Interview with Carrie Preston

Carrie Preston, an Associate Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Boston University. is leading this year's seminar, “Race, Gender, Participatory Theater: What Do Audiences Learn?”. I sat down with her to ask a few questions about her work in relation to the Mellon School theme of Research, Pedagogy, Activism.

AWN: I was struck both in your lecture, and in your book [Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching] by your use of your own experience, which involves you putting yourself at the forefront as a subject. What went into your decision to use your own experience, and what challenges did you face?

CP: It has a history. When I started my first book, I decided that in order to write about figures like Isadora Duncan, the dancer, I needed to learn the technique and the choreography. So I took classes, and I danced with a company that has preserved Duncan choreography. I mentioned that in a footnote [of the book] to describe how it is that I’m writing about choreography. But of course, it changed everything about the way I wrote the piece.

When I started my second book, I again decided that in order to write about the topic of Noh I needed to take lessons to understand the form. Noh is a deeply pedagogical, historical form, where the real significance of Noh traditions happens in the lesson when the student is facing the teacher one-on-one. That’s how the repertoire gets preserved. The gestures are memorized, the chants are memorized, and it’s part of how the form survives today, by giving lessons to anyone who wants to experience it.

When I was pitching the book, the experience of taking lessons was so important to me, I said that I wanted to tell this story in the introduction of the book. The editors said, actually I think that should be a big part of this book. That story is fascinating, what you did by going and taking Noh lessons. So I wrote a chapter about that, and a chapter that I thought was standard criticism. It went out to reviewers, and one of the reviewers in particular said I want that story. That story should be interwoven, the story of the author going and taking lessons, and what that changed about how she saw her material, is part of this book. So I ended up redirecting everything to be around that story. It was so exciting, I enjoyed writing it, people liked reading it more. People like stories, they retain stories. I told myself, whatever I wrote in the future I wanted to make it more accessible to a broader audience, and part of doing that is telling stories, recognizing my position as a researcher.

For this new work, I think that recognizing my own position has become even more important because I am writing about race and gender, and my own identity needs to be recognized, my own position in relation to the theater I’m writing about. So I want to write about plays I’ve seen, so my story, my own experience in the audience is going to be part of that.

AWN: I’m interested in how you think about your own cultural position when it comes to the classroom. In what ways do you think about situating yourself in the context of different types of classes, whether it’s a class of undergraduates, graduate students or in our case a mix of graduate students and faculty, as well as the makeup of the class in terms of gender, race and other factors?

CP: I try to be, in any given class, really explicit about my own position and my own responses to materials. I hope that gives my students permission to recognize that they are approaching materials from particular cultural positions, with various forms of privilege, and disempowerment so that that can be part of the open conversation without anyone being afraid to mention their own race, or gender, or sexuality, and recognizing that that shapes the way that they read material.

In terms of the frame of your question about levels, I think one of the awesome things that has immerged from our seminar is that we’re talking about the material, but we’re often talking about teaching the material or choices we would make around teaching it. So we might talk about how in an undergraduate class we would do this, or in a graduate class we would do that. And I think that’s been a really productive part of this. There’s the discussion we have and then there is a secondary discussion about what we teach and how we teach that I have really enjoyed. We’re always thinking about what the theater is teaching and what we’re teaching as professors and students, and the kinds of choices that we make.

AWN: I totally agree. That’s one of the things I have been really struck by in the seminar is feeling like it is a space to have conversations about teaching.

CP: We don’t have enough of those. I realized quite early on that I really had no training in teaching whatsoever, and that was not a focus of my graduate program in spite of how much time and energy I would spend teaching for the rest of my life. Pedagogy just wasn’t a conversation, and there was even a subtext when I was a graduate student: don’t spend too much time on your teaching because you have to do your writing and research. So you were discouraged from being a good teacher. And I think that’s really problematic. I think we should be asking questions about what graduate programs are doing in general given the lack of jobs that are out there, but beyond that, what are we doing if we’re not training future teachers?

AWN: You have mentioned in passing various forms of activism, both in your role as a student advisor, and in seeing theater for its activist potential. In what ways do you think that activism, however you understand it, is a part of your scholarship and teaching?

CP: Because I have a dual appointment in an English department with an emphasis on theater and in a Gender and Sexuality department, I always felt that I was authorized to think about activism, to promote activism, to teach on activism in a way that I might not have felt if I didn’t have this dual appointment. In classes on queer theory and movement I’ve assigned projects where students have engaged in activism, and organized activism, and those have actually brought changes to BU [Boston University]. Students had choices about what they wanted to organize, so one semester, the students proposed a rape crisis center. BU did not have one, and by the following fall, we had what is now the center for gender, sexuality and activism, and the SARP (Sexual Assault and Response Prevention Center) and that’s a professionally staffed center. So these two groups came out of class projects and have really changed the face of BU.

At moments in my life, [activism] has felt really separate from my theater research, but I’ve realized that it really isn’t because I believe that theater is action, and the theater that interests me tries to teach and become part of movements and organizing. So my research has often focused on pedagogical messages within the theater. The other connection that I make in my research and my teaching is that activism is often very theatrical and performance-oriented, and uses the tools of performance. It borrows tools from theater and performance, and theater and performance borrow them back, particularly strategies for engaging audience members, involving participation in the contemporary theater.

AWN: That makes a lot of sense. And that is so fabulous to think that a class project could have that type of institutional effect.

As I was watching them do this work, and amazed by it, I was preparing my lecture for the end of the semester when they wouldn’t get what they wanted, and that they needed to recognize that change takes a long time, and they’ve planted the seed. And then they won. By May, the president had received their proposal, and the space was open the next fall.

**Interview was edited for length**