A new sightline at the theater
Dolan and Wolf bring fresh view of performance studies
by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
As undergraduates, Jill Dolan and Stacy Wolf, who recently joined the faculty of the Lewis Center for the Arts, both loved theater. They performed in college productions and sang with a cappella groups. But what each of them ultimately wanted to do was turn the study of theater on its head.
For Wolf, that meant writing a Ph.D. dissertation arguing that a play’s text “was the least of it,” she said. Wolf embarked on a study of the audience. She interviewed audience members to examine how a venue’s characteristics — the architecture, the location, whether it was a civic center or a women’s theater space — produced different experiences.
“To focus on what spectators said about their experiences and to take seriously spectator responses as an aspect of the play was new,” Wolf said. “I was arguing for seeing theater as a social event.”
Dolan attended a professional theater training program in college, where she was discouraged by the way casting decisions mirrored societal stereotypes. “Theater helps propagate our views of what women in our society are supposed to be like, what people of color are supposed to be like, what gays and lesbians are supposed to be like,” Dolan said. “The approach is often very limiting, and I wanted to critique that as a feminist.”
Both women eventually found a home for their nontraditional theater analyses in a burgeoning field called performance studies, which examines theater and other dramatic or dance performances in a broad social and historical context.
Dolan and Wolf, who are partners, arrived last fall at Princeton from the University of Texas. Having these two well-known scholars of performance studies at Princeton has greatly expanded the University’s offerings in the field.
“In one fell swoop, Princeton has become a leader in performance studies,” said Michael Cadden, director of the Program in Theater and Dance. “They’ve done a lot to bridge the divide between the academic study of dramatic literature and the world of theater makers.”
“Professors Dolan and Wolf are two of the groundbreaking scholars in the field of performance theory, a subgenre of theater studies that has contributed some of the most exciting theoretical works done in the humanities,” said Anne Cheng, professor of English and the Center for African American Studies. “Although each has her unique approach, both push and redefine the performative and political limits of what constitutes theater.”
Performance studies, which originated 30 years ago, takes a sprawling view of a performance and everything surrounding it. Instead of just looking at the words and music of a piece of theater, scholars of performance studies examine facets such as the preconceptions of the audience, the social and political setting in which it is performed, the differences in productions, various interpretations of the same play, advance buzz about a show and what the critics say about it.
“It’s an expansive way of looking,” said Wolf.
Gender and sexuality in American musicals
Wolf brought that view to her fall class, “American Musical Theater History,” which examined musicals in context, specifically by looking at the cultural and historical events occurring when the shows were being performed. In studying the musical “West Side Story,” produced in 1957, the class talked about the gang violence that was on the rise during that time period.
“Stacy helped us understand the context in which the musicals were made,” said sophomore Richard Link. “Thinking about what was happening in the culture at the same time adds a new dimension” to understanding a musical, he said.
Wolf taught the class “to push, question and criticize,” said junior Rachel George. “What I’ve learned has helped me think not only about theater and art in a broader perspective, but also about approaches to critical writing in general.”
Wolf, an associate professor of theater and dance, said the students themselves also gave new dimension to classroom discussions. “The students are studying political science, international relations, psychology, English and other subjects, and they bring those knowledges and perspectives to my class and see things I could never see,” Wolf said. “The conversation is so rich.”
Wolf has published books and articles that take unconventional stances, often in the course of examining the treatment of gender and sexuality in the theater. Her 2002 book, “A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical,” published by the University of Michigan Press, upends assumptions about musicals of the 1950s and 1960s. Wolf demonstrates how mainstream shows such as “The Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady” celebrated strong women who flouted gender expectations.
Wolf earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale University and her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before arriving at Princeton, she was an associate professor at the University of Texas, where she taught for eight years. She also has been on the faculty of George Washington University and Florida State University.
A piece Wolf wrote about “Wicked” offered a novel interpretation of the 2003 musical, which tells the story of “The Wizard of Oz” from the witches’ perspective. It suggested the play had made use of the structure of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical while altering the genders of the main characters from a man and a woman to two women. The analysis garnered the attention of Stephen Schwartz, the show’s composer and lyricist, who told Wolf the piece was “the smartest thing written about ‘Wicked,’” he said. Last October, Schwartz came to campus to visit Wolf’s musical theater class, talking to students about collaboration in musical theater and walking them through his creative process for the song “The Wizard and I” by playing early versions of the song that he later discarded.
In her current book project, “Defying Gravity: How Women and Girls Feminized, Radicalized and Queered the Broadway Musical,” Wolf explores how ideas about gender are portrayed in musical theater and in conventions of the genre, such as female duets. “Why does a certain kind of song with a certain kind of harmony, sung by two women, appear in virtually every musical?” she said.
Wolf’s expansive perspective has given her the opportunity to look at unexplored aspects of theater, such as the fan base of young girls for “Wicked” and their impassioned websites, which she wrote about in a 2007 article in the journal Camera Obscura titled “Wicked Divas, Musical Theater and Internet Girl Fans.”
“Critics of ‘Wicked’ have been demeaning towards the girl audiences,” said Wolf, whose article contrasted comments from mainstream theater critics with girls’ reactions to the show on their blogs. “But what these girls have to say about the show is very smart.”
Influence of gay and lesbian theater
Dolan made a name for herself as a feminist critic when she wrote about “’night, Mother,” the 1983 play by Marsha Norman about a woman who calmly describes to her mother her plans to commit suicide. Winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for drama, the play was one of the first by a woman to make it to Broadway and hailed as a breakthrough, but Dolan viewed it as a step back for women.
“People were extolling the play as universal, and my argument was that it was sexist and misogynist,” said Dolan, a professor of English and theater and dance. The main character, who follows through on her suicide plan at the play’s conclusion, is “a little chunky, and the play calls her fat,” Dolan said. “If you’re a woman watching this play, the message you’re getting is, ‘If I don’t match some standard of beauty, here’s the trajectory of what my life should be.’”
Before coming to Princeton, Dolan had taught at the University of Texas since 1999, serving as the Zachary Scott Family Chair in Drama. Previously she was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and served as the executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Dolan received her bachelor’s degree from Boston University and her Ph.D from New York University.
Dolan’s first book, titled “The Feminist Spectator as Critic,” broke new ground when it was published in 1988 by bringing a fresh feminist analysis to theater. Dolan has written extensively on feminist and lesbian theater and performance, and this semester she is teaching an undergraduate course called “Queer Theater.” The class is examining the cultural and political contexts that enabled the increasing visibility and viability of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) theater, and analyzing gender and race imbalances in mainstream productions.
Studying LGBTQ theater led her to discover that no one had written a history of gay and lesbian theater in the United States, so she decided to do it. “It’s remarkable that it hasn’t been done yet, and most of the books that exist are primarily focused on men,” Dolan said. “I want to write women into this history in a way they haven’t been before.” The book, still in its early stages, also will examine the influence of gay and lesbian theater on mainstream drama.
Dolan also is interested in arts advocacy and social change. Her 2005 book, “Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater,” published by the University of Michigan Press, traces the visceral, emotional and social connection audience members experience at the theater, and how those connections allow people to envision a utopian world and may even provide motivation for trying to achieve it.
She addressed arts advocacy in the classroom last semester when she taught a criticism workshop. Dolan cultivated the students’ critical sensibilities by having them do a variety of arts writing, from press releases to manifestos on theater. “I asked them to describe what their ideal theater would be,” Dolan said. “I wanted them to be bold and courageous.”
“When I signed up, I thought it would be a relatively straightforward ‘Let’s see a show and write a review about it’-type class, but thanks to Professor Dolan, it was so much more,” said junior Laura Hankin. “We’ve written all sorts of things, from manifestos to interviews to grant proposals. She intellectually engaged us no matter what we were doing.”
Dolan offers her own bold assessments and prescriptions for the arts on her blog, “The Feminist Spectator,” where she posts essays about theater, performance, film and television. (The blog can be found at www.feministspectator.blogspot.com.) She recently has weighed in on President Barack Obama’s arts platform, the film “Milk” and the Broadway revival of “Pal Joey.” She also posted a manifesto in which she called on universities to “teach students how to be artists by following their own vision and their own expressive lives,” Dolan said. “Universities have the luxury of doing experimental work and encouraging theater artists to be idiosyncratic. If we do that, maybe professional theaters will, too.”
Dolan and Wolf, discussing their work in a joint interview, said they hope that their writing and teaching will help make theater more accessible.
“Theater too often is assumed to be this high elite practice that you need special training to understand,” said Dolan.
Wolf chimed in. “We go to the theater all the time with people who say, ‘I didn’t get it.’” Then they turn to Dolan and Wolf and say, “What do you think? You’re the experts.”
“No one would ever say that at a football game,” Dolan quipped. “I would love it if people had the same ownership in response to theater as they do in response to sports. It should be that populist and accessible.”
They fantasize about a time when there would be homecoming parades not just for a team winning a pennant, but for a play winning a Tony award. “Why not?” Dolan said.
With reporting by Marguerite d’Aprile-Smith