2017 Session: "Research, Pedagogy, Activism"

2017 Mellon School
The 2017 session of the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research, "Research, Pedagogy, Activism," was held from June 5-16, 2017 at Harvard University.


The last two years have seen a significant rise in activism on university campuses and beyond, from Black Lives Matter to environmental activism and unionization. Because the performing arts are a frequent vehicle for activism, researchers in the performing arts have much to contribute to this general development. At the same time, the job market increasingly requires students to demonstrate significant experience with innovative teaching methods. Here, too, the performing arts have much to contribute because a lot of teaching in the performing arts combines theory and practice; certain disciplines within the field, such as performance studies, have also included an element of activism in their research method. This year’s Mellon session will seek to take the measure of this changing landscape and formulate ways in which theater and performance research can be an incubator for new ideas and practices at the intersection of research, pedagogy, and activism.

 Participants will work with an international faculty of distinguished scholars in one of two daily seminars on overarching theoretical and methodological topics related to the theme of "Research, Pedagogy, Activism." 


Una Chaudhuri (New York University)
Bonnie Honig (Brown University)
Carrie Preston (Boston University)
Martin Puchner (Harvard University)
Elaine Scarry (Harvard University)
Doris Summer (Harvard University)
Lawrence Switzky (University of Toronto)
Harvey Young (Northwestern University)


Nazli Akhtari
Shamell Bell
Peter Campbell
Ana Cândida Carneiro
Jordana Cox
Lizzy Cooper Davis
Robert Duffley
Ellen Gerdes
Lindsay Goss
Sascha (Alexandra) Just
Susan Kattwinkel
Warren Kluber
Mario LaMothe
Sharrell Luckett
Jasmine Mahmoud
Caitlin Marshall
Lilian Mengesha
Manjari Mukherjee
Meenakshi Pawha
Liz Phillips
Jessi Piggott
Meghan Quinlan
Ruth Schor
Kelli Shermeyer
Jen Shook
Emmanuelle Sirois
April Sizemore-Barber
Erin Stoneking
Tsu-Chung Su
Elliott Yurley
Annelise Wasmoen
Anna White-Nockleby
Sarah Wilbur
Joshua Williams
Natalie Zervou




Audience participation in what is often called interactive, immersive, or site-specific theater has become an obsession. The British Company Punchdrunk claims to have “pioneered a game changing form of theatre” and a “unique theatrical experience” with plays like the Macbeth-inspired, site-specific Sleep No More (2008). A production company calling itself Emursive formed to bring the play to New York City’s McKittrick Hotel (actually a converted Chelsea warehouse) in 2011. The McKittrick Sleep No More has become a tourist draw with ancillary attractions including a band, brunch, and the opportunity to book the space for corporate parties. In 2016 theatregoers could attend ten site-specific, participatory plays in and around New York City that, according to one reviewer, “rang[ed] in personal discomfort level from mildly embarrassing to horrifically mortifying.”

In this seminar, we will ask just how “game changing,” “unique,” and “mortifying” is this undoubtedly lucrative and trendy business of immersive theater, particularly when we focus on race and gender? Is audience participation a form of activism, a form of pedagogy? Does participatory theater have the power to intervene in our damaging racial and gender regimes? Has theater always been participatory, or do we need to set dramatic realism aside in order to make that claim?

We will read and discuss a sample of theoretical works that examine audience participation and consider performance texts and productions that have asked audiences to participate in ways that seek to trouble their understanding of race and gender. Authors/playwrights will include Bertolt Brecht, Elizabeth Robbins, Jean Genet, Eve Ensler, Paula Vogel, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, Taylor Mac, and Anna Deveare Smith, among others. In keeping with the theme of participation, seminar participants will be asked to present a pedagogical exercise they have used or newly imagined.  


Arts and interpretation [the humanities] are essential partners in human agency; without them it is impossible to imagine development or to engage in the judgment required by civic life and professional challenges. Change implies disruption of existing practices and paradigms – which is what art does. And judgment requires the distance and the disinterested disposition that the humanities train through aesthetic exercises.

The seminar will explore the fundamental importance of creative and humanistic activities to address the opportunities for civic engagement and for professional development [in politics, medicine, science, business, etc.]. We take inspiration from arts projects that merit sustained reflection on their practical effects. The creative works in focus here, on grand and small scales, morph into institutional innovation. Reflecting on them is a humanistic assignment insofar as the humanities teach interpretation of art (to identify points of view, attend to technique, to context, to competing messages, and evaluate aesthetic effects). Part of the work is to train free, disinterested, judgment.  This faculty for pausing to step back and take stock is basic to all disciplines. But the best training ground for judgment is the carefree area of aesthetics.

From Classic to contemporary theory, from facing up to AIDS in the USA to confronting lawlessness in Colombia, performing and visual arts create a buzz and a budge beyond conventional interventions. Thinking about how and why they do so puts arts and humanities at the center of debates on development.  Readings to guide our thinking about cases include theoretical works by Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Schiller, Dewey, Freire, Gramsci, Rancière, Mockus, Boal, Allen.