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Digital Humanities in Theatre and Performance Studies

Digital Humanities in Theatre and Performance Studies

In November, I attended ASTR (American Society for Theatre Research), an incredibly inspiring conference in the field of theatre and performance studies. The theme of the conference this year was “Debating the Stakes in Theatre and Performance Scholarship,” and panels ranged from debating food in performance (the steaks in theatre and performance…) to the politics of performance.

This past year or so I've been accepting and coming out in all my nerdiness—and hesitantly been entering into conversations in the field we call "digital humanities." Whether it's a field, a set of methods spanning different disciplines, or even its own discipline is still quite up in the air—see Svensson 2010 for an interesting conversation on that, which includes HASTAC!

At the conference, there were some really interesting strides to make the discipline of Theatre and Performance Studies, especially in a North American context, move in the direction of digital methods, projects, and theories. Specifically, I'd like to share some of my experiences in this post about my participation in one working group, my attendance in another working group, a panel presentation, and a meeting which laid some groundwork for a summer institute.

My conference attendance began with the first working group called "The Stakes of Digital Scholarship of Theatre and Performance." It was organized around lightning talks by all the 20-something participants on projects spanning many different questions and examples — from Twitter theatre to the Transborder Immigrant Tool. The latter was presented by Ashley Ferro-Murray, a former HASTAC Scholar who, among many other fantastic projects, has created a choreographic interpretation of the project.

The following day, back to back, were my own workshop—on digital methods in theatre and performance research—and a panel on big data in theatre history.

My own working group, “Digital Methods: Collaboration, Evaluation, and Access in Digital Theatre Scholarship,” focused specifically on questions around collaboration and standards for evaluation of digital projects in research on theatre and performance. We began our 2-hour session with an hour-long demo session of our projects. I presented the beginnings of my dissertation project on boylesque and male-identified striptease dancers. Following our demos, we had a productive conversation about the importance of standards when it comes to developing a digital humanities-inflected research agenda in our field.

Immediately after our working group session, I went to the panel presentation on “Theatre History and the Stakes of Big Data.” (I storified it here.) There were certainly threads in the panel where one could make the argument that “DH + theatre/performance = quantitative research.” Derek Miller’s very impressive Visualizing Broadway project is case in point, illustrating the value of visualizing large bodies of statistics over years.

But both Debra Caplan’s use of big data to study and visualize the Yiddish Vilna Theatre Troupe using d3js, and Jeffrey Ravel’s distant reading of receipts, attendance, and plays from the Comedie Francaise in the Comedie Francaise Registers Project illustrate how we can use these methods to tell a more intricate story with a combination of qualitative and quantitative data.

Finally, I participated in a meeting to lay some groundwork for a summer institute that would include the two major organizations for theatre researchers in the U.S. coming together in a grant application. The meeting was led by the incredible David Saltz — I was star struck and had the awesome opportunity to steal some moments with him after the meeting to talk to him about our mutual love for HyperCard. We’re continuing our work and are submitting our grant application in the next couple of months.

What's next? We will further develop the ideas generated at ASTR at the HASTAC 2016 Conference roundtable conversation on "An Archive and Repertoire of Digital Humanities and Media Projects in the Performing Arts.” I also hope this will lead to further opportunities. I will also be at DHSI and would love to see conversations around performance studies and DH happening there. Will any of you be there?


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