of the most exciting rehearsals I’ve been in were, for instance, when with Marvin [Carlson] was directing Ibsen and we had the Dano-Norwegian original text in the room. Because he’s fluent [in the language], [we were able to] work through what those words meant and what the translation did and didn’t get out of them, which I found was food, what actors call food. That’s where my subtext came from. I’ve just written about this, by the way.

CN: Oh, fantastic. Where can we find it? 

JR: It’s an article in the recent issue of Modern Drama. It’s on the topic of what it means to be in the world of producing plays and producing scholarship at the same time and not thinking of them as antithetical or contradictory, and not separating head and heart.

CN: Can you see, even in the most ideal scenario, a way forward to reclaim that balance within our discipline?

JR: I would hope that in our pedagogy, getting on your feet and putting on scenes, or at the very least reading scenes from your desk, is just an ordinary part of it. And getting excited about the plays we’re reading and putting them on. For my career, I had a rule I would never teach a play that I hadn’t directed or wanted to direct. Didn’t get to them all.

CN: It must be interesting for you to have colleagues or younger scholars that don’t direct or have come into the field from a completely different path. On the one hand, perhaps that’s a diversity within the field, which is useful.

JR: Yes, I certainly wouldn’t turn anyone away at the door, but I find it extremely helpful when a graduate student has had at least backstage experience in putting on a show. And the more the better.

CN: Maybe a follow up question with that is, what do you feel like theatre departments should be producing in terms of their students? Are they producing actors? Are they producing people that are going to be employed in the theater industry or the arts more broadly? Are they producing thinkers, or all of the above?

JR: I have one hard and fast certainty about what every department has to teach. Every department must teach every major how hard it is to be good. And it’s hard to do that unless they’re trying it out as writers, as researchers in the library, as actors, as designers, as dramaturgs. Whatever specialty they’re following, they have to know how hard it is to be good [at it]. That will serve them well in the rest of their lives, no matter what field they go into. Because it is hard to be good. That’s why art is great.

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

JR: Well, I hope that the good things we’ve talked about in its previous seventy-five years continue and grow, and that it’s always ready for the next wave. [I hope it’s] open-minded and creatively, imaginatively engaged with what the field is doing, and ready to shape what the field is doing by not just responding, but by getting ahead. And of course, one of the ways you do that would be to find the artists who are making the work and bring them in, which occasionally the journal does. But there would be room for more of that, as far as I’m concerned. There are many ways to do that.

The other thing that I just don’t understand is why the multiple authored article doesn’t have a life in our field. I’ve tried to do that. I’ve put some out, including a very interesting one in Theatre Topics on the basis of the research we were doing with the World Performance Project at Yale. That way everybody who works on the show can be an author, just as in a lab. That would be another way of bringing everyone in a theatre program into the scholarly realm and have them take pride in the publication as well as in the production. Because when you think of the ephemerality of theater, we’re putting up these shows and taking them down. And then what? All of that work, all of that creativity, all of those specialized skills, all of the expense of time and treasure. Just imagine if a chemistry department did that, kept putting up experiments and never putting them out in the journal. That would be weird. That department would not long succeed. And yet that’s the pattern in almost every department of theatre.

CN: I think it’s a really important suggestion, particularly to address that problem you brought up earlier about this bifurcation in departments between practice and scholars.

JR: With the World Performance Project we would write together, and there are six or more of us credited for the article. The great thing about that is that discussing what we were going to say in the article was just like a production meeting. You had your designers, you had your front-of-house people. We actually had the publicity person involved in this creative process of the show and in the creative process of making the article. And we’d get into discussions, sometimes contentions, about where we wanted to go with the article. That was great…If we would document more of the productions that we do—that’s another opportunity for the next seventy-five years. Validate the production and performance work we’re doing as research, not as the end point of research, but as part of the stations along the way. There has to be a research outcome and that has to be communicable to a wide number of people. And the technology [of publishing] is going our way. Look at what we’re doing here [in this video interview]—now we have a journal where you can post media, you can edit it and put it up. What are the potentialities of that? Because if you’re the department doing a production, if it’s original work, you can control the copyright. And that’s why the World Performance Project had a release for the work that we did. Potentially anything that we do, we can quote in video as well as owning the rights. So we overcome that obstacle, which I think is an exciting prospect.

I remember the first time I proposed writing about my own productions; a Theatre Journal editor, also a director as well as a scholar and a very distinguished one, said, “Oh, you mean a vanity project?” And I said, “No, I don’t mean a vanity project. I mean research the way they do it in physics.” I learned something from that. And after all, I can ask the questions of anyone putting on a show, “Did you learn something?” I’ve never heard, “Oh, no. We went away completely empty and unchanged from the experience of living together for six weeks, fighting every night, sweating out the techs, all the things can go wrong.” I’ve never heard anyone say, we learned nothing. And if you learn something, well, why not share it with people who didn’t have the good fortune to see the show when it ran for two weeks in your university theatre.

CN: It’s a great idea. The one last question I want to make sure we get to is: how do you see journals or the field more generally contributing to the call for more rigorous intersectional and anti-racist practices in the academy?

JR: Right now, we’re in the middle of a reactionary period that is very much like Reconstruction failing in the 1870s and being replaced by Jim Crow. And not just in terms of race. What is happening in terms of LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, the whole spectrum, are now under siege. And this has to be critiqued. It has to be understood. 

It has to be historicized. It has to be theorized. It has to be understood at the deepest level of critique. It isn’t just enough to say how terrible it is, although you have to do that. But you have to understand. You have to understand where it’s coming from and the means of persuading people. And who better to do that? People in the arts and communications. I’ve never forgotten why the Athenians made theatergoing an obligation of citizenship. That’s where you found out what was really happening—superficially, in the agora, but in the theatre to find out what was really happening.

CN: I love your response because it enacts what we’ve been talking about [in terms of] how history informs our present. Looking back and looking forward is what the whole art form does. Thank you for this conversation.



1. ATA refers to the American Theatre Association, which was the name of the organization from 1936–1986, at which point it was renamed ATHE, the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

2. To contrast the wide ranging generality of theatre studies to the specialization of English, see the Fall 2023 issue of Eighteenth Century Studies, whose first six pieces constitute a roundtable reflection on the 25th anniversary of Cities of the Dead; see also his interview with Terry F. Robinson commemorating the 50th anniversary of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.