Teaching Public History and Performance During the Pandemic

Authors: Andrea Pulgarin Villasmil, student Carleton University, and David Dean, Carleton University professor in the Department of History.

How do you teach performing public history when in-person classes are not permitted due to the pandemic? Carleton University History Professor David Dean’s graduate seminar, Narrativity and Performance in Public History has had to be online for at least the first half of the current Winter 2022 semester. For a class that depends on in-person meetings, hands-on workshops, activities, and trips to theatre productions, this was going to be a serious challenge. Thanks to Carleton University’s Students as Partners Program (SaPP), Ms. Andrea Villasmil, a third-year undergraduate student, took on the task of working with David to come up with a solution. In this blog post, Andrea describes her experience, bookended by a short explanation of the course and a report on how it worked in practice by David.

The Seminar:

HIST 5707 Narrativity and Performance in Public History is a graduate seminar in which students explore how history is written in film, theatre, movement, music, podcasts, digital storytelling, video games, re-enactments, and more. Each week focuses on approaches, theories, and methodologies, which contribute to a toolbox that students can draw on for their own, original performances, which are inevitably edgy, pushing disciplinary boundaries. In a final reflection paper, students think through the experience of doing, speaking back to the ideas and concepts encountered in our weekly meetings. The challenge for Winter 2022 was to find a way to replace the in-person meetings in which these encounters took place. 

A screenshot of a page from the FASSinate journal. On the top right, a student in a white top strums a brown guitar while seated. Below the photo, there is the title of the article: "Performing History." The rest of the article is too small to read.
Figure 1 Performing History, Screenshot of FASSinate 2015, p. 26: https://carleton.ca/fass/alumni/fassinate/, taken 31 January 2022.

Andrea’s Story:

I am enrolled in a Combined Honours degree in Journalism and Law with a minor in English Language and Literature. Due to this, I thought history and history courses were a little unrelated. However, this opportunity to partner with Professor Dean to create a digital archive has opened my eyes to the fact that history is quite literally everywhere.

I have been taking Professor Janne Cleveland’s drama studies courses since first year as part of my minor, and it was until this year that I realized how deeply connected drama and history are.  Theatre and its artistic counterparts embody the revolutions and social changes of the time. Thus proving to future generations the ways in which history has directly affected the arts.

In my drama studies class this semester, we watched performances inspired by the great physicists of WWII and American political attack advertisements from the 60s. These historical moments are captured by great playwrights and are made relevant for any time. It was through this drama studies class that I gained the necessary skills that aided me in my collaboration with Professor Dean.

The goal of my project for Professor Dean was to find and gather information about theater performances that were available online that had themes of history, community, memory, and identity.  I was able to gather about 100 performances.  Originally, I had close to 130, but after watching more of them, I realized that quality was more important than quantity.  I wanted to really ensure that the performances that were present in our digital archive focused on one of the central themes. Every week, I would add some and take some out as I learned more about public history and narrowed in on what we wanted for the archive. I learned about how broad these topics can be. Identity encompasses everything one is, from gender to sexuality to personal history. Memory can also include discussions of false memories and take into account mental health problems. Community includes not just family, but your heritage and the people that become your support system. All these concepts are so broad that I was able to incorporate plays from all over the world.

The idea of the project with Professor Dean was to assist him in the creation of the digital archive for an MA class in narrativity and performance in Public History.  Through my research for the course development, I learned how historians work hard to represent history in different ways. One of the ways that history has been represented is through performance and dance. This has become increasingly popular in the last twenty years or so.  As such, this project gave me the opportunity to understand the ways in which history can be performed and represented through Fine Arts.  Not only has this representation of history been prevalent in Western society, but it is growing increasingly popular in Russia and India as well.

I learned that history is full of stories that can be told and retold in different ways.  Representing history through theater provides an avenue for audiences and the public to grow interested and begin to learn about the past. Furthermore, history often has different perspectives and understandings of the past, as such, drama allows for these different perspectives to be explored and told in the way the director and producers decide.  The actors often become interpreters of the stories they are telling on stage.

In the age of COVID-19, the amount of performances available online really served our purpose well.  We realized that the pandemic forced theatre and dance companies to either stream their performances live or make them available digitally.  This digitization of the stage has provided access to performances that we otherwise would not get to see.

The different performances selected for the archive were done so with the hope that they would stand as examples of the ways in which history translates into performance and narrativity.  The hope was that the archive would be both helpful and informative for the students’ explorations of how historians can tell different stories.  

Performing Distantly:

Meeting over Zoom is always a challenge. Meeting over Zoom to engage with performance is especially challenging. As Andrea notes though, one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been a massive increase in live streamed and archived performances. Digital Theatre+ is a platform of digitized performances that Andrea discovered, and one performance she identified was the play The Soap Myth, written by Jeff Cohen and performed by the National Jewish Theatre:

Screenshot of The Soap Myth portal. In the background, there is a large photo of two people: a young woman and an older man looking concerned to the right.
Figure 2 Screenshot of The Soap Myth portal, https://capture.dropbox.com/mfOAYZyAXljldA0D?src=ss. taken 31 January 2022.

The play follows the journey of a young reporter investigating the veracity of the story that the Nazis made soap out of human fat, urged on by a survivor. For the seminar, the play raises issues at the heart of both history and public history: what counts as “solid” evidence? Which types of sources do we privilege (oral testimonies, written documents) in our desire to tell the past? Who has the right to adjudicate tensions arising from conflicting evidence, from different viewpoints and interpretations? Where lies historical truth? Viewing the performance together, over Zoom, the class engaged with each of these issues, drawing on the readings for that week: Hans Kellner’s invitation to see that “getting the story crooked” is more important than getting it straight; Hayden White’s reflections on fact and fiction in history writing; and Greg Dening’s mediation on historians as performers. It was a very successful, thought-provoking class, which achieved all that we might have done in the in-person classroom, and perhaps more, because in contrast to a visit to see live theatre, students can revisit the play, the Zoom recording of our discussion, and our exchanges in the chatroom as often as they wish. Thanks to the pandemic, to Carleton’s SaPP, and to Andrea’s hard work and creativity, we have an archive that will be a valuable resource for my students’ performances and reflections. I hope I’ll be able to add a few of these performances to those already made public.

Readings:

  • Dening, Greg. “Performing on the Beaches of the Mind: An Essay”, History and Theory Vol. 41, No. 1 (Feb. 2002), 1-24
  •  Kellner, Hans. “The Deepest Respect for Reality”, chapter 1 of Hans Kellner, Language and Historical Representation. Getting the Story Crooked (1989), 3-25
  •  White, Hayden. “Introduction: Historical Fiction, Fictional History and Historical Reality”, Rethinking History Vol. 9, No. 2/3 (June/September 2005), 147-157

Andrea Pulgarin Villasmil is a third-year undergraduate student taking a Combined Honours degree in Journalism and Law with a minor in English Language and Literature at Carleton University.

David Dean is a professor in the Department of History at Carleton University and the Co-Director of the Carleton Centre for Public History.

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