PSWG Statement on COVID-19 // Cancellation of Spring 2020 Events

Dear all,⁣

First, Kimberly and I would like to thank all of you for your sustained, vigorous, and passionate engagement with the working group this year. We’ve noticed a pronounced uptick in attendance this year, and our speakers have mentioned to us many times that they’ve appreciated the engagement and generosity of our members.⁣

In keeping with the restrictions that Yale has implemented for the rest of the year, we are cancelling the rest of the PSWG meetings for the year. We’re devastated to lose these voices and the opportunity to engage with them, but it is what we must do to keep us all as healthy as possible. We’re in the process of rescheduling as many of these speakers as we can for next year, and we hope to be able to announce plans for the next year by the end of the summer.⁣

We’ll be in touch with information and other announcements throughout the rest of the semester. We’re cancelling all our scheduled presentations, but we’re holding open the possibility of an online gathering, celebration, or exploration of community, collaboration, and liveness at the end of the semester. If you’re interested, just keep it in mind, think of what you’d like, and contact us if you have ideas.

Should you like to share your work with us next year, or if you have a person you’d like us to hear from, please reach out to Kimberly and me.⁣

Our best,⁣

Charlie & Kimberly

Sumarsam // March 3, 2020

Epistemology, Lights, and Power in Javanese Wayang Puppet Play

Sumarsam, Tue. March 3, 2-3pm. 220 York Street room 001

Integrated with gamelan, dance, and visual arts, and its endemic to socioreligious life, Javanese wayang puppet play commands deep aesthetic, religious, and emotional adherence. However, since the 1980s wayang performance has gone through radical transformation, involving the adaptation of Western technology and theatrical idioms. The tendency to spectacularize the play—the use of bright electric light sources (sometimes with many colors) and elaborate amplification systems with large speakers, the featuring of several female singers and stand-up comedians, the incorporation of Indonesianized Western pop music and Western instruments, and so forth—has brought about pro and con discussion of the present and future wayang.

Sumarsam has played Javanese gamelan since childhood. He was also trained as puppeteer. He holds a BA from Indonesia music academy, MA from Wesleyan, and PhD from Cornell. Currently, he holds the status of Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music at Wesleyan. His research on the history, theory, and performance practice of gamelan and wayang, and on Indonesia-Western encounter theme has resulted the publication of numerous articles and two books: Gamelan: Cultural Interaction and Musical Development in Central Java (1995) and Javanese Gamelan and the West (2013). Sumarsam’s recent research focuses on the intersections between religion and performing arts. He is the recipient of a number of fellowship grants and awards, including the NEH and the ACLS fellowship, and Indonesian Bintang Satyalencana Cultural Award. He was recently named the 2018 honorary membership of the Society for Ethnomusicology. This year, he is a Yale ISM Fellow.

Jonah Westerman // Feb. 18

Performance ca. 1979: The Invention of an Artistic Medium and Some Consequences

Jonah Westerman, Tue. Feb. 18, 2-3pm. 220 York Street, room 001. 



This talk details how the discursive invention of “performance” (circa 1979) in the pages of journals and scholarly histories dedicated to new modes of artistic activity blazed a decisive trail through roughly thirty years’ worth of critical confusion. Over that period, art historians and critics had struggled to come to terms with a postwar emphasis on process in artistic production—from Jackson Pollock’s “action painting” to the globally dispersed form of the “Happening” to Fluxus “Events” to new collaborations between the visual and performing arts (like Robert Rauschenberg’s projects with Merce Cunningham). “Performance” (as an all-encompassing term) arrived at the end of a thirty-year expansion in art and claimed this multi-faceted territory as its own. This invention of “performance” secured legitimacy for a widely disparate range of practices. This paper not only traces this process of invention, but also elaborates its unintended consequences. First, I argue that the critical construction of performance as a medium brought artistic practices designed to flout convention under the regulatory gaze of a new essentializing vision. Second (and more importantly), these artworks’ claims to social and political experimentation became limited as well, insofar as the newly codified medium privileged individuality as the site of cultural significance. Each of these disciplinary presumptions has constrained and haunted our discussions of performance art ever since.

Jonah Westerman is Assistant Professor of Art History at Purchase College, State University of New York. In 2016-17 he was Chester Dale Senior Fellow in Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. From 2014-2016 he was Postdoctoral Research Associate at Tate in London, where he collaborated with Curatorial, Research, Collection Care, and Archive departments on Performance at Tate, a project that produced an institutional history, as well as new strategies for collecting, displaying, and commissioning performance. He is co-editor of Histories of Performance Documentation: Museum, Artistic, and Scholarly Practices (Routledge, 2018). Most recently, he has published an essay on work by Anne Imhof in the summer 2019 issue of Artforum and completed an article about performance and museums for the forthcoming edited volume, The Methuen Drama Companion to Performance Art (Bloomsbury, 2020). He is currently working on a book titled The Invention of Performance: An Archaeology of Contemporary Art, which historicizes and theorizes the changing meanings of the word “performance” in relation to the artworks it is meant to describe over the last forty years.



