100 Years of Pitt Audiences

My name is Victoria LaFave, and I am a second-year PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies. During the summer of 2020, I worked with the Curtis Theatre Collection to design a collections-based module titled “100 Years of Pitt Audiences.” This module was formatted for the undergraduate course “Enjoying Performances,” which is an introduction to performance studies theory. The goal of this module is for students to apply their theoretical understanding of race, gender, and sexuality to performances done by organizations associated with the university, namely the Cap and Gown Club (1908-1947) and the Kuntu Repertory Theatre (1974-2011). Because Kuntu Repertory emerged from the Black Arts Movement and centered Black artists while the Cap and Gown Club emerged from white collegiate comedy theatre, these archives operate in insightful contrast to one another. Taking these two Pitt organizations together opens dialogue about the politics of the archive, race and gender performance, and the power of the student spectator.

The guiding question of this module asks: what did it mean to be an audience member at the University of Pittsburgh during different sociohistorical moments? Activities for this module include an Imagined Audience Narrative where students use scripts, promotional material, film clips, and design work from the Cap and Gown Club or Kuntu Repertory Theatre records to retroactively imagine a journal entry from a student audience member on opening night. This reimagining is constructed in conversation with research on the university atmosphere to ensure a historically situated account. Students then work as a group to take this research regarding the historical production as a site of comparison for analyzing a contemporary Pitt Stages performance alongside the archived performance. This comparative analysis is then shared outwards through public-facing scholarship in order to amplify the voices and research of students.

The experience of designing an archive-driven online module for undergraduates was immeasurable. This module was brought to life through collaborative thinking, problem-solving, and a shared investment in public-facing scholarship generated by and for students. Librarians Bill Daw and Megan Massanelli were crucial in designing the class library guide for this module. Bill shared his extensive knowledge of the Cap and Gown Club Records with me and granted me access to digitized film from the Reis Papers archives that I was not expecting. I added this film to the module because it included several clips of dance rehearsals and performances of at least five different productions. Though the Cap and Gown Club productions were almost a century ago, the film gives students another access point to imagine the audience experience alongside programs and photographs. Although Megan was working to digitize all of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre’s archive after the passing of its founder Dr. Vernell A. Lillie, she shared the working metadata with me. This expansive digital drive was constantly growing and gave me firsthand experience in parsing through metadata.

I was eager to see the archive of Black artists and playwrights of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre, including Rob Penny and August Wilson, and I was excited to find records of the late Chadwick Boseman’s playwriting and directing experience among the files. With this find, I was able to use Boseman’s production as a site for a sample Imagined Audience Narrative to share with students. This sample leaned into popular culture to position this collections-based work within the larger cultural importance of revisiting university performance archives. In short, I used my playing in the metadata as a model for what students might find in their playing.

This process helped me become well acquainted with educational technology such as Panopto, cloud storage, and podcasting technologies. Through the University Center for Teaching and Learning, I was able to access podcasting software and equipment, and I developed skills that I will be taking with me into other courses I teach at Pitt and that will be useful to me in my future career as a humanist. Learning podcasting was intensive, and in moments overwhelming, but this skill ensures that I will have both a way to help students generate public scholarship that reaches the community of Pitt and beyond and that my own work will do the same. From my learning process, I gained insight on how to scaffold technology days throughout the module in order for students to play and practice with their chosen mode of technology. This experience was also eye-opening, in that I realized that digital course design could take even longer than non-digital course design because of the larger number of decisions that have to be made, especially in regard to software. However, because this module is digital, this module design has the ability to be used in many other courses and formats in the future.

As it stands now, the Curtis Theatre Collection garners interest from theatre historians and scholars across the world, but there is a disconnect between our undergraduate student body and the archive. The work started here offers a blueprint for an engagement with the university archives in a theory course. I hope it sets a precedent for undergraduate exploration of the Curtis Theatre Collection in the Theatre Arts Department. As a department, we have a strong understanding of theatre practice as a pedagogical opportunity for research and collaboration. Adding attention to an active exploration of the archives could expand our focus on practical, hands-on learning to understand our collective history as a discipline and university. Equipping students with the tools to navigate and analyze the archive will open new methods of knowledge production and new perspectives for performance studies.

Victoria LaFave
Theatre Arts
April 2021

Learn about all the projects from the Curricular Development Opportunity for Ph.D. Students