Hot Pursuit: Researching Across the Theatre/Film Border

The value of interdisciplinary inquiry in the study of American drama and theatre has been persuasively established, so much so that it is virtually a commonplace. Scholars working in the field today routinely draw on work from the humanities, from the social sciences, from ecobiology and cognitive science and any number of other disciplines. Yet just as globalization has not eliminated the nation state, the disciplines themselves persist. For all that scholars work to position our projects and ourselves “at the intersection between,” disciplinary assumptions linger, ghostly revenants haunting our curricula, our journals, our professional societies. Most surprisingly, perhaps, the disciplinary boundaries seem most impermeable between two fields that would seem to have the most common ground: theatre/performance studies and film/media studies. Consider inter alia the American Theatre and Drama Society, whose website lists 125 member publications since 2009, of which fewer than 10% give serious consideration to film and/or digital media.1 Over the same period, Theatre Journal has published 101 articles, 15 of which address film or television (5 in a single special issue on digital media), while the journal you are reading now, JADT, has published 51 articles with none crossing that disciplinary boundary.2

Conversely, since 2009, Cinema Journal, the publication of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, has published no articles that address the live stage.3 Hence, a disconnect: despite our overt recognition that the story of American drama in history, theory, and practice is a story of theatre and film—not to mention radio, television, and, increasingly, videogames and the internet—we generally ignore this recognition in shaping our research projects.

This essay argues that the study of American drama and theatre not only allows, but also often requires the scholar to research and write across the disciplinary divide between theatre and film (as well as other related arts: radio, television, music, new media). Readers are forewarned that the overall tone is less scholarly than polemical, reflecting the sense of urgency that I feel is needed at this moment in the history of both disciplines: theatre and performance studies on the one hand, and film/media studies on the other.

The title “Hot Pursuit” is drawn from the legal doctrine that allows law enforcement personnel to cross municipal, state, and (subject to certain treaty obligations) national boundaries if failing to do so would allow a suspect to escape apprehension. Too often in academia, scholars allow disciplinary boundaries to impede if not halt their pursuit of ideas. Though we claim to value interdisciplinary inquiry, we have many incentives (hiring committees, tenure and promotion, outcomes assessment, etc.) to reify disciplinary norms. Though we may desire to know everything about everything, we have to draw fences around our arguments or the book never gets finished. Hence the project that begins as “ethnicity in performance” may eventually become “Jewish memory on the US stage, 1989-1997.” The use of “principles of exclusion” such as identity, nation, genre and period is an accepted fact of academic life. It doesn’t make us bad people, or even bad scholars.

Yet if we are to go after the big ideas, the ones that speak to the circulation of meaning and power within the global culture, we must work to overcome our reluctance to intrude on someone else’s turf. Constructions of identity and nation, for example, don’t just exist in the theatre. They don’t just come from the television screen. If we want to prevent such constructs from eluding our grasp, we must cast a broad net. More importantly, we must be willing to follow our subjects wherever they may lead. Toward that end, this essay considers five “myths” that must be overcome in order to facilitate such boundary-crossing scholarship. By myth, I mean an idea once held as sacred truth but now considered fictional. Though they are generally recognized as false-to-fact, myths nevertheless continue to exert influence on contemporary thought. The first three of the myths I consider have their genealogy in European modernist ideas about art; therefore resistance to these myths may be understood as a way to embrace an understanding of American drama that is “more American” (more populist, more postmodern, more problematic). The last two myths are ones that I see as more pervasive in American scholarship and popular discourse; thus pushing back against them is of particular urgency to scholars of American drama.