Interview with Laura Levin (2013)
Laura Levin is Associate Professor of Theatre at York University and teaches in York’s graduate programs in Theatre and Performance Studies and Communication and Culture. She has published several essays on contemporary theater and performance art with a focus on performing gender and sexuality,site-specific, immersive, and urban intervention performance, intermedial and digital performance, and disciplinary genealogies of performance studies. She is Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Theatre Review and has edited a number of collections: an issue of Theatre Research in Canada on Space and Subjectivity; CTR issues on Performance Art and Digital Performance; an issue of Performance Research on Performing Publics; Conversations Across Borders with Guillermo Gómez-Peña (Seagull 2011); and Theatre and Performance in Toronto (Playwrights Canada 2011). Her book Performing Ground: Space, Camouflage, and the Art of Blending In (Palgrave 2014) recently won the Canadian Association for Theatre Research's Ann Saddlemyer Award for best book published in English or French 2014. She has worked as a director and dramaturge on a number of North American productions and participated in practice-based research projects that explore intersections of performance, geography, and digital technologies. In 2008, Professor Levin began “The Performance Studies (Canada) Project,” the first major research study to theorize and map the field of performance studies as it has emerged in Canada (funded by SSHRC). As part of this project, she chaired the annual Performance Studies international (PSi) conference, held in Canada for the first time in June 2010. She is currently a co-investigator for the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics in the Americas, a SSHRC-funded partnership between NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics and a network of performance researchers from Canadian universities.X
Mark Matusoff: What do you understand by Performance Studies?
"The more that I've been teaching performance studies, I've started to think about it as a home for what I’ve been calling “disciplinary misfits.” So as a place of refuge for scholars and artists for whom certain kinds of conversations have stalled in their own home departments."
Mark: What kinds of questions or topics have performance studies methodologies allowed you to explore that might not have been possible otherwise?
University of California, Berkeley. And I worked under Shannon Jackson, specifically at the time that she was writing her awesome book Professing Performance
Jackson, Shannon. 2004. Professing Performance: Theatre in the Academy from Philololgy to Performativity. New York: Cambridge University Press.X, which thinks about the importance of genealogy in articulating what it is that we mean by “performance.” And I got really fascinated by her argument that the term “performance” really shifts depending on your own location. So it's really influenced by your institutional, your disciplinary, your cultural, and your personal location. That argument was really vibrant for me and continues to be. And I’ve carried forward this sort of genealogical thinking into my own writing both about feminist and site-specific performance, but also into the research project that I’ve been involved in on the development of performance studies in Canada. And that project was influenced by and large by my experience coming back to Canada and starting to teach in the Theatre Department at York University. At that time, I was really doing some kind of searching about what it meant to be a performance studies scholar in a cultural landscape where there was no performance studies.
Richard Schechner does down at NYU. That’s not what we are about at all.” So I thought it was very interesting that there's this sort of moment of founding a program, and you're doing all these kinds of disavowals.
And it made me sort of start asking questions about what performance studies is in a Canadian context and what the histories of performance studies in a Canadian context. And I think some of those methodologies around genealogy helped me to unsettle some of the givens around performance studies. I wanted to use them to understand how Canadian performance studies might depart from the US-centric model with which I had been familiar up until that point. So that led me to do research on a number of topics. Very briefly, things like the influence of policies of official multiculturalism or policies of official multiculturalism in Canada and how intercultural performers have responded to those policies; I've been interested in the articulation of performance in French Canada and how language is a performance of power in that provincial context; also how that's influenced the development of movement-based and visual performance, which in some ways translates across languages.Idle No More movement in Canada.
Mark: And finally, to what degree and how has performance studies as a discipline made itself felt in Canada?
Laura: So I think that... So before I said it's taken a long time to get started, but it is starting. So one place where you see performance studies establishing itself is in the form of graduate programs. The first graduate program in performance studies was started, I think, in 2006 by the University of Calgary; and then there were a couple of years in between, and most recently, since 2012, three new programs were established at U of T [University of Toronto], at [University of] Alberta, and in our program at York, which has now combined theater and performance studies. One of the interesting things is that a number of these programs in North America, and particularly in Canada, seem to have a graduate program in performance studies, but not an undergraduate program, or so-named undergraduate program, in performance studies. So that'll be interesting to see: whether the fact that there's graduate and not undergraduate poses a problem for the longevity of these programs, or of performance studies as a discipline. Most of those graduate programs are located in theater departments. There are a couple places where performance studies is taught outside of theater departments. At Concordia [University], there's a performance studies specialization in the Humanities Interdisciplinary PhD. Brian Rusted, a prof at the University of Calgary, has been writing about, and he recently edited a wonderful issue on performance ethnography for the Canadian Theatre Review, which tries to trace that folklore history of performance studies in Canada and looks at Memorial University on the east coast, in Newfoundland, as a site of folklore performance, which is really fascinating.
But aside from those kind of beginnings of performance studies as a discipline within... let's say within departments, I would say that performance studies, in so far as it has established itself as a discipline, is more in the form of a network than as programs. So we have the beginnings of really vibrant research networks, which connect scholars and artists from across Canada around particular projects. There is the Performance Studies (Canada) Project, which I've been working on. And we organized a methodologies workshop for Canadian scholars—that was with my colleague Marlis Schweitzer. And more recently there's the Canadian Consortium for Performance and Politics in the Americas, which is an initiative out of the University of Manitoba, which now has a huge partnership grant to bring scholars together to think about performance hemispherically. And that's connected with the Hemispheric Institute at NYU, so that's really exciting. And so yeah, I'm excited to see where these collaborative ventures will lead. I think that they're great in the sense that they allow us to really talk across disciplinary boundaries and with people who are not at our home institutions. At the same time, there is the potential for them to be slightly problematic in the sense that they might allow for us to remain kind of curiosities as performance studies scholars within our own departments. But I'm really excited to see where all of this will lead and to be part of these collaborative adventures.