Visual Rhetoric - Visual Culture - Pedagogy
Recent Blog Posts
Interview of Michelle Dvoskin and Shelley Manis
In the spring of 2010 viz. contributor Rachel Schneider interviewed Drs. Michelle Dvoskin and Shelley Manis about their experiences teaching musical theater and performance for the Department of Theatre and Dance and the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at The University of Texas at Austin. Here is the transcript of that interview, conducted on May 19, 2010.
Viz: To start off our discussion, I’d like it if you could introduce yourselves briefly for the viz. readers, and describe your academic and teaching experience here at The University of Texas: what kinds of classes have you taught here? Have you yet had the opportunity to teach your own research? And what is your research?
Dvoskin: My name is Michelle Dvoskin. I just finished the PhD in Performance as Public Practice. I taught Intro to Theater for non-majors for two years, which is a 400-student lecture class. I taught two semesters of Intro to Acting for non-majors, and then Theater History Post-1800 for a semester. My research is on musical theater as a way of doing what specifically I’m calling queer historiography: that is, a queer--counter-normative--way of communicating histories.
Manis: I’m Shelley Manis and I just finished a PhD in Performance as Public Practice. I taught a year of the theater history for majors sequence, which is first Theater History to 1800 and then Theater History since 1800. I have been a TA for Stacy Wolf’s musical theater class. I was a teaching assistant for the regular history class for two years before I taught it, and then taught for two years in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing, including teaching the Rhetoric of Performance.
Viz: Great! Well, as I mentioned before the interview started, viz is interested in the intersections between visual rhetoric, visual culture, and pedagogy. While we come from different academic disciplines—you both have doctorates in PPP and I am in the English department—we all share an interest in pedagogy. What commonalities do you think there are between these disciplines of rhetoric, English, and performance studies, and is there any benefit to make our students of interdisciplinarity?
Manis: Actually, one of my biggest interests is in the intersection between rhetoric and performance, and I think that a lot of what they have in common for me is that rhetoric works in terms of time and place—specificity in time and place—and for me, performance’s power comes a lot out of where something was performed, in what circumstances, and who is observing it. I think that in terms of the underlying sort of things that come together to make performance and rhetoric powerful—they’re both very similar in that way—performance is really powerful because of its affective structure, because you can watch it and be invested in it either live or watching a recorded performance. It’s something that’s trying to speak to you at an emotional level, so I think teaching about the way a performance works affectively is a really useful way of teaching students about emotional appeals in rhetoric, and how emotional appeals can work both in terms of the text, which we spend a lot of time talking about in rhetoric, but also in terms of what we’re seeing, what the bodies are doing onstage, what are they doing to each other on stage, and how audience members are responding to what they’re doing both viscerally and emotionally.
Dvoskin: One of the things that’s most interesting to me about musical theater and reception is the thing that Stacy Wolf and others have written about: that musical theater is embodied. We don’t just watch and think, we don’t just watch and feel, we watch and do as we hum along or we’re tapping our toes, or—
Dvoskin: Yes, there’s that small lunge that everyone around you is doing, and that there’s a way in which it becomes a kinesthetic experience as well as an intellectual and emotional one that is really powerful that I look forward to thinking about more. I also think that it’s so important to remember that performance texts—especially musical theater—aren’t just texts. Even for theater history majors or students whose focus is performance or design, those elements are so easy to lose track of when you’re reading a script. We need to remember that this can actually happen in all kinds of ways on the stage. When I teach Gypsy, which is the musical I teach most consistently, there’s an exercise I do when I bring in clips of four different women playing Rose from all the major productions and I show the exact same section of the “Rose’s Turn” number and have the students practice analyzing the performance through that. This helps students see all the ways in which what’s being communicated is both the same and completely different depending on what body and what production choices are happening. And I think that’s a really important thing performance studies can bring, that it's not just all page, it’s—
Manis: Three dimensional or even four dimensional. I think the thing that students in rhetoric can struggle with is what is an emotional appeal, what is an intellectual appeal, what is an appeal based on authority, and I think that the multidimensionality of performance is a nice way of getting students to sort of dig in beyond the text and understand the other aspects that come into play when making arguments.
