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On Reinventing the Canon

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: Welcome to Teaching Theatre, a podcast about the practice and pedagogy of theatre education produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, playwright and theatre professor Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder.

Welcome back to the Teaching Theatre podcast for HowlRound Theatre. We’re excited today to have two guests to talk about reinventing the canon. Today we have Yizhou Huang, an assistant professor of theatre at St. Louis University. Her work draws on theatre history and historiography, performance studies, and post-colonialism to examine modern and contemporary Chinese theatre, Asian American Theatre, and global Asian performance. She holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from Tufts University. Welcome.

Yizhou Huang: Glad to be here. Thank you for the invitation.

Elyzabeth: And we also have Nathan Alan Davis joining us. His plays include The Refuge Plays at Roundabout Theatre, Nat Turner in Jerusalem at New York Theatre Workshop, The High Ground at Arena Stage, Eternal Life, Part One at the Willman Theatre, The Origin Story, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, The Wind and the Breeze, Signet Theatre, and Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea, a National New Play Network rolling world premiere. In recognition of his body of work, Nathan has received a Windham Campbell Prize in 2021, a Steinberg Award in 2020, and a Whiting Award in 2018. He’s currently the director of the MFA Playwriting program at Boston University. Welcome.

Nathan Alan Davis: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Elyzabeth: So one of the things that I wanted to talk about today is how do we reinvent the canon? This is a conversation that I think a lot of theatre programs are having, which is really important. So before we get started, I thought I would begin with, what do you think most people envision when they talk about the classic theatre canon?

Nathan: I think most people envision the Greeks, Shakespeare, and moving on to, I guess, people like Ibsen, and then up through American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill. And I mean, those are some things come to mind when I think about classical theatre canon.

Elyzabeth: What about you, Yizhou?

Yizhou: Yeah, I agree. I mean, Shakespeare is definitely top of the list, and I mean there’s Shakespeare in every single park in this country during the summer. I feel like the canon is also about some kind of narrative, and the things that I take issue with are not so much with the works that are included in the canon, but the kind of narrative, the kind of story that the canon implies when people think about them.

I feel like the canon is also about some kind of narrative, and the things that I take issue with are not so much with the works that are included in the canon, but the kind of narrative, the kind of story that the canon implies when people think about them.

Elyzabeth: So sort of building off of that, before we talk about how we can reinvent the canon, what do you think we can learn from these plays? Do you think that they still have merit? Are they still worth studying? Why do you think they remain relevant? Why do you think they find their way onto our syllabi? Do you think that there are ways to find value in some of these old plays and keep them relevant for this current generation?

Yizhou: So, going back to the idea of this narrative, I feel like a lot of these plays still have merits, but it’s really how we teach it. The kind of story that we tell with that needs to be changed. And the problem I had was the narrative is that so many people think that this is the narrative, this is where our theatre comes from, from these canons. And I feel like in classroom, a lot of times the work is to say, “This is one narrative of our theatre. It is not the only one.” So in my case, I think it’s still important to be in conversation with the canon, but not teach that specific narrative.

Nathan: Yeah, I think I feel similarly. My students, I mean, I mostly teach playwriting courses so often when I’m teaching it’s a hybrid of a… meaning it’s mostly a workshop, and it also includes reading plays. And I think to Yizhou’s point about where a theatre comes from, I think it’s important to let students know that theatre comes from them, that they can be the source of theatre. And also being in conversation with plays past and present, but not treating it as if there’s this sort of ideal that’s so far outside of them they can’t ever reach, and maybe one day they’ll be worthy of touching it. It’s more about how do we look at these works, and what do they say to us, and what do we want to say to them? And so I don’t think that the existence of the canon needs to be a limitation to students. I think it really depends on how they engage with these plays.

Yizhou: There should be an invitation to build on Nathan’s point.

Elyzabeth: As we think about educating the next generation of theatre artists, why do you think it’s important to rethink the work we’re teaching in the classroom?

