Forums: Theatre? Research? In? Canada?

Theatre / Research / Canada

Ric Knowles
University of Guelph

1 Theatre Studies in Canada is a young field, but already it has come a long way since the founding in the mid-to-late seventies, in rapid succession, of: Canadian Theatre Review (1974); Canadian Drama/L’art dramatique Canadien (1975), later folded into Essays in Theatre/Études théâtrales and later still dissolved; the Association for Canadian Theatre History (1976), subsequently The Association for Canadian Theatre Research, and now the Canadian Association for Theatre Research; and Theatre History in Canada (1980), now Theatre Research in Canada. Behind these name changes are many stories, and behind those stories are many shifts in the understanding of the disciplines and fields that constitute readers of this journal as a community of scholars.

2 In the heady early days the focus was on the titular “Canadian” and “in Canada,” and the major endeavour was to establish that there indeed was a theatre history in Canada that involved something uniquely “Canadian.” In Canadian Theatre Review, founded (ironically) by an American draft resister, the tone was distinctly nationalist, as a contemporary theatrical practice was understood to be only then emerging “from the colonial twilight” (Richardson and Rubin). Meanwhile Theatre History in Canada and its sponsoring association were busy establishing roots, identifying the first Canadian play (or theatre, or production), and insisting that Canadian theatre had not begun with the so-called “alternate theatre movement” but had a distinctive past upon which to build—though whether “my Canada includes [comprend?] Quebec” has always been a problem for the journal and the association, mostly because scholars in Quebec have had their own national association and journal and have always been divided or ambivalent about whether or not they wished to be included in Rest- of-Canada’s potentially lethal embrace. Formulations of the field have varied over time, from nationalist, to regionalist (Bessai), to “particularist” (Wallace 2), to multicultural. But “Canada” as a concept seems much less stable now, its histories more multiple and troubled, and its emergence from colonialism somewhat more doubtful and incomplete, as scholars actively engage with theatre produced by Indigenous peoples, recent immigrant communities, LGBTQ communities, and other communities of difference. At the same time, however, the study of theatrical activity in the land that is now called Canada is no longer something that needs so vigorously to be defended—except perhaps when talking with book publishers in the US and UK.

3 The categories of “drama” and “theatre” also meant something different in the mid-70s than they do now. “Drama” at that time had only recently begun to extricate itself from the neglect, or, again, the lethal embrace of literary studies, through the establishment of independent university Drama departments, where the study of “dramatic literature” still dominated and “theatre” as an object of study almost exclusively meant theatre history. But during the 1980s and 1990s dramatic criticism was supplemented and then virtually replaced by “theatre studies,” and semiotic, phenomenological, materialist, and other approaches to the study of theatre as a meaningful event independent of its script gained prominence. Fast forward to the present: drama and theatre departments and programs such as the flagship graduate departments at York and Toronto now embrace in their titles the relatively recent inter- or anti-discipline of Performance Studies, and traditional literary-critical or theatre- historical publications form a distinct minority of scholarly output in the field.

4 This has to do, in part, with another shift, this time in what is considered to constitute research. In the early days of the Association for Canadian Theatre History, research was almost exclusively historical, and primarily involved the detached researcher combing through local, provincial, national, and international archives for empirical evidence that would contribute to (usually) teleological arguments about the birth and development of Canadian drama or theatre. Even as late as 1989, when the Canadian theatre archives (now a major part of the L.W. Conolly Theatre Archives) were consolidated along with the first graduate program in theatre at the University of Guelph, “research methods” courses were mainly dedicated to bibliographical, biographical, and archival research. But as the contentious 1990 change from History to Research in the titles of the Association and its journal indicate, the scope of research nevertheless broadened considerably during what were sometimes quite bitter “theory wars” in the field in the 1980s and 1990s. At universities, traditional research methods courses were slowly replaced by often baggy assemblages that accommodated various kinds of cultural theory together with “how to” guides to the search engines and digital humanities resources that were replacing card catalogues, print bibliographies, and eventually even travel to archives, as many archives were gradually digitalized. Research, meanwhile, had become less often about “finding” the facts than asking awkward and self-reflexive questions about how and why those “facts” were the ones “we” found—we used scare quotes a lot—and how and why they had become organized into the (hi)stories we told—parentheses and plurals of this kind had also become common (and are still useful).

5 Some of these shifts emerged from an increasing awareness, beginning with feminist and LGBTQ scholarship and extending into Indigenous research methods (See Denzin, Lincoln and Smith; Simpson; Smith; Wilson), and approaches emerging from other kinds of cultural difference (such as “Asia as Method”, see Chen), that research methods and what they discover are not neutral and value free. As Opaskwayak/Cree sociologist Shawn Wilson says, “[r]esearch is all about unanswered questions, but it also reveals our unquestioned answers” ( 6).

6 Much of this history of methodological and definitional shifts in the field is visible from Playwrights Canada Press’s twenty-one volume reprint series, Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English, which attempts to provide a history of critical approaches to specific topics since the 1970s. The commissioned new essays at the end of most of those volumes, together with the books in the press’s New Essays on Canadian Theatre series, provide a developing glimpse of where we are now.

7 Where I think we are is at a moment of consolidation and revitalization, where early historical, archival, and literary methods are being regenerated and are meeting and merging with more recent methods in an expanded field in ways that have recently proven to be extraordinarily productive, where “Canada” as subject is taken-for-granted rather than belaboured, and where the current editor of Canadian Theatre Review is a graduate in Performance Studies from an American University. Take, for a small and selective example, the three books honoured at the most recent meeting (as I write) of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research’s Ann Saddlemyer award presentation in 2013: Kirsty Johnston’s Stage Turns: Canadian Disability Theatre (Honorable Mention); Heather Davis- Fisch’s Loss and Cultural Remains: The Ghosts of the Franklin Expedition—published, astonishingly, by a major press outside Canada; and Jenn Stephenson’s Performing Autobiography: Contemporary Canadian Drama. Johnston’s empirical research is impeccable, but it is filtered through a Cultural and Performance Studies lens that constitutes the performance of disability and disability performance as the performance of culture. Heather Davis-Fisch’s meticulous archival research and her “objects of study” (including shipboard performances on expeditions of discovery) are reminiscent of the early historical scholarship of the likes of that eminent historian of Canadian theatre, the late Patrick B. O’Neill, but she too brings sophisticated Performance Studies and Indigenous Studies frames and methods into play in ways that infinitely enrich both her work and our understanding. And Jenn Stephenson’s book is firmly grounded in the analysis of dramatic literature, but is also deeply informed by literary, theatrical, and cultural theory, and draws productively on her applied understanding of plays in performance.

8 The fact that the association was able to honour three excellent books in 2013 is in itself a Good Thing (in the early years that might have exceeded the total number of books published). The fact that each of these books integrates the subjects and methods of our earliest and most recent histories as a field in such sophisticated ways is even better.