Hot Pursuit: Researching Across the Theatre/Film Border

By contrast, the film script most often comes before the artistic process reaches fruition, and rarely circulates with the promiscuity of a theatre script. The objet d’art that is distributed, studied, and archived is the film itself. Because of this, it is the director’s contribution to the process that is most readily visible to scholars and cineastes. Hence the frisson of finality that emanates from the phrase “Director’s Cut.” It is a marketing term, of course, but an instructive one for a number of reasons. First, it reveals the desire to cling to the popular and scholarly notion of the auteur director. Second, the phrase “Director’s Cut” nearly always refers to a re-release and/or DVD “special edition,” tying it to the multiple media (film, broadcast television, video recording, online or on-demand video, etc.) through which this apparently unitary artwork is distributed. Third, the very necessity of the term “Director’s Cut” belies its own claim: if the director were truly the Author of the film, the so-called “Director’s Cut” would require no special labeling.

Moreover, to the degree that film as a medium tends to emphasize (in comparison to theatre) the visual over dialogue, we can easily forget that theatre is not radio, that film is no longer silent. Yet the impossibility of archiving live performance and the seductive visuality of film are not likely to be overcome. What then, is the trans-genre scholar to do? Some significant interventions have been made through attention to filmic adaptations of plays and mixed media performances, as well as through experiments in multidimensional archiving of theatre events. Nevertheless, unless and until we move beyond the need to study a bounded Artistic Product, we will continue to be haunted by the need to identify a singular Artistic Producer. We will continue with scholarship that tacitly ignores the essentially collaborative nature of both art forms.

Hot pursuit, then, means directing greater attention to process, both before and after the performance. When we consider the training, pre-production, rehearsal and rewrite processes, we see that theatre and film are fluid and multiple creations, arising from the joint inspiration and efforts of many artists, not just the one to whom authorship is formally and imperfectly attributed. When we consider the role of the audience in constructing the meaning of the artwork—let us stipulate for the moment that the audience does play such a role—we see as well that the concern with authorship is something of an academic fiction. Scholars and critics tend to consider the Artist retrospectively, not unlike juries consider a criminal defendant. What did this person do? The audience, for the most part, considers the Artist subjunctively, as police consider a fleeing suspect. Of what acts might this person be capable? Are they acting alone or in conspiracy with others? What can be learned about this person from studying the scene of the crime?

Myth #4: East is East and West is West and Never the Twain Shall Meet

For scholars of American drama and theatre, “New York” is a synecdoche for live performance and “Hollywood” a metonym for the film industry. Perhaps because of the continent that separates these metropoles, U.S. scholars rarely focus on the fact that many playwrights work as screenwriters (and vice versa), that many film directors also work on the stage, and that actors and designers often cross the theatre/film boundary routinely. One reason, of course, is the aforementioned emphasis on the finished work of art, and the definition of that art as the product of a playwright or director’s imagination. An artist-driven approach to scholarship would go a long way toward remedying this problem.

One lamentable consequence of the influence of critical theory on both theatre and film studies is that we have, for the most part, stopped writing artist biographies. Out of approximately 300 studies listed in Theatre Journal’s “Doctoral Projects in Progress in Theatre Arts” from 2009-2013, there are fewer than 10 biographical projects, and fewer than 30 single-artist studies.14 The comparable list from 1966 alone has 12 biography projects and 30 single-artist studies out of 104 titles.15 While scholars still undertake the occasional reassessment of the impact of a major figure (e.g. Linda Ben-Zvi’s Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times) or a thematic analysis focused on a single author (e.g. Harry Elam’s The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson), we have generally ceded the field of artists’ life stories to journalists, amateurs, and the artists themselves. When, if at all, scholars read these biographies, it is generally with an eye toward extracting information in support of an object-driven analysis of the artist’s work. While the life of the artist should not, of course, be the determining factor in the interpretation of her artistic work, it is dangerous to lose sight of the human stories that lay within our field of study. Such stories are vital partly because they are human–the human being does not fit neatly into categories of medium or genre—but mostly because they are Stories. Narratives have a remarkable ability to cross disciplinary and generic boundaries. As Michel De Certeau reminds us, “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.”16 A strong narrative, we know, can compel our involvement in film and theatre, story and song. More importantly, these particular narratives, these “tales from Hollywood” and “Broadway memories” and “my life as a famous person” books often tell us more about the real circulation of artists and ideas across multiple media than we can glean from peer-reviewed “Major Works” studies.