Dr. Priscilla María Page ‘00G uses the Feinberg Innovation Space to close a gap in theater scholarship
By Priscilla María Page ‘00G | Tuesday, July 9, 2019
By Priscilla María Page ‘00G
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Conducting interviews with artists of color has been a valuable component of the work done by students in the Multicultural Certificate Program. This serves a two-part purpose by having students learn directly from artists of color how they engage with theater, and it fulfills Certificate Director’s Priscilla Page ‘00G’s personal mission to address the gaps in theater scholarship about these artists’ practices. This semester, Page made creative use of technology to help her students gain access to artists who were farther afield through a Feinberg Innovation Grant that allowed her class to use teleconferencing facilities.
Page wrote a report on the class’s work for our upcoming Year in Review and agreed to an email interview to answer some additional questions. This account combines the two; read on for the ways in which Page and her students used technology to connect with theater artists of color and expand the scholarship on their work.
Creating a record for artists of color
I feel completely compelled to pass on the knowledge of and the commitment to artists of color that I possess. In my own educational experiences, I observed that the contributions of people of color to theater history, culture, and our broader society were often minimized or even erased. I have made it my mission to teach and to directly support (through productions at New WORLD Theater and UMASS) artists of color whenever possible. My focus on Latinx and Native American theater is directly tied to my personal experiences as a mixed-race woman with these identities who had to seek out my education on these topics because there was so little available in the 1990s when I was an undergraduate student.
In the past three years, I have begun integrating artist interview projects in Theater 597D: Multicultural Theater Practice, a dramaturgy course offered to upper-division undergraduate students and graduate students. It also serves as the culminating course for the Multicultural Theater certificate. We examine African and African American plays with a focus on research and analysis using post-colonial literary theory as one lens to study this body of work. The students also conduct research on contemporary artists whose work fits within a multicultural theater framework and then interview those artists as a significant component of their classwork. With their interviews, students contribute to a digital archive of oral histories featuring artists of color who have often been rendered invisible by mainstream theater critics and scholars.
Students learn oral history techniques through online readings and assignments and then apply those lessons to their projects. In the first two years that I included this assignment, students conducted interviews outside of class time and then created presentations for the end of semester symposium. In 2016, the presentations were held in the Department of Theater while in 2017, we hosted a public event at Five Colleges, Inc. The goals for this assignment are multi-faceted with an emphasis on putting theater students in direct contact with working artists who can provide insight into the joys and challenges of choosing to be a theater artist in our society. The interviews focus on sources of inspiration, creative process, and advice on entering the profession. Students also learn the value of oral histories and the importance of circulating critical and creative cultural products about these artists in order to fill gaps in knowledge about the important work of artists of color today. Over the last three years, students have created documentary films, public presentations, program notes, and published articles based on their interviews in this course.
Using technology to expand scholarship
In Spring 2019, I received the Feinberg Innovation grant to teach in the Feinberg classroom in the Engineering Lab and to support nine guest sessions, (eight artists and one expert). I invited nationally-recognized artists for members of my class to interview via teleconferencing. In our sessions, students selected which artist they wanted to interview and then thoroughly prepared in advance by conducting research and scripting questions. There were twelve students in the class who mostly worked in pairs, two students conducted interviews alone, and I conducted one interview. I gave each team the challenge to interact with the interview material and create publishable articles, videos and/or audio recordings to share with the public.
The grant was for one semester and is described as follows:
Course Offerings for Feinberg Innovation Space
The Feinberg Innovation Space is a new interactive classroom that has
been set up thanks to a generous gift from Ken Feinberg. The classroom,
which is located in room 115 in Elab II, can hold 20-25 students and
allows for remote experts to interact with the students in the
classroom. The room has two large screens and high-quality audio
equipment to make these interactions seamless.
Several courses have started using the facility in Fall 2018. The
provost, in hope of encouraging further use of the facility, is offering
$5,000 to cover course development and honoraria for experts for a
course to be offered in the Spring term of the current
academic year. The course should make extensive use of the
teleconferencing capability to bring in external experts.
In my proposal, I used part of the funding to redesign the course and part of the funding to pay for a guest lecture by long-time radio host Glenn Siegel on interview techniques and for the guest artists to be interviewed by members of the class. (See the sidebar for a listing of artists interviewed for the course)
The genesis of the idea
This body of work addresses the gaps that I see in current scholarship on both contemporary theater and theater history in the US.
The idea of the artist interview component grew from my own practice as a theater historian and dramaturg who uses extended interviews and oral histories in my research, writing, and teaching. I developed my approach to oral history in my dissertation on Latinx Theater in Chicago. With that project, I use first-voice narratives to construct four decades of Latina/o/x theater history with the artists who were founding directors and/or members of these companies: Latino Chicago, Latino Experimental Theater Company, Teatro Vista, Teatro Luna, and Urban Theater Company. My aim with this research is to listen carefully to Latina/o/x artists in Chicago so that I can play a role in amplifying their voices as they articulate their experiences in this Midwestern city they call home.
