Enjoying Performances: The Student as Critical Spectator

My name is Victoria LaFave, and I am a second-year PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies. I wanted to create a collections-based module because many students on our campus are not aware of the robust materials in our Curtis Collection theatre archives. With such a thriving theatre community within the city of Pittsburgh as a whole, and at the University specifically, there is a longstanding relationship between Pitt students and live performances. This collections-based module for THEA 0505: Enjoying Performances is working to recenter the power of the student as a critical spectator.

Enjoying Performances is a course that fulfills the undergraduate diversity requirement and introduces students to performance studies theory. This is not a theatre appreciation course but rather an investigation of what performance does for our understanding of the world. Definitions of “performance” vary, but performance studies is a lens to decipher how creative acts and social situations expose power dynamics, transmit memory and identity, and position spectators in relation to each other. In this course, students analyze and engage with theories of race, gender, and sexuality from a social standpoint and usually apply these theories to live Pitt Stages productions. But, with the closure of many theatre institutions for the foreseeable future, students are no longer able to observe and enjoy performances as we used to. This course, then, must lean on archived performances as the foundation to apply performance studies theory.

The goal of the proposed module is to encourage students to think critically about their own engagement with, and responsibility to, performances and aesthetic productions. As members of an artistic community, students at the University of Pittsburgh have a responsibility to view, digest, and support our communal artistic endeavors in a critically conscious manner. By working with the archive, students will be able to trace the legacy, memory, and role of student spectators across one hundred years of University of Pittsburgh productions. Generations of students have consumed performances that were emblematic of their sociopolitical moment and created, or disrupted, a student body identity. What did it mean to “enjoy a performance” in 1920? What did it mean in 1980? What does it mean today?

With the help of Professor Patrick McKelvey and librarian Bill Daw, I am utilizing the Cap and Gown Archives and the Kuntu Repertory Theatre Records from the Curtis Theatre Collection. Both of these companies were based in the University of Pittsburgh student community but had vastly different relationships to race, gender, and sexuality, as did their audiences. The Cap and Gown Club was a student-written and student-directed organization that performed a farcical spring show each year with campus specific jokes and large musical numbers from 1908 to 1948. The Kuntu Repertory Theatre, which operated from 1974 to 2013, produced and performed plays by Black playwrights including August Wilson and Rob Penny. The Cap and Gown Club’s history is marked with what students would now consider “antiquated” ideals while the Kuntu Repertory Theatre’s mission grew from the Black Arts Movement. So, what might students see, feel, and imagine about spectatorship and the role of performance when placing these two companies in conversation with each other? What do these performances reveal?

The assignments for this module are both creative and curatorial. Students will collect reviews, analyze photographs, watch recordings, visit performance venues (perhaps virtually), and read play scripts to build their understanding of a performance’s historical moment. From this archival engagement, students will write a creative piece from the perspective of a hypothetical historical spectator of those performances. As students work together to place these imagined spectator experiences in conversation, I am hoping that we might find ways to trouble the relationships we assume between the contemporary student body and the historical student body.

Surprisingly, the curriculum planning process has provided many insights into the archival process of the papers of Dr. Vernell Lillie, the head of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre. These papers are currently being archived following Dr. Lillie’s passing in May 2020. While archivists are still working to make these papers digitally accessible, this module opens the playing field for students to be the first individuals to work with these materials.

Victoria LaFave
Theatre and Performance Studies
August 17, 2020

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