cover of book

Theatre Symposium, Vol. 27: Theatre and Embodiment
edited by Sarah McCarroll
contributions by Travis Stern, Bridget Sundin, Cohen Ambrose, Rhonda Blair, Tessa W. Carr, Kaja Amado Dunn, Sarah McCarroll, Timothy Pyles and Lawrence D. Smith
introduction by Sarah McCarroll
University of Alabama Press, 2019
Paper: 978-0-8173-7014-5 | eISBN: 978-0-8173-9249-9

A substantive exploration of bodies and embodiment in theatre

Theatre is inescapably about bodies. By definition, theatre requires the live bodies of performers in the same space and at the same time as the live bodies of an audience. And, yet, it’s hard to talk about bodies. We talk about characters; we talk about actors; we talk about costume and movement. But we often approach these as identities or processes layered onto bodies, rather than as inescapably entwined with them. Bodies on the theatrical stage hold the power of transformation. Theatre practitioners, scholars, and educators must think about what bodies go where onstage and what stories which bodies to tell.

The essays in Theatre Symposium, Volume 27 explore a broad range of issues related to embodiment. The volume begins with Rhonda Blair’s keynote essay, in which she provides an overview of the current cognitive science underpinning our understanding of what it means to be “embodied” and to talk about “embodiment.” She also provides a set of goals and cautions for theatre artists engaging with the available science on embodiment, while issuing a call for the absolute necessity for that engagement, given the primacy of the body to the theatrical act.

The following three essays provide examinations of historical bodies in performance. Timothy Pyles works to shift the common textual focus of Racinian scholarship to a more embodied understanding through his examination of the performances of the young female students of the Saint-Cyr academy in two of Racine’s Biblical plays. Shifting forward in time by three centuries, Travis Stern’s exploration of the auratic celebrity of baseball player Mike Kelly uncovers the ways in which bodies may retain the ghosts of their former selves long after physical ability and wealth are gone. Laurence D. Smith’s investigation of actress Manda Björling’s performances in Miss Julie provides a model for how cognitive science, in this case theories of cognitive blending, can be integrated with archival theatrical research and scholarship.

From scholarship grounded in analysis of historical bodies and embodiment, the volume shifts to pedagogical concerns. Kaja Amado Dunn’s essay on the ways in which careless selection of working texts can inflict embodied harm on students of color issues an imperative call for careful and intentional classroom practice in theatre training programs. Cohen Ambrose’s theorization of pedagogical cognitive ecologies, in which subjects usually taught disparately (acting, theatre history, costume design, for example) could be approached collaboratively and through embodiment, speaks to ways in which this call might be answered.

Tessa Carr’s essay on "The Integration of Tuskegee High School" brings together ideas of historical bodies and embodiment in the academic theatrical context through an examination of the process of creating a documentary theatre production. The final piece in the volume, Bridget Sundin’s exchange with the ghost of Marlene Dietrich, is an imaginative exploration of how it is possible to open the archive, to create new spaces for performance scholarship, via an interaction with the body.

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