By Courtney Elkin Mohler
With Lisa Jackson-Schebetta, Martine Kei Green-Rogers, Bethany Hughes, and Joy Brooke Fairfield
Unmaking systemic expectations. . . . Dismantling established averages. . . . Remaking structural standards. . . . Against the usual. . . . Decolonizing institutional norms.
Decolonizing is a word with a long history that contains an expansive and incisive critique.1 Previously used to define the shift to self-governance within formerly colonized nations, its rhetorical impact has grown with organizations as diverse as the United Nations and TeenVogue weighing in on its meaning.2 In naming our ATHE 2019 session, we chose to address what stands behind each word. Decolonizing. Institutional. Norms. In this reflection, we attend to the temporality, the complexity, the subversion, the challenges, and, above all, the materiality of decolonization as a process toward/for/of dismantling and remaking. As Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang have shown us, decolonization is not a metaphor for anything other than the return of land to Indigenous nations for the purpose of self-governance and Indigenous futurity. The question we reflect upon in this reflection is: How can a group of likeminded, dedicated individuals enact change in the spaces they inhabit and through the actions they take? To articulate the “in” and the “through” of this question, we describe how we understand ATHE as an institutional space and how we understand panel participation as an embodied, material act. We think together through our bodies, across the internet, over time, in multiple locations in order to understand our work to decolonize the (theatre) academy as ongoing. The work is unfinished.
The Work Has Begun
Conference culture reflects and precedes preoccupations of the academy. Consider the subgroups and critical foci one finds at a conference. Think about the plenaries and special workshops, down to the topics of individual panels or papers (the DNA of a given gathering). At any given moment, the specific attributes and programming choices that create a conference’s culture might be described cynically as trendy, reactionary, or exclusionary. But what if we eschewed such temptations to dismiss and categorize––activities that, let’s be honest, thrive in the academy? With a degree of organizational self-reflection, metacognitive evaluation, and sustained dialogue across conference subcultural groups, the culture of the conference has the opportunity to be transformative. Conferences serve as vital nodal points, sites wherein well-established networks are nourished and new connections can be formed. Conferences have their established ways of working and ways of knowing. We can adhere to them. We can deride them. Or we can utilize them to try out other ways of working, to honor and mobilize other ways of knowing. The Association for Theatre in Higher Education has been tending to such a transformation, which like any sea change, has been swelling for over ten years, building to a perceptively altered landscape.
Various material conditions such as the rise of nationalism at home and abroad, the catastrophic impact of climate change, and increasingly polarized views of civil and human rights form the cultural milieu that theatre professionals and scholars must address in our work. This environment did not emerge suddenly; the vitality and diversity of the field of theatre has provided searing commentary on all of these existential concerns as they enter the mainstream––sometimes, perhaps even often, in advance of popular knowledge. ATHE’s inclusion of programming that contemplates or enacts decolonial practices and opportunities for scholarship on non-hegemonic theatre, performance, aesthetics, and craft has roots in the establishment of a variety of focus groups including, but not limited to, the Latinx, Indigenous, and the Americas Focus Group (LIA), and the Black Theatre Association (BTA). We have been especially interested in and heartened by the conversations and programming choices that ATHE has made over approximately the past five years, which include Indigenous peoples, histories, aesthetics, and ways of knowing.
This momentum resulted in the Latina/o Focus Group (LFG) reflecting deeply on the scholarship and scholars it had regularly been supporting for years during the 2015 business meeting. In 2016, the members present at the LFG business meeting at the ATHE conference in Chicago discussed and then unanimously voted to change the focus group name and mission to the Latinx, Indigenous, and the Americas Focus Group (LIA), embracing the group’s own history of sponsoring panels on Indigenous theatre and performance and decolonial and postcolonial theory, while actively holding space for work on nonbinary gender–identified dramatists and scholars. Inspired by the potential shifts this inclusive renaming might engender, Carla Della Gata and myself, Courtney Elkin Mohler, convened a working group at the 2017 annual conference of an adjacent professional organization, the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR). In preparation for our working group session titled “Staging Difference and Alliance: Latinx and Indigenous, and Beyond,” twelve scholars from a variety of institutions read one another’s work and devised questions pertaining to the divergences and links each identified. As co-conveners, Carla and I grouped the participants’ papers thematically: a) Latinidad and Indigeneity; b) Pedagogy, Activism, Indigeneity, and the Academy; c) Memory and Indigeneity in Festivals and Museums; d) Staging “Indigeneity”; e) Central/South American Performance and Violence; and f) Collective Performance, Identity, and Intersectionality of the Marginalized. Through this collaborative process and within the session itself, the working group engaged with the opportunities and challenges posed by combining the research fields of Indigenous and Latinx dramas.
