Talin Abadian, Department of Drama
Theatre history courses are generally offered through survey courses where future theatre professionals are exposed to essential historical knowledge and vocabulary (Smith et al 113). Yet even though these courses are often indispensable to the theatre curricula, students often fail to see the relevance of learning about theatre history in relation to their professional ambitions. As Smith and Folino White observe, theatre students often find history courses boring, disengaging and passive (114-115). For instance, a student aspiring for a professional career in Broadway may feel less the need to learn about French Neoclassical drama and prefer to work more on their vocal and physical skills. Theatre history courses then become mere requirements whereas these classrooms have the potential to teach students critical engagement with what is handed down as facts and truths. Implementing curative pedagogy is one step towards rethinking teaching history and transforming classrooms into sites for dynamic critical thought.
On the first day of my theatre history course, I carry out ‘an experiment’ with students to question history and interrogate the archive. The experiment is inspired by the notion of curative pedagogy first introduced by theatre historian and performance studies scholar, Katelyn Hale Wood. Curative pedagogy aims at transforming history courses from static and linear repositories of information to one where critical engagement with history is welcomed and facilitated. Expanding on bell hooks, Hale Wood suggests that the goal of curative pedagogy should be to make the classroom an active site for liberatory practices (Hale Wood 187). History is not to be memorized and taken as set facts but a place of interrogation and questioning.
- Students are divided in to three groups: “critics”, “historians”, “time-travelers”
- Historians and time-travelers are asked to leave the room.
- I play a 3-minute performance for the critics asking them to take notes of what they see. The video I typically choose is the opening scene from Shakespeare’s Tempest adapted by Korean playwright and director Oh Taeseok. Students are usually quick to point to the lights, choreography, drumming on stage and the elaborate use of fabrics in creating the famous storm at the beginning of the play.
- Then I ask historians to enter. They are not aware of what the critics have watched and have access only to their written notes.
- Historians are asked to use the notes to compile a short text on what they assume the performance was about. This will be the history text for the future generations on a performance ‘that was once performed’.
- Now that the text is ready, I invite Time-travelers in. We imagine them as people from the future who are about to discover a historic text about a performance. From this, they are asked to interpret and report what they think the performance was like.
- The experiment ends with all three groups watching the scene together.
During the few times I conducted the experiment what never ceases to amaze me (and more so students) is the amount of information that gets lost moving from one group to the other. In one instance historians chose to disregard the fact that the play was in Korean. In another, the drumming on stage was completely neglected and the choreography was interpreted as worship ritual for a Greek god. Such slips and misinterpretations illustrate the ways in which theatre history was learned, interpreted and analyzed and point to not only power dynamics in shaping and writing the history but most importantly to its blind spots: what was neglected, erased and modified. Throughout the course, this experiment remains as a reference point when discussing performances from different historical periods and reminds us of what is not included in our historical books.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress : Education as the Practice of Freedom / Bell Hooks. Routledge, 1994.
Smith, Daniel, and Ann Folino White. “What Is Essential in Teaching Theatre History? A Revised Theatre Studies Curriculum.” Theatre Topics, vol. 31, no. 2, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021, pp. 113–20, https://doi.org/10.1353/tt.2021.0026.
Wood, Katelyn Hale. “Curative Pedagogy in the Undergraduate Theatre Historiography Classroom.” Theatre Topics, vol. 27, no. 3, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017, pp. 187–96, https://doi.org/10.1353/tt.2017.0035.