There are moments in history seldom publicly remembered and performed—and there are moments of performance that are seldom remembered in history. Reviving and sharing these stories has the potential to inform the ways we understand theatre and performance today. The first general-circulation theatre magazine, American Theatre, founded in 1984 by the arts service organization Theatre Communications Group, makes a mission out of sharing these stories in a recurring feature known as “This Month in Theatre History.” The section finds its home amongst articles about trends in contemporary theatre, events, arts legislation, and history written by a diverse group of journalists, historians, and professionals in the field.
In April 2015, Charlotte Canning of UT’s Department of Theater and Dance took over “This Month in Theatre History.” Since then, Canning has been collaborating with her colleague Andrew Carlson and a number of students from the department. I spoke with Canning to learn more about her engagement with “This Month in Theatre History” and the collaborative project it has now become.
When we first spoke, you stated that you began the project a few years ago, but that Andrew Carson and a group of students have now taken the reins. Who are the current participants, and what do they do? It is a rotating group? Are they all theater majors, or is it a transdisciplinary project?
I have been a reader of American Theatre for over 30 years and this feature, then called “Almanac,” was one I always turned to first. I thought it had scope far beyond what it had been during that time. The items tended to be very New-York-focused and rarely moved beyond mainstream professional theatre. It turned out my 2014 pitch to one of the then-editors at American Theatre, Suzy Evans, was very timely. The magazine was about to have a new Editor-in-Chief and also wanted to reinvent its web presence. Rob Weinert-Kendt, the incoming Editor-in-Chief, loved the idea of the partnership. He too felt that the feature could be deeper, richer, and more comprehensive.
Our first issue was April, 2015. At that time I worked with Andrew Carlson, the managing director of the Brockett Center (I am the director), and a couple of graduate students. Since then we have developed it into an ongoing project with both graduate students and undergraduates who all come from the Department of Theatre and Dance. The undergraduates are all ones who have demonstrated an interest in theatre history and also serve as dramaturges for department productions. We also take contributions from the Assistant Instructors and students of the two lower-division required theatre history survey courses. Any given issue may have items from five to six students and a few faculty. We work three to four months ahead and always happy to get ideas for our ongoing spread sheet. Carlson does the final edit and then we send it to AT.
What are the primary goals/purposes/functions of “This Month in Theatre History,” and would you say they have been realized?
“This Month in Theatre History” serves as a reminder to theatre artists and audiences of the depth and breadth of theatre’s history in the United States. Since taking it on, we have tried to ensure that the feature can also serve as a brief introduction to events, artists, plays, and theatres that people may never have heard of or had forgotten. I think we do a pretty good job within the parameters of the feature—it has to be US and at five-year increments. We also try to make it a fun read.
What kind of feedback or responses has “This Month in Theatre History” received since the project began? Who is the intended audience? What sorts of people have become the project’s readers/audiences?
We rarely get much direct feedback. A couple of times people have complained, but the complaints have never been ones about which we had to be concerned as they were not correct. I often get informal feedback on Facebook or in-person about how much people like reading the feature. Students have also told me that they get very excited when their items are included.
What do the student participants get out of the project? How has it helped them? Has it changed the culture or future opportunities for students in the department in any way?
When we started the project, I assumed what students would get out of it was that they could put what they learned in their classes to use. That is, I saw the project through an academic frame only. What I realized after we had done it for a while was that they got a sense of pride and ownership of that knowledge. They were thrilled to see their work in print nationally (as I still am when it happens to me). “This Month in Theatre History” also started to serve as a bridge between thinking of themselves as students to thinking of themselves as emerging members of the field with a lot to offer. Most of the “Brockett Scholars,” as we call them, will not be theatre scholars but they will be dramaturgs, practitioners, and leaders (they’d make great scholars, though). So they leave UT for the performance fields with a sense of how important a knowledge of our history is for their work and a sense of their identity as professionals ready to hit the ground running.
Does writing for or with the public have an impact on your own scholarship? How has your career changed, grown, or been informed by your collaboration with American Theatre?
This collaboration was my first sustained foray into public scholarship. It was the first time I had pitched anything outside the academy and the first time I thought seriously about how to start sharing my written work with a non-academic audience, though I had done lectures before. Its success affirmed for me that there is a public out there who is interested in theatre history when it is presented in ways that are lively and relevant. There’s no great epiphany to that but the experience gave me courage to try much more in the way of public intellectual work. I have now written several op-eds, been on public radio, and am in the development stages of a theatre history podcast series. Without American Theatre I don’t think the Brockett Center and I would be doing any of those things!