I mention this ASTR endeavor for two reasons. First, I believe that such critical, collective scholarship on the intention of formally recognizing and making space for Indigenous work at the professional organization level is itself a radical shift that holds meaning beyond the conference walls. And second, because it was during this working group at ASTR that Lisa Schebetta-Jackson and I first had the idea to continue the conversation and disrupt the status quo with a new kind of session at ATHE. Due to overlapping subjects and analysis, Lisa’s paper, “Building Capacity: Pitfalls and Possibilities of Decolonizing Process, Production, and Pedagogy at the R1,” and mine, “Staging Native Presence: Leveraging Academic Privilege to Transform the Narrative,” were grouped in discussion under the theme “Pedagogy, Activism, Indigeneity, and the Academy.” The quality of the ideas shared during the brief but productive ASTR working session, as well as the level of engagement from the auditors in the room, led me and Lisa to consider how we might continue the conversation at ATHE, but open up the session in ways not always associated with academic conferences in our field.
Drawing from the strategies contained within our papers, we decided to center the session on the goal of “Decolonizing Institutional Norms.” Early on in our session development, however, we recognized the inherent limitation of any project proposing to subvert power dynamics within the (white supremacist) academy in the regulated and exclusive form of conference panel. We shared questions over email that eventually shaped what would become the multidisciplinary session, “Decolonizing Institutional Norms, Syllabi and . . .” In an email to me, Lisa wrote:
What about just a workshop, on decolonizing season and syllabi? How can we decolonize (or at least erode some colonizing aspect of) the conference format? If it were not a session at all, what could it be? Acknowledging that we need a session in order for people to get funding to come, right––so, I am not divesting of the session, but how else can we do things? What about read-ins and sessions that happen with bread?
Is this too much? Maybe the call is about decolonizing. And maybe it brings people together, you know, to share their work, and also do their work, and also spread tools and methods for joining the work. . . . I am also angry––as ever––about the power dynamics of labor and expertise.
I enthusiastically replied:
I love the idea of literally sharing bread with everyone in the room, with requesting a different type of room (perhaps one with a large conference-type table, or no table at all but blankets on the ground?). I think that it might be super-subversive for us to have a twenty-person “panel” or session or whatever we want to call it, where everyone shares their thoughts in an egalitarian setting, and allotted as much or as little time as they feel necessary. Could we do such a thing, allowing then all of those people who have decided to apply to our session a “reason” for their institutions to fund their attendance at ATHE this year?”
Recognizing that transformative practices require the vested interests of many perspectives, Lisa and I decided then to ask two colleagues, Joy Brooke Fairfield and Martine Kei Green-Rogers, to join us as co-facilitators. We knew there would be bread-broken and that we would submit our proposal as a multidisciplinary panel to be sponsored by the LIA, American Theatre and Drama Society, LBGTQ, and Dramaturgy Focus Groups. Then as a collective we worked through a few drafts of a Call for Papers, finally circulating the following:
Invitation to Presenters to Join a Process
“Snowflakes, leaves, humans, plants, raindrops, stars, molecules, microscopic entities all come in communities. The singular cannot in reality exist.”
“Canon building is empire building. . . . Canon debate, whatever the terrain, nature and range (of criticism, of history, of the history of knowledge, of the definition of language, the university of aesthetic principles, the sociology of art, the humanistic imagination), is the clash of cultures. And all of the interests are vested.”
Please consider joining us in the work of decolonizing institutional norms.
While our initial focus is on syllabi, we welcome colleagues whose work focuses on strategies for decolonizing seasons, guest-artist relationships, peer-reviewed journal culture, labor practices, professionalization, institutional and/or field-wide expectations, and conference culture, among many possible sites.
We envision this session as part of the decolonization process. Hence we invite interested colleagues to join us in this process as presenters in our ATHE session, to break metaphorical (and perhaps actual) bread together, and to share our practices and methods for decolonization in and of the academy, as well as our artistic, pedagogical, and intellectual motivations for radical inclusion. We hope our time together enables us to learn and to build practices, connections, critical awareness, and capacity for sustaining our work.
We invite colleagues to bring experiences, thoughts, and items that frustrate and sustain their work. We envision this taking any number of forms, from successful strategies to lessons learned, from failed projects to inspiring artwork/music/poetry.