For the class, I try to match students with artists who they have something in common with or with whom they might make a meaningful connection. Sometimes this is based on affinity and sometimes it is based on specific requests that students make. Theater and certificate alum Sabrina Victor directed and produced Spell #7 by Ntozake Shange during the semester that she was enrolled in Multicultural Theater Practice so it made sense for her to interview Shange. Certificate student Janet Wangoe interviewed Ifa Bayeza after working closely with her on Tazieh: Between Two Rivers (UMASS theater production Spring 2017). I included Janet’s interview in the dramaturgy booklet for Infants of the Spring (UMASS theater production Spring 2018). Graduate Alum Jen Onopa, a theater director herself, was interested in the experiences of women of color directors so she interviewed Sanaz Ghajar, Rebecca Martinez, and Nicole A. Watson. She edited and published those interviews on Howlround in February 2018.
Current dramaturgy grad student Maegan Clearwood and Hampshire/certificate student Hannah Jones are both interested in theater criticism and they wanted to interview American Theater magazine editor Diep Tran. They then transcribed their interview and are in the process of publishing it with an essay in the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism.
There are some common themes that arise each year. One of them is persistence in the face of obstacles. Another theme is that of growth. Many of the artists share what early experiences shaped them and how they came to develop their craft: writing, directing, designing, performing. Many of them have traveled, have come in contact with teachers and mentors who believed in the, and many of them have carved their own path that is not so linear. Many of them have also been innovators in our field and they talk about creative risk-taking.
Artists interviewed in Spring 2019 semester
- Josefina Baez, New York-based Dominican writer and performance artist — This bilingual interview, conducted by Elena Igartuburu Garcia (Comparative Literature grad student) and Jenny Gutiérrez (Hampshire College), will be published by the Dominican Writers Association, in advance of the conference celebrating Josefina Baez.
- Liza Jessie Peterson, playwright and poet
- Nia Witherspoon, Artist-in-Residence at UMASS Amherst and playwright/performer
- Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, international, all-women, improvised jazz ensemble — I partnered with the Latinx Cultural Center and the Magic Triangle Jazz Series for this bilingual interview.
- Courtney Flores, California-based, Latina costume designer
- Monica Palacios, Chicana writer, performer, and self-proclaimed hip chick
- Diep Tran, senior editor of American Theatre magazine and host of Token Theatre Friends — This interview, conducted by Maegan C. Clearwood and Hannah Jones (Hampshire College), will be published in the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Fall 2019.
- Will Power, Hip Hop theater pioneer, playwright, and poet
- Glenn Siegel, local Jazz concert producer and radio DJ with 30 years of interview experience gave a lecture on interview techniques
In 2017 and 2018, students interviewed the following artists: Judyie Al-Bilali, Ifa Bayeza, Djola Branner, Sonya Clark, Sanaz Ghajar, Terry Jenoure, Will McAdams, Gilbert McCauley, Rebecca Martinez, Kimberlee Perez, Ntozake Shange, Mei Ann Teo, Nicole A. Watson, and Talvin Wilks. Certificate student My Hyunh created a 30-minute documentary film about Mei Ann Teo titled Practicing New Understanding and screened it on campus in the Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center on campus. MFA Director Jen Onopa published her interview with Sanaz Ghajar, Rebecca Martinez, and Nicole A. Watson in an essay titled, “Shaping the Future of the Directing Field” for Howlround in February 2018. Multicultural Theater Certificate student Janet Wangoe published her interview with MFA Alum Ifa Bayeza in the dramaturgy program for our production of Infants of the Spring in 2018. Sabrina Victor, theater alum and certificate student, presented research on Black Acting methods and utilized her interview with Ntozake Shange as well as conversations with Professor Judyie Al-Bilali for her presentation at the Honors College symposium in Spring 2018. Sabine Jacques created a film titled Sis, How’d You Get There? and screened it in New Africa House (Spring 2018). This documentary included peer interviews alongside her conversation with visual artist and Amherst College professor Sonya Clark.
More about Dr. Priscilla María Page
Dr. Priscilla María Page ‘03G, ‘18PhD, received her doctorate from UMass in 2018 for her work on Latino/a/x theater in Chicago. She has published interviews with playwright, director, and dramaturg Talvin Wilks for SDC Journal Spring 2018 (Stage Directors and Choreographers) and in her book Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light: A Play by Joy Harjo and a Circle of Responses (Wesleyan Press, 2019). There are three interviews with leading Native American artists published in that book: Randy Reinholz, founding co-director of Native Voices at the Autry, Rolland Meinholtz, theater director and teacher at the Institute of American Indian Arts and Joy Harjo, poet and playwright.
Page is indebted to her mentors, scholar Alberto Sandoval Sánchez and playwright Migdalia Cruz, who paved the way with their work, as well as Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Barbara Christian whose writings about third world feminism, womanism, gender, and class have deeply influenced and affirmed her along the way.