A Look at Theater: An Interview with Tom Sellar

Read the most recent issue of Theater by clicking the image above.

Read the most recent issue of Theater by clicking the image.

Tom Sellar, editor of Theater magazine, recently discussed with us the important topics and debates to which the magazine has contributed, future special issues, and how he sees the magazine developing in the next several years. As an undergrad, Tom used to read back copies of the magazine in used bookstores near his college campus and decided then that the magazine was “a debate about theater that I wanted to participate in.” He began his tenure at Theater in 1994 and was appointed editor of the magazine in 2003. In addition to editing Theater, Tom is also the lead theater critic for the Village Voice.

How do you differentiate yourself from other journals in your area?

We are more readable. We don’t regard ourselves as a strictly academic journal, we are a creative journal, I would say. Although we have some critical content that is scholarly, we are very careful to edit it so that it’s accessible to anyone who is interested in the subject matter. You don’t need a PhD in cultural theory to know what these ten-dollar words mean. It’s edited like the New Yorker, so that anybody could read it and get something from it; even if it’s a substantive critical essay, we work with the scholar or author to make sure that it is accessible to a general, non-specialized reader. I think what that means is that a lot of the writing has flair, what the French call élan. Theater has a kind of interesting, stylistic voice that hopefully makes it pleasurable to read. We hope that’s participating in a long tradition of theater criticism. So in any given issue you can find critical essays, interviews with directors or producers or artistic visionaries of one kind or another. There are photo dossiers showing set designs or photos of important productions, and there are reviews of performances, but you might also find manifestos by impassioned artists calling for a new form of theater that doesn’t exist yet. It can be a very inspiring journal to read. It’s there for artistic inspiration and reflection. I want that creative dimension to make it more inviting and readable.

What are the current hot topics in this field?

I think that there is a convergence of disciplines that were formerly separated. It is a debate that’s a little hard to follow if you’re not in the field. Performance Studies and Theater Studies, which were sort of separate fields (Theater Studies was sort of confined to aesthetic theater and its histories while Performance Studies took a more expansive view and anything could be considered a performance–a baseball game, a political protest—and an attendant set of theories were worked out around that anthropological investigation.) Those disciplines are coming together at this moment intellectually, which is very exciting. It’s unclear what the outcome will be. Dramaturgy, the area in the field that is rooted in artistic practice, has been a part of that as well, and that’s what Yale specializes in training, that’s the department our journal is based in. So we’ve been able to draw on those fields, I hope in an inspiring way.

What debates or subjects in the field has the journal significantly contributed to?

ddthe_36_2_coverTheater has a long tradition of being the first journal to publish in English many important and controversial dramatists, including Sarah Kane, a tremendous, incredible artist who died very young, and also the Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek. We were one of the first and only journals to present her work in English even after she won the Nobel Prize. Her plays were hard to find. You would think the English speaking world would seek them out and want to stage them. I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve been the place where you can find that work– and often you can find it before they win the Nobel Prize! It’s a place where you can discover important ideas about theater from foreign theater cultures. In fact, the New York Times even cited our article about Elfriede Jelinek when they were writing about one of her plays when it premiered in New York. I think as a link or conduit to new ideas in the art form, we’ve always contributed to the creative development of the theater in a very important way.

ddthe_39_3In two recent intellectual debates we’ve also been an important voice. One is about curation and the way that art forms are converging in performance. Also a slightly more esoteric debate has emerged over what has been called “Postdramatic Theater” by the very important German theorist Hans-Thies Lehmann proposing a category of contemporary theater beyond the dramatic, with some of its theatrical vestiges. A lot of people are asking if this is the future of theater. We published a significant response to Lehamnn’s book by another German author, Bernd Stegemann, reflecting on the impact and validity of Lehamann’s proposition that contemporary theater has rejected mimesis and evolved beyond “drama” itself.  Hans-Thies Lehmann’s book is very important, and I’m pleased that we’ve been able to continue the discussion about it.

What are some of the special issues you are most proud of?

ddthe_41_3I’m particularly proud of an edition we did about one of the greatest living stage artists, in my opinion; the Polish director Krystian Lupa, who I think is one of the great artists of the 20th century—and unjustly neglected and misunderstood in the English speaking world. I’ve followed his stage productions for more than a decade now and each one has completely blown my mind. It’s a revolutionary form of acting, a brilliant use of time and space on stage, and there was almost nothing about it in English as I started to look around to learn more. I commissioned first English translations of his writings about the stage, his aesthetic, journals, his essays on the art of acting, mise-en-scene, and design. So we did a special edition which I co-edited with a colleague from Poland in 2012, Piotr Gruszczyński, which is still one of the few English language publications on Lupa’s really important directing work. That’s the kind of project that can be quixotic to attempt; .when the edition comes out, no one knows who he is, but in 25 years, we will be really proud that we did that.

Similarly I’m proud of our Fall 2015 edition, which is a collection of new plays from Brazil, a very important global power on the rise, with which we have little cultural literacy here in the US. I hope that by presenting four new plays in first English translation with contextualizing information about each of those artists, we will be paving the way for more engagement with Brazilian theater. It’s surprisingly hard to find out about the theater there and they have some impressively innovative artists.

Can you tell me a little more about upcoming special issues?

ddthe_44_2In 2014 we did a special edition about the curation of performance, and we’re planning a second issue with curation-themed articles, interviews, and creative dossiers. I think it’s going to be very exciting. We have enjoyed a tremendous response to the first one both in the theater world and the art world. (The art world is interested in how to use performance and the theater world wants new ideas from the art world and thinks that maybe they have some answers. The curators are kind of go-betweens.) The issue will appear in 2016 and I’m hoping that this sequel edition will be more global in scope, perhaps including practitioners in the Middle East and Asia, because the first one was mostly North and South American and European. This will be a chance to look at the different kinds of strategies that people are taking to reinvent the presentation of the performing arts. It’s not just theater; it’s dance, performance art, social-engagement experiments that can’t be described by any single category. There’s generally a feeling that the old ways and old institutional thinking isn’t working anymore and has to be reimagined. Festival and art-organizations’ curators are on the front lines: . They must reinvent the context for their public, for their audience, or these institutions are going to fall by the wayside. So it’s interesting to talk to the pioneers who are leading the way, and I’m hooked. As an editor, I want to talk to all of them. I love doing the interviews, I’ve learned so much from making site visits and seeing what they’re doing and then asking them about it. And I think the interviews have been lively to read.

How do you see the journal developing in the next few years?

I hope that we will be more of a platform for artists and critics and scholars who are engaged with political questions because I think we’re entering a very turbulent political period. I hope that we will engage in the right ways. I hope that we will build on the success of our curation projects to include performance curators in the critical dialogue that we are building–using them more often as authors, presenting more of their work in dossier forms–because I think they are significant cultural agents and I would like to involve them in the published conversation.

Ultimately, as someone who is entering the curation field a little bit on the side, I wonder whether there could be a live component to a journal. If a journal is a convening of people with ideas that relate to each other, organized into the rubric of print or web discussion, is there a live equivalent of that? What if we brought all the artists who work on, say, surveillance themes–or migration issues–together to talk on these topics, as we would in the pages of Theater? If we had an event where their theater projects could be seen side by side, we could really discover some connections. I don’t know what the answer is to this exactly. But as a theater person, I aspire to find a live incarnation of what we already do in print and online.

To subscribe to Theater, visit dukeupress.edu/theater.

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