The University of Texas at Austin’s Performance as Public Practice program has celebrated wide reaching success since its inception 20 years ago. For years, this graduate program has offered curriculum that aims to explore the historical development, cultural and theoretical concepts behind performance as well as its wider artistic significance and role in public spheres. In addition, Performance as Public Practice courses have contextualized the art of performance for hundreds of undergraduate students. PPP has constantly evolved throughout its history, revolutionized by the professors who champion it and the students who contribute to its courses, changing its very fabric through their participation. In celebration of the program’s impact and growth, we spoke to faculty members past and present to find out more about the area’s development and evolution.
Performance as Public Practice was originally envisioned and built by a handful of faculty, including Oscar G. Brockett, Charlotte Canning, Jill Dolan, Stacy Wolf and Lynn Miller. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones was also among the original faculty, simultaneously devoting most of her time to “the expansion of the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and the launching of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department and the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis.” The original PPP cohort graduated in 2003, with College of Fine Arts Dean Ramón H. Rivera-Servera among them. This year, the Department of Theatre and Dance hosted a celebration and symposium in honor of PPP’s 20-year anniversary, with many of these foundational faculty in attendance. This interview serves as an extension of their panel discussions at the symposium regarding PPP’s history and bright future.
What did the Performance as Public Practice program look like in its first few years? What types of classes were offered?
Dean Ramón H. Rivera-Servera (PPP Ph.D. 2003): Performance as Public Practice ushered forth a beautiful collective experiment between faculty and students about the ways theater, dance and a broad range of cultural activities—from religious ritual to the dramaturgies of self-presentation—shape our everyday lives. It invited a more dynamic integration of research to practice in our fields and it envisioned the work of the scholar as one of engagement as much with the techniques and aesthetics of our art forms as with their consequential impact to the cohesion and transformation of communities.
Omi Osun Joni L. Jones (former faculty): I can only speak to this through my own work. Dr. Lynn Miller and I joined the Department of Theatre and Dance from the Department of Communication Studies. We brought with us performance of literature philosophies and strategies that included devising work and performing across political identity markers. I taught two semesters of African-American Theatre history for undergrads, and Performing Black Feminisms and Performance Ethnography for grad students. Through the Warfield Center’s Performing Blackness Series, I brought several artists to campus, and these artists worked with PPP grad students who served as dramaturgs and production assistants. Among the artists were Sharon Bridgforth, Laurie Carlos, Robbie McCauley, Daniel Alexander Jones, Stacey Robinson, Helga Davis and Rhonda Ross.
How has the program evolved over time? What classes, partnerships and opportunities does it now offer students?
Paul Bonin-Rodriguez (faculty): PPP has played a big role in supporting the undergraduate curriculum, especially in Theatre History and Dance History, as well as Introduction to Theatre (which piloted its online course some five years before the pandemic) for the general student population. In the Department of Theatre and Dance, PPP developed the first-year course Performance as Public Practice, which supports students as they discover and develop their artistic, scholarly and pre-professional interests and investments in theatre and dance.
For a department focused on new work and engaged in so much production, the undergrad PPP course models an intellectual and ethical inquiry-driven approach to performance. PPP also led the revamp of the B.A. in Theatre and Dance program, as well as the B.A. Honors Program under Charlotte Canning and Andrew Carlson.
The PPP graduate program has also expanded and deepened its ties with the University. There are currently 14 affiliate faculty in PPP from across the University, including Mexican-American and Latino/a Studies, African and African Diaspora Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies and and LGBTQ Studies, among others.
In the grad program now, our curriculum is broader. Cultural Policy became an aspect of the grad curriculum once I was hired. Rebecca Rossen has brought Performance as Research/Research as Performance, as well as courses focused on gender/sexuality and the body and Dance History. Charlotte Canning continues to teach Theatre History. In 20 years, the students who make up PPP also became more and more reflective of a diverse polity in the U.S. The program also increased its enrollment of international students.
How have graduates from PPP influenced the landscape of performance and the study of performance over the years?
Rebecca Rossen (faculty): The PPP@20 celebration (fall, 2022) really put the impact of PPP faculty and alumni into perspective. Those trained in PPP approach theatre, dance and performance as activist, civic engagement and center feminist (and Black feminist) methodologies, while challenging boundaries between research and practice, publishing and performing. Having the founders of PPP on one panel– Jill Dolan, Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, Charlotte Canning and Stacy Wolf– really demonstrated how foundational and impactful Performance as a Public Practice is as a program and as a mode of inquiry and methodology. The scheduled panels for PPP@20 showcased the prominence and brilliance of our alumni as citizen/scholar/artist/activists. For example, Ramón Rivera- Servera, a critical figure in dance and performance studies, was PPP’s first graduate and is now our dean. Our alumni teach at universities throughout the U.S. and serve as cultural/artistic leaders and change-makers in the field. The event was also a very emotional testament to the career-long mentorship, collaborations and friendships forged here in PPP at UT Austin.
Dean Ramón H. Rivera-Servera: PPP has proven to be an incredibly impactful venture that has produced a significant number of field-changing scholarship in theatre, dance and performance studies. It also became a space that models collaboration between scholars, artists and communities as foundational to innovation in research, artistic practice and advocacy for the greater good. That expanded vision for the field, collaborative ethos and ethical commitment resulted in an impressive number of graduates who are now on faculty at universities; who are inspired and inspirational artists engaging, collaborating with and impacting communities the world over.
In one sentence, describe the 20-year anniversary celebration and what did it meant to reconnect with PPP artists/scholars of the past and present?
Jill Dolan (former faculty): Attending the 20-year anniversary celebration felt like a real gift. It reminded me of the vitality of living and working in a community of scholar-artist-citizens who care about the arts and their effect in the world, and who care about one another as human beings, as well as thinkers and makers. I was quite moved by the celebration and gratified to hear updates from students with whom I worked in the program and those who were new to me. We always hoped that PPP would send students into the world in numerous, richly varied directions. I’m delighted that continues to happen.
Dean Ramón H. Rivera-Servera: It was simply magical to participate in this reunion between current and former faculty and students to partake in the main ingredient of our big and beautiful experiment: gathering and sharing story.
Rebecca Rossen: PPP@20 brought together program founders, alumni, faculty, affiliate faculty and graduate and undergraduate students for a profound day of dialogue, storytelling, laughter and tears that served as a testament to the personal, professional, cultural and artistic impact of Performance as Public Practice over the past two decades.
Paul Bonin-Rodriguez: The 20 year benchmark, which I recognized and flagged while heading the program, offered the ideal time (and space) to reflect on what PPP has accomplished and think about how it can continue to shape the fields of theatre, performance and dance, but also all the fields of its reach, as reflected by its partnerships!
Omi Osun Joni L. Jones: The celebration was a balm for my Spirit. It was powerful to see how many grad students moved through the program and are now fashioning PPP’s practices into ideas and work that are uniquely their own.
Co-written by Stefan Ormsby-Peacock and Sydney Pattillo.