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Diverse perspectives from 19 artists and scholars take the stage in new book

Book cover—In Defence of Theatre: Aesthetic Practices and Social Interventions

Theatre has been a pillar in cultures around the world and U of T Scarborough is a hub for students to study the history, theory and craft of theatre in the Theatre and Performance Studies (TAPS) program.

TAPS Assistant Professor and Program Director, Barry Freeman, recently launched a new book, In Defence of Theatre: Aesthetic Practices and Social Interventions, co-edited with U of T Professor Kathleen Gallagher. The book features essays by 19 artists and scholars who were asked to address the question: Why theatre now?

Working with Gallagher on the book was an easy decision—she was Freeman’s PhD supervisor and published How Theatre Educates in 2003—the two wanted to follow that book by questioning their shared discipline, while also continuing their personal friendship.

Gallagher says, “Barry was a wonderful student and I was inspired by the idea that we could pick up our conversation of those years ago and have the chance to create something together.”

Freeman and Gallagher spoke with writer Holly Fraser to discuss In Defence of Theatre.

Why is the discussion of ‘theatre now’ important to you?

BF: Theatre has long been used by humans as a form of expression. It is a social, plastic art, shaping itself to the needs of culture in the moment, calling on the most primal human emotions and tackling the most daunting problems. One of my own answers to the question ‘Why theatre now?,’ explored in my own essay in the book, is that as we make theatre we can model new ways of living together, ways that are more connected, more empathetic, more kind. It also helps us imagine that there is a ‘we’ in the first place—we can feel the fellow feeling of an audience, we can pay very careful attention to others’ stories, and we can imagine an experience beyond ourselves.

Why was it important for you to feature a variety of Canadian academics and theatre artists in the book?

BF: We wanted the book to offer diverse perspectives in terms of gender, cultural background, region, professional orientation, career stage, and so on, because those with different life experiences will obviously find a unique angle on our central question. For both academics and artists, it was unusual to be invited to respond to such a simple, profound question about the value of theatre work.

The book is presented in five sections—which resonated most with you?

BF: Breaking down Barriers. The chapters are about pushing theatre beyond its institutional or cultural limitations. For example, Kathleen's interview with playwright John Mighton explores the connections between his work as a playwright and mathematician. In an interdisciplinary place like UTSC, I think his view of the arts and sciences as permeable is especially pertinent and refreshing. This and the other essays in this section blow open how theatre can be put to use, taking it out of the little box that too many people in our society have unfortunately placed it, at no fault of their own. Theatre can do a lot more. 

KG: It’s actually the diversity of voices that the book represents and the diversity of styles within the chapters that I most value. I love that theatre makers and theatre scholars have found their ways into this book. I love that thinking about the processes of making theatre, teaching about it, and the event and aesthetics of theatre are considered in its pages. I like that we offer conversations, scholarly explorations and personal reflections and I love that Barry and I clearly see strong themes across these genres and diverse voices.  

What upcoming theatre performances are a must-see?

BF: If you take in only one thing this summer, I suggest finding something of interest in the SummerWorks Performance Festival. Next year, the show everyone must not miss when it returns to Toronto is Robert Lepage’s 887. It’s easily one of the most powerful shows I’ve ever seen.

Any books you're aching to read over the summer?

BF: Some that don’t have anything to do with theatre! I’m a science nerd, and have a few books on astronomy and physics that I’m eager to get to.

KG: I’m going to hope that Miriam Toews has a new novel coming out this summer so I can get lost in some fiction!

What do the authors want you to take away from this book? Freeman says, “The book clearly shows that theatre is on the move. Here at UTSC, for instance, our program still puts on plays and we study the history of theatre traditions around the world, but more and more we are interested in how theatre interfaces in imaginative ways with other fields. We’re further opening up to applied theatre and always keen to collaborate with other faculty and students from across campus—whether in health, journalism, history, politics or science. Come talk with us, our minds and doors are open.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough