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Jill Dolan
Austin American-Statesman
October 19, 2004

My colleagues and I, who teach in the "academic area" of UT's Department of Theatre and Dance, recently shifted our curriculum from a more conventional emphasis on theatre history and criticism to what we call "performance as public practice."

We believe that theatre, as a public forum, can be used to engage relevant social issues, as well as to offer pleasure, beauty, and deep feeling to audiences. We see performance as meaningful in our daily lives as citizens, rather than a special or, worse, "elite," event. We also work with colleagues around the university to build stronger community ties and to facilitate arts-focused public forums across disciplines.

We research and teach community-based theatre, the social history of theatre, the performance of identity, and the civic influences of popular culture, among other topics, all integral to any study of theatre and performance. Yet when we made this change in emphasis, some faculty found it heretical that we would amplify the language of scholarship--history, criticism, theory--with language that acknowledges audience, community, and research as something that's part of a range of daily practices. Where does this suspicion come from? Why is it that "public," when added to scholarship, is suspect?

"Public" implies "political," which makes people attached to "objective" scholarship quite nervous. Our program is political, but not partisan. We aim to create a community of what we call "scholar/artist/citizens," who refuse distinctions between theory and practice and who insist on the importance of their work to participatory democracy locally and nationally, even globally. Students hunger for such relevance; applications to our program have increased over 100% since this change.

For example, I taught a graduate seminar last spring called "Public Intellectuals and the Arts." We scoured contemporary and historical theatre and performance for people who speak with sophistication and civic commitment to wide audiences about the arts, so that we can have role models for our work.

We also studied diverging perceptions of public intellectuals. Russell Jacoby, in The Last Intellectuals, and Edward Said, in Representations of the Intellectual, for instance, suggest that public intellectuals should be "outside" official positions, so that they can, in Said's words, "speak truth to power." Jacoby disdains universities for breeding conformity and stifling originality. And yet these commentators leave public intellectuals in an untenable situation, denying the steady financial support necessary to be the gadfly who promotes a consistently critical civic position.

Richard Posner, in his rather conservative Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline, says public intellectuals must be older--most likely emeritus professors--to be free to make fools of themselves in front of their colleagues. Yet the academics I know who are most eager to shift their work into public practice are young people determined not to keep their ideas enclosed in ivy-covered walls, who fear social stasis and their own irrelevance much more than appearing the fool.

I believe a public intellectual is not the safely retired professor or the cranky, marginalized outsider, but someone with something timely and important to say. The point isn't to be a pundit with a deadline for her next pithy public commentary. The point is to use our expertise and our knowledge to add passionate, nuanced arguments to public debate by doing what we do best: commenting on and archiving what happens at the theatre and what it means, and demonstrating how performance can help us practice (in the theatrical sense of "rehearse") more just, more equitable, more loving ways to live.
I teach my students to imagine particular audiences for their research. We ask, What's important right now, in this historical moment? What do I want to say and why? To whom do I want my words to speak? And most importantly, Who cares? The question is not necessarily what's original (a scholar's usual question), but what's urgent? What can I say about this performance that will communicate how it changed my world, if only for a moment, how it gave me an idea of how we might feel and act differently toward one another?

I believe deeply in performance's power to make the world better. Because I feel the possibilities of community constituted anew each time I go to the theatre, my scholarship is intensely public. We need to participate in such publics, which allow us to practice our urgent faith in a different future. We need to revise the typically hierarchical relationship between the university and the community, and the characteristically constraining structures of the academy, so that scholar/artist/citizen-inspired values can flourish.

Jill Dolan holds the Zachary T. Scott Family Chair in Drama in the UTs Department of Theatre and Dance, where she also heads the MA/PhD program in theatre history and criticism with an emphasis in performance as public practice.