Viz: Actually, this brings up a question that got answered for me a little bit when you, Shelley, came and guested and did a guest lecture in my class. Finding performance texts and getting students to have a text in front of them I found to be one of the difficulties of using pop culture pieces in the classroom because organizing discussions around a text that students have previously seen but don’t have in front of them on the page. Michelle, you said you deal with this by using YouTube clips. What are the ways in which (a) you make your students aware of the multidimensionality of the text and the strategies you use in the classroom and (b) on the practical level of having texts in front of you in the classroom, how do you deal with that? What advice would you give to someone who wanted to teach a similar class at Texas or elsewhere?
Dvoskin: Show stuff. That’s the basic thing. It takes time—and it’s an interesting problem; in teaching this semester I taught two units on the musical, one on the “golden age” of musicals and a post-1969 unit. In the post-1969 unit I had all this stuff I wanted to show and two days for the lecture and discussion before we got to specifically talking about A Chorus Line, which was the case study for the unit. And the first day I got through three slides because I showed so many clips. For each clip we stopped and talked about it and picked it apart and we looked at what are the lights doing, what’s happening, what do you see, while also reminding them that it’s not quite the same because what we’re seeing on a screen is a captured moment, an archive moment, and not the repertoire moment that we have in the theater. It was incredibly worth the time and I think it was one of the most rewarding days we had all semester, but it’s also a challenge because you can’t spend that much time on everything unless you’re going to teach very little over the course of the semester. And I didn’t show nearly as much the next day because I couldn’t if I was going to explain to them what, say, concept musicals were, since really it was all rock musicals that first day, and it’s a tradeoff. But I’m hoping that, since we spent so much time really watching and discussing and unpacking that first day, they were able to do some of that work themselves, and I think they were, based on the discussion we were able to have about A Chorus Line, which doesn’t have a great video archive.
Manis: Yeah, I agree with all of that, and one of the things that I do is that I usually start with is saying, “Here’s something that we’re going to watch, and this time, just watch it and lose yourself in it.” Then we’ll watch it and do some talking about what’s going on. Then I’ll say “we’re going to watch it again, and this time take careful notes on exactly what you see: so, what are the bodies doing, what are the lights doing, what catches your eye, what throws you off—whatever it is, take extremely detailed notes.” Then we watch it that way and then we start talking about what they saw, and I stress that it’s going from what you see to interpreting what you see and how what you see made you feel to get to a piece of analysis, so that it goes from observation to analysis and evaluation.
Dvoskin: Which is one of the most difficult things to get students to do—articulating what is actually happening in front of you is one of the hardest things for me to get them to do. They want to skip straight towards “I loved it” or “It was weird” or “It reminded me of this.” They want to skip to that comparison phase of the critical triangle. One exercise that I stole from a colleague of ours, Kelly Howe, is a Boal exercise that I’ll use to have them start discussions of texts. I’ll ask them to sculpt an image of the text and go through those three steps and stopping them—“Oh, it looks like she’s reading.” “No, what do you see?” because—
Manis: Sculpting an image is them using their bodies to make a tableau, either moving or still, depends on what you want. You break them into teams and then they make a tableau.
Dvoskin: Sometimes I’ll make them do it at the front, so the exercise is as much about getting the people in the audience to articulate what they see in front of them as it is about the people who are creating it. In my acting classes in particular I’ve found it to be a helpful thing to get them to step back and to get them thinking about what they’re seeing and what the literal visual is before you move on. It’s an easy way to push back against the tendency to do comparison or evaluation.
Viz: That was something I found to be difficult for my students, that they just wanted to go straight to aesthetic appreciation of “this was bad,” but we have to talk about “what is it trying to do, how is it trying to make that work,” more analysis instead of—
Dvoskin: “And what do you see that tells you that?”—that’s a question I go to a lot. “Well, it really looks like they’re not connecting at all.” “Well, what do you see that gets you there? What’s physically happening that gets you to say that?” “Oh, well, they’re not making eye contact.” “Great; what else?” “The lighting is different on the two of them; she’s in a purple-y light and she’s in an orange-y blue light.” “So, that’s an interesting judgment, but how do you get there?” I make them walk it back.