Alex Pittman // Feb. 11, 2020

The Reserve Army of Affectivity: Surplus, Service, and Psychodrama in the work of William Greaves

Alex Pittman, Tue. Feb 11, 2-3pm. 220 York Street, Room 001.

A detail from the Criterion Collection cover of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, which features a still from the set overlaid with a psychodramatic tool known as a sociogram.

This talk examines the uses of psychodrama, a therapeutic theory and technique that deploys theatrical strategies of role play and reenactment, in several works by the filmmaker William Greaves. It focuses in particular on In the Company of Men, a 1969 documentary that both tracks and attempts to contribute to efforts to use psychodrama to repair communication between white factory foremen and black men who had been labeled “the hard-core unemployed.” Situating psychodrama as simultaneously a cinematic technique, a gendered strategy of racial governance, and a model of workplace training that was anchored in the emergent social conditions of the deindustrializing United States, this talk proposes a theory of “the reserve army of affectivity” in order to understand the power dynamics that Greaves’s film documents but does not quite name: that is, the process of putting people who have been consigned to the status of industrial and social excess into service for the emotional training of capital’s managers.

Alex Pittman is a term assistant professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Barnard College. Currently he is working on a book titled Capital in the Flesh: Constrained Intimacies in Black Art after Deindustrialization, which examines the politics of gender in the work of black performing and visual artists as they grapple with transformations of labor and social reproduction in the United States since 1968. His research on the intersections of race, sexuality, labor, and aesthetics in the work of artists such as Doreen Garner, Harry Crews, Tehching Hsieh, and Lucille Ball has been published in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the ArtsWomen & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, and Social Text’s Periscope.

Celebrating Jessica Berson at Yale // Fri. Feb. 28, 2020


Celebrating Jessica Berson at Yale

Friday February 28, 2020: 2-5 pm

Dance Studio
Broadway Rehearsal Loft
294 Elm Street
New Haven, CT

Please join us in New Haven for a gathering to celebrate the life and work of Jessica Berson (1972- 2019), hosted by the Performance Studies Working Group at Yale.

Between 2011-2016, Jessica made major contributions to building the dance studies curriculum at Yale. She designed and taught such new courses as “Theories of Embodiment,” “Dance, Commerce, and Capital,” and “Dancing Desires,” and made her mark on the core course, “The History of Dance.” In 2016, she hosted an extended residency for dance-theater artist Tim Miller, and in 2017 she studied disability and sexuality in the UK on a Fulbright Fellowship. An inventive artist-scholar and a warm and generous colleague, she danced, directed, and authored numerous articles and the monograph The Naked Result: How Exotic Dance Became Big Business (Oxford University Press, 2016).

We will gather together to read excerpts from Jessica’s work, remember her incredible teaching, and make space for anyone who wishes to say a few words in her honor. Afterward, we’ll gather at The Study (1157 Chapel Street) for drinks.

Lisa Messeri // Feb. 5, 2020

Embodied Omniscience: The Production and Consumption of Virtual Reality

Lisa Messeri, Wed. Feb. 5, 2-3pm. 220 York Street, room 004 (this is a new location!)


This talk examines the production and experience of VR, particularly 360 film. Drawing on ethnographic research with the VR community in Los Angeles, I consider how one is expected to view and react to VR as well as how that expectation gets embedded in the production process. I attend to how the 360 camera is something that an actor performs for in a certain way and how this in turn shapes the experience of doing and seeing VR. In seeking to characterize the VR gaze, I propose embodied omniscience as a fantasy of presence that obscures the reality of a viewer’s absence.

Lisa Messeri is an Assistant Professor of sociocultural anthropology at Yale. Her training is in anthropology and science and technology studies and her research interests are in how science and technology stretches how we think about ideas of place and humanness. Her past work examined place-making practices amongst planetary scientists and astronomers and she is currently writing a book about women in VR in LA.

Melanie Joseph and David Bruin // Jan. 28, 2020

“I Never Cared Much for Models”: The Foundry Theatre and A MOMENT ON THE CLOCK OF THE WORLD
With Melanie Joseph and David Bruin
Jan. 28, 2020 2-3pm // 220 York Street, room 001 (basement level)

A MOMENT ON THE CLOCK OF THE WORLD is an anthology of new writing inspired by the Foundry Theatre and its twenty-five-year inquiry into how we make the world together. Published by Haymarket Books in the fall of 2019, the book collects the voices of artists, activists, cultural critics, and public intellectuals whose life and work intersected with that of the New York City-based company throughout its history. Contributors include Cornel West, Alisa Solomon, Taylor Mac, David Greenspan, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Laura Flanders, among others.

