The Water, The Chair, The Conference: Three Short Musings

Teaching Water by the Spoonful Now

Last year, I approached my first Texts and Contexts in Western Theatre course with a contemporary play, Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, set up as a sort of workshop text. I’m doing the same thing this semester, this time with Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes. “Contemporary” is a flexible term, but a play that is ten years old and written with enough current references tends to fit most definitions, at least at first blush. Interestingly, Water by the Spoonful is a play that feels very “now” and yet very “ten years old” at the same time. A lot of it takes place in a chatroom for recovering cocaine addicts – no named platform, just a chatroom – and on the one hand, that makes it strikingly appropriate for students who have spent the bulk of the past two years learning online. On the other hand, when a character references signing in from an internet café, it hits a little differently (my friend Tara taught this play last semester and clued me in to that time-capsule treat). It’s a reminder that a lot has changed since the proliferation of smartphones and conferencing technology; there’s less need to find a settled spot to plug in from, or a silly screen name to cloak your identity (unless you really want one). In short, the internet isn’t quite the same place it used to be. Interestingly, Hudes pushes against the actors typing or otherwise engaging with a “computer” onstage, allowing the actors simply to speak. That’s actually quite appropriate for the Zoom era. To what degree all of this changes how students approach the play remains to be seen.

In addition to facing the internet of yesteryear, there’s also the small matter of war. In Water by the Spoonful, Eliot, one of the main characters, has returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and brought with him the ghost of an Iraqi citizen. Throughout the play, the Ghost begs Eliot to return his passport, eventually pleading so intensely that it forces a physical confrontation. We also learn that Eliot suffers from an addiction to painkillers, the after-effects of an injury sustained in the line of duty. With the United States pulling (chaotically) out of Afghanistan, it seems like the ideal time to redirect attention toward the country’s Middle East escapades and their traumatic results. I say “redirect” because, up until very recently, America’s wars in the Middle East had faded into the background for so many of us during this time of domestic upheaval. Like internet cafes, they almost seem to call from another era, even if, in the case of Afghanistan, they have been going on this whole time. So while the play still feels very “now” in redirecting our attention to the trauma brought home by soldiers and the harm inflicted on Afghanis, it also feels strangely distant. My hope is that we’ll get to explore more of that dissonance as we work further back into the canon, asking ourselves what still resonates, what doesn’t resonate, and what we can get out of holding those two things in tension with another. Lord knows there will be plenty more dissonance when Antigone comes around.

Sitting with The Chair (and Spoilers!)

Sandra Oh has been a favorite of mine ever since the early, halcyon days Grey’s Anatomy, so it’s immensely gratifying not only to live in the age of Killing Eve but to get a show like The Chair. Oh is the perfect person to lead a series that shifts from satirical to heartfelt to prescient, all while skewering many of academia’s ailments, among them the slights suffered by women, and women of color in particular. There is so much I love about The Chair – and so much that has already been written about it, including this excellent review from real-life Chair Dr. Karen Tongson – that it seems almost churlish to bring up two criticisms that I think limit it somewhat. Before I begin, it’s worth mentioning here that the whole discourse (as the kids are calling it) around verisimilitude in The Chair has been quite a merry-go-round, so much so that it has come in for some criticism of its own. As Dr. Koritha Mitchell points out in her op-ed for CNN, Oh’s Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim is a character, not a real person, and the encounters she has are designed to explicate who she is the protagonist in this story, not to present a documentary account. She also argues that an inability or unwillingness to accept Ji-Yoon as the protagonist is tied to the marginalization of women of color and other historically excluded groups. In other words, it is not enough to praise diversity in storytelling without being willing to acknowledge protagonists who don’t fit the hegemonic mold. While this is a crucial insight, I worry that, on a structural level, The Chair itself doesn’t always live up to Ji-Yoon’s status as protagonist. For a show about the lack of opportunities and the flush of additional labor put on women of color in academia, The Chair spends an awful lot of time asking Ji-Yoon, and the audience, to pick up after Dr. Bill Dobson, her messy White male colleague. Make no mistake, I largely enjoy Bill’s story and appreciate what the show does to undermine the cocksure, “inspirational” tropes he is meant to embody, and the fact that he becomes such a problem child is part of the point. But we spend a lot of time with Bill and his problems (some of them admittedly serious), so much so that he is essentially a second lead, even if his time onscreen is often unremarkable and repetitive (we only need so many wandering misadventures, cute bonding scenes with Ji-Yoon’s daughter, or hurried, illicit meetings with undergraduates before we get the point). So while I appreciated Bill’s story arc, I wonder if the show risks perpetuating the same problems it meant to combat by constantly centering him beyond the purpose of explicating the challenge he poses. It’s worth remembering that assessing what a show values sometimes comes down to just counting how much screen time it gives to each of its characters.