Viz: Another question that I have is about trying to be interdisciplinary and trying to get students to think rhetorically about musicals is finding a vocabulary to use in the classroom to actually describe and discuss commonly together; how do we talk about how they move across the stage? My project last semester for viz. was trying to come up with such a vocabulary for what rhetoric would call delivery; I looked at Richard Schechner’s textbook, which didn’t seem to have a lot to offer—is there a language that performance studies uses or were there ways in which you found you had to come up with vocabularies for students in different places, like for you, Shelley, teaching rhetoric students who are not familiar with theater—
Manis: I use performance language. One of the first things that I do a section on what is performance and what is the vocabulary we use around performance, and then another section around what is rhetoric and what is the vocabulary we use around rhetoric, and then we spend a eek melding those together: what are the commonalities, where is the overlap in those, where are they different, and then how can we use those two things to talk to each other? There are always the basic things like setting, staging. With movement, I found this from our colleague Claire Croft to be “what do you see happening.” You don’t need to know what a pirouette is or anything technical about that. All you need to be able to do is describe, so I encourage them to use a lot of descriptive language and I have them read from a book called Writing About Theater which has an introduction about writing about theater for undergraduates and have them read selections from that which gives them a vocabulary to work with, and then whatever terms of rhetoric I’m using, we work with that.
Dvoskin: I guess I don’t really have a rhetoric vocabulary, so for me, I don’t work with that.
Manis: You use the language of history a lot! You’re still interdisciplinary in that you’re talking about historiography.
Dvoskin: Sure, I guess I just never found it difficult melding languages. That’s not something that’s come to my attention. And when I teach, even when I’m teaching non-majors, I make sure they have basic theater 101 vocabulary—what’s upstage, what’s downstage—but I think what you said about just describing what you see is what it always comes back to: what’s happening. If you can tell me that, I don’t care about a jeté or an upstage cross. Just tell me what they’re doing.
Manis: And what’s exciting about that is that students often will find more interesting ways of describing things that if we had just given them a word for it. Or a lot of times you’ll have students—as in my rhetoric of performance class, I had students who were good at math, and some students who had done theater and done directing and some students who had done music, and so gave each other that kind of vocabulary. So I think being open to descriptive language will often times add an expertise that you wouldn’t have arrived at other times. And when I teach rhetoric, I don’t teach things like the difference between pitch and tone because I don’t know how to teach that in terms of rhetoric; I teach it in terms of performance. That may be my bias as a performance scholar, but I have a really hard time teaching tone in writing.
Viz: To back up a little bit from where the discussion has been going, because I’ve just taught a writing class, how much writing instruction have you done in your classrooms and what kinds of writing assignments have you given them. If you have done that, do you think that learning to write better helps them analyze performances better?
Dvoskin: I always incorporate writing when I can; the courses I’ve taught have not been writing component classes. One assignment that I like to use, which functions differently in the three classes I’ve taught, is some sort of a performance review. And I start that out, whichever class I’m teaching—and I got this from Claire Croft—with the performance response triangle of description, analysis, and evaluation, where you’re building them on top of each other and you have to describe before you can make a useful metaphor, and that you have to do those levels before you can evaluate anything. We do a lesson on that and talk about how to do that. We practice that with the sculpting exercises, we do things like that. In an acting class we would practice that with the work they do on stage. Then I'd work with them on their written reviews of other people's work, offering read to drafts, and helping them to push on what they saw, because so often—and this is true across every class that I’ve taught—the impulse is to relate the plot: this is what happened in the show. I don’t really care. That’s not the point of a performance review, and that’s not the kind of work that we’re trying to do, and so really pushing them to think about—OK, if you need to give me a sentence or two of plot so I can follow what you’re saying, fine, but what’s physically happening on that stage? What are the performances doing, what are the design choices doing, how are they communicating? And how do you build that into—particularly in theater history—an analytical piece that also engages with theater history. In that assignment, I ask them to do a little bit of research into the history of the piece that they’re seeing and make an argument that fits the production that they saw into that theater history, which for a lot of them was very challenging. And that was a moment when I wished I had four TAs for my 50 students and we could have really taken time to go through multiple revisions and write a couple of them, but there were two of us and there were 50 of them, so . . .