If you would like to join us as a presenter, please send us your name, preferred pronoun (if you would like), and what you would be interested in sharing and/or learning. We request you share your affiliation with us, acknowledging that the value placed on affiliation as an identity marker demands decolonization as well.
This CFP (which really was a Call for Participation more than a Call for Papers) generated twenty-two thoughtful proposals for joining this “process,” including colleagues from public and private institutions, two- and four-year colleges and universities, independent scholars, administrators, artistic directors, and graduate students. We did not ask for formal proposals. We wanted to value the labor of relationship building and of imagining and implementing decolonial practices. We wanted the session to support that kind of labor, rather than the labor of writing a formal presentation. After receiving support from Andy Gibb, the ATHE Vice President for Conference 2019, we sent emails of acceptance to all twenty-two.3
Shaping the Work
In the months approaching the conference, we grouped the participants into four areas of interest based on the topics they had mentioned in their proposals, settling on Decolonizing Teaching/Student Engagement; Decolonizing Artistic Decisions, Seasons, etc.; Decolonizing Research Methods; and Decolonizing Institutional Norms/Power Structures. We also felt that the discussion might be enriched if the participants had a reading to contemplate in advance of our time together; we selected “The Physics of the Mola: W/riting Indigenous Resurgence on the Contemporary Stage” by Jill Carter (2016). This beautifully written article explores how the work of legendary Indigenous feminist Spiderwoman Theater, playwright/performer Monique Mojica, and the Chocolate Woman Collective can (and should) be appreciated and understood through the mola, “one material instance of, and repository for, an ancient Indigenous knowledge system” (1).4 Molas are intricately woven textiles, the result of a process of layering fabrics of variegated colors, and “cutting away the upper layers to reveal” a pattern with the colors of the fabrics underneath. Made by the Guna people who live in the sovereign Indigenous territory known as Guna Yala in and around northern Columbia and Panama, molas have taken on significant political meaning as signs of resistance and survival for the communities. The Miguel sisters of Spiderwoman Theater, and thus their niece Mojica, are Guna people (Guna/Kuna through paternal and Rappahannock through maternal lines). Indeed, Gloria Miguel states that Guna artistic lineages “abide at the very core of her practice” (9). Carter argues that Spiderwoman Theater, Monique Mojica, and the Chocolate WomanCollective’s Indigenous dramaturgical techniques are rooted aesthetically, politically, historically, and spiritually within the traditional, material practice of mola, despite the differences between brightly woven molas traditionally woven in Guna Yala by Guna women and Spiderwoman’s signature “mola,” which is less
a mola in construction and appearance than a multi-layered quilt, this backdrop has expanded in breadth, depth, and intricacy over two generations, as many of those who have worked with or been touched by Spiderwoman Theater have contributed swatches of fabric, layering the material traces of their own history atop the eclectic and whimsical archive that contains and communicates the Story of an eclectic and whimsical troupe. (6)
Serving as a central production design element since 1976, Spiderwoman Theater’s mola backdrop brings together the Guna tradition of their father’s side with the US American textile tradition of quilting, a practice that was introduced by European settlers but adopted and advanced by Indigenous people in America as well.
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Situated in a large circle, over sixty colleagues joined together to focus on practices that can decolonize institutional norms. (Source: Courtesy of the authors.)
We chose this article as a common read for the session’s participants for two reasons. First, the piece articulated how and why Indigenous theatre-making need not, and should not, be evaluated through Western critical philosophy, but rather through dramaturgical analysis that centers Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous stories of cultural endurance that more adequately reveal the depth and power in the theatrical techniques, praxis, and community-building goals of Indigenous theatre artists. We hoped this example of scholarship that deliberately and successfully centered Indigenous knowledges would set the tone for our discussions. Second, we were inspired by the description of Spiderwoman’s mola, a quilt constructed of motley fabrics, added in zigzags and wild irregular shapes by people they had performed with or interviewed over decades of making theatre together. In addition to reading the article, we asked that each participant “bring one or more item such as an article, a syllabi, a prayer, an image, a drawing, a costume piece, etc., printed on a colored piece of paper so that as a group we can make a visual collage, like a ‘mola’ of shared resources.” This collage would then be explored and documented by the entire group, and by those who came to audit the session as well. Upon reflection, I regret that there was not adequate time to appropriately introduce the sociocultural significance of the mola to the many Indigenous cultures who make them, Spiderwoman Theater’s quilted backdrop, and how these examples inspired our collage of resources to the forty or more people who came to watch the session but had not had the opportunity to read the article in advance—an error I will discuss in more detail below.
