As a first year graduate student, I've never presented at an academic conference before, but was lucky enough to have my two first submissions accepted at the end of last year to the Mid America Theatre Conference (MATC), which took place this year in Cleveland, Ohio, between March 7th and 10th. I must admit, when I made the decision to go back to school in 2017, I didn't know much what to expect, or what I was looking for within the walls of the "Academy." I knew only that I am passionate about work that decolonizes, unpacks, and re-forms narrow Western narratives and practices within the theatre, and that I wanted to bring my practice as a director, producer and script developer, closer to my work as an activist. Professors within the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Kansas, where I now go, excited me with their talk of practice as research, and with their willingness, excitement event, to embrace and nurture my scholarly interests, explicitly stated as seeking to disrupt Western-centric theatre discourse.
During my first semester, getting the opportunity to dig into texts critically and look at my own practice and the practice of others through a critical and questioning lens, I remembered that I also love this kind of work. That there is real value in the sometimes slow and detailed process of formulating scholarship. It is yet one more way to bend, shape, create, manipulate, and discover, realities. As a story-teller, I'm in the business of exploring the multiple realities of any given story or situation. I find that there is room for those kind of negotiations within the academy, and, more important, that those of us whose realities have been staunchly written out of scholarship, are needed in order to re-shape, to challenge, to expand, the ways in which stories, realities, science, fact, are told.
I didn't really know what to expect from a theatre conference. I've never attended one before, and I thought, I don't know, it would have a theatric flare to it. Other than the playwriting sessions, that wasn't really true, it was filled with standard scholarly presentations, with everyone sitting behind a table, and talking for 15-20 minutes about their research.
I'd already determined that academia in itself is a performance, a ritual, if you will. The ritual was in full practice throughout this conference.
My first panel was titled "The Ease and Ethics of Fabricating Fascism (in the Age of Trump)." I found this particularly perplexing, because my paper, originally titled “Moving Beyond Trigger Warnings: Reconfiguring an Ethical and Inclusive Theater Space” (the title has changed since), has nothing at all to do with either fascism, or our current president. Nonetheless, after hearing the presentations of the other three panelists, who all discussed different productions they had (or were) directing, which had liberal themes and messages, and were (are to be) performed in conservative cities, I found that I did have something to say, in response to, their messages.
These two topics are ones that are just at the beginning of their development for me. Tony Hall is someone I consider to be a mentor to me. His theatre practice/theory, Jouvay Popular Theatre Process (JPTP), is explained by him to be "an interventionist performance/production model for seeing art works happen. It is a framework for personal or group development, or for training artists to deepen their craft, and their consciousness, in direct relation to everything around them." JPTP is what I applied to KU to study and develop in my own practice. Both Tony and JPTP are huge inspirations to me. The conversation around trigger warnings is only one I have entered recently. It came about for me because I am going to be directing a show later this year (it hasn't been publicly announced so I cannot say more now) that deals with deeply traumatic, violent, and difficult subject matter. There came a point as I thought about it, that I realized that certain of my family members would not be able to attend my production due to PTSD. I began talking to those individuals in my life, as well as students at KU, and reading up about the topic. I realized just how many people cannot attend the theatre not just because it's expensive and often in spaces that aren't widely accessible to people across the socio-economic spectrum, but because of different disabilities. During my research I encountered the amazing work of Sins Invalid, a "performance project on disability and sexuality that incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized from social discourse." Their work on Disability Justice became the guiding philosophy behind my research on invisible disability and the theatre.
Below are clips from both my presentations. In the first one, I am discussing the ways in which we, as theatre makers, can challenge ourselves to make our audience spaces more accessible to people across the spectrum of ability and disability:
As you see, I just had to step outside the practiced conference ritual, and bring in a bit of a different kind of performance - more of storytelling tradition: I had to stand.
For my second presentation, as part of History Symposium 10 - "Indigenous (re)Invention: Strategy and Subversion in Performance", I also played music and video footage. That paper was working draft titled “From the Streets of Trinidad to the Proscenium: the Postcolonial Theater Practice of Tony Hall." Below is a tiny clip of that presentation. I also played, during my presentation, an excerpt of this song, and from this video.
I am excited that by writing about this work, as well as by using versions of JPTP and engaging with a Disability Justice framework within my own theatrical practice, I am part of the way in which these practices can reach more audiences. I am one little piece of larger projects and movement.
MATC wasn't just exciting because I got the opportunity to share some of my work, but because I got the chance to connect with scholars who are doing work which is in conversation with mine. Other graduate students who challenge hegemonic theatre narratives, and who are striving to decolonize the ways in which we think about and engage with theatre. I also got to see a range of what kind of work scholars are doing: from those invested in existing hierarchies within the academy, to those invested in challenging them. It got me geared up to want to continue doing this work, and to create networks across space between those of us with similar interests.. There is a process of awakening that can take place with critical engagement, one that I am invested in.