Manis: I do very similar writing exercises. In my rhetoric of performance class I have them do a performance review. This year, my class was based around controversies, to follow the RHE 306 model that we taught last year, and I had everyone choose a performance that either was controversial, engaged with a controversy, or caused a controversy of some kind. And their performance review needed to incorporate not only those things that Michelle and I talked about, about what do you see, but also the rhetorical context, so what’s going on at the moment this performance was released, what historical moment is it coming into, and how does that historical moment influence the ways in which the audience would likely take up the show. So that’s one exercise that we do. I’ve been teaching writing for 8 years; I taught 3 years at KU, one including an intro to drama class, so that was a literary writing class, and 5 years here. Another writing exercise that I like is that I have them do dramaturgy casebooks, where I have them interpret, they have different sections that they have to do research about, so what is the history of their production, what major productions have been done of this play, what do we know about the playwright, what do we know about the people who were in the play, what do we know about the historical moment, the world of the play itself, how can we help people understand what’s going on in that world—that kind of work, so that they are doing research skills and having to synthesize the information that they find in order to say something about an argument they think that the performance is making.
Dvoskin: I would also throw in that the final project I had my theater history students do this semester was a performance project instead of a written piece, but it certainly incorporated writing as they had to turn in a script, as well as an annotated bibliography. I found that incredibly useful to get them to think multi-dimensionally and to get them to play around with those ideas in a way that’s not so much about learning to become better writers, but still push them to engage with those ideas and to do it in writing. Some of the scripts were quite good, and as writing were quite good, so I think that’s also a really useful tool when working with performance.
Manis: I also have them do a lot of in-class writing in teams, so a lot of times if I’m teaching them about, say, rhetoric and performance, and what were the differences in between them, I had the teams get together and write a few sentences about what were the areas of overlap and what were the difference between rhetoric and performance. I wanted to get them to make an argument about performances and the similarities and differences between performance and rhetoric. So, little things like that. Just every now and then we’ll have in-class work, like if I’m trying to teach them how to write a thesis, we’ll watch a piece of something, and I’ll get them into their teams and have them write a thesis sentence about the kind of thing they saw. I do a lot of in-class workshops when I’m not teaching a writing-specific class, so in my theater history class I gave another writing assignment where I would ask them to situate themselves in a particular historical moment that we had talked about, and as a particular person—so, say you’re a theater manager in Elizabethan England. What play do you think would be a successful play to do and why, so that would then ask them to bring in the historical aspect and bring in the context, but also the analysis of the play itself; so, things like that.
Viz: What seems to be one of the useful overlaps between all the work that we’ve done is to get the students to think about historical context.
Manis: Kairos! Performance is all about kairos!
Viz: But moving on from this, I wanted to ask a little bit about, since you both write about musicals in your own research, the ways in which your teaching impacted your writing or what kind of research do you do. Have these things worked together for you in your career here at Texas?
Manis: Teaching your class, Rachel—having them read a chapter from my dissertation and then having them talk about Wicked in your class—was one of my most successful teaching days ever. It makes me realize that I think teaching one’s own research, whether you have them read your own work or—I don’t know, there’s so much investment in it and I loved seeing them get excited about it. I always get excited about what I’m doing, but that was so magical for me to say here’s what’s going on, now watch this and let’s talk about what you see. I would like to do more of that in the future, and I think one of the things about teaching musicals too, and being able to teach writing—and I think Michelle can speak to this more than I can—is the affective investment in musicals. People get so excited about them. Whether they love them or hate them, there is something that you just cannot help but get invested in that.
Dvoskin: The vibe in the room is palpably different on days you do musicals. In 301, and I’ve guested in lots of 301s, even the 8:00 AM sections get so excited because it’s something they’re familiar with in a very sort of non-threatening way. It’s interesting that in the musical theater field, there’s so much angst about is it dead, is the form dead, “the young people, they don’t like musical theater,” and I just want to start telling everyone to come to my classes. Every time I do a lecture on musicals I start the class by asking everyone in the room if they have seen a musical, and at least two thirds of the 400 hands in the room go up, usually more. They know them, and the investment is huge. The day we got through the three slides on rock musicals, it was in large part because of the time we spent on the clips, but why we spent so much time on the clips was because they couldn’t stop talking about them. Particularly when I showed the piece of Rent, and the room of students who had no exposure to the original production, who had only seen the DVD of the last performance that was filmed on Broadway or had seen the movie version were obsessed and couldn’t—it got to a point when one of my students raised a hand to ask a question, and had to specify that it was for one of her classmates, because her classmate was clearly such an expert in this particular version of the show. I mean, it was awesome. But yeah, that investment level is huge and makes it so much more fun in the classroom. Those are the days when you’re really all on the same team, which is fun.