Speaking of Bill’s story, the other facet that left me a bit cold was, unfortunately, the ending. (Spoilers Ahead) Early on, Bill becomes embroiled in a “cancel culture” situation when an ironic fascist salute in his modernism class is captured on camera and turned into a meme. Some students quickly latch onto it as evidence that Bill may be harboring Nazi sympathies or, at the very least, is completely oblivious to how his actions might resonate. Bill stages an ill-fated town hall with the students that devolves into an argument, triggers further protests, and leaves most of the faculty scrambling. Throughout the remainder of the show, Ji-Yoon is forced to chart the best path forward, which may include terminating Bill if he is unwilling to apologize unreservedly, which he is not. In the end, she chooses not to vote for his removal and instead argues in front of the disciplinary committee that getting rid of Bill is unfair to the students; not only will they see right through their face-saving maneuver, they’ll be left without proper instruction on how to handle complex situations like this one. The problem with this move is that the students have largely been marginalized up to this point. Apart from a handful of (somewhat underwritten) characters, most students pushing for Bill to be punished are faces in the crowd, many of them barely more than “woke” mouthpieces with axes to grind. To be fair, the show demonstrates a certain wry insight by focusing on academic politics rather than what is good for the students, and the constant fear the professors have of appearing to be doing something inappropriate, even in fairly innocuous situations, speaks to how much universities are governed by concerns over liability, something Tongson discusses in her piece. Yet that only makes the sudden about-face to a sincere, inspirational plea all the harder to take. As Alessa Dominguez’s piece in Buzzfeed argues, the show may not be quite the satire it aims to be (it’s worth arguing here that many of the criticisms Mitchell confronts are brought up by Dominguez). While that could be blamed on a certain conservatism within the structures of universities, it could also be the result of trying to balance too many tones at once. In any case, while The Chair makes the right move in re-centering students, it only does so after giving those students relatively short shrift, sacrificing the very nuance it claims to argue for. It’s an ending that could be good, but I’m not sure the show earns it.

You may notice that I’ve equivocated a bit on my criticisms of The Chair. That’s partly because 1) it’s a TV show that I thoroughly enjoyed, 2) I don’t want to be one of the people trying to read it like a documentary, and 3) they’re fine points that I hope to look at closely in a second viewing. More importantly, I believe in the value of multiple perspectives, and many of the features I critique might look different when viewed from another lens. That’s something the show does quite well, actually; even the crusty old White men clinging to their relevance get their moment. And heck, if scholars the caliber of Mitchell and others are seeing what The Chair wants to show them, then what do I know?

After ATHE 2021

Last month, I chaired and presented on a panel at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference, one of our field’s biggest annual gatherings. Apart from enjoying a successful discussion on performance, power, and activism in contemporary sport, featuring the brilliant trio of Sean Bartley, Noe Montez, and Leticia Ridley, I got to attend several insightful sessions that not only got me excited for the school year but also helped me tweak my approach for future conferences. With all sessions recorded for later viewing, I decided to only attend those sessions where I might have something worth asking during the Q&A. In addition to actually engaging in some conversation, my question would be recorded for posterity (for better or for worse). This was initially meant to be an online-only tactic, but I realized it’s a great way to approach conferences in general. When faced with a long menu of sessions, why not select those that might offer you an opportunity to participate? It’s certainly a lot better than hearing a raft of papers on a topic you thought might be interesting but soon realize is anything but. It also allows me to pull some of what I’m learning back to the classroom. In the “re: PERFORMATIVE” session, for example, I asked the panelists and other attendees, many of us involved in the #PerformativeX special section of the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, how we can teach students about the many flexible powers of performance and “performativity.” It was a tall order, to be sure, but it also made for a great talk that will help me develop my own plans to teach performance more effectively.

