ASTR 2013 Distinguished Scholar Award Remarks

Receiving the award from Janelle at the banquet, in front of friends, colleagues, and family

Being acknowledged by your peers for a career’s worth of work is a wonderful thing.  On November 9, at the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) conference in Dallas, I was honored with the 2013 Distinguished Scholar Award for “outstanding achievement in scholarship in the field of theatre studies.”

I was thrilled to be introduced by my friend and colleague, Janelle Reinelt, whose remarks I’ve posted below, followed by my own.  Thanks to Janelle for her gracious intro, and thanks, too, to Iris Smith Fischer, chair of ASTR’s Awards Committee, Heather Nathans, ASTR’s president, and Nancy Erickson, ASTR’s administrator, for everything they did to make the award and the lovely banquet possible.

Because ASTR tradition dictates that the award is kept secret until the end of the award introduction, Janelle refers below to the “celebrant.”

Janelle Reinelt’s Tribute:

Bruce McConachie and David Mayer join me in presenting this year’s Distinguished Scholar Award to someone who has been a visible presence in every aspect of our profession for over thirty years. Her research and writing, teaching and editing, theatre criticism and organizational leadership have resulted in outstanding contributions to the field of theatre and performance studies.

Our scholar was one of the early voices of feminism, gender and sexuality studies. Her nine published volumes and well over 60 articles range widely over many topics, but most often embrace the concerns of gender, race, and sexuality as represented through performance. She came of age at the birth of performance studies, and was one of its first generation of luminary graduates, but her deep interest in and commitment to the theatre meant that she was always able to negotiate the early tensions in our field to produce her own creative vision out of mutually informed values from both sides of the discipline.

Before finishing her PhD, she had already been a founding editor of the journal Women and Performance, and over the years, she has continued her editorial work for various publications. At present she is one of the Consortium Editors for TDR, and book-series co-editor with David Román  of “Triangulations:  Lesbian/Gay/Queer Drama/Theatre/Performance,” for University of Michigan Press. They have published 16 titles in this on-going series. Their series description catches the major concerns of our scholar’s career as well: ‘Our intent is to be inclusive across disciplines, across practices, and across communities’.

Turning to her own scholarship, three major strands recur in her work. She wrote one of the first books on feminist theory in our field, originally published in 1988,  which has recently been re-issued in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition with a new introduction.  I’m speaking of the groundbreaking Feminist Spectator as Critic. Since the book first appeared, she has written extensively as a feminist and lesbian theorist and critic, from Presence and Desire:  Essays on Gender, Sexuality, Performance (1993), to A Menopausal Gentleman:  The Solo Performances of Peggy Shaw in 2011. Highlighting the performances of many women such as Deb Margolin and Holly Hughes, she is currently working on books on playwright Wendy Wasserstein and auteur/director Emily Mann.

The highlight of this strand of her scholarship is undoubtedly Utopia in Performance:  Finding Hope at the Theatre from 2005. Looking in the face of a certain cynicism and fatigue that infected our field in the early years of the new century, she argued that often ‘live performances provide a place where people come together, embodied and passionate, to share experiences of meaning making and imagination that can describe or capture fleeting intimations of a better world’.  Introducing the concept of utopian performatives, those unique moments in performance that break through to the affirmation of such intimations, she gave us ammunition for a variety of responses to nay-sayers. Widely cited and engaged, this book has become part of our critical canon.

The second strand of work concerns the public sphere and democratic dialogue. From her early experiences as a theatre critic, she has engaged the public, theorized its makeup and portent, and written stimulating and lively public discourse.  For example, she is the author Theatre & Sexuality for Palgrave’s ‘Theatre &’ series, designed to reach a broad readership with significant short books on important topics. A significant section of her CV contains public writing in newspapers, magazines, alumni magazines, and various online sources. She was an early adaptor with respect to blogging, and since 2005 has maintained her own blog, “The Feminist Spectator,” to which she regularly posts commentary on  film and TV, as well as Broadway, off-Broadway, regional, club and solo performances.

In 2011 she received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, for The Feminist Spectator blog, and earlier this year she published a new book entitled The Feminist Spectator in Action which collected a number of these writings as well as additional commentary on the nature of her project and a pedagogical section aimed at helping other women become critics and bloggers, enabling their public voices.  The way this work engages the public can best be seen through her own words: ‘Feminist criticism. . .participates in an activist project of culture-making in which we’re collectively called to see what and who is stunningly, repeatedly evident and what and who is devastatingly obviously invisible in the art and popular culture we regularly consume for edification and entertainment’.

The third strand of her scholarship deals with the academy, the field of theatre and performance studies, and the role of the professoriate. She has been an incisive and articulate analyst of how higher education responded to the culture wars of the 80s and 90s, and how several fields have developed and changed in response to challenges from new positionalities. Drawing on her experiences at University of Wisconsin Madison and as Executive Director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY, she wrote Geographies of Learning in 2001, tackling the divisions between ideological camps of feminists and lesbians in forging Women’s Studies and Gender Studies programmes; and in theatre and performance studies, the theory/practice binary that still plagues and antagonizes some of our discourse up to the present time. This salient book makes excellent re-visiting, and is followed by many essays and lectures on similar topics all through our celebrant’s career.