Viz: That is something I found to be true too; one of the things that I found to be interesting and sometimes difficult is that it can become so fun that that they have problems taking it seriously. Have you ever had that problem where they’ll be engaged, but find it difficult to take it seriously as an object for analysis—pop culture as something we can discuss and describe?
Manis: I make a clear division with that, about when we’re going to have fun with it, and then when we’re going to turn it back into an object of analysis. I like to give them the room to express the silly stuff, and I’ll do that with another pop culture reference, 30 Rock. On that show the writers have their two-minute dance parties and the writers break it down and dance around the table. If we start doing that, I’ll say, “OK, 2 minute dance party, let’s riff on this for a while” and then we do and then we go back to analysis. But I think that they find that because they’re such experts that they actually have a lot of fun talking about it analytically when they realize that, oh, they can do that and that they know that they’re doing.
Dvoskin: I’ve never had a big problem with that. Sometimes I’ve had them focusing on analytics that aren’t as interesting to me, particularly in 301 when I try to break down the history of musical theater in 50 minutes, and I usually end up structuring it by subgenres, the book musical, the concept musical, the rock musical. Often I’ll find afterwards that four or five students are running up to me onstage afterwards asking me what would this musical be, and they’ve missed the part where I said that categories are really flexible and provisional . . . But at the same time, they’re engaged and it is a mode of analysis and they’re looking at musicals as something to take seriously. They are thinking about genres, and it is important what kind of musical it is. It’s not so important to fit it into a tidy slot, but in terms of the kinds of work they can do, book musicals and concept musicals, for example, are allowed to play by slightly different rules.
Manis: And I think that a lot of times too when they—when I was in your class and would ask them what the music was doing, and they would want to go to something slightly different because that’s such a hard thing to do, so I think that sometimes just saying, “Yeah, this is really hard, but we’re going to grapple with it” is enough to get them to go, “Oh, OK, yeah, that’s true. You’re not expecting me to be perfect; it’s just hard.” For me, I think that sometimes that’s where it can go off the rail—and to give them a hook to think of it in terms of genre, or what does it remind you of, and your students said, “It’s like ‘Thriller’!”, that was so bizarre, like a whole new way of looking at Wicked, but there’s a moment where they do move their arms back and forth, but sometimes that opens up new ways of thinking about things.
Dvoskin: I think it’s also important that musical theater fits in a weird cultural space: it’s not precisely pop culture, and so I think in terms of their responses, there’s a difference. Talking about Glee, for example, is totally pop culture, but Gypsy, even though it’s a history of previous forms of popular culture, but it’s not—it operates in a really complicated culture space.
Manis: Some musicals are definitely popular culture; like mega-musicals.
Viz: Spring Awakening I also think crosses into that, in terms of what I had in my classroom and the ways in which my students responded to it and thought and felt about it seemed more like pop culture.
Manis: The touring mega-musicals like Wicked, with how many it sells, how many locations it’s got worldwide, and where it’s going—I don’t know that I would argue that Spring Awakening is actually pop culture because people still have rarefied access to it.
Dvoskin: Yes, but the same is true—the ticket prices on Wicked, who can access—I mean, it’s not a television show where anybody who can afford one television in their house can access it.
Manis: But they can afford the soundtrack.
Dvoskin: Yes, but the soundtrack is not the show. It’s something that actually fascinates me in terms of studying musical theater and something that using Stacy Wolf’s book pushes us to talk about on our musicals day in class is—what this is this thing in terms of cultural capital and cultural status. In part because a huge part of how the field does and doesn’t work at its best has to do with people’s cultural assumptions and their discomfort with something that is a lot like pop culture, but isn’t pop culture because of questions of access and those issues—there’s no easy way or place to get at it.
Viz: It’s also weird to think about the way in which in the 50s and 60s it was more pop culture than it is today. The introduction to A Problem Like Maria wants to go there.
Dvoskin: Yes, but she also explicitly sort of argues that it is and it isn’t pop culture. It has this weird middlebrow thing going on. The albums are pop culture and are artifacts of pop culture, but the actual production isn’t quite.
Manis: Though it is part of the zeitgeist. It’s complicated.