Speaking of online conferences, it seems like keeping conferences virtual or at least hybrid is a no-brainer going forward. Yes, there are practical considerations to bear in mind, including contracts, and there is always something special about being there, at least for me. But keeping hybrid and virtual options on the table goes some way to expanding accessibility, and I’m hardly the first one to point this out. Not only does it open the conference up to people who may be unable to travel for a variety of reasons, it makes a number of tools – closed captioning, slides and documents, chat functions, etc. – available at the touch of a button. Assuming recording is set up, it also ensures that some amount of the work is housed for later use like a Netflix for real theatre nerds. Granted, Zoom fatigue is always a factor to consider (I certainly did not attend all the sessions I planned to) and there is no real substitute for the impromptu conversation or hastily arranged coffee chat after a panel. But for all their social benefits, conferences should ultimately be about sharing knowledge, and there’s no reason to limit that capacity by refusing to make online engagement available to attendees. Over to you, American Society for Theatre Research and other organizations looking to the future..

Good Enough Might Not Be Good Enough, and Other Musings

This is part of my (new) monthly series of musings, usually pertaining to what I am working on, worrying about, or looking forward to. Each one will have a “main story” and a few short musings. It’s mostly a reason to make this website earn its keep.

Good Enough Might Not Be Good Enough

Last semester, I completed an important milestone when I passed my qualifying exams and became a PhD candidate. This earned me a new, hopefully temporary acronym: ABD, “all but dissertation.” It’s a big accomplishment, especially when you factor in the state of disarray I was in over Christmas (for example, I spent all of Fall blissfully unaware that I was one member short of a full dissertation committee). Thankfully, despite expecting the worst, my conversation with the committee was lively and generative. Even the criticisms, all of them fair, were ones I saw coming and even agreed with.

While I was excited to earn my passage to the next level, I have found it hard to get going on the dissertation itself. Part of that is post-prospectus fatigue. The prospectus, a sort of dissertation proposal, is a lot of work in and of itself, so much so that it feels like I’ve got no energy left to actually write the dissertation I proposed. Part of it has to do with trying to figure out how one even dissertates at all. Where to begin? The introduction, I guess? No, they say you should write that part last. Maybe I should read more? You know what, I’ll just clean my room instead, that way I’m getting something done.

Anyway, if the actual process of prepping and writing a dissertation wasn’t tiring enough, I also have to face a troubling reality: a rapidly shrinking, already-very-small-to-begin-with job market. Even before the pandemic, stable jobs in my immediate field were scarce. After the pandemic, when hiring freezes spread all across the country, the pool shrank even more, and there is no guarantee it will refill anytime soon. That these jobs were thin on the ground is a fact I recognized early in the journey, and yet now it is really, truly hitting me that the path I have been on may lead me nowhere, or at least nowhere near the job I am being trained for. It sounds naive, I know, but I guess I just trusted myself to work hard enough and be nice enough to come good. That’s something we all get told at some point: work hard enough, play by the rules, and you will get ahead. Unfortunately, I failed to appreciate that there simply are not enough spots for all the people doing at least as much as I am – and in many cases much more, sometimes despite institutional barriers I don’t even have to deal with. In any case, now is the time to really internalize the truth: when it comes to actually landing a job in my field, being good enough might not be good enough.

Ironically, the idea that being good enough might not be good enough is nothing new. It has been ingrained in me by a life in the theatre, an arena in which rejection is a constant. At some level, whether they are submitting plays or auditioning for a part, every theatre artist has to accept that competition is fierce and a myriad of factors will influence whether or not they get the job, regardless of how qualified they may be on paper. When you’re on the job hunt, many of these factors can seem maddeningly intangible: timing, particular skillsets, “chemistry,” connections, “type,” etc. It’s not uncommon to be told that your work is good but that it’s “just not right” for whatever it is you want. Nevertheless, we are trained to accept that answer. In some ways, that’s healthy: whether or not we get the job, we can often take some solace in knowing we have inherent worth. And besides, sometimes the intangibles really do matter; sometimes what you bring to the table really isn’t right for the room. However, that same ethos can be used against artists to keep them hustling for their “breakthrough,” to the point that they can be taken advantage of or even flat-out abused (this is to say nothing of the discrimination many artists face, some of which masquerades as the same “intangibles” mentioned before). Unfortunately, being taken advantage of, or at the very least begrudgingly accepting low compensation and high risk just to get in the door, is often normalized, too. Sure, few people really go into theatre for the money, but they should go into a job hoping, if not expecting, to be treated fairly.