We planned for four facilitators and the participants. Bethany Hughes, originally a participant, generously agreed to join us as a facilitator onsite. We were profoundly moved by the number of ATHE members that joined the session—over sixty colleagues filled the room. What we learned is that decolonizing practices are essential to our field. As artists, teachers, administrators, and scholars we are doing this work, we want to learn how to do this work, we need to do this work together.
We decided to structure our hundred minutes together by first gathering in a large circle on the floor, acknowledging the Indigenous caretakers of the land, the Seminole people, and the ways in which we as an institution benefit from settler colonialism (fig. 1). The co-facilitators introduced ourselves to the room and explained the structure and purpose for the gathering.5 To our delight, the room brimmed with guests who had come to observe our session; this presented a welcome challenge to make space for everyone, as we intended to invite a level of participation by everyone present. We shared that session participants had brought resources and were prepared to discuss topics that aligned with the four predetermined categories: Decolonizing Teaching/Student Engagement; [End Page E-21] Decolonizing Artistic Decisions, Seasons, etc.; Decolonizing Research Methods; and Decolonizing Institutional Norms/Power Structures, and invited the guests to join these groups according to their own interests. We then asked all of the session participants to spend twenty-five minutes introducing themselves within these groups and sharing the following:
1. Here is my contribution (resource/source of inspiration).
2. This is how it supports my work.
3. This is a question I have related to decolonization, which may or may not be connected directly to what I brought today.
Discussions naturally arose connecting the specific resources brought by participants to the structural issues of inequity inherent in each group’s theme. An unexpected downside to the large turnout was a very loud ambient-noise level arising from the multiple simultaneous conversations; negotiating the notoriously difficult acoustics of hotel conference-room architecture felt like an apt sonic metaphor. These spaces are not built for these kinds of collectivist engagements.6
With approximately forty-five minutes left in the session, we invited the participants to use the floor in the center of the room as the backdrop of our mola/tapestry/collage of resources, keeping some physical space between the items so that everyone who wished would be able to walk through and within the collective creation (figs. 2–3). Lisa then invited all in attendance to be with the mola, to spend time walking through, sitting with, reading through, taking photographs or notes on the resources in silence for several minutes. This silent activity was a sensory blessing after the loud volumes of the breakout sessions. The participants and auditors were guided to settle where they found a resource or had a question that resonated with them, allowing new groups to form inspired by where individuals landed within the sea of resources. This activity combined two of the goals of the session: first, it gave all people in the room access to syllabi, books, plays, images, and articles that have been useful to the panel participants in their work to decolonize institutional norms in theatre companies, the academy at large, and their own institutions; and second, this provided all present to connect with fellow travelers, other artists, scholars, and administrators who want to learn about or continue to be in this struggle. We then reconnected by forming the large circle in which we first began and passed actual bread around, inviting all to break bread together literally and/or symbolically as we concluded with an open discussion on the experience of the morning.
The Work Continues
While it is impossible to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a single session at a conference objectively, participant feedback, evidence of continuing engagement with the material shared, and self-reporting on actions motivated by the session present an opportunity for qualitative assessment. This was a highly attended session. I believe that the enthusiasm for the topic, the potential to learn about and share strategies for centering marginalized, disempowered, disenfranchised groups and peoples in our research, institutional structures, and artistic work resulted in high attendance and helped create an atmosphere of inclusivity. This interest may be related to the transformation of ATHE’s conference culture that I described previously. The co-facilitators’ intervention in the process of calling for and accepting panelists may also partially explain the significant attendance. Our dedication to push the call widely throughout ATHE’s many focus groups and accept all applicants generated a diverse pool of session panelists far beyond the normalized cap of four panelists per session; this in turn increased audience attendance. One participant shared that her interest in the session was due to the focus on disrupting syllabi construction; she pointed out that the ATHE 2018 Conference included numerous useful sessions dedicated to syllabus construction—for example, “Re(imagining) the Syllabus”; “Transitions in Theatre History Pedagogy: Practice, Compression, and Method”; “Unities of Action Roundtable Series: In Our Classrooms and for Our Audiences”—and
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After sharing in small groups, contributors laid out their materials on the carpet, where participants walked around to view them. (Source: Courtesy of the authors.)