Dvoskin: That’s something I think is interesting and want to keep on the table because it’s useful as a pushback against the—“Oh, musicals,” which I say as I throw my arm back behind my head in a vaguely dismissive way with an ironic eyebrow raise.
Viz: Well, I think you’re absolutely right that that’s a good way to fight back against that assumption because it’s something that came up in my class with students going home and talking about taking a class on the rhetoric of the musical over spring break.
Manis: That’s one of my biggest investments; for me, one of the things is that I absolutely do not believe in separating pleasure and intellectual rigor. It’s not two different things.
Dvoskin: And one of the arguments I make in my dissertation is that this stuff matters because it’s stuff that sticks with us. They do have a wide audience, and in my conclusion I talk about reading Daily Kos, a liberal website, while finishing the dissertation, and in a discussion about something happening one of the comments quoted 1776 without attribution, just a line from ‘Cool Cool Considerate Men’: ‘Ever to the right, ever to the right, never to the left, ever to the right’—no attribution, no nothing; he actually misquoted it slightly, which tells me he didn’t look it up. That was the thing that popped into his head, that was the response—a line from a musical about history.
Manis: And the most recent advertisements for the Garnier Nutrisse skin cream are “Defy Gravity,” with the background in that Wicked green, and it’s all about skin cream, but “Defy Gravity” is a phrase in the zeitgeist.
Dvoskin: I have to say, I wish Macy’s would stop using Rent, though. That’s just disturbing. I’m like, “Why is ‘Seasons of Love’ on my—no!” Not that Rent isn’t terrifyingly commercial, and whatever, but—no! It can’t be a Macy’s ad!
Manis: It’s like that Pepsi ad that was with the—it’s the song that’s actually about a guy who’s struggling about coming out, “Break Free,” and there was a Pepsi ad with people break-dancing to “Break Free,” but that song is actually a really tortured story about a young man who’s scared to come out, and it’s selling Pepsi.
Viz: “Break out and be homosexual and drink Pepsi.”
Manis: “Homo drink Pepsi?”
Viz: OK, well, this is maybe a good point to lead into a discussion about Stacy, because I know both of you were her students while she was here—
Manis: And after she left!
Viz: And actually, I, like you Michelle, I’ve used parts of that introduction to A Problem Like Maria as my version of the introduction to the musical genre, what is a musical, going off the things she talks about how the musical is conventionally defined. Since both of you have worked with Stacy, how do you feel her work has influenced yours, both in the classroom and in your own writing? Were you both TAs for Stacy?
Manis: Only I was. Actually both of these things—and what’s influenced me in both my pedagogy and writing is Stacy’s enthusiasm. She comes into a room, so excited to be there and so excited to talk about what she’s doing, and students get on board with her. Even reluctant students got on board with Stacy in her classroom respectfully. Stacy’s enthusiasm is how I model myself in the classroom as a teacher and dealing with students, both in being enthusiastic in what I’m teaching and what the students are doing well, and then in terms of writing. Her writing has given me—she’s got this great article called “In Defense of Pleasure” and that is sort of the essence of Stacy: I’m not going to apologize for thinking this is fun and writing about it as though I love it. That’s what I get from Stacy.
Dvoskin: Yeah. I think that Stacy offers a model for scholarship in musical studies that is really rigorous and theoretically engaged. That has not necessarily been the norm for that field, but it's been changing because of people like Stacy. I don’t think I’d be able to do the kind of work I’m doing without Stacy having first done the work she’s done, in a variety of ways.
Viz: No, I had the opportunity to meet her when she came back for Lisa Moore’s class conference on lesbian genres, and she was very helpful at sending me some of her materials and talking with me about some of the stuff that she’d done in the classroom, and I was able to use some of it, with tribute to her, a little bit.
Dvoskin: She’s incredibly generous.
Viz: Very much so, which is really appreciated. It seems to me that one of the nice things about UT that I’ve seen across many departments is that people in rhetoric, in performance studies are helpful about giving to each other, and supporting each other’s work in a way, which is hopefully what the DWRL does too.
Manis: It does!
Viz: Well, some random questions to jump to think specifically about what you’ve specifically done in the classroom in teaching musicals; in my first semester I attempted to teach rhetorical theory like J. L. Austin’s speech act theory and Kenneth Burke’s dramatism. Have you ever taught that kind of theory in your class or used it to apply to musicals?