Nathan: If you have the opportunity to show somebody a whole world of plays, what you give them to look at might affect their horizons. It affects what they see as possible. So I think that being mindful of what you’re showing them as possibility is important. I think when I bring any given play into the classroom, whether it’s a traditional canonical text or not, I try to present it as a play that we can look at and wrestle with and examine. And I think that there’s a lot of value in some canonical plays, in many of them. And again, it’s more about what is our relationship with these works? And I tend to teach classic plays alongside newer plays. And I think you can’t give somebody a complete full history of theatre in any given class—I mean lifetime, let alone one class. So I think you can give a couple of different points of reference, and then you have to encourage people to engage on their own and you hope you inspire them to want to learn more.

But for me, again, because teaching people more of a playwriting class, I’m also most interested in what does this inspire in them? And then maybe what they bring might inspire me to say, “Oh, check out this play that reminds me of this.” And so I think it’s important to just maintain an attitude and set an example that is flexible so that when you’re talking to a student, you can show them and demonstrate, “Oh, there’s a lot of different directions you can look.” And then they’ll feel like they want to explore the things that are out there. And I think there’s probably more resources and more availability. There’s more of an ability to connect with more things now there ever has been. And so I think in that way it’s a positive place that we’re in a lot of ways.

Elyzabeth: I think you make a really good point there about showing students the possibilities that exist. I think that there’s a lot of value in exposing students to works that they can relate to and that they can identify with and that they see is not that far out of reach.

Yizhou: But then I also remember when I was younger and realized the age that those playwrights wrote their masterpieces, I was like, “Oh, wow, time is running out.”

Elyzabeth: Okay. Right, I know. Half of the good ones were dead by the time they were my age.

Yizhou: And to return to your question, I feel like, yeah, I totally echo a lot of things that Nathan just said about points of references. I don’t teach playwriting classes, but I teach play analysis classes, and I also teach theatre history, which I think is always is really a challenge to teach nowadays. So many programs are thinking about rethinking how they’re teaching theatre history. The traditional two semester or three semester sequence of theatre history is disappearing from the curriculum across from the country. And people are rethinking, “Well, how much information students can retain from these plays anyways?” I think it’s important to rethink the canon that we teach also because I feel like our life just works differently. Our mind works differently when, if someone was writing, there was no Netflix, there was no Twitter, there was no Instagram—I just feel like how we interact with information is different.

Shakespeare’s audience probably felt very differently for the lens, in terms of the lens of the play. I always feel like it’s so difficult to sit through another production of Shakespeare nowadays because I just feel like my body is so conditioned to the fact that I can pause things and do other stuff. So I really think it’s important to invite students to consider the relevance these canonical works have to our everyday life and also to consider the relevance these works had to their original audience, to audiences at different points of history, and really invite them to think about their own agency as artists and scholars when writing. Because I feel like that to give students agency, like you just said, to encourage them to make things new, I think that is very important.

Elyzabeth: So for someone who’s looking to rethink the plays that they teach, where should they start? I mean, there’s so much great material out there. How do you decide what to teach?

Yizhou: So one tip that I have is to think about adaptations because I feel like they’re very efficient. So many adaptations are already in conversation with certain moments in theatre history. For example, I teach Wole Soyinka’s the Bacchae by Euripides, which is already in conversation with the ancient Greeks, but also has this aspect of post-colonialism. I also teach Branden Jacob Jenkins’s An Octoroon, which is already of course in conversation with the melodramatic tradition. So I think that’s where I really start with when thinking about utilizing the valuable class time to cover a broader scope of possibilities.

Nathan: Yeah. I don’t know that I would have a lot to add to that. Those are wonderful ideas and well, I guess one play that I’ve recently been using in the classroom, Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts One, Two, and Three by Suzan-Lori Parks, which is also very much in conversation in a certain way with The Odyssey, but it’s not an adaptation. It is using language in a way that’s really very much in the African American tradition regarding wordplay and naming and poetry, but it’s still referencing some of these ideas that we find in ancient Greek literature. And I think that one of the things also to consider regarding the canon, and it’s not just a matter of saying, “Oh, these plays are the best.” It’s really an acknowledgement that these plays have for generations been part of our education.

So a lot of Shakespeare, it is very much integrated into English language and culture. It’s not like you can look at it simply as a play per se. And so I think to pretend that it’s not the case that doesn’t really serve anybody. This is part of what higher education has been for a long time. And I do think approaching it with looking at adaptations, looking at ways that people are engaging with it, because I think really any knowledge is building off of what came before it. And so being able to point out different origin points is important, but also acknowledging that some of those origin points are in the classic canon, and it’s okay to engage with those things and to learn from them.

