Hot Pursuit: Researching Across the Theatre/Film Border

In order to overcome the false premise of a backward-looking theatre and a forward-looking digital age, scholars must relentlessly historicize our sites of inquiry. We must strive to imagine ourselves into the Now that animated past performances, and we cannot take for granted that we fully grasp the Present. Whatever phenomenon we hope to illuminate, we must range broadly forward and backward across history, avoiding the pitfalls of Grand Narratives while embracing the boundary-crossing potential of detailed local narratives. We must also recognize that our own arguments are bound by time and place. If they are to remain relevant into the future they must continually be re-made.

What is to be done?

Calls for greater interdisciplinarity at the institutional level are by now commonplace. To the degree that consolidation of academic departments, public scholarship, and “strategic clusters” serve the neoliberal agenda in higher education, one might even argue that interdisciplinarity is the New Normal. Yet just as increased global migration has led many people in many countries to insist on tighter border controls, so too has the trend toward interdisciplinary scholarship caused a kind of backlash amongst scholars who fear the dumbing down of traditional disciplines (or, more cynically, the loss of their own discipline’s power in the intellectual marketplace). As this backlash is most common amongst those with the most to lose (department chairs, journal editors, senior faculty), the disciplinary pressures on emerging scholars remain strong. Hence at the level of the individual scholar, or even the individual work of scholarship, disciplinary borders remain difficult and dangerous to cross.

To counter this, scholars of American drama and theater must embrace the doctrine of hot pursuit. We need not and should not give up our recognition of what is distinct about live performance, but we cannot and must not allow our subject to escape across the theatre-film border. Our scholarship must maintain its performativity in both senses of the word: it must remain liminal, processual, and multi-vocal; and it must establish—by its very articulation—that there is more to cultural analysis than can be contained within disciplinary or generic frames. It is no longer a question of being interdisciplinary, but of being post-disciplinary. We must even dare, at times, to be undisciplined.

Henry Bial is Chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Kansas where he holds a joint appointment in American Studies and Theatre. He is the author of Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen (2005), the editor of The Performance Studies Reader (2004; Second Edition, 2007), and the co-editor of Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions (with Scott Magelssen, 2010) and Brecht Sourcebook (with Carol Martin, 2000). He currently serves as President of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE).

[1] See:—numerical calculations based on the list as retrieved 25 January 2014.
[2] Theatre Journal, volumes 61-65; Journal of American Drama and Theatre, volumes 22-25.
[3] Cinema Journal, volumes 49-52.
[4] Michael Feingold, “The Response to the Tony Awards Shows That Show Business Is No Longer Business As Usual,” 2010 blog post at, Retrieved 1 March 2014.
[5] Patrick Healy, “Broadway’s New Kid.” New York Times (24 February 2013), AR1.
[6] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993),146.
[7] Jessica Sternfeld, The Megamusical (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 5. It should be noted that Sternfeld’s book, along with recent work by Stacy Wolf, David Savran, Elizabeth Wollman and others have begun to counter this phenomenon.
[8] See Martin Puchner, Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
[9] For an extended discussion of this phenomenon, see Lee Grievson, “Discipline and Publish: The Birth of Cinematology,” Cinema Journal 49, no. 1 (Fall 2009): 168-176.
[10] Ibid., 175.
[11] This is not to dismiss the widespread use of intertextual reading strategies, but to point out that even these strategies tend to focus on a singular discrete work to be interpreted in light of other singular works.
[12] John Tibbets and James Welsh, eds. The Encyclopedia of Stage Plays Into Film (New York: Facts on File, 2001).
[13] Cf. Brian Herrera and Henry Bial, eds. “As Seen on TV,” a special section of the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 24, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 91-168.
[14] See Theatre Journal 61, no. 2 (May 2009): 359-362; 62, no. 2 (May 2010): 329-332; 63, no. 2 (May 2011): 305-309; 64, no. 2 (May 2012): 317-322; 65, no. 2 (May 2013): 315-319. Numbers are approximate because several projects appear in more than one year.
[15] See Educational Theatre Journal 18, no.2 (May 1966): 122-125.
[16] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 181.
[17] Christopher Bigsby. Viewing America: Twenty-First Century Television Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), x-xi.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Jonathan Rosenbaum, Discovering Orson Welles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 9.
[20] Notable examples of artist-driven studies include Leslie Kane’s Weasels and Wisemen: Ethics and Ethnicity in the Work of David Mamet (Palgrave, 2001), Christopher Bigsby’s Arthur Miller (Harvard University Press, 2010), and David Luhrssen’s Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen (University Press of Kentucky, 2012).
[21] Though studies by the National Endowment for the Arts suggest that less than 20% of the U.S. population regularly attends live theater, their polling methodology explicitly excludes amateur performances such as elementary and high school plays. SeeNEA brochure, All America’s A Stage: Growth and Challenges in Nonprofit Theater (2008). (accessed 1 March 2014).
[22] Such a reformulation, however, takes us back to the limits of object-driven analyses.

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