Manis: I’m trying to think—I don’t think I have. I always stick to the rhetoric, whatever rhetoric they’re using because I’m new to this department, so I sort of—I’m still getting oriented to that, so I stuck to the rhetorics we used in the classroom. And I felt like since I was asking them to almost learn two disciplines that I didn’t want to go too theoretical. I wanted them to be able to grapple with it.
Viz: Are there particular theories that you do teach in the classroom that you think are relevant for thinking about the cultural work that musicals do?
Dvoskin: Not explicitly, and that’s largely a function of the classes that I’ve taught. Trying to cover all theater history from 1800 on, even in the case study model that we’ve moved to, I’ve got enough to do without trying to explicitly teach a lot of theory. I will use theoretically inflected work—when we talk minstrelsy I’ll use Eric Lott, things like that—when we do queer theater I’ll talk about queering and queer theory a little bit, even just to explain why I’m using that word, but—
Manis: That’s how it comes up: if I use a word that comes from some sort of theory I’ll say, “So I’m using this word, and here’s the way people who do scholarship in this area talk about it,” but I don’t assign theory.—For example, I had a student doing the movie Milk and talking about how one of the things it did was advocate for a day when gay people wouldn’t be queer, they would just be people. And that was a moment where we could have a discussion about how actually queer is a word that has been taken back and now it’s theoretically strong and here’s why, et cetera.
Dvoskin: If I were teaching a semester on just one aspect of musical theater I might, but not in the kinds of classes I’ve been teaching up to this point.
Manis: I did have them read a little bit of Schechner and Turner on what performance was, but only so that we could start thinking about performance and how we wanted to talk about it. It was never something that we returned to it in the sense of “Talk about this à la Schechner” or anything like that. It was just to give them a sense of where performance studies as a field was—one of the founding myths of performance studies, basically.
Viz: Because one of the things that’s come in the course of the discussion is sometimes about some of the issues that can come up in discussing musical theater: for example, Stacy Wolf’s work often deals with issues of queer identity, and audiences’ interactions with that. We’ve talked about moments like that; one of the questions I have is: is this something that you try to do in your own teaching work, bringing up some of the potentially controversial issues related to musicals? Is this too explosive, or the students are comfortable, or you don’t wade into those waters at all because it’s Texas?
Michelle: I guess again for me it’s about the classes I’m able to teach and the time I have. I don’t push away from it—when we talked about Golden Age musical theater, the section I had them read from the introduction had some information on gay men’s relationship to the form, and we certainly talked about that, as well as the relationship of Jewish men to the form, but it’s not—I don’t avoid it at all, but in the context of the specific courses I've taught, it hasn’t been something I’ve spent a ton of time or energy on.
Viz: That’s something just you work more with in your scholarship then—
Dvoskin: It’s very important in my scholarship. My scholarship is about queer theory and musical theater together, but it’s not something that—I don’t get to pick the classes I teach. We have some freedom to design our syllabi, but I didn’t get to say that I’m going to teach a class on musical theater, gender, and sexuality, which I would love to do someday. That would be awesome. But if I’m teaching theater post-1800, of the time I’ll spend in musical theater, about two weeks, I can probably spare about 20 minutes, if that. And when it comes up, great. And when we look at A Chorus Line and people talk about the ways in which sexuality played out in that musical, and how that was important it its moment, that’s great, that’s a part of the conversation. But I don’t feel like it would be fair to them to make that the conversation, because then they lose everything else they should be getting about that material on that day. When I get to pick my own classes entirely, I’m sure it will be a different story.
Manis: Same thing.
Viz: I find that stuff may come up in discussing a particular musical as a part of its context—
Viz: It never came up so explicitly.
Manis: In my class, which wasn’t just about musicals, but it was about their final projects, which they all chose film because they could see it and watch, everybody had to do an individual presentation on the argument they were making that their thing was making. And the last student to go said, “Wow, I just realized that all of us—our films have arguments about what it means to be an American, or what it means to have the American dream.” There are definitely courses you could design around those ideas of nation-building, identity building, or of subjectivity, that kind of thing, but I think the limited amount of time that we have in a survey or even in a topics class, in some ways.
Viz: Something you can touch on and have to move on?
Manis: I do a lot of “tuck this away for later.”
