Innovations in Theatre History
and Musical Theatre History Pedagogy
A Gallery Walk
Share the Lectern,
Empower the Learner
Scott Bradley (they/he)
Visiting Assistant Professor
University of Iowa
I joined the faculty at University of Iowa in Fall 2022 on a visiting appointment. I was tasked with teaching theatre history in the traditional two-semester survey format, in which students meet twice weekly in a large lecture hall (presuming to be lectured at by the theatre historian), and divide into smaller discussion groups once a week to meet with a graduate teaching assistant. Each week, a new historical era and its corresponding dramatic text must be introduced, comprehended, and logged, before moving on to the next era and dramatic text the following week. The course is required of all theatre majors and fulfills a core humanities requirement for the general student population. Enrolled students span the undergraduate population from first years to seniors, from actors to athletes. This diversity of experiences and education are complicated further by educational inequities magnified by the COVID pandemic.
Equip students with a scholarly approach to interpreting a plethora of dramatic texts and performance forms.
Lead students to an appreciation for theatre’s impact on and response to its cultural environment and moment in time.
Address classroom disparities in education to ensure all students are afforded practice in fundamental tools for higher education.
One tactic I introduced to the plan of study in Fall 2022 was a weekly Research and Presentation (R&P) exercise. In addition to supporting my first two objectives through participatory learning, this activity addresses my third objective by assigning students frequent practice in collaborative research and presentation, skills essential to scholarly success across most disciplines.
You're welcome, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences!
R&P in Action
For each history module (e.g., American Romanticism & Melodrama, Chicano Movement & El Teatro Campesino), I utilize the first lecture hall convening to introduce historical conditions and events that precede and necessitate the theatrical response we will investigate that week.
For example, in my introduction to Asian-American Theatre & David Hwang’s Yellow Face, I point to the long history of Asian immigration, xenophobic reactions to a growing Asian-American populace, U.S. entertainment's role in fueling anti-Asian sentiment, the origins of “yellow face,” and its controversial use in the 1991 Broadway opening of Miss Saigon.
Following this lecture, students are given a few days to read Hwang’s play Yellow Face and share responses to the lecture and play in an online forum. Students then meet in discussion sections with their graduate TAs who lead brief discussions based on their forum responses and assign them their research topics for the week.
Last year, the class was divided into four discussion sections of 15-20 students and each section was assigned one of four categories: internal dynamics of the play, external dynamics of the play, societal context at the creation of the work, cultural shifts since the play’s debut. For the Asian-American Theatre module, each discussion section broke into small groups (4-5 students) which were assigned a component within that week’s category to research. See the breakdown below.
Internal dynamics of Yellow Face
1. events, 2. characters, 3. themes
External dynamics of Yellow Face
1. Hwang’s biography, 2. theatrical production/design, 3. public’s response to the play
Societal context at the play’s genesis
1. history of anti-Asian violence in the U.S., 2. Asian representation in 1980s U.S. media/arts, 3. anti-Asian tropes in 1980s U.S. media/arts
Societal realities post-Yellow Face
1. recent Asian representations in media/arts, 2. anti-Asian sentiments 2008-present, 3. fight against anti-Asian racism.
Students must utilize the university library’s online resources for their research and collect citations for all books, articles, and other media they use in their research.
For each module, students are assigned a different category from the week before; in this way, we ensure that all students had the opportunity to practice research in theatrical traditions, biographical data, as well as the geopolitical, social, and economic realities that give rise to the plays and theatrical forms under investigation. (For modules with no “play” to discuss, e.g., Nigerian Masquerade cults, the theatrical form itself is examined.)
Before students arrive for the second lecture hall convening in any history module, they must complete visual presentations of their research, provide a list of their cited sources, and upload all materials to the course’s online site. They must also determine which students will present their research to the full class. Different presenters must be selected each week so that all students have opportunities to practice presentation skills.
The entirety of each module’s second lecture is conducted by the students. For last year’s Asian American Theatre module, each discussion section was given ten minutes to present their findings.
Check out samples of student presentations from Fall 2022 Asian American Theatre module:
For this exercise, I measure success through the maturation of students' presentations over the semester, as well as through essay exams that require students to synthesize one another’s research presentations with their own to identify patterns and arcs across the survey of eras and dramatic texts.
Example essay exam question:
Each play we’ve studied this semester employs a specific theatrical style or combination of styles. What style or styles does Hwang's Yellow Face employ? Give examples of the stylistic devices that lead you to that conclusion. Name two other plays studied this semester that employ a similar theatrical style or styles. Give examples of their stylistic devices as evidence.
The exams are “open book” and they must cite their peers’ research when referenced.
Success in my three objectives have surpassed my expectations. Student engagement notably deepened with each module they completed and their research presentations improved a little more each week.
The structure of this course was very useful for my learning. This set-up allowed me to learn from both my professor and a myriad of other online sources from the University's databases. I was able to take control of my learning and investigate aspects of the plays we read that intrigued me.
Professor Bradley did an excellent job of communicating a lot of necessary contextual information to build a student's understanding of a play prior to the reading. I think having the pre-reading lectures on Thursdays, readings over the weekend, and then post reading presentations on Tuesday was a great technique for organization and building the learning of students. It was organized in a "I know, you know, we know together" sort of design.
I found the group presentations most helpful for my learning. I thought I wouldn't like this, but I think it actually benefited me the most. And the class was supportive and not as intimidated as I thought they would be, so great!
Evolution of a Tactic
The example above is from Fall 2022. The primary obstacle to this tactic is class size. For all student groups to present in a single 50 minute lecture, each discussion section was allowed only 10-12 minutes, so presentations were often either anemic or rushed. Also, we had a citations forum where students shared their sources but we found it easier by the end of the semester to simply account for them as endnotes on their presentations.
For Spring 2023, we assigned only two sections to present on each module. The discussion sections not assigned presentation duties that week conduct in-class research on topics identified in their online forum. This has worked even better. Each discussion section has 20-25 minutes to share their research. And by alternating presentation duties, students take more considered approaches to their research and show greater engagement with their peers’ presentations.