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Attendees form new impromptu groups around materials that interest them. (Source: Courtesy of the authors.)
was glad that this session promised similar content. There was synergy as well with the plenary sessions that were offered at both ATHE 2018 (two sessions of “Revolutions in Pedagogy and Practice”) and ATHE 2019 (two sessions of “Performing, Teaching, and Working through the Transitions”) that “addressed a range of concerns regarding equity, diversity, and inclusion within the field of theatre.”7 Clearly, many ATHE members are hungry for more equitable paradigms of pedagogy, practice, and scholarship. Hopefully, our particular session was able to make connections between equity efforts writ large and specific techniques for decolonizing and Indigenizing the work of theatre education in a way that explicitly challenges settler-colonist frameworks.
As noted above, we do not feel we communicated the meaning of the mola effectively for the large group. While session participants read the article and responded, pre-conference, in small groups to the critical, artistic, and historical significance of the mola, in the moment of our large gathering we failed to appropriately contextualize the hemispheric Indigenous cosmologies and survivances that attend mola practices. Without understanding the cultural history or the material aesthetics of the model we were using, for many the term was simply a word, and a borrowed one at that. One of the auditors in attendance articulated the tension between our stated goals to motivate energies toward decolonizing Western academic institutions and our failure to directly benefit the Indigenous cultures who create molas for economic, political, and spiritual reasons. We may have successfully decentered Western aesthetics and working dynamics by drawing inspiration from this powerful Indigenous practice/artform, but we could have done more to actively center the communities from which the framework comes. The auditor also noted that the element of the mola that was missing in our conference metaphor was significant: its depth. Because of the way fabric layers in a traditional mola are cut to reveal the colors and textures beneath, the textiles draw attention to consecutive and simultaneous temporalities of material labor. In contrast, our ATHE mola was quite flat—flatter even than Spiderwoman Theater’s quilt-like version that inspired us, given that its grew over decades of work in ongoing and evolving creative community. Our patchwork quilt (indeed a cultural metaphor likely more familiar to many in the still majority white-settler group of attendees) contained depth within each individual contribution (images, books, syllabi), but when placed together on the floor of the conference room the collection of surfaces almost disappeared into the gaudy carpet pattern beneath.
Within the incredibly institutionalized spaces of weekend conferences in highly commercialized hotels, how might we implement exchanges that can support deeper and more tangible takeaways for the continued work of pushing back against the ongoing violence of colonial domination? While the one-to-one and small-group connections facilitated by the space of our session in ATHE 2019 were and are valuable, we wonder how, for ATHE 2020, we might amplify our impact both inside and outside the walls of the hotel, and inside and outside the bracketed weekend of in-person gathering. How can we mobilize conference resources to support and honor local communities? What protocols of engagement might bring about the most meaningful cross-pollinations between conference attendees and local culture-bearers? What forms of resource-sharing among participants before and after the conference are most likely to generate change in our distant and disparate institutions, beset as we are with the ongoing professional expectations of our industry?
Conference relations are brief, held aloft by tenuous strings of extended email threads attempting to work words and ideas into vibrant moments that can unfold in the short time of shared space. With consent from those who offered them, the materials that were laid out together on the rug as part of last year’s conference mola have been scanned and uploaded to an online location that is accessible to the participants; this virtual repository has a wealth of resources and will hopefully continue to grow.8 Perhaps after years of work like this, the layers of our concerted attention to urgent questions of institutional decolonization can build up and become more like the mola from which we drew inspiration in 2019. At ATHE 2020, we plan to offer the next iteration of this large-scale session, hoping to dig deeper into these hard questions, circling around with similar goals and more developed perspectives based on what we were and were not able to achieve in the prior year.
Finally, it is imperative that we center the fact that decolonization is not a metaphor. Participant Jaclyn Pryor attended to this vital point in our pre-conference exchanges in 2019. Decolonization is about reparations for the profound violences of settler colonialism; it demands thoughtful, reparative, ethical, reciprocal, and sustainable relationships with Indigenous communities. As Tuck and Yang write,
Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. The easy adoption of decolonizing discourse by educational advocacy and scholarship, evidenced by the increasing number of calls to “decolonize our schools,” or use “decolonizing methods,” or, “decolonize student thinking,” turns decolonization into a metaphor. As important as their goals may be, social justice, critical methodologies, or approaches that decenter settler perspectives have objectives that may be incommensurable with decolonization.
Our professional organizations, we, and our colleagues have made strides in centering Indigenous knowledge and land-acknowledgment practices. But these are initial steps; they are incomplete. Therefore part of our work for ATHE 2020 concerns continued self-interrogation and the dismantling of the metaphoric use of decolonization.
The work is unfinished.