Interview with Tracy Davis (2007)
Tracy C. Davis is a specialist in performance theory, theater historiography, and research methodology. She holds a Doctoral degree in Theatre Studies from the University of Warwick (United Kingdom), and she is currently Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in The Graduate School at Northwestern University. A feminist theater historian, her areas of interest include 19th century British theater history, gender and theater, economics and business history of theater, museum studies, and Cold War studies. Professor Davis has published The Broadview Anthology of Nineteenth-Century British Performance (Broadview Press 2012), The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies (Cambridge University Press 2008), Stages of Emergency: Cold War Nuclear Civil Defense (Duke 2007), The Performing Century: Nineteenth-Century Theatre's History, co-edited with Peter Holland (Palgrave 2008), Considering Calamity: Methods for Performance Research, co-edited with Linda Ben-Zvi (Assaph 2007), Actresses as Working Women: Their Society Identity in Victorian Culture (Routledge 1991), George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist Theatre (Praeger 1994), The Economics of the British Stage (Cambridge University Press 2000), Women and Playwriting in Nineteenth-Century Britain, co-edited with Ellen Donkin (Cambridge Univeristy Press 1999), and Theatricality, co-edited with Thomas Postlewait (Cambridge Univeristy Press 2004). Professor Davis edits the book series Cambridge Studies in Theatre and Performance Theory and founded Performance Studies International’s archive, now held at the Fales Library (New York University). Among many honors, she received the American Society for Theatre Research’s Distinguished Scholar Award and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship and was a Mellon post-doctoral fellow at Harvard.X
Diana Taylor: Tracy, thank you so much for talking to us about performance studies. Could you just very, very briefly tell us a little something about yourself?
Tracy Davis: I teach at Northwestern University, and I’ve been there for 16 years. I have a joint appointment in Theater and English, with a courtesy appointment in Performance Studies. So I supervise students in all the different departments. It’s very fluid. Yeah.
Diana: So how would you think of performance studies? How would you sort of characterize its features?
Diana: So how would you define that relationship between historical inquiry and performance studies? What can they offer each other?
Tracy: Well, it’s always valuable to know where something comes from. You can’t have a meaningful postcolonial inquiry without understanding a historical span, which may be longer or shorter, but you need to understand what the claims are behind any particular moment and into a more deeply theorized and deeply understood cultural context. So, for me, I think that—although I’m not really a postcolonial scholar—I think that historical study is almost always going to change the questions that we ask about the present.
“We have a great interest in narrative, for example, as performance scholars, and a skepticism about how narrative is authoritative, and a willingness to say that narrative comes from a set of decisions, and narrative is not predetermined, narrative is not pro forma.”
Diana: What would be a couple of the methods that you would think would be important for performance studies people to understand?
Tracy: Well, some of this is commonsensical. So we have a great interest in narrative, for example, as performance scholars, and a skepticism about how narrative is authoritative, and a willingness to say that narrative comes from a set of decisions, and narrative is not predetermined, narrative is not pro forma. And the same thing is true in historical work, but we think about narrative as a structured relationship between evidence and the telling of the evidence. We think of it as perhaps being more rigorously bounded. We think of it as having a historiographic tradition in conversation with other historical versions that may draw on parts of the same archive or may be quite distinct from it.
Diana: Do you think that performance practice can ever be used as a way of thinking about the past?
Tracy: Definitely. Definitely. Your work is an inspiration to me for that.
Diana: Thank you so much. It’s incredibly interesting, what you do.
Tracy: Thank you.
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