While academia is supposedly a fairer, more stable space, it has its own problems. The aforementioned scarcity of jobs is exacerbated by the fact that tight budgets often force departments to hand classes over en masse to adjuncts, many of whom have to cobble together a living by taking on an exorbitant load every semester, or to graduate students like myself, who are eager to please and cheaper than a new full-time hire. Like other “industries” that aren’t industries, modern academia is a numbers game run from the top down: the lower the overhead, the greater the revenue and the greater the competition for spots. This means it pays to have more people who work for less money but nevertheless churn out quality stuff for a slim chance of moving up. Publishing, committee work, conference presentations, outside productions – a lot of it is low-paying or unpaid, but it’s all expected to be on the resume, even if you’re a fresh graduate. This stuff is hard work, too, but in a field this crowded, even those who put in the hours may not get their due, not when the margins are so thin and there’s little even department leadership can do about it.

So what does this mean for my academic journey? For starters, it means taking these next two (hopefully!) years to build out my skillset for jobs outside of teaching. As much as I want to teach at the university level, I have to acknowledge that it may not happen, no matter how good my record is. To be fair, part of this has to do with how the field is changing (in some cases for the better) and with my own choices of expertise; other people will get jobs that they more than earned and are much better suited for than I am. Fortunately, I have experience doing other rewarding work at a university thanks to my time with the East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood grant. Maybe that’s a path worth retreading. Heck, maybe what’s best for me isn’t even on a campus at all. I came in with frustrations about the field already; maybe the answer is to look elsewhere for places to apply myself. To be clear, none of this means giving up. After all, I have a lot to be proud of and a lot to look forward to, and I still plan on working hard on this dissertation and the rest of my projects. I also have the opportunity to get wise about how academia works and figure out how I might apply what I have learned to create a more equitable spaces wherever I end up. In short, I don’t say all this to be defeatist, just pragmatic.

Speaking of, if anyone asks, I dusted off my LinkedIn profile and will happily respond to connections.

Other Musings

Wait Around All Day…: For all my worries about the market, I am fortunate to have some projects coming to fruition soon, namely three publications of varying lengths. Funnily enough, the (lovely) editors of all three sent me proofs and notes to consider within two days of each other, all with quick turnarounds. No blaming them: like me, they probably wrapped their semester and immediately got to work on all the other stuff they have to do. It’s one of those classic “wait around for a project to edit all day and then three show up at once” situations, and it makes me think about academic time. In one sense, academic time ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the semester. In another sense, it’s chopped and pulled in lots of different directions. All three of these projects operated on very different timelines, yet they will all converge with similar release dates. Something to bear in mind with the next projects: not everything ripens at the same rate.

Chidi (Not So) In Charge: I recently finished The Good Place, a show that had been on my list for a long time, and I loved it. Apart from enjoying the high concept shenanigans (which the team did a commendable job of refreshing every season), I really identified with the character of Chidi Anagonye, a philosopher and professor of ethics. Not just because he was an academic, mind you, but because he overthought everything, just like me. Seriously, even the most benign of decisions, like what kind of muffin to have, absolutely incapacitates this guy. What struck me deeply was how harmful that indecision could be toward others, especially those who depended on him for a certain emotional stability. It’s something for me to bear in mind going forward. Here’s to good academic representation in media – and to Sandra Oh in The Chair on Netflix!

In Their Own Words: Earlier this year, as I completed revisions on one of the projects mentioned above, I decided to arrange for some interviews with a few of the artists involved. I was able to chat with three out of the seven cast members of The Fall, a South African piece based on the #RhodesMustFall movement. All three were generous with their time and insights, sometimes confirming and sometimes expanding what I thought I knew about the play. These interviews happened around the same time I was dramaturging Waiting for Iggy Pop, a play by Julia Marks featured in the Magic in Rough Spaces workshop at Rorschach Theatre Company. The play was a fun challenge, not to mention a great opportunity to refresh my playlists with some punk and hip hop. More importantly, getting to talk with Julia and the team was refreshing, partly because being in a rehearsal room (even a Zoom one) is a rarity for me these days. Anyway, this is something I want to integrate more into my research: conversations with artists. There tends to be some suspicion over taking an artist at their own word when it comes to their own art, and I respect that. However, engaging with an artist, and even sharing my research with them, can be invigorating in a way that straightforward critical reading isn’t. It also strikes me as especially important to incorporate an artist’s perspective when they come from a lived experience very different from my own, as was very much the case with The Fall. That’s not to say the work, or the artists, cannot be critiqued; like a lot of good research, it’s about holding things in tension, not about forcing resolution.