Where were you before you came to Pitt? What other academic and theatrical experience did you come into the program with?
As an undergraduate, I double-majored in theatre arts and English literature (with a focus on dramatic literature) at Rutgers College. On the one hand, I had the opportunity to obtain a wide range of practical experience within a conservatory setting, while on the other hand, I immersed myself in plays, theory, and history on a more academic level. It was the best of both worlds. When the time came to select a path following graduation, I chose to pursue dramaturgy because I felt that it allowed me to maintain that duality between theory and practice. I completed my MFA in dramaturgy at Stony Brook University, where I also earned a graduate certificate in cultural studies.
During this time, I also worked on a translation / adaptation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (which was performed both at Stony Brook College and Mercer County Community College), and worked professionally as a dramaturg. Further, because both of these universities were located close to Manhattan, I saw a wide range of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows on a weekly basis. To this day, a number of those productions (e.g. The Wooster Group’s House/Lights, Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of Hedda Gabler, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, Mother Courage with Meryl Streep….) still exert a profound influence on the way in which I think and feel about the possibilities of theatre.
What are some of your most memorable seminar experiences at Pitt?
My choice of seminars was influenced by two factors. Upon entering the program, I knew that I wanted to focus on trauma and violence. I also knew that I wanted to pursue a graduate film certificate because I wanted to address multiple modes of cultural production in the dissertation. Consequently, some of my most memorable seminar experiences occurred outside of the department. Kirk Savage’s seminar on representations of war and violence, in the department of History of Art and Architecture, for example, proved profoundly influential with regard to my research. The weekly discussions and seminar readings had a huge impact on me and I am still in contact with and friends with a number of people from that seminar, close to a decade later. The class also provided me with a framework in which I could write a paper, which wound up becoming a draft for one of the chapters of my dissertation. As a theatre scholar, I was also profoundly grateful that the film department, particularly Lucy Fischer (who wound up serving as the outside person on my dissertation committee) and Mark Lynn Anderson proved so welcoming and willing to foster interdisciplinary dialogue. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find the seminars within the theatre department to be invaluable, but that for me, the key was to supplement them with an interdisciplinary perspective.
What are some of your most memorable production experiences at Pitt?
At the end of Stephen Coleman’s directing class, the graduate students were required to direct a one-act play. I took the class my first semester, when I was still finding my bearings both within the department and in Pittsburgh. Finding suitable actors and becoming acquainted with the various facilities and the ins-and-outs of the department created significant challenges. Some scenes I presented went over quite well, others were utter failures.
The play I selected at the end of the semester, Photographs from S-21, is set against the backdrop of the Cambodian genocide and is staged as a conversation between photographs of two of the dead. The play had a simplicity coupled with a powerful message that I admired. Despite the minimalistic set, lack of lighting cues, and the fact that we sometimes held rehearsals in my loft, I recall how moved and grateful I was when it all came together, despite what I had perceived to be insurmountable obstacles at the beginning of the class. I’ve worked on numerous productions with a wide variety of actors since, but that production gave me the freedom and confidence I needed to move forward.
Would you describe a time in graduate school where you thought an experience or choice was a failure, but it turns out that failure helped you succeed in the long term?
When I first began working on my dissertation, I had a ton of research regarding my topic, but obviously no experience in writing an actual dissertation. As much as I believed that years of research, seminar papers, and my comps had prepared me, writing a dissertation is a whole different animal and I went into the experience rather naively. When I received the first edits on the first batch of writing I sent to my advisor, I was frustrated and discouraged and began to realize the enormity of the task at hand. After about a month, I decided to scrap what I had written altogether and start my prospectus anew.
Ironically, I began watching The Sarah Connor Chronicles around this time and discovered, to my surprise, that the show is actually bookended by and framed through visual and narrative references to 9/11. Intrigued, I began taking notes and began writing. Initially, I had no intention of including that writing in my prospectus, but gradually, it began to alter my thinking about the project and became the foundation around which I eventually built the prospectus. When I got to the dissertation phase, that writing was grafted into my introduction and expanded upon in my epilogue. By that point I had been able to look at that first batch of writing anew and edit it in such a way that I was able to incorporate large chunks into what became my first chapter.
However, had I not stepped aside and approached the dissertation from a different angle, I may not have been able to do so. At the very least, the dissertation would have turned out quite differently. Through this experience, I learned that my writing process isn’t linear and that I need to be working on several things simultaneously, so that I can maneuver between researching, writing, and editing, while allowing room for things to marinate. This process may not work for everybody, but having a deep awareness of my own process has allowed me to move forward in my writing in a way I could not have foreseen when I sent out that fist batch of writing.
Would you describe how any of your academic and/or production experiences at Pitt contributed to your dissertation research questions and choice of dissertation topic? Did any personal circumstances or experiences contribute to your research questions and topic?
On 9/11, I was living in New Jersey, a short train ride from Manhattan. I recall one classmate commuting in on the last PATH before the towers fell. I remember standing in line to donate blood for the overflow of victims we were sure would fill our hospitals. I also remember friends losing loved ones. Almost immediately, I was struck by the disparity of my personal experience regarding the grief pervading my surroundings and the manner in which these events were framed by the news media within the context of the newly proclaimed “war on terror.” I was confused and had a lot of questions.
My response to most problems has always been to write my way through them. However, at the time, I was more focused on creative writing. It wasn’t until I entered the MFA program and responded to a call for papers by SETC that I considered writing about 9/11 from a scholarly perspective. I recall discussing my research with John Lutterbie, the head of graduate studies at Stony Brook at the time, and him telling me, “It seems like the common theme to all of the things which interest you is violence and trauma.” From that point on, it became clear rather quickly that I wanted to pursue a PhD and write a dissertation on 9/11.
