Cultural studies and performance art collide in new Global Theatre minor

Nicholas Williams/Daily
Buy this photo

By Rebecca Godwin, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 29, 2014

Theater and the art of performing have been a part of human culture for more than two millenia. From a young age, students are taught about the celebrated performances from ancient Greek and Roman civilization, but theater has played just as big of a role in other cultures all over the world. India had Sanskrit theater as early as the first century A.D., and kabuki theater has existed in Japan since the 17th century. And in the Middle East, puppet theater was hugely popular with complex productions made up entirely of hand puppets and marionettes.

Every culture in the world has some form of theater or dramatic presentation and now, starting in fall 2014, students will have a chance to learn more about these different cultures with the new Global Theatre and Ethnic Studies minor being offered through the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

The minor originally started off as a program in African American Theatre, but Theatre and Drama Prof. Anita Gonzalez, the program advisor for the Global Theatre minor, realized she was missing out on the opportunity to explore other interesting cultures.

“The perspective of African American studies scholars is when you study African American studies, you’re studying the whole world anyway,” Gonzalez said. “So rather than try to draw divisions, we’re studying global theater.”

The minor is intended to teach students about diverse communities through a combination of performing, creating and engaging with different cultural works. Students will not be limited to only one region; they will have the opportunity to study numerous unique cultures all over the world.

“The minor will cover play reading and analysis as well as studio practice,” Gonzalez said. “So you get to study the theater of global communities, both domestic and international. And you get to create work within the program and also study the literature.”

For students, like Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Flores Komatsu, a native of Mexico City, the new minor opens up a variety of opportunities that had not been available to students before.

“What I loved when I came to Michigan was the fact there is such diversity on campus, culturally and in the arts,” Komatsu said. “And the kind of theatre that I do is sort of intercultural world theater, so when this minor came out it seemed like the exact thing I wanted to do.”

The program will include a variety of different courses covering topics such as race, ethnicity and gender. Some of the courses offered in the fall include a class dedicated to modern rituals and traditional practices in which students will learn different cultural traditions such as choral singing, masking and poetry.

Another class being offered is called Performing Archives and Oral Histories and will, according to Gonzalez, offer students the chance to use “ethnographic or archival sources to create new performance works.” Students will also be required to go outside of the University and create their own work to complete the minor.

“The capstone course will require people to make new work,” Gonzalez said. “So they either have to work in a multicultural community in the United States or they have to work at an international sight.”

While Komatsu understands that this requirement could be difficult for some students to complete, particularly those who may wish to work during the summers or have other commitments, he finds the chance to go into the world and explore theatre and performance in different cultures an exciting prospect.

“Working within one of the communities you’re studying and exploring is definitely important because it’s one thing to look at them from an outsider’s perspective and another to go and actually experience it for yourself,” Komatsu said.

The new Global Theatre minor will be only the second minor offered by SMTD (the first being a minor in Performing Arts Management), and Gonzalez attributes this fact to the intense workload that theatre and performance students must deal with. “If you ask what the biggest challenge right now is, it’s to get (SMTD students) to have time in their schedules to take a minor,” Gonzalez explained.

In order to increase the number of people interested in taking the course as well as give as many students the opportunity to learn about different communities and cultures through the unique lens of theatre, the minor will be offered to students outside of SMTD who are involved in a liberal arts program.

“It’s great to include people from outside (SMTD) because it enriches the community and shows that art doesn’t have to be this self-indulgent thing, it can be something that brings us together as one community,” Komatsu said.

Because the minor is being offered to such a large number of students on campus and because many of the courses will involve areas of study outside of theater and drama, Gonzalez intends to bring in professors from other schools to teach some of the courses.

“I’ve been looking at LSA for other professors to teach the literature and history of intercultural performance,” Gonzalez said.

In the future, both Gonzalez and Komatsu hope to see the program expand and grow as more and more students learn about it and begin taking courses.

“I hope in the next year we will have a good number of students within the minor,” Komatsu said. “And we’ll have a lot more courses as we gather more student interest and get some really good student projects started so we can put into practice what we’ll be learning.”