Dvoskin: I was fascinated in my theater history class with the final projects how many of the final projects took up gender and sexuality; they had to take two different movements and put them in conversation with each other in performance, because that was a central theme of my class. Stuff doesn’t happen in isolation. I would say that more than a third of the groups chose to use either lesbian, feminist, or queer (or some combination thereof, since they’re not easy to pry apart) performance as one of their two movements, which I found heartening.
Manis: You know, and I should—I have my students read Brecht, which is theoretical, and then we talk about—since Brecht is all about making arguments; that’s his shtick anyway—there’s some theoretical work that happens there.
Viz: And just as a final question about classroom affect, not just the students’ but your own, since the musical itself is such a theatrical, dramatic genre that is conscious of its own stylistic features, have you found that teaching musicals made you conscious of your own performativity as an instructor, and has that ever affected the way you’ve developed a classroom persona? Not that you would ever probably go in with arms wide—
Dvoskin: Depending on the day, I might. I performed a number on the day we did A Chorus Line.
Dvoskin: Well, for a good reason. I had been joking about it for a couple of days beforehand since it’s a musical that I love and I used to do one of the songs as an audition number, but—
Viz: Not “Dance 10, Looks 3”?
Dvoskin: No, but I was joking that I should do that for my students, just to see what would happen. No, what happened was that a student asked, “how does the song ‘Sing’ work, because if she can’t sing, how does she sing a song?” When it’s on the page you can’t tell. And I said, “Actually, it’s very—I need an Al,” which is the other character in the song. And I knew that I had enough musical theater junkies in the class that I would get someone, and sure enough, several hands went up. And I was like “Great,” and performed a chunk of the song for them, because it was easier to do it than to explain how it worked. I mean, I could have probably done that in a sentence or two too, but with the singing there’s a visceral sense of “Oh. Yeah. OK,” and besides, it was a day on musical theater! But I’m also a performer deep down and so when it comes right down to it I’m likely to show that when I can. I actually think I’ve thought more about my persona in terms of teaching 301, where it was shaped more by: there are 400 of them staring at me, how do I craft something that will make me approachable and likeable but also authoritative enough to not have 400 students talking for an hour. I think that really helped shape my teacher-performer self because that was the first class I taught here.
Dvoskin: Yeah, the primary thing—I also was a TA for the small Intro for Majors class, but I was a TA for 301 for three semesters before I taught it, so my initial experiences were, “Hello, large theater-like room full of people,” and I’m sure being a musical theater person had something to do with how I came up with who I am.
Manis: Yeah, my affect in the classroom is, I don’t know if it’s as influenced by me as a musical theater person as much as by me as a fan, and so for instance in the rhetoric of performance class the first thing I do on the first day is show them a clip from Lost and then we analyze it. So that’s one of the first things we do and I don’t hide my enthusiasm about it. I’ll show it and then I’ll go, “BOOM,” and then we’ll talk about it—we’ll talk about what’s so compelling about it and why we get excited about it. The other thing about me is that I have—even when I taught theater history which was a 60 person class—I must be performing something because one of the comments I got was that “she’s so happy all the time, I don’t know how I feel about it.” So it’s enthusiasm for me, and I guess that does come from a sort of—I’m sure that there’s an ethos of musical theater in there and an ethos of fandom for me. And because I want to model that fandom doesn’t mean mindlessness: that you can be totally enthusiastic about something and still totally thinking about it very seriously.
Dvoskin: And I do set myself up from day one in every class I teach, whether I’m introducing myself, part of what I talk about is that my work is in musical theater, but I’m also a big musical theater geek, and I may burst into song at any moment. It’s part of what I put out there, because it’s true.
Manis: It’s true.
Dvoksin: There’s an off-chance that I may find myself singing and not know it. It happens
Manis: I find myself saying things randomly like, “look at what we can accomplish—together.”
Dvoskin: If anything that’s a point of contact for the students. We bond. Some of them roll their eyes, and I’m always very careful to say that you don’t have to like musicals, I won’t judge you.
Viz: I did more straight theater in high school and not musicals, so I had to specifically promise myself and my students I wouldn’t sing, and it does make it harder to discuss the songs at times. But thank you both so much for doing this interview with me and I hope that this is a nice little capstone on your time here at UT. Thank you very much!
This site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License