Entering a PhD program with a strong sense of my research area had numerous advantages. It allowed me to seek out seminars which spoke to my research areas, use seminar papers to work out ideas that would make their way into the dissertation, attend conferences where I could work through those ideas further, combine conference visits with research trips to maximize my limited financial resources, craft my comps to work through research for the dissertation, and formulate a network of people with similar interests. In other words, it allowed me to use the resources available as efficiently as possible.
Would you share some teaching strategies you have found useful for teaching challenging films and plays in the classroom? Are there any pedagogical strategies you have found particularly useful for structuring discussions around films and plays, which may question Islamophobia or center Muslim protagonists and families?
The primary strategy around which all of my teaching is centered is inclusion. While I know that I will never be able to do justice to the multitude of voices out there, this means that I strive to include as wide a range as possible in my curriculum. It also means that I will not always agree with my students. In fact, given the wide range of perspectives, I accept it as a given that I am going to disagree with anybody in my classroom 50% of the time. However, unless someone crosses an obviously discriminatory line, the issue of whether I agree with the students or whether they agree with one another is irrelevant. What is relevant is that they be able to articulate those differences in an informed and respectful dialogue. Like Paulo Freire, I’ve never been comfortable with the “banking” strategy of pedagogy. I firmly believe that the greatest gift I can give my students is an openness to their ideas and a willingness to enable their intellectual explorations.
This past semester I taught a class called “Film and Culture.” In the first half of the class, we covered basic film terminology: editing, cinematography, mise-en-scene, etc., and each week we watched films which highlight one of those aspects. In the second half of the semester, we applied that terminology to films from a multitude of cultural perspectives, discussing homophobia, gun violence, race, etc. Prior to each screening, I gave students a list of questions to guide their thinking and the discussions. I made it clear that I was not interested in value judgments, but in analysis. Providing the students with the safe space in which to formulate that analysis enabled them to tackle controversial topics through smart, thoughtful conversations and with healthy debate. I often think that if politicians were as capable of having a nuanced dialogue about certain issues, from both ends of the ideological spectrum as my students, we’d be living in far better world.
Would you share a moment, either perhaps in an informal conversation or sitting as an audience member for a play, when you found a reason for hope or peace?
One of my favorite plays is Omnium Gatherum by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vasillaros. It stages a sort of dialogue that didn’t seem to be happening in our culture at large immediately following 9/11. The play features characters, representing a multitude of contradictory perspectives, seated around a dinner table, the great equalizer being food. I’ve always loved that idea – that whatever differences people might have, that there is a shared humanity in the symbolism of breaking bread.
That play had a great deal to do with why I took a job working at Conflict Kitchen, a food kiosk in Schenley Plaza specializing in serving food from countries the United States is in conflict with. It was the first job I ever had that really allowed me to apply what I had learned with regard to social justice and inclusion, while simultaneously continuing that learning process. The culinary director bases his recipes on conversations and experiences with people in or from the countries the restaurant presents. The food is provided with wrappers covered in quotes, from a multitude of perspectives, from people who have experienced conflict firsthand.
The restaurant puts into practice the ideas the play puts forth onstage, not only bringing these perspectives to people who may never have the opportunity to travel to these countries but also bringing a little bit of home to the people living in Pittsburgh from those countries. The food, quite literally, is a means through which dialogue is created.
In 2014, the kitchen switched to a Palestinian iteration, a decision which met with a great deal of pushback from certain community groups, and in November, we received a death threat. Following the advice of law enforcement, the kitchen closed for a few days. However, almost immediately, people spontaneously began attaching signs and post-it notes to the windows. Within a very short amount of time, the restaurant was literally covered. When we reopened, we had, for a number of days, the longest lines we had ever experienced and, almost to a person, people communicated their support and gratitude.
As with my experiences of 9/11, I found the manner in which the events were framed by local and national media to be largely lacking, both in terms of the quality of their research and in their ability to present events objectively., Rather, much of the coverage appeared designed to elicit particular reactions rather than provide accurate reporting. As a result of this reporting, I realized more broadly that too often we frame conflict abstractly in terms of what we see in the news media and fail to understand not only the overwhelming diversity of the individuals on the other side of that conflict, but also how very much we have in common with them.
If conflict is a failure of communication, then the idea that the gaps in that communication can be bridged on an individual, local level, through something as basic and primal as food is one that continues to fill me with hope. More than anything, witnessing the powerful support of the community, reminded me that no matter how powerless we may feel sometimes, we all have the capacity to enact change.
Would you list some resources, scholarship, plays, and/or films, which educators and directors might find useful to consider for their classrooms and their university production seasons?
There are specific plays, films, and scholarship I can suggest, but the things that inspire me or work for me might not work for someone else. Not everybody is going to have their world rocked by Susan Sontag or Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein or Sarah Kane or Julie Taymor or Ivo van Hove. It might be bell hooks or Amiri Baraka or Wajahat Ali or Maria Irene Fornes or Lin-Manuel Miranda. Or somebody else altogether. It’s going to be different for everybody.
Somebody once gave me a great piece of advice, which is: “Curiosity.” In other words, seek out new voices, ideas, and ways of doing things. Bounce them off of your classmates and colleagues. Bring them into the classroom. Create dialogue. Allow for disagreement. Allow for the possibility that you might be wrong. Allow for discomfort. Allow for as many different voices as possible. To me, the willingness to seek out those voices is the greatest resource you have available.
Inga Meier graduated in 2014 with a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her dissertation, “Deconstructing “The Abyss of the Future:” Theatre, Performance, and Holes in the Discourse of 9/11,” examined the manner in which 9/11 has been formulated as a historical sequence of events in the United States through performance, theatre, architecture, film and photography. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Film Studies and Theatre at Stephen F. Austin State University.
Editor: Esther J. Terry