Public Dramaturgy, Wikipedia, and Combatting “Columbusing”
Over the past few months via livestream, social media, and other digital platforms, I’ve been able to engage in performances and panels, ranging from the Fourth National Asian American Theater Conference & Festival in Philadelphia to Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Encuentro 2014 that culminated with the Second National Latina/o Theatre Commons gathering in Los Angeles. In my own little corner of the world, I feel more connected than ever to a wide body of artists as we use digital tools to strategize, energize, and agitate for change in the art form we share and love: theatre.
This connectivity, as Brian Herrera reminds readers in his post “Our Digital Present,” is a key component of the activism wielded by artists of color. Spaces like Café Onda are the first step to “offering a hospitable platform for the sharing of news and diverse opinion about current events, trends, and practices within Latina/o theatermaking.” Even so, the imaginations and needs of creators may quickly outpace what is possible given the realities of funding, curation demands, and questions of connectivity. Herrera encourages Latina/o theatermakers to “leverage our own networks, communities, and skillsets to manifest the change we crave.” This means engineering and coordinating digital initiatives from the simple to the complex, and finding ways to spread the word and labor across multiple collaborators—until a critical mass makes it impossible to ignore the bodies of (and at) work.
There have been similar moves afoot over the past year in response to events like #TheSummit, giving a digital boost to long-standing efforts by feminist theater artists and scholars to improve gender parity across the theatrical landscape. The League of Professional Theatre Women’s 50/50 in 2020 campaign and the LA Female Playwright Initiative have been joined by The Kilroys and #parityraid, “We Exist! Female and Trans Playwright Roll Call,” initiated by Elaine Romero with help from Rachel Jendrzejewski and Christine Evans, and The Interval: The Smart Girls Guide to Theatricality. These energies have been focused particularly on playwrights who remain—despite over a century of contributions to US theatre—stuck in the supposed "pipeline" of the theatrical imagination. Women activists are determined, like their counterparts in the Asian American and Latino/a theatre communities, to deny a kind of Columbusing effect where non-white, non-male artists only achieve legitimacy when they are “discovered” by institutional vanguards (whether artistic directors, critics, or scholars). And yet, these artists recognize the need to get names and works disseminated as widely as possible to educate not only season programmers, but also the wider public.
Fundamentally, the means to combat both invisibility and Columbusing is information. Ideally, it’s information that is composed by studied experts and freely available to the widest cross-section of readers. The late feminist scholar Adrianne Wadewitz clearly recognized and aimed to combat this issue when she began editing Wikipedia entries a decade ago. With an eye on expanding the entries’ references to women writers and scholars (while pursuing her PhD in English), Wadewitz became one of the fifteen top contributors of “high quality content” on Wikipedia. When a 2010 report revealed that less than thirteen percent of the site’s contributors identified as women, Wikipedia, Wadewitz, and other scholars began a concerted campaign to encourage more women to become editors.
Even after a couple of years of using production blogs in my own dramaturgy and teaching practices to make the intellectual labor of theatre production more visible on and beyond my campus, I approached Wikipedia with trepidation. I had been trained by pedagogical mentors to consider the resource with skepticism due to the unverifiable and collective nature of its authorship. In its best entries, however, it seemed similar to the kind of clear and informed dramaturgical writing I was doing in study guides and program notes. It also addressed a need—better, wider, and free resources about women theatre artists—that many gender parity initiatives desired.
I am not the only scholar/artist who saw this potential. Since 2012, a growing number of Edit-a-Thons have been organized by collectives of informed writers with a specific focus on building and revising entries focused on women working in various fields (the sciences and mathematics, art history, Medieval history, and post-colonial theory and literature). These events rely on committed volunteers, working in a coordinated but asynchronous fashion, often with some face-to-face “nodes” where collective writing/community-building takes place, but with a focus on individuals using their own technological resources and expertise to make a potentially significant impact in a short amount of time.
Where Wikipedia writing falls in the value chain of academic scholarship in the digital age is a hotly contested topic. Its value as a venue for public dramaturgy is less debatable. Such was my pitch to fellow dramaturgs Catherine María Rodríguez (Center Stage and the Dramaturgy Open Office Hours Project) and Russell M. Dembin (UT Austin). Working together, we soon realized that the best way we might harness Wikipedia’s power to reinforce and extend other digital interventions was with a conscious eye towards the feminist notion of intersectionality—that is, working across many communities of difference at the same time. To that end, we are using this post to rally dramaturgically inclined theatre artists to join us for an all-day Wikiturgy Edit-a-Thon on Tuesday, February 17, 2015. Some of you might recognize this date as the one-year anniversary of #TheSummit which catalyzed a particular strain of feminist activism; however, we consider this Edit-a-Thon an opportunity to expand the table of contents of this public encyclopedia to include the myriad under-/unsung theatre artists whose bodies of work contribute to the diverse landscape of theatre. Instead of our crafting a list, which invariably will leave off names that others feel should be included, an Edit-a-Thon empowers anyone to jump in as an editor. It allows all of us to fulfill a New Year’s resolution to make greater strides towards diversity and parity in American Theatre in 2015. It is one way to support an artist whose work you know, admire, and feel should have a more publicly visible space online.
To make this event a success and, hopefully, start a bi-annual or yearly tradition, we call on Wikipedia-experienced contributors who might be interested hosting in-person gatherings across the Americas or want to add their public support for the event in other ways. If you are one of those people, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On February 1, we’ll share another post that gives those locations and the specific hours for collective, in-person editing along with troubleshooting in Wikipedia if you work alone.
For those who are interested, but unfamiliar or uncertain about how to get started here is a list of ways to participate.
Add your name to the list of interested collaborators and contribute to a starter group of Wikipedia entries about theatre artists that you feel need editing or improvement via that form or in the comments to this post below. As you search Wikipedia for what has (and has not) been written, look specifically for “stub” articles, items already flagged by editors as needing expansion.
Watch Adrienne Wadewitz’s 2008 video on how to edit Wikipedia. It’s an hour long and plays best in Flash.
Review these resources for writing Wikipedia entries that stick and useful links compiled by two outstanding mentors for feminist and postcolonial Wikipedia interventions: Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam and the Global Women Write In (#GWWI) initiative.
If you don’t have time to write a whole entry, consider smaller scale edits to entries that already exist or upload images into existing articles about women theatre artists. Here is the image use policy for Wikipedia.
Track our efforts and tweet your about your own edits using #Wikiturgy.
We look forward to seeing you in-person or virtually throughout the day on February 17 and thank the following organizations for their support of this advocacy on behalf of artists across a spectrum of experience: Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts; The Brockett Center at UT Austin; Café Onda and the Latino/a Theatre Commons; Company One Theatre; Jacqueline Lawton and TCG’s Diversity & Inclusion Salons; Jennie Webb and the LA Female Playwrights Initiative; Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas; and Seema Sueko, Associate Artistic Director at the Pasadena Playhouse.