2014 Session: "Locations of Theater"

June 2-13, 2014

The Mellon School 2014
The Mellon School, 2014



The topic for the 2014 session was "Locations of Theater." The word "theater" designates a "place of seeing," and the question of where theater should take place has been a fundamental one throughout the history of this art form. Our investigations addressed the architecture and archaeologies of theater, from the invention of the raised stage to the rebellion against special-purpose theater spaces with site-specific performance, and many of the evolutions of theatrical location and dislocation in between. 



Sarah Bay-Cheng, SUNY-Buffalo
Debra Caplan, CUNY-Baruch
Elinor Fuchs, Yale University
Seth Harrison, Harrison Atelier
Ju-Yon Kim, Harvard University
David Levine, Bard College Berlin
Ariane Lourie Harrison, Yale University
Derek Miller, Harvard University
Mike Pearson, Aberystwyth University
Carrie J. Preston, Boston University
Martin Puchner, Harvard University
Heike Roms, Aberystwyth University
Andrew Sofer, Boston College



Samer Al-Saber
Josh Alvizu
Emma Atwood
Alisa Ballard
Nelson Barre
Ambika Basu
David Bsaha
Lisa Marie Bowler
Annelle Curulla
Elizabeth Coen
Julia Fawcett
Kristin Flade
Matthew Franks
Jeanmarie Higgins
Les Hunter
Ashton Lazarus
Paul Masters
Thomas Meacham
Rebecca Munson
Jules Odendahl-James
Barbora Příhodová
Kerrie Reading
John Robbins
Beth Weinstein
Kreen Zaiontz
Sophia Tingtin Zhao



The seminar explores the ground—territory; setting; place—as the central problem of theater. A place of seeing, theater needs to take place somewhere. As a consequence, it takes over existing ground and installs itself there, or else it creates its own grounds, laying the foundation for specifically designed theatrical spaces. The question of where theater takes place has been a highly charged matter. Greek tragedy originated in religious sites, around the alters to the God Dionysus. Japanese Kabuki theater, by contrast, originated in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto, places of disrepute, just as in London, the Globe Theatre, along with most other theaters, was forced to take residence outside the City of London on the South Side of the Thames for similar reasons. At the same time, the theater has struggled to emancipate itself from these charged sites, for example through the invention of the raised stage. Through this emancipation, it has managed to gain something invaluable: the ability to represent any place at will. Once the theater controls its grounds, it can use them to represent the most far-flung places. Time and again, a reaction against the theater's emancipation from specific locations has set in, most recently in the twentieth century, when theaters were searching for their lost grounds, seeking once again to be inextricably tied to a particular place. Only in the late twentieth century did a name for this movement emerge: site-specific performance. Through site-specific performances and reenactments, theaters not only took place at particular sites, but these sites, and their histories, became the primary subject matter of performance. With respect to ground, theater has thus oscillated between site-specific performance and emancipation from site-specificity.

The seminar tackles this topic by looking at theater architecture, including its religious valences, the invention of the raised stage, and site-specific performances and reenactments. It investigates the philosophical underpinnings of theater's sense of place, considers the tradition of the theatrum mundi, and examines how playwrights react to and grapple with the problem of the ground. Other related topics might include specific national theaters, theater and exile, traveling troupes, and world theater. Readings by Plato, Euripides, David Wiles, David Levine (participant in the summer school), Michael Kirby, Mike Pearson (participant in the summer school), Martin Heidegger, and others.

Theater history is primarily a history of exceptions. Even the most inclusive canon–whether of plays or of performers or of artistic movements–captures but a fraction of past artistic endeavors. Yet no theatrical production stands alone. Theater not only emerges within a social, political, and cultural milieu, but also within a specific theatrical field. This “field”–a word used incisively by Pierre Bourdieu–describes the set of possibilities available to each theatrical work at the moment it appears. In a sense, the field is a context, but a richly materialist context, constructed by the economic conditions and social practices upon which every theatrical event depends.

Among the methods for understanding a cultural field, few hold as much promise as data analysis. Reconstructing the history of theater in the aggregate, we must account for more than a few remarkable or well-documented cases, we must attend to a larger set of information, and construct different kinds of facts: precisely the challenge answered by the analysis of large data sets. The recent development of user-friendly (or -friendlier) digital technologies has encouraged the growth of this methodology. Our seminar will explore work on theater as a field of cultural production, with an emphasis on data analysis and contemporary digital tools. Looking at studies of mid-century Broadway, Victorian London, and Shakespeare, we will examine how research methods in the digital humanities may help us understand the theatrical field. We will attend particularly to the limitations of digital methods, to the movement from data to fact to analysis, and to the applicability of digital methods from literary studies to the study of theater. Topics include network graphs, geomapping, databases, data visualization, and digital editions.