One of the texts that I’ve been using in the classroom is a chapter from a book called Constructing the Pluriverse, and it’s a chapter written by the author Ouattara, I hope I’m saying that correctly, it’s a French author, but the chapter title is “The Griots of West Africa: Oral Tradition in Ancestral Knowledge”. And so I’ve been using that side by side with Aristotle’s Poetics to talk about these origin points of theatre and origin, origins of dramatic tradition and storytelling traditions. And there’s a lot of parallels, not only with each other per se, but with the actual role of the playwright in society. And so if you look at Poetics, or if you look at the griot traditions of West Africa, there’s a lot of things that don’t directly translate to, say, a playwright working in the United States today. But there are a lot of similarities. And if you talk about the way that a dramatist might look at their role in society, and even things in the Poetics that talk about Aristotle points out that where drama seems to come from in his mind or in his understanding is in the human inclination to imitate.

And so that’s something that’s very accessible, that’s very relatable, that’s, it’s a very direct observation that most students nod their heads to when they read Poetics. That’s the one thing they’re like, “Oh, yeah, that made sense.” So I just think finding ways to connect as far back as we can with what are the different origins of drama as we understand it and recognize that there’s not only one place that it started, that in reality it’s the intermingling of cultures that create the forms we know now. And so I just think as long as we are able to point that out, then people will feel, I hope the students, I hope, will feel more connected and excited about what the canon potentially means. And it kind of also takes the question away from the idea of the canon per se. It’s just more, here are different things we have access to in our history, and what do they mean to us?

It’s important to let students know that theatre comes from them, that they can be the source of theatre.

Elyzabeth: I love that.

Yizhou: Yeah, thank you for bringing that up. Right, because I feel like it’s really a great point that to recognize that we’re not really talking about a single canon because “canon” means such different things to people from different cultures. As someone who come from China, our dramatic canon includes some of the great Western playwrights, but then also we have the canonical Chinese playwrights. And so by invoking the word “canon,” I’m already thinking about other things. And I think that’s something that is important to be conveyed to the students as well.

Elyzabeth: I think these are all really great points, especially this idea that the canon is going to have a different meaning to different people based on where they come from. And I think here in the States, here in America, we have a very almost rigid idea of what this classical canon is. And trying to break out from that is what I think so many people are trying to do. This is—

Nathan: Yeah. I also think the idea of a canon, and it is a little hard to define what exactly it means because different people, even if you’re only looking narrowly at theatre in the Western tradition, different people would still have different ideas of what they think are the most important text or whatever. So, I just think one of the things to recognize is that the development of what we would call a canon takes centuries to sort of form, and it happens as a result of a lot of forces that we can’t really control in terms of political, cultural, social, education, all these things. And so I don’t think of it as, even though we look at it sometimes this static thing that really it is all these different forces that have coalesced to create this idea of, okay, here are things that have kind of been, I don’t know, highlighted as important for our educational world.

And I do think that the idea of examining what are the narratives and underlying that, and how did that come to be is important? But I also think it’s important, I mean, again, because from the perspective of teaching playwriting itself, it’s like I would love it if a thousand years from now one of my students was considered part of the canon, for whatever reason. I mean, it would partially be because they wrote awesome plays, but there’s so many other things that could or couldn’t happen that may or may not happen in the future. So yeah, I just think in a certain way, thinking really narrowly about the canon is as if it is just sort of an arbitrary thing. It does have a lot of human conscious choice involved in it, but it’s also a very long conversation that develops over many, many centuries to a certain extent.

And so it’s almost hard from where we are now to say, and I’m talking as a person who writes plays, it’s hard for me to say what my relationship to that should be, because when I look at plays, I just think, “wow, what is this play doing?”

Elyzabeth: So who are the playwrights you think are essential to the education of a young theatre artist? Are there specific writers from the past whose work deserves to be re-examined, writers whose work was maybe overlooked or overshadowed in some way?

Yizhou: I want to echo Nathan in saying that I love teaching Suzan-Lori Parks’s play because there’s so many possibilities in the way that she writes plays, and I think that’s really, really inspiring. In my play analysis class, I also teach her essay “Elements of Style” because it’s just such a good example to show students, “Look, there are other ways to construct a play than Aristotle’s methods.” So that’s one playwright that I always cover for. And then the other playwright is really a canonical playwright, which is Brecht. I still love teaching Brecht. I think there’s still value in teaching Brecht because there’s so many, he proposed so many groundbreaking techniques in theatre that we’re still using today. But it’s also difficult to teach Brecht because a lot of students don’t really see. They’re like, “Look, I get what he’s trying to do, but then his plays are just not that interesting anymore.” So I think it’s also kind of challenging to teach him in this day and age.

Elyzabeth: What about you Nathan? What are the essentials?

Nathan: Yeah, I am going to be honest and say I have a hard time answering that question mainly because, I guess, in a way that’s part of my responsibility as a teacher to say, well, this is essential. But then if I do that, I also feel like, oh, now I’ve sort of made this choice that has to be limited by my own preferences or what have you that says this, and I wonder if… is that the whole thing that we’re trying to avoid is saying that, “Okay, well holding up this particular thing as a sort of shining example,” and anytime you select anything from any list, you’re doing that. So I’m not saying that. I mean, I do have a syllabus most semesters, and I bring things in, but I don’t know that there’s anything that, I mean, if there is one that’s always been on there, least for the past five, six years, it has been Father Comes Home from the Wars, and I don’t know that it’ll be there forever. But in terms of something that really brings, it has so much to offer in terms of the teaching of the craft, A.) because it’s three separate plays—each play, you can examine structurally how it works, but then they also fit together in a really beautiful way.

And because the story itself is very simple, but there’s so much complexity inherent in the situation that the play lays out. It’s just a wonderful play, and that’s been really fruitful to discuss. Another play that I’ve often used in the classroom is Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And I think that play, in terms of Shakespeare plays one, it’s very witchy, which people love. There’s all kinds of supernatural stuff happening. The story is very clear. It is a little bit wild, and a lot of Shakespeare’s plays are actually pretty unruly in a great way. But I’ve often used Jiehae Park’s play Peerless alongside that, because Peerless is sort of a riff on Macbeth, and it deals with—it’s a comedy—it retains a lot of the spirit of Macbeth and just how wild and how out of pocket it is in certain ways. But it’s set in high school where students are working really hard to achieve a scholarship. And so the ambition is all cranked up. There’s still, spoiler alert, there’s still murder, and there’s stuff that happens. But again, it’s a way to look at this thing that is centuries old and this thing that is a few years old and talk about how they speak to each other. So those are just two examples. Again, I’m not saying, again, all the caveats of, I’m not saying these are the plays, but an example of, I think, a way to connect people with the past and the present, and also I hope allow them away in themselves to engage.

Yizhou: Yeah. Another example I have is that I love teaching the Chinese play I Love XXX by Meng Jinghui and his collaborators. And I usually teach this in my play analysis class as well because it’s pretty much an absurdist piece. But then I don’t want to give them something like a play by Beckett because most of them know a little bit of Beckett anyways. So I want to expand their horizons and give them something that they’ve never heard of before. It’s also a play that was crafted by Meng Jinghui and his collaborator and his friends, basically. They shared the same dorm in their grad program, and they just started playing this game that they will each say something that starts with “I love.” And so the play is a long list of “I love so-and-so,” and that’s why it’s called I Love XXX, and it’s really also my way to encourage the students to think that, look, you can write something like this as well and make something from this word game. Actually, also encourage them to write a chunk of this play using this sentence structure or using a different sentence structure.

Nathan: To add another play that I think is worth mentioning, just in the context of people who might be looking for things, It’s called The Brothers by Kathleen Collins. And I actually wrote a essay about this play for the Roundabout Refocus project, so you can find that play. One of the reasons I think it’s fascinating is it is sort of a tough nut to crack as a play. And I find those kinds of plays really interesting. There’s some things about it where you’re like, does this work? I don’t know. But it’s, the play is almost entirely monologues. And the premise is that there’s a family of brothers, and each scene or act is based on one of these brothers, but the person who’s speaking in the monologue is the widow of that particular brother. So the cast is almost entirely women except for one man who doesn’t speak, who’s like a funeral director. And the play deals with grief. It deals with grief, especially as the way it intersects with gender and gender roles and race. That’s an entirely Black cast.

And it’s such, the way that it’s laid out is really fascinating. It is very theatrical in a subtle way, in an understated way and in a certain way because I think a lot of the plays from the classic canon that I appreciate are things like Chekhov’s plays or Beckett’s plays where there’s something about it that’s a little mysterious and not always the most pleasurable to watch the entire time. It takes a little bit, a little effort to engage with, but we’ve sort of decided that, “Oh, it’s worth it.” It’s worth it to try to unpack this. And a lot of actors find value in that of like, “Oh, okay, let me...” And we’ll find innovative stagings for them because there’s something there that’s worth working through. And I think Kathleen Collins, this is an example of why sometimes with race and gender, and we overlook people because we say, “Okay, well, that’s tough. I’m not sure if that really works.” And we kind of dismiss their efforts, whereas you could say the same things about that play that you could say about plays that we appreciate because they’ve sort of been sanctioned in a certain way. And Kathleen Collins is somebody, I mean, she wrote films and directed her own films. She wrote stories, and she’s an amazing writer. So somebody that I would definitely think is worth looking into who have not yet come across her work.

Elyzabeth: As we wrap up, one of the things that I feel like I keep hearing people saying is the idea that the canon is constantly evolving, and if we think of the canon as sort of this living, breathing thing that is evolving, how do you see the canon changing and evolving as we move forward? And what would you like to see it become?

Nathan: That’s a big question. I don’t know.

Elyzabeth: It is a big question for nine o’clock in the morning.

Nathan: That’s why that previous thing I was saying about the canon taking a long time that I kind of ran out of steam and didn’t know how to end it, because I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t know what’s going on with that.” I think maybe it’s just important to recognize that the canon, what we call the canon, I guess it comes from us. It doesn’t really, I think the more, I think maybe a part of it, the question has to be turned back to our own understanding of what is theatre? What is its purpose? How is it supposed to engage with society? How are we doing as educators or as part of academia? It’s going to reflect our own…

And I guess that’s why you asked the question, but it’s like, I wonder if, I mean, I guess one question I’ve had is who decides, you know what I mean? Yeah. Who decides what canonical plays are, and does it have to do with a collective vision about what theatre means? I mean, because maybe one of the things that’s happening is that when power influence is shared more, you have more perspectives involved. And then the idea of having one unified vision of what should be counted goes away, or it becomes more of a fight to... I don’t know. I just think we’re in a moment in society where everything’s being questioned, things are changing, and I’m interested in the question of how do we create unified visions across difference?

What does that look like when we’re coming from widely different perspectives and experiences and everyone is at the table, then we say, “Is the point to create a unified vision?” If not the idea of a canon is probably going to disappear, or it’ll just be different ones or whatever. Or is it worth trying to consciously coalesce around, “Okay, what’s the new standard?” And that doesn’t seem like a simple conversation. It seems like a thing that takes a lot of small conversations or takes time, but I don’t know. I don’t know. I wouldn’t even know where to start to answer the question, so that’s why I’m trying to talk around the different things that might factor into it.

Elyzabeth: That’s fair.

Yizhou: Yeah, I want to echo that because one thing I had to do when I started this job was to recommend them purchase to the Sloan St. Louis University Library. And then one of my colleagues mentioned that when he started this job, he mentioned to the librarian that we should always purchase award-winning plays. That sort of gave me the idea to look at plays that are winning Pulitzer over the years, and I was just thinking, well, some of them are not really staged anymore. And it’s really interesting to think that a play that was so well received back then, and obviously at that point was considered part of the canon, but then it’s not really receiving any productions any longer. So yeah, I really want to echo that idea that people make choices, the market makes choices, but more important, the artists make choices. I think there is value in at least in trying to attain solidarity of some sorts through our choices. But I also think it’s important to embrace the differences. And if that embrace means that we need to let go of this idea of canon, then I feel like I’m cool with it.

Elyzabeth: Well, that sounds like a great place to stop. I want to thank you guys for joining me today and for sharing a little bit of your thoughts and insights with us, and I appreciate your time.

Nathan: Thanks, Elyzabeth.

Yizhou: Thank you.

Elyzabeth: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this show and other HowlRound shows wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to this digital commons.

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