Theatre students visited University of Houston Libraries Special Collections to access the archives and take part in a reimagined way of learning.
Elizabeth Coen, PhD, assistant professor and head of the MA in Theatre Studies at the UH School of Theatre and Dance, collaborated with Madelyn Washington, head of the Music Library, and Mary Manning, university archivist, to plan a co-curricular experience for 29 students that involved an assessment of playbills and marketing materials from theatre productions of the mid-to-late 20th century, with the goal of developing a list of plays that would be read collectively by the class.
Based on a recommendation by Andrew Davis, PhD, dean of the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts, Coen read The New Education (2017) by Cathy Davidson, and was inspired to craft a different kind of learning experience for the undergrads in her course, THEA 2344 American Drama, one that encourages creativity and empowerment.
“I began mulling the idea of having the students design the reading list,” Coen said. “My thought was to have them in the library researching and reading plays the first weeks of classes so that they could contemplate what constitutes the genre of American Drama – whose voices have been privileged through the stage and whose voices have been left out of the historical record. These questions address some of the most pressing issues in the theatre industry right now.”
Manning connected the students with primary source materials drawn from the Performing and Visual Arts Research Collection, followed by a session with Washington to learn how to boost their research with secondary sources, such as production reviews and related scholarly articles.
“My scholarship and teaching are informed by community collaborations and I really wanted the students to see what could be accomplished when experts across disciplines work together toward a common goal,” Coen said. “Mary Manning and Madelyn Washington opened up new possibilities for inquiry and thinking, which has enriched our conversations about American drama in the traditional classroom.”
It was playwriting/dramaturgy major Rachel Coleman’s first experience working with primary source materials, an exploration that showed the significance of document preservation on revealing culture and values of the past, and for stewarding the human perspective so often hidden in the historical record. “I think it’s easy, as a young creative, to feel like the only artist in the world, but these papers showed thousands of artists who also wanted to change, create, and evoke,” Coleman said. “These are not just records but memories, all of which took time, effort, and love. For many of these productions, the collections are the only evidence of that care.”
In examining the materials, Coleman sensed the mostly missing voices of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community in theatre of the time, not because of lack of individuals in the space, but from concerted attempts to mute them. “These identities have always existed, and as long as theater has existed alongside them, these people have been telling stories,” Coleman noted. “While several other themes stuck out in my research, such as many shows being adaptations, this silence was the most deafening.” This insight supports the need, in the study of American drama, to examine what wasn’t being produced as much as what was.
Countless discoveries of the serendipitous kind are waiting to be found in the archives. “We would have never been able to unpack this necessary work without the time spent in Special Collections,” Coleman said. “Primary documents are wonderful paths for original thought, filtered through no other narrator but time itself.”
Representation in the historical record is crucial, as Jessica García, a first-year student of stage management, found through her work with a group assigned to research the Dr. Nicolás Kanellos Hispanic Theatre Collection.
For García, the opportunity to examine the manuscripts, printed materials, photographs, and publications was impactful. Delving into the primary source materials presented a pivotal shift in her perspective on drama, denoted by a harmonizing of her identity as a creative and as a member of the Hispanic community, where there was once dissonance.
Her high school theatre program, although comprising a majority of Hispanic students, was limited in its scope. “Our only insight into theatre was through a white lens, so my ethnicity and identity as an artist were in separate boxes,” she said. Now pursuing higher education, García’s view of theatre had expanded, particularly through the research she conducted in the Kanellos collection.
New insights about Hispanic theatre materialized in the historical documents. “I had no idea the history behind Latino and Chicano theatre was so rich,” García said. She noticed that the archives presented a story of inclusion and empowerment, making theatre meaningful and engaging to Hispanic audiences. “The flyers we examined were more often than not advertising workshops or festivals, which was interesting,” García said. “These forms of presentations make theatre so much more accessible. The collection gave the impression that the goal for this Chicano theatre was to educate the community on what theatre can be, as a social platform and as a means of expressing oneself.”
Other notable observations surfaced for García in the collection, for instance, how musical presentations like corridos and boleros were produced as theatre, and the influence of Bertolt Brecht. “There was an inclination toward presenting epic theatre which at first took me off guard, but in retrospect it makes so much sense,” García said. “Hispanic artists were forcing their audience to take their message at face value. These plays were almost always about the Chicano experience. I think theatre is a great way to advocate, and these documents proved that a community can thrive with theatre used in those ways.”
One of the strengths of Special Collections is its focus on supporting the teaching and research activities of the University through preservation, organization, and description of materials representing a variety of perspectives. As a resource for the scholarly community and the general public, Special Collections offers endless potential for new knowledge that raises the visibility of these voices, both historical and contemporary.