She has written on colleague criticism and collegiality, mentoring junior colleagues, and many aspects of pedagogy, including essays in Theatre Topics in 2012 and 2013, the most recent, entitled “To Teach and to Mentor:  Toward Our Collective Future.” Our award recipient speaks and writes on these topics from a history of positions at a number of important and varied institutions, including the University of Texas Austin in addition to CUNY and Wisconsin, as well as her present location at Princeton where she is Annan Professor of English, Professor of Theatre, and Director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Along the way she led a significant disciplinary organization through her presidency of ATHE in the late ’90s. Her service record is massive: on boards of directors and editorial boards, committees and task forces, and all the other ways that she has been a force for support and development of the disciplines and areas of her expertise and commitment. In 2011, she received both the Outstanding Teacher Award from ATHE, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women and Theatre Program.

The woman we honor today has been an inspiration to several generations of students, and speaking from personal experience, a trusted colleague and friend to many across our discipline. She is joined today by her partner and colleague Stacy Wolf, and by her father and sister. Please join me in acknowledging the 2013 recipient of the ASTR Distinguished Scholar Award for lifetime achievement, Jill Dolan.

Delivering my thanks

My remarks:

Thanks, Janelle, for those truly generous, lovely remarks.

I can’t begin to say how much this recognition means to me.

I started, as I think most of us do, as a theatre kid.  I’m so grateful to my parents, Cyma and Jerry Dolan, for letting me spend so much time at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, which stirred my imagination beginning when I was only 10-years-old.

My dad, Jerry, and my sister, Randee (both of whom are here today), and the rest of my family, came to see me perform in all my Playhouse shows, always with flowers to celebrate.  And now, more than 45 years later, my Dad reads my blog and asks me when I’ll post the next one, just as he used to ask me if my dissertation was done, every time we talked on the phone when I was a graduate student.  We all need a cheerleader—thanks, Dad, for being mine.

I’ve been lucky enough, for these many years, to be surrounded by colleagues and students who really love what they do, and who refuse the distinction between theory and practice, or between artist and critic or scholar.  I’ve been mentored by the best among us, including Bob Skloot and Phillip Zarrilli at Wisconsin; by Marvin Carlson at CUNY; and by the late Oscar Brockett at UT.

If I can pass on just a bit of what I’ve learned from them about doing this work, then I, too, will have contributed to the transmission of knowledge as they trained me to do.

At the beginning of my career, when being a lesbian feminist theatre and performance studies scholar seemed renegade and made us outlaws of a sort, having a posse made my work possible.  Back in the early ‘80s, Janelle, and Sue-Ellen Case, and Elin Diamond, and Vicki Patraka, and I were sort of the Five Musketeers.

Along with Kate Davy, Susan Bennett, Peggy Phelan, David Roman, and the late Lynda Hart, as well as many other feminist theatre scholars (many of whom are in this room today), and the inimitable LeAnn Fields, our editor at Michigan, who was the earliest and most stalwart adapter of feminist and lesbian scholarship—these people had my back.  They provoked me to think more deeply than I ever had before, and they inspired and nourished me with their ideas and their friendships.

Now, I don’t feel like such a renegade anymore, as I’ve been lucky enough to see feminist criticism and queer performance theory and critical race studies move into the center of our field.  I’m so thankful for that.  I come to conferences like ASTR eager to see what the next generations are doing, eager to learn from the new renegades and outlaws.  I’m gratified to assume my elder stateswoman role, and to cede the front lines to the emerging and the newly tenured and promoted scholars, many of whom I’m proud to claim as my own former students and now, as my colleagues and my friends.

I’m lucky to have a partner who’s in our field, and I thank her for supporting and inspiring me every single day.  Stacy and I always say, “Well, we forgot to have kids, but we do have students—and they better take care of us when we’re old!”  That’s a joke (sort of!), but considering you all as my extended family doesn’t feel far-fetched.

When I sit down to write, you’re the ones I imagine as my readers.  I thank each and every one of you for exchanging your words with me and for reading mine.  You all sustain me.

In 1980, when I left Boston for graduate school at NYU, I took along the first edition of Linda Walsh Jenkins and Helen Krich Chinoy’s Women in American Theatre.  That book armed me with key ideas as I went off to learn my trade, even as I quarreled with some of its presumptions.

I hope that my writing will inspire other young people to think and to quarrel, and teach them, as I learned, that there are lots of ways to be a theatre kid—and a feminist spectator, at that.

See you at the bar tonight, where I’ll be celebrating!  Thank you so much for this honor.

And thank you for reading . . . The Feminist Spectator


5 thoughts on “ASTR 2013 Distinguished Scholar Award Remarks

  1. Huge congrats! You are a national treasure, Jill! I use your writing SO MUCH in the studio teaching performance practice. So pleased for you and the award is much-deserved!

  2. No one deserves this honor more than you, Jill, and no awarding of it could give me more personal pleasure. It has been a joy and an honor to work with you over the years and I look forward to a continuation of the inspiration and collegial support you have always offered to me and to so many others.

  3. Mazel tov, Jill! It is wonderful to see you recognized for your pathbreaking scholarship, your dedication and brilliance as a teacher, and your astonishing generosity as a colleague. You are a sister and a mensch on top of being a great thinker, which sounds like an impossible combination. But there you are: living proof. Huge congrats on this well-deserved honor.

  4. Jill – Mazel Tov again on this wonderful award. You are blessed with a passion to go along with your voice and your impact on so many learners speaks volumes about your legacy. As someone who was influenced by you at a young age -watching you on stage or performing under your direction at the Playhouse – I can’t imagine what my life would be like without you. I am sure I speak for the legions of your protégés when I say thank you for all that you have done to make us see the World in a different and more enlightened manner. Love you.

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