This presentation will feature the book’s co-editors Melanie Joseph, the Foundry’s founder and one of the contributors, and David Bruin. The two editors will read selections from the book and reflect on the project and its central themes, such as collaboration, leadership, time, and the many intersections of art and politics. A robust Q&A will follow.
You can read the preface to the book, written by Cornel West, here.
Recent articles about the Foundry and the book include:
Melanie Joseph is the founding artistic producer of the Foundry Theatre, which she has led for twenty-five years. For her work with the Foundry, she has twice been honored with a special Obie for “creating cutting edge work” and “engaging artists in some of the thorniest issues of the world we inhabit.” She is a recipient of the Doris Duke Artist Prize, the Skirball-Kenis T.I.M.E. Artist prize, and the Lucille Lortel Award for Artistic Producing.
David Bruin is a dramaturg, producer, critic, and the co-curator of the annual Prelude Festival at CUNY’s Martin E. Segal Center. As a dramaturg and producer he has collaborated with Jeremy O. Harris, Erin Markey, Robert Woodruff, Liz Diamond, Jeff Augustin, and Asa Horvitz, among others. He is a DFA candidate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at Yale School of Drama, where his dissertation project analyzes the role of abjection in contemporary American theater and performance.

Gavin Whitehead // Dec. 17, 2019

Gavin Whitehead, “She Looks as if She’s Seen a Ghost”

Tue. Dec. 17, 2019, 220 York Street room 002 (note the change in location)

The final decade of the eighteenth century saw the ghoulish ascent of Gothic drama, the immense popularity of which largely owed to its show-stopping ghost scenes.  These scenes revolve around two major players: the ghost itself as well as the witness, that unhappy figure who encounters said specter.  Both feed the ghost scene’s sheer aesthetic power.

That said, not all Gothic dramatists craft scenes of this sort with the same set of priorities.  Where some show greater interest in the horrifying power of a ghost on stage, paying little attention to the figure of the witness, others prefer to explore that character’s emotional and physical experience of encountering the spirit world.  A compilation of excerpts from a dissertation chapter, this talk concentrates on two plays: The Castle Spectre (1797) by Matthew Lewis (1775-11818) and Orra (1812) by Joanna Baillie (1762-1851).  While Lewis privileges ghost over witness, Baillie adopts the opposite approach.

Lewis’s ghost scene generated controversy.  According to contemporary reviews of The Castle Spectre, female spectators became so frightened they fell into “hysterics.”  This response raised questions about the dubious aesthetics and ethics of a playwright who seemingly sought to induce such violent reactions.  Clearly inspired by The Castle Spectre, Baillie nevertheless critiques Lewis’s hollow sensationalism.  When Baillie confronts the titular heroine of Orra with what she believes to be a ghost, Baillie does not do so to scare spectators out of their wits.  Embarking on a morally instructive, medico-scientific experiment of sorts, she instead holds up for scrutiny the passion of fear in its most potent form, asking the audience to contemplate its devastating effects on the human mind and to sympathize with the harm it causes Orra.

Gavin Whitehead is a scholar, educator, theater artist, and translator who earned his MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama in 2017.  A former Fulbright scholar, Gavin spent a year in Berlin studying theater after completing his undergraduate education.  He holds degrees in German and Comparative Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he graduated with Highest Honors in 2012.

Kathryn Lofton // Dec. 10, 2019

Kathryn Lofton, “Gospel Minstrelsy in Popular Music: The Case of Bob Dylan”

Tue. Dec. 10, 2019, 2-3pm. 220 York Street, room 100.


Kathryn Lofton is professor of religious studies, American studies, history, and divinity at Yale University. A historian of religions, she is the author of two books, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011) and Consuming Religion (2017), and one co-edited (with Laurie Maffly-Kipp) collection, Women’s Work. An Anthology of African-American Women’s Historical Writings (2010).

Joseph Roach // Dec. 3, 2019

”The Temptations of Goodness:  Brecht’s Enlightenment“
Joseph Roach, Dec. 3, 2019. 220 York Street, room 100
What happened to drama in the supposed “broad spectrum” of performance studies?  What happened to history?
Addressing these urgent questions to all the participants in PSWG,  “Brecht’s Enlightenment” refers first to the playwright’s fascination with eighteenth-century dramatists (including John Gay, George Farquhar, Denis Diderot, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, “the world’s first officially appointed dramaturg”) and second to the underappreciated role of their theater in his formulation of the key concepts of estrangement and social gesture.  In The Caucasian Chalk Circle Brecht deploys these techniques to challenge his audiences to face the sacrificial struggle toward a truly enlightened social contract, against all the odds and despite all the costs:  “Terrible is the temptation to do good,” as “The Singer,” Brecht’s narrator, puts it, speaking to us today even more heart-piercingly now than at the play’s premiere seventy years ago.
Joseph Roach, founder of the Performance Studies Working Group in 2003, is Sterling Professor of Theater and Professor of English, Emeritus, at Yale University.