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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 9
2014

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Student Voices/Real Audiences

Katie N. Johnson
Miami University

The idea for this special section on undergraduate student writing in Laconics arose from my desire to have students from my senior seminar (called “Eugene O’Neill in Context”) have a real, public audience for their written work. Too often our students write brilliant papers and we are the only ones who read them. The writing stops there. How could I expand their readership, I thought, as well as the stakes of their writing? The eOneill.com website immediately came to mind. I contacted Harley Hammerman about hosting a special edition of Laconics, which would feature only the very best of my students’ papers, all of which would be extensively revised by them and edited by me with Harley’s comments on the final versions. Harley enthusiastically embraced the idea.

This idea also sprung from my own recent experience in writing for public audiences, specifically in reviewing theatrical productions and writing program (playbill) notes. Trained as a theatre historian, my commitment to live performance was at first a leap of faith. However, my work has become increasingly influenced by a performance studies approach to historiography. Moreover, Rob Ashford’s interpretation of “Anna Christie” at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2010 convinced me of the importance of contemporary productions to unveiling each play’s complexities. My epiphany came when I saw Ruth Wilson and Jude Law perform “Anna Christie” at the Donmar. I felt that I finally saw the play O’Neill had imagined, ripe with all of its ambiguity—the “comma” in the sentence, as O’Neill famously put it—and which he never saw performed to his liking. I wanted my students to understand the stakes of performance for understanding historical dramas, how each production was a snapshot of its time period and artistic interpretation. Each production was, essentially, a different play.

But how could I get students to understand the importance of performance? And how could I train them to write about O’Neill in performance? For assistance, I turned to Miami University’s Howe Center for Writing Excellence, under the direction of Professor Kate Ronald, which provided me with a summer grant to develop this assignment. I called it “Writing Performance Reviews,” and conceived it in two parts.

First, I wanted my students to understand what it meant to be a theatre critic and what theoretical and pragmatic issues are at stake in writing about ephemeral performance. I also wanted them to understand that there are different kinds of theatre/performance criticism from which to choose. More than this, I was keen for them to envision how they saw themselves occupying that role and to own it—as they conceived it. To facilitate this part of the sequence, we read several essays about writing criticism, including Michael Kirby’s famous denunciation of critics and Richard Schechner’s pointed response. We also read about the tensions between repertoire and archive as elegantly framed by Diana Taylor. Finally, we examined the differences between writing textual criticism and writing about performance. After an in-class discussion, students wrote a paper (called “How I See Myself as a Critic”) in which they articulated the kind of critic they wished to be (or not be). Significantly, none of the students said they did not want to be a critic. But they had strong feelings about what criticism should look like. Students then came to class for an in-class Roundtable of Theatre Critics where we parsed out their new identities as critics, debating the merits and pitfalls of theatre criticism. That framing helped set the stage for actually writing about performance later in the semester.

The second part of the assignment was to conduct an analysis of a specific O’Neill play. The purpose of the paper was to engage in-depth with some of the key issues in understanding O’Neill’s work as both text and performance, research it, and write about it. Moving beyond the traditional research paper—but incorporating extensive research—students investigated a particular production of an O’Neill play as an embodied, performed event at a particular time (say, in 1921 or 2001) and in a particular space (London perhaps). The key here was to take an issue that motivated the students and deepen their intellectual and creative engagement with it. I asked the students to think of this paper as a piece of writing that would add to the critical debates in theatrical scholarship, O’Neill studies, or performance studies.

The focus on performance was challenging for many of my English students, who were trained to read texts as texts, and who excelled in close readings or noting metaphors, but had never considered performance as a form of inquiry or methodology. The shift to performance analysis was new, and, while at first difficult to some of them, ultimately unlocked fresh insights for most.

Finally, I told the students that if their essays were excellent, they would have a shot at having a public audience for their work in Laconics.

At the end of the semester, after reading the final essays (which had already undergone one round of revisions), I invited eight students to submit their essays for consideration of on-line publication with Laconics. Four students decided to do so. Each of them underwent at least five additional revisions, with commentary from me, in which I “performed” my role as a journal editor for them. William Davies King at the Eugene O’Neill Review was a model; I showed them how he had provided feedback to me in one of my pieces and how many times I had to revise it before it appeared it print.

Then we sent the essays to Harley. He gave the students more notes. And they revised their essays again. In sum, the essays you are reading here have been revised at least six times. Undergraduates rarely—if ever—have an opportunity to work on their writing so intensively. And while they are not perfect, they are excellent examples of undergraduate writing. I hope